Geographic setting and environment
With Portugal, Spain forms the Iberian Peninsula, or Iberia. Iberia is separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees mountains, which rise to a height of 3,404 meters. The peninsula is bordered by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to the east, the Strait of Gibraltar to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Bay of Biscay to the northwest. Spain’s miles of coastline (more than any other European country) provide it with abundant seafood and fish. Spain is also a close neighbor of Africa. Morocco is a short distance – thirteen kilometers – across the Strait of Gibraltar from the southern tip of Spain.
The rich soils of the interior valleys produce a variety of cultivated vegetables, while the country’s arid (dry) climate provides excellent conditions for growing grapes and olives. The high plateaus and mountain slopes of the interior are grazing areas for sheep and cattle.
History and food
As a gateway between Europe and Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Spain has been hotly contested throughout history. The Greeks established their coastal areas as early as the 8th century BC, while the Celts occupied the inland regions. In the second century BC, Spain was under Roman rule. In the early 8th century AD, the Moors (Arabs from North Africa) crossed Gibraltar and entered Spain, occupying it for the next 700 years before the Christian kingdoms expelled them.
This long history of invasion is still evident in Spanish cuisine. Olives, olive oil and wine tie it closely to Greek and Roman (Italian) culture. Meat and fish pies show Celtic heritage. The Moorish influence is seen in the use of honey, almonds, citrus fruits, and spices such as cumin and saffron (a yellow spice).
A leader in exploration and colonization, mighty Spain was one of the first nations in Europe to discover the treasures of the New World. Beginning in the late 1400s, explorers returned from voyages across the Atlantic Ocean bringing exotic new foods such as tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peppers, chocolate, and vanilla, all native to the Americas. These foods slowly joined the Spanish diet.
Spain’s culinary traditions are based on an abundance of locally grown vegetables and fruits, as well as meat and poultry. Serrano ham, a cured ham, and chorizo, a seasoned sausage, are popular. Seafood and fish are popular in the coastal areas. Other popular foods include cheeses, eggs, beans, rice, nuts (especially almonds), and bread (a crusty white bread baked daily is common). Olive oil and garlic are common ingredients. Spain is also known for its wines, including Rioja, made in the northern province; sherry, a fortified wine that can be dry or sweet; and the sangria, wine mixed with fruit and soda water.
The best-known Spanish dish, a stew called paella (pie-AY-ah), originated in Valencia, an eastern province on the Mediterranean Sea. Rice, a main ingredient, is grown on the tidal flats of Valencia. Although there are numerous variations, paella is usually made from a variety of seafood (such as shrimp, clams, crab, and lobster), chorizo, vegetables (tomatoes, peas, and asparagus), chicken and/or rabbit, and long-grain rice. The broth, onion, garlic, wine, bell pepper, and saffron add flavor to the stew.
Each region has its own cuisine and specialties. Gazpacho, a cold tomato soup, comes from Andalusia in southern Spain. Traditionally, a special bowl called a dornillo was used to grind ingredients by hand, but modern Spanish cooks use a blender. Andalusians also enjoy freidurías (fish, such as sole or anchovies, fried in batter). Catalonia (Catalonia), in northeastern Spain, is known for its inventive dishes that combine seafood, meat, poultry, and local fruits. In the north of the Basque Country , fish is important in the diet, with cod, eel and squid taking center stage. The flagship dish of Asturias, in northwestern Spain, is the fabada,a bean stew. In the inland regions, such as Castilla, meats are the protagonists. The Spanish tortilla, a potato omelette, is served throughout the country. It can be prepared quickly and makes a hearty yet simple dinner. The best-known dessert in Spain is flan, a rich custard.
Gazpacho (cold tomato soup) 6portions
- 1½ pounds (6 large) fresh seasonal tomatoes, or one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes (with liquid)
- 1 medium green bell pepper, washed and cut into chunks
- 1 small white onion, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 large cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks
- 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon tarragon
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- ½ cup cold water (if using fresh tomatoes)
Optional garnish: croutons, sliced cucumber, sliced avocado
- Put the ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until almost smooth.
- Transfer to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill at least 2 hours or overnight.
- Serve in small bowls. It can be topped with croutons, diced cucumber and avocado. Served with bread, gazpacho is a great summer meal or first course.
Spanish omelette (potato) 4portions
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into ⅛-inch slices
- 1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 4 eggs
- Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick skillet; add sliced potatoes and onions.
- Cook slowly, occasionally turning the potatoes, until tender but not brown. Take it off the heat and set it aside.
- In medium bowl, beat eggs and add potato and onion mixture; add a little salt.
- Return the skillet to the stove, add the rest of the olive oil and turn the heat to medium-high.
- Wait a minute for the oil to heat up. (Be careful not to let it splash.)
- Pour the potato and egg mixture into the pan, spreading evenly with a spatula. Lower the heat to medium.
- Cook until bottom is light brown (raise edge of tortilla with spatula.)
