Regional Flavours: The Different Tastes of Spain

Find out about the local specialities available around the country...

Northern Spain

The Basque Country is usually considered the custodian of Spain's best cuisine. The seafood here, from spider crabs to elvers, sea urchins (eaten raw) to cod, is outstanding. Often it's simply cooked, with salt, garlic and chilies the only additions. The Basque version of bouillabaisse, ttoro, is legendary. Inland, the steak is prized while artichokes and asparagus hint at the wealth of produce. Pintxos is the Basque version of tapas, usually a piece of meat, fish or vegetable served on a small hunk of bread.

The recipes of Cantabria reflect a close relationship with the sea. Baked sardines stuffed with ham – sardines al horno – and preserved anchovies with fresh crusty bread are both popular dishes. The lush green meadows and valleys of Asturias produce the country's finest dairy products, notably cheese. There are 30 recorded types of cheese in the mountainous Picos de Europa region alone and its most famous, Cabrales, has been protected by DO classification since 1985. Here you can dine on ternera al Cabrales – veal fillet – or fabada Asturiana, a bean and pork stew traditionally served in a shallow earthenware dish. The region is also famed for its market gardens and apple orchards. Over 250 apple varieties find their way to the dessert tables or into sidra. Salmon, hake, chorizo, and yes, even apples are prepared using the local juice.

Galicia enjoys one of the healthiest diets in Spain. The sea rules again with a similar catch to neighbouring regions. Percebes (goose barnacles), looking like strange reptilian feet, are a speciality. Vegetables are abundant: squash, turnips, beans and grelos, the flowering stalks of the turnip which form the basic ingredient in many winter dishes, are all regulars. The cuisine is pure comfort food – hardly surprising given the weather – featuring sturdy soups and stews like caldo Gallego and cocido, thickened with beans or chickpeas and teamed up with pork belly, streaky bacon and cabbage.

Ernest Hemingway raved about the trout found in the cold clean waters of Navarre in The Sun Also Rises, and it remains popular, often served with serrano ham, smoked bacon, olives and garlic. Delicacies like white asparagus and pimientos del piquillo (spicy chillies) are grown in the fertile soils of the Ebro valley, and cardoon (or cardo as it's called here), a relative of the artichoke largely forgotten elsewhere in Europe, is cooked here in béchamel sauce or with herbs and vinaigrette. At Christmas cardo is served with an almond sauce.

Dishes from the North:

  • Basque Country: Bacalao al pil pil – salted cod fried in olive oil with garlic and chillies
  • Galicia: Pulpo a la Gallega – octopus cooked in a pepper and paprika sauce
  • Asturias: Fabada – a sturdy bean stew with shoulder pork, chorizo, blood sausage and saffron
  • Navarre: Cordero al chilindrón – lamb chops stewed in a spicy tomato and chilli sauce
  • Cantabria: Sorropotún – casserole featuring tuna, potatoes, chillies and tomatoes.

Eastern Spain

Catalonia's irresistibility to both migrants and invading armies has profoundly influenced its cuisine, although we shouldn't underplay the region's own deep-seated cultural traditions. Proximity to Provence accelerated the development of nouvelle cuisine here and the region now boasts the most gourmet restaurants per capita in Spain. The Catalans excel in seafood cookery – watch out for spiny lobster, sea bass and squid. They're particularly adept at combining fish with meat or poultry in what they call mar i muntanya (sea and mountain). Pollo con langosta, chicken with lobster, is a speciality. In the foothills of the Pyrenees the grazing sheep and goats constitute prime ingredients in the menu of Aragón. Ternasco de Aragón, suckling lamb, is prepared using a centuries-old method while snails, once poor man's food, are barbecued, broiled or cooked with rabbit and lamb.

The paddy fields of Valencia are the biggest outside Asia, so we shouldn't be surprised that the region is the home of paella. The sea serves up the key ingredients for this and many other local specialities including calamari and pulpo (octopus). If rice dishes aren't your bag – and they come in bewildering varieties: with a crust, black with cuttlefish ink, in shellfish sauce – then alternatives include pato a la naranja, duck with orange sauce, or dorada a la sal, sea bass baked in salt. Inland, the mountains contribute to a hearty diet of meat and rice, producing dishes like rice with rabbit and snails. Of Valencia's abundant produce, oranges are the star performers but grapes, figs and the like also abound.

At Elche they proudly nurture Europe's biggest date grove, planted in the 10th century by Moors. Next door in Murcia it's a similar story, the irrigated coastal stretches nurturing everything from oranges to broad beans. Murcia also boasts fine cured meats and a rice, calasparra, with its own DO status.

