The humble tortilla de patatas is one of the staples of the Spanish diet and this seems to be true regardless of region – quite an achievement in a country with such strong regional culinary divides. However, the dish isn’t entirely uncontroversial, as there is widespread debate over whether it should be made with or without onion. Regardless of whether it contains the allium or not, the best kind of tortilla is thick and moist – verging on the slightly uncooked at its very heart.
Said to originate on the shores of a lake in the region of Valencia, paella is one of Spain’s most famous dishes. Its name literally refers to the dish it is prepared in: a large but shallow pan. The earliest versions of the dish are said to have included water vole and snails, but today’s mar y muntanya – surf’n’turf – is more likely to include a mixture of seafood and rabbit. Don’t be put off by the slightly burnt rice that appears around the edges of the dish: it’s called the socarrat and is considered by many to the best part.
Both a common ingredient in many a Spanish dish and able to stand its own ground on any menu, jamón Iberico is the most noble of Spain’s cured meats. The finest variety, jamón Iberico de bellota, is prepared using specially raised pigs, fed on acorns in the later stages of their life to give the meat a distinctive nutty flavour. The hind legs are salted and air-dried for at least 36 months. The fat plays an important part in giving the meat its flavour and should always be savoured.
Not so much a dish in its own right, but an essential accompaniment to any dish eaten during a meal, pan con tomate is a staple of the Catalan diet. It consists simply of bread rubbed with tomato, a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of salt. How good it tastes depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients used: an authentic pan de coca, rubbed with a tomaquèt de penjar, covered in virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt, gives the best results.
Not as highly prized as jamón Iberico, chorizo is much more common in Spanish households and more generally used in everyday cooking. Served cooked in stews alongside meat, potatoes and other vegetables, it gives a rich depth of flavour, smokiness and colour to dishes. Dishes such as patatas a la Riojana or chorizo a la sidra are classic Spanish staples that show off chorizo’s potential. The drier version is served alongside other cured meats as a tapas or snack in a sandwich.
Small and dark, big and green – olives come in all shapes and sizes. Spain is one of the leading producers of olive oil in the world, and is responsible for 56% of global production – so it’s no surprise that olives feature heavily in Spanish cuisine. They are commonly eaten as a snack alongside other preserves, and are found stuffed with anchovies, almonds and other ingredients. Gordal olives are large and bright green, with a mild, fruity flavour. Arbequina olives are small and dark brown, with an intense, nutty aroma.
So-called because they are traditionally accompanied with a spicy tomato sauce only palatable to the hardiest of eaters, patatas bravas are Spain’s answer to chips. And just like the chip, they vary widely in quality. Ideally, medium-sized chunks of potato are well fried, so that the skin crisps up, before being topped with generous lashings of sauce. Don’t put up with ketchup and mayonnaise; look for a home-made aioli and a fiery tomato relish to appreciate the dish at its best.
Bordered by two seas, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Spain is rich in fish and seafood. However, just like fruit and vegetables, fish have their seasons, and fishermen have long searched for ways to preserve their catch after a particularly bountiful trip. Tinning is one of the most common ways to preserve fish and seafood in Spain and, far from the bad reputation it has in some places in the world, tinned produce in Spain is regarded as a delicacy. Mussels, clams, cockles… nearly every type of seafood can be found in tinned form, either in oil, brine or an escabeche sauce.
Don’t be fooled by the name: the Russian Salad is very much a Spanish classic, just as likely to be found in the kitchens of Barcelona as those of Moscow. Found on tapas menus across Spain, the Russian Salad is usually composed of tinned tuna, egg, potato, mayonnaise and a vegetable. Today, modern chefs have invented contemporary takes featuring prime tuna or fish eggs. But the classic version comes as a large dollop on a plate topped with a few small breadsticks known as picos, and nearly always tastes better.
Another classic tapas dish, croquetas are deep-fried, bread-crumbed balls stuffed with a mixture of a thick Béchamel-like sauce and meat, cheese or vegetables. Traditional fillings include jamón Iberico, chicken or oxtail meat, but it’s not uncommon to find vegetarian options such as blue cheese and broccoli, or fusion flavours. It’s easy to tell a home-made croqueta from their usually wonky shape and irregular size. One of the easiest ways to make croquetas is to freeze them before frying them and this isn’t frowned upon, so long as the chef gets the timing right and the centre is cooked through.
While calamares a la Andaluza are found in nearly every tourist trap across Spain, this doesn’t detract from their status as an Andalusian staple. They are rings of squid which, like much of the fish and seafood in Andalusia, is battered and deep-fried. They’re traditionally served with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, although it has become common, probably as a result of the influence of tourists, to serve them with mayonnaise or tartar sauce.
In Spain, anchovies come in broadly two kinds: smaller, black anchovies and larger, white anchovies. The black ones are the kind you might find on a pizza, and are generally very salty. These are commonly found stuffed inside olives or served in salads for an intense burst of flavour. The other type of anchovy are called boquerones in Spain, and are much milder in flavour, more like a white fish. They are commonly preserved in olive oil and eaten as a tapas, or eaten fresh in bread-crumbs or off the grill.