- Carefully place a large plate of food on the pan and turn it over (so the tortilla falls onto the plate).
- Slide the tortilla (uncooked side down) back into the pan. Cook until the other side is brown.
- To serve, cut into pieces.
- 1¼ cups sugar
- 3½ cups of milk
- 6 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- ¼ teaspoon lemon peel, grated
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- In a saucepan, heat ½ cup of the sugar over low heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar is completely melted and turns amber (golden).
- Pour into 6-cup (1½) ring pan, tilting pan in all directions to evenly coat bottom and sides. Move away.
- Crack all 6 eggs into a mixing bowl.
- Separate the remaining 2 eggs. To separate the yolk from the white, break the egg into a small bowl or cup and let the white drip from the shell halves, then transfer the yolk back and forth between the two halves until all of the egg white is has dripped into the bowl.
- Put the egg yolks in a separate bowl and save the yolks. (The blanks can be discarded or used for another purpose). Add the 2 egg yolks to the other 6 eggs.
- Beat the eggs until combined. Add the rest of the sugar and the grated lemon rind; beat again. Move away.
- Measure the milk into a saucepan and heat over medium heat, but do not let it boil.
- Gradually stir the hot milk into the beaten eggs and sugar.
- Pour the mixture into the ring mold. Place the mold in a larger saucepan with an inch of hot water. Transfer to the oven.
- Bake for one hour. The flan is done when an inserted knife comes out clean.
- Remove from oven and let cool. When cool, put in the fridge.
- To serve, run a knife around the sides of the pan (to loosen it).
- Put a large plate on top of the pan and carefully turn the pan onto the plate; the flan should slide out smoothly. Pick up the mold.
Food for religious and festive celebrations
To bring good luck in the coming year, Spaniards traditionally eat twelve grapes, one with each chime of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve. On February 3, Saint Blaise’s Day is celebrated by the baking of small loaves of bread, called panelillos del santo, which are blessed at mass in the Roman Catholic church. According to tradition, all the children in the house must eat a little of this bread to prevent them from drowning in the following year.
The Christmas season officially begins on December 24, called Nochebuena (the “good night”). It is marked by a special family dinner. A typical menu includes onion and almond soup; baked fish (cod or porridge); roast meat (such as turkey); and red cabbage and apples (or other vegetable dish). Dessert may include flan and a variety of fruits, cheeses and sweets, especially nougat (almond and honey candies) and marzipan (or marzipan, a glazed concoction of almonds and sugar) which are sometimes shaped like coiled snakes to signify the end one year and the beginning of the next. After this festive dinner, it is tradition to attend church. Christmas ends with the festivities of the Dayde los Tres Reyes, or the Day of the Three Kings.
On January 5 parades are held to welcome the arrival of Baltasar, Gaspar and Melchor who arrive that night to bring gifts to the children. (Baltasar, Gaspar and Melchor were the “Three Wise Men” who, according to the Christmas story, brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.) The next day, January 6, the traditional Roscón de Reyes is baked and enjoyed. A small surprise, such as a coin, is baked into the cake and the person who finds it in their room is believed to enjoy good luck in the coming year.
Mazapanes (marzipan or almond candies) fiftyunits
Ingredients for the dough
- ½ pound of almonds
- 1 cup of sugar
- 4 tablespoons of water
- Powdered sugar
Procedure for the dough
- In a food processor or blender, grind the nuts on high speed to form a paste.
- Add the sugar and beat again.
- Gradually add water and continue beating to form a pliable dough.
- Dust a clean, flat surface (such as the counter) with powdered sugar.
- If the dough cracks and is too dry to work with, lemon juice can be added, drop by drop, until the dough is easier to work with.
- Pinch the pieces of dough. Working on powdered sugar-dusted surface, roll dough pieces into short pencils, about 4 inches long.
- Join the ends to make rings. Place it on a cookie sheet.
- Leave uncovered in a dry place overnight to harden.
Ingredients for the glaze
- ½ cup powdered sugar
- 1 egg white
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- To separate the egg yolk from the white, crack the egg into a bowl and let the white drip from the shell halves, then transfer the yolk back and forth between the two halves until all of the egg white has dripped into the bowl. Discard the egg yolk.
- Using a mixer, beat the powdered sugar with the egg white until the mixture is creamy and thick.
- Add lemon juice; beat 5 minutes.
- Dip the top of each marzipan candy into the icing and return the candy to the cookie sheet.
- When the icing hardens, the marzipan candies are ready to eat.
Daily meals in Spain start with a light breakfast around 8 a.m. Then comes a three-course lunch (comida), the main meal of the day. Families gather to eat it in the mid-afternoon (around 2 pm). At about 10 pm dinner is served, a lighter meal. Also, the buns can be eaten late in the morning; the merienda, a snack of tea or Chocolate a la España and cakes can be enjoyed in the early afternoon (around 5 pm); and tapas, traditional Spanish appetizers, are consumed around 8 pm, before dinner.
