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Sherry Bodegas

From Basque restaurants in Pyrenean mountain villages to Andalucian fish bars on the Costa de la Luz, it has always been possible to find menus composed of dishes whose origins are local.

Spanish cuisine never attained a level of true sophistication. Anyone who has ever eaten gambas at a Sanlucar de Barrameda fish bar and sipped the straw-coloured manzanilla – bone dry, light and fresh with a salty tang that comes from the moist sea breezes which fan the skies of the ripening grapes – will also understand that there is no comparison between the raw and the recreated experience.

Added to this is a real difference in interpretation. Tapas are a traditional ‘snack’ in Spain, offered in most bars and eaten at lunchtime or in the early evening to stave off hunger until suppertime. The tapa tradition is as important for conversation and company as are the delicious morsels. Every Spaniard has his favourite tasca, (tapa bar), where he goes regularly to meet his friends or business acquaintances. Even the smallest bar in a tiny village will supply tapas. The word tapa, meaning cover or lid, is thought to have originally referred to the complimentary plate of appetizers that many tascas would place like a cover on the top of a glass of sherry. Mainly served in restaurants here, it’s now become part of our urban culinary landscape.

The history of Spanish cuisine began with Phoenician, Greek, and Carthaginian coastal settlements. Later, the Romans, and more importantly the Moors, brought with them elements of their own cooking (such as honey and cumin), which lingered and blended with Spain’s culinary heritage. Yet, essentially, it is family cooking, comparatively simple to prepare and characterized by fresh ingredients.

Christian food remained in the parts of Spain the Muslims neglected and did not bother to conquer or tenaciously defend – the forests and mountains and cold plateaux zones of Atlantic climate, where olives would not grow but where pigs could be reared in great numbers. The present role of the olive in Spain only began after the Jews and Muslims had been expelled, dispersed or converted, and the great expansion of the olive industry in the seventeenth century was uninhibited by confessional hatred. Many traditional dishes still use no olive oil. The classic, slow-cooked pot-dishes of chick-peas and beans – the cocidos and fabadas – are bound together with silky pork fat.

A visit to Garcia’s in London’s Portobello Road is like stepping straight into a Spanish food store. From tins of authentic Spanish anchovies to fresh-cured olives, much that can be found here demonstrates a strong Anglo-Hispanic culture. But the big test of authentic Spanish food, (no matter how far from the sea) is fish. Although the imported product eaten in restaurants is technically fresh, nothing can ever substitute the taste of local fish eaten within hours of being caught.

Calamares (rings of squid), crisp, battered boquerones (fresh anchovies – you munch them whole), lenguado (small sole), gambas (shrimps or prawns of varying sizes, eaten with heads, legs and all) are usually served a la plancha (pan-fried). Slices of deep-sea fish to look out for are: aguja (needlefish), rape (this is the one which makes Brits howl, especially the usual translation of the dish ‘rape a la marinera’ – rape, seaman’s style) which is nothing more frightening than swordfish.

The genuine ensalada is usually composed of tomatoes, lettuce, onions and olives and served without dressing – you pour on the aceite (oil) and vinagre yourself. A reluctance among Spaniards to make the tasty salads of which they are more than capable, remains a minor crime, exonerated only by what is arguably Spain’s greatest contribution to world cuisine: gazpacho. To be good, it must be made with virgin unrefined oil and can be drunk as a chilled soup, or simply as a beverage to accompany a meal of fried fish.

Patatas fritas fried in olive oil – like everything else – are usually good. The traditional way of fixing potatoes is patatas a lo pobre (potatoes poor man’s style) which is delicious but only for those who don’t mind large amounts of olive oil! An over-abundance of garlic in some dishes can also be a surprise for the unwary customer.

A gastronomic speciality is jamon serrano, or ‘mountain’ ham, frequently made in regions where cold winters and hot summers contribute to the curing process. These hams are salt-cured, not smoked. Serrano ham, if made from the native Iberian pig, which is fed on acorns, is called jamon iberico or pata negra, ‘black hoof.’ In my view, Iberican ham is one of seven wonders of the food world, far surpassing the Italian prosciutto. In rural Spain, they like  it on the pink, raw side, but Londoners prefer the more highly cured varieties. Ideally, Spanish ham should be sweet rather than salty.

A wide range of sausages is produced in Spain. Chorizo is probably the best known. Salchichon is a hard sausage similar to salami, lightly garlicky and studded with peppercorns. Salchicha is fresh pork sausage and sobrasada is a soft, spreadable sausage from Mallorca. Lomo embuchado is cured pork loin in sausage casing.

To accompany the aperitif (typically un fino) home-cured olives are taking over from the Seville Manzanilla green olives. These are usually cracked, but not stoned, slightly bitter, flavoured with garlic and lemon thyme, and kept in brine.

Rioja may be the most famous Spanish red wine but there are an infinite variety of classy tintos, blancos and rosados to enjoy that also have real soul. Montilla, produced in the area around Montilla-Moriles, is one of the world’s great wines. It is a perfect foil for shellfish, ham, nuts and tapa foods. If you can locate it on the wine list, you might try a local wine from the Granada region called alpujarreño or simply costa, a semi-sweet claret sold only from the keg. 

Be reminded of Cervantes’ literary example as you tuck in to your ‘ración’ (a large portion or serving) or media ración’ (a half portion) of the various tapas.  As Don Quixote sallied forth through Spain, sustained by visions of ‘glorious fame’ and a few roots and herbs or bits of dried fish, his pot-bellied squire, Sancho Panza, enjoyed stuffing himself on grilled rabbits, roast pigeon, goats’ milk cheese, and eggs and bacon. A particular favourite, especially when Sancho and Don Quixote had time to take a meal at an inn, was gazpacho manchego, a bread porridge made with cooked game (nothing like the gazpacho normally associated with Spain) and a ‘skinful’ of coarse but tasty Valdepenas wine.

Rather than tilt at windmills, accept that Spanish cuisine is down to earth. Despite the absence of Mediterranean sun or sea breeze, the food in London’s Spanish restaurants is assuredly good, even when the ambience sometimes drifts waywardly towards Mexico or hi-tec. Atmosphere is everything in Spain and the best bars and restaurants here have put enormous effort into creating their very personal identities. 

Timothy Foster  

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