Dishes from the east:

  • Catalonia: Zarzuela de mariscos – casserole featuring squid, mussels, fish and much more
  • Aragón: Migas – yesterday's breadcrumbs fried with olive oil, sausages, egg and anything else to hand
  • Valencia: Arroz negro – rice and seafood dish coloured black with squid or cuttlefish ink
  • Murcia: Zarangollo – courgettes fried with onions, egg and, in some cases, potatoes

Central Spain

Spain's roomy interior gathers round the stew pot, producing hearty, filling food. The parched landscape of La Mancha is not without its culinary delicacies: saffron, garlic, pickled aubergines, almonds, olive oil from Montes de Toledo (DO), and Spain's most famous honey, miel de la Alcarria, are all produced here. Game looms large in the traditional diet with rabbit, partridge and deer all cooked with local herbs and garlic.

Castile y León shares a similar love of stews, meat and more meat. Pork is popular – no part of the pig is discarded – while one of the oldest breeds of cow in Europe, the negra Ibérica of Avila is cured or grilled. The plains grow some of the best Spanish pulses, with lentils from La Armuña and white kidney beans from El Barco de Avila fetching a particularly high price.

In Extremadura the pig rules supreme. Fattened on acorns, they produce the aromatic flavour of Spain's best ham, jamón ibérico. Asparagus grows wild and, in the north, paprika is cultivated just a stone's throw from where it was originally planted over 500 years ago.

In the last 15 years, Madrid has staked its claim as the gastronomic heart of Spain, handpicking produce from all corners of the country: tuna from Cadiz, spicy butifarra sausages from Catalonia and scallops from the Atlantic. The austerity of Francoist Spain has, understandably, been erased by a lust for all things previously denied or rationed and a culinary renaissance has duly ensued. Madrileños are devoted seafood lovers – they have the stuff flown in every day – and consume more than 15 Kg of fish every year. A celebration in Madrid wouldn't be the same without mussels, shrimps (gambas) or goose barnacles (percebes) and at Christmas sea bream is the dish of choice.

Dishes from the Meseta:

  • La Mancha: Gazpacho manchego – not a soup, but a game stew served with a flatbread
  • Castile y León: Conchinillo asado – the roast suckling pig is a speciality of Segovia
  • Extremadura: Caldereta de cordero – lamb stew prepared with garlic and paprika
  • Madrid: Cocido Madrileño – a meat stew made with chickpeas and vegetables

Southern Spain

Arabic flavours linger in Andalusia with its robust use of spices and a landscape of olive, almond and orange trees. Avocados, tomatoes and green peppers grow in profusion and the abundance of tropical fruits has earned the region its Costa Tropical pseudonym. The lengthy coastline is plumbed for all manner of food from squid to razor clams, swordfish to cuttlefish. Pan fried seafood is a speciality and the proliferation of takeaways selling pescaíto frito no doubt raises a smile from any Brit (and there are plenty around) raised on fish and chips. And then there's the bulls, strutting blackly around Andalusian pastures unaware that they're more likely to end up on a plate than in the ring. Their tails, rabo de toro, are particularly prized in Andalusia, while most restaurants serve churrasco, simply grilled meat. Hot Andalusia is also the land of that famous cold soup, gazpacho, as well as some of the best jamón serrano, produced in the mountains For puds, tocino de cielo, a custard and caramel master stroke, is the southern speciality.

Dishes from the South:

  • Rabo de toro: Bull's tail braised with onions, tomatoes and a splash of sherry
  • Gazpacho: A classic chilled vegetable soup of numerous variations. Many contain tomato but a blanco version features almonds, white grapes and garlic.

The Islands

Unsurprisingly, seafood dominates in the Balearics, but sausage connoisseurs take note, on Majorca you can sniff out sobrasada, an air cured sausage seasoned with paprika. Made from the meat of black pigs, the sausage is commonly eaten raw. The Spanish royal family make a regular pilgrimage to Cala Fornells on the nearby island of Minorca to dine on the caldereta de langosta, spiny lobster stew, a local speciality. Minorca also harbours Mahón cheese, a rare Spanish cheese made from cow's milk. In the Canaries spicy sauces give new life to a variety of savoury dishes: mojo, a hot red pepper concoction is popular on everything from limpets to potatoes.

Dishes from the islands:

  • Balearics: Pa amb oli – simply toasted bread drizzled with olive oil, sometimes with an added tomato
  • Canaries: Gofio – roasted corn dish taken as an accompaniment; thought to have prehistoric roots
Extract from Speak the Culture Spain, a Thorogood publication Speak the Culture series website / Buy online [si]Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing[/si]