Although fast-food restaurants have opened in Spanish cities, traditional “takeaway” includes churros, sugary fritters sold from street stalls, and sandwiches, sandwiches typically made from Serrano ham or other meats and cheeses. Snacks can be found in the child’s lunch box, as can a piece of cold Spanish tortilla, fresh fruit and cheese.
The tradition of tapas, now enjoyed in many US restaurants, originated with the practice of waiters topping a glass of wine or beer with a small plate of free appetizers (” tapa “). The wide variety of tapas enjoyed today is testament to its popularity. They can be as simple as a slice of fresh bread with tuna, as extravagant as escargot a la madrileña, or as comforting as an empanadilla, a mini meatloaf. They are invariably accompanied by lively conversation, a hallmark of everyday Spanish life.
Spanish Chocolate (Hot Chocolate) 6portions
- ½ pound sweet baker’s chocolate
- 4 cups of milk (2% fat is fine)
- 2 teaspoons of cornstarch
- Cut the sweet chocolate into small pieces. Put it in a small saucepan.
- Add the milk to the chocolate in a saucepan and heat over low heat, stirring constantly with a wire whisk, until the mixture comes to a boil.
- Get it out of the heat. Dissolve the cornstarch in a little cold water in a cup.
- Add the cornstarch solution to the chocolate mixture. Return to low heat and, stirring constantly, cook until hot chocolate thickens. Serve hot.
- 2 cups of water
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups flour
- Vegetable oil (for frying)
- ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- In a medium saucepan, combine water, a tablespoon of oil, and salt. Put to boil.
- Add the flour and immediately lower the heat; stir constantly until a ball of dough forms. Take it off the heat and let it cool.
- When dough can be handled, place in a pastry bag or cake decorator with a fluted tip; press dough into 4-inch strips that are about 3/8-inch in diameter.
- In a skillet, heat vegetable oil (about ½-inch deep) until very hot.
- Reduce the heat to medium and fry the churros until they begin to brown, about 2 minutes on each side (turn once while frying).
- Cook only a few at a time, to keep an eye on them.
- When the churros are done frying, remove them from the pan and place them on paper towels to drain.
- Roll hot churros in sugar (mixed with cinnamon, if desired). It serves.
Tapa: Cabrales Cream (Blue cheese, apple and walnut spread)
- ¼ pound blue cheese (the Spanish variety is Cabrales, but you can use Gorgonzola or Roquefort)
- 2 teaspoons of raisins
- 1 tablespoon white grape juice or cider
- 1 tablespoon cream
- 2 tablespoons apple, finely chopped (about half an apple, peeled)
- 2 tablespoons walnuts, finely chopped
- ⅛ teaspoon dried thyme
- Take the blue cheese out of the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature (let it sit on the counter for an hour or more).
- Soak raisins in fruit juice for 20 minutes.
- Using a spoon, scoop the raisins out of the juice and set them aside.
- When the cheese has reached room temperature, place it in a small mixing bowl.
- Add the cream and fruit juice.
- Using a fork or wooden spoon, combine ingredients until smooth.
- Add the raisins, apple, walnuts and thyme.
- Serve with crackers.
Tapa: Mushroom tartlets twentytartlets
- 5 tablespoons of mayonnaise
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- ½ teaspoon dried parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- ¼ pound (8 to 10) mushrooms, washed, drained, stems removed, and finely chopped
- 20 miniature tart shells or triangles of toast (tart shells are available in supermarkets)
- Salt and pepper
- In medium bowl, mix mayonnaise, garlic, parsley and lemon juice.
- Stir mushrooms, cover with plastic, and refrigerate mixture for one hour.
- Fill the tartlet shells with the mushroom mixture and serve immediately. (If toasting triangles are used instead, proceed to steps 4 and 5.)
- To prepare the toast triangles, remove the crust from 5 pieces of good quality bread into thin slices. Toast them in a toaster; cut each piece into four triangles by cutting an X into each slice of bread.
- Then, using a slotted spoon, spoon a tablespoon of the mushroom mixture into each triangle and serve immediately.
Tapa: Seasoned Olives
- A large empty jar, with a lid
- One 14-ounce can pitted black olives, with liquid
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- Lemon slice or ½ teaspoon lemon juice
- Combine all the ingredients (including the liquid from the olives) in the jar.
- Refrigerate several days and up to a few weeks.
- The longer the olives marinate, the tastier they become.
- To serve, use a fork or slotted spoon to scoop the olives out of the marinade and place them in a small bowl.
Politics, economics and nutrition
The Spanish economy is strong. Spain was one of the countries that joined the European Monetary Union in 1999, and the country adopted the European currency, the euro. Almost all Spanish children receive adequate nutrition.
In the late 1990s, concerns about mad cow disease, which affected cattle in the UK, made all Europeans more cautious about eating beef. The market for Spanish sheep and pigs strengthened slightly as Spanish cooks decided to cook more lamb, mutton and pork.
Share the typical food of the gastronomy of Spain.