Skip to main content
Advertising

Originally published May 6, 2014 at 10:24 AM | Page modified May 7, 2014 at 5:07 PM

  • Share:
           
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Eating your way across Spain

The gourmet ham, the paella, the rice with squid ink — you’ll be well fed in any corner of España


Tribune Content Agency

advertising

My guide, Roberto, met me at Madrid’s airport, we rented a car and minutes later we were southbound on the freeway, immersed in the vastness of La Mancha. It’s a tough terrain. A windmill — weathered into a rough little useless nub — still capped its blustery hill.

We popped into a rustic truck stop for lunch. As I leaned into my ham sandwich, my traveling spirit did a little leap and I thought, yes, Espana! My passport had been stamped, but I hadn’t really arrived until that moment, when my teeth broke through the crisp crust of my fluffy fresh baguette ... and hit “jamon.”

That ham, dry-cured and aged from happy, acorn-fed pigs, is an example of the rustic intensity of the Spanish culture. Cured ham hocks are found in every bar. Like connoisseurs of fine wine, Spaniards debate the merits of different breeds of pigs, their diets, and the quality of the curing. In Spain, “jamon” is more than a food; it’s a way of life. Spaniards treasure memories of Grandpa during Christmas, thinly carving a ham supported in a “jamonero” (ham-hock holder), just as we prize the turkey carving at Thanksgiving. To sample this delicacy without the high price tag you’ll find in restaurants, go to the local market and ask for 100 grams of top-quality ham; enjoy it as a picnic with red wine and a baguette.

To complement all that ham, 700 years of no-pork Muslim rule left its mark on the Spanish cuisine. The Moors, who were great horticulturists, introduced new herbs and spices. The Moorish legacy is well represented by one of Spain’s best-known dishes, paella, combining the traditional Middle Eastern flavor of saffron with rice and seafood, sausage, and chicken.

Every region of Spain has specialties worth savoring. In Catalunya, there’s “fideua,” a thin, flavor-infused noodle served with seafood, and “arros negre,” black rice cooked in squid ink. Along the North Atlantic, Asturias combines seafood with hearty mountain grub, including giant white fava beans and the powerful Roquefort-like cabrales cheese. Green, rainy Galicia in the northwest is known for octopus, chopped up and served dusted with paprika. The region’s deep-fried green peppers “de Padron” are tasty and tricky, offering a kind of Russian roulette — about one in 10 is spicy hot.

Arguably the culinary capital of Spain is San Sebastian, in Basque Country, with inviting tapas bars (they’re called “pintxos” here) that display a stunning array of help-yourself goodies. Top dishes include spider crab, tasty anchovies, and seafood stew. Just grab what you like from the platters at the bar; when it’s time to settle up, the server will count the toothpicks on your plate.

On my trip with Roberto, I blitzed restaurants and tapas bars throughout the hill towns of Andalucia.

Restaurants are only open when they serve meals, but tapas bars are open all day.

Many visitors find the Spanish eating schedule frustrating. Lunch, the largest meal of the day, is eaten between about 2 and 4. Many Spaniards have a “bocadillo” (baguette sandwich) around 11 to bridge the gap between their coffee-and-roll breakfast and late lunch (hence the popularity of fast-food sandwich chains such as Pans & Company). Because most Spaniards work until 7:30 p.m., a light supper at 9 or 10 is typical. Generally no self-respecting “casa de comidas” (“house of eating” -- when you see this, you can bet it’s a good, traditional eatery) serves lunches and dinners at American hours.

Not only are mealtimes different in Spain — the portions are, too. It’s unusual to find a restaurant that distinguishes between “starters” and “main dishes.” Instead, most restaurants serve their dishes in full portions called “raciones,” or in smaller half-servings, “media-raciones.” Ordering “media-raciones” is an easy way for you and your travel partner to broaden your tasting experience (two people can fill up on four “media-raciones”). Don’t wash it down with a glass of basic red wine (“tinto”); instead, ask for “un crianza” -- for only a little extra, you’ll get a quality, aged wine.

To eat well anytime, and within even the tightest budget, duck into a tapas bar and build a light meal out of appetizers. While I generally go for the rustic old bars, Roberto introduced me to a place that puts a contemporary spin on traditional tapas. We just about ate our way through the entire list of daily specials: asparagus snowed in with manchego cheese, delicate cod-cheek sandwiches, and spicy pulled pork.

And three days into my Spain trip, it was clear I was settling in just right. I struggled to the top of a hill-capping castle ruin in Castille. Catching my breath, I surveyed the vast terrain and it seemed my sweat came with a faint whiff of “jamon.”

Edmonds-based Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. His column appears weekly on seattletimes.com/travel.



Want unlimited access to seattletimes.com? Subscribe now!

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

The Seattle Times Historical Archives

Browse our newspaper page archives from 1900-1984


Advertising
The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited seattletimes.com access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►