One of Spain’s biggest attractions is its culinary culture, whether it is a family meal at home, bar hopping for tapas, or 3 star Micheline dining. The Spaniards excel at making simple food taste extraordinary, they use quality ingredients and mix tradition with innovation to produce a finished product that in uncomplicated and delicious. There are many things to try in every region of Spain, each place has its own versions of cheese, wine, olive oil, sausages, seafood and produce; you will not lack for opportunity to try new dishes many of which you cannot find outside of Spain. Unfortunately time is limited, so here are my recommendations for five of the most exclusive gourmet products everyone should try while they are visiting in Spain.
Ancient, delicate and delicious, saffron has been used for thousands of years for its subtile flavors and distinctive coloring. In the time of Cleopatra it was used as a seductive essence in temples and sacred places and in ancient Greece is was know as a remedy for sleeplessness and hangovers. Today it is know around the world and probably the most expensive spice available. It is virtual worth its weight in gold. To make just one kilo of saffron 85,000 flowers are needed. And from one kilo of raw stigmas is equivalent to just 200 grams of saffron ready for consumption. Only an hour and half south of Madrid in the town of Consuegra (famous for the Wind Mills of Donquijote), they celebrate the “La Rosa del Azafran”. The Rose of Saffron festival takes place at the end of October during the peak of the Saffron harvest.
Spanish ham (jamón)
When people think of cured ham it is usually Italy’s prosciutto that first comes to mind. But in Spain, jamon Iberico is deeply rooted in the culinary culture. You can not escape ham in Spain. There are stores and restaurants dedicated to this delicacy, it is served as tapas in restaurants and bars, at home for for everyday gatherings and the best jamon has its place in most traditional celebrations like weddings and special events. Spaniards take it so seriously you will even find professional ham slicers, the best in the country earning up to 3000 euros per event and travel the world. There are basically two main varieties of Jamon, Jamon Serrano and Jamon Iberico. Serrano comes from a breed of pig that has a white hoof and Iberia is strictly from an Iberian breed that has a black hoof. The jamon Iberico de Bellota comes from pigs that are feed solely “bellotas” or acorns. This gives the meat a smoother flavor which is often compared to butter. Do a comparison for your self, a few grams of Jamon Serrano and a few grams of Jamon Iberico de Bellota, the taste difference is as big as the price difference. Serrao starts around 8 euros a kilo and Iberico de Bellota can go high as 70 euros per kilo. My favorite place for a tasting of jamon is at Lopez Pascual in the very center of Madrid.
Wine and cava
There are a few things that are impossible to avoid in Spain; first of which we have already discussed, jamon. The second is wine. It is everywhere; to the north and to the south, east to west, red, white, cava, and Sherry; no matter your favorite I guarantee you will find one you love. And the best part is the search! Hop from bodega to bodega like the exclusive Artadi or Marques de Riscal in La Rioja region just north of Madrid. Despite the fact that Spain became the worlds largest exporter of wine in 2014, you will still find that the very best wines tend to remain here for domestic consumption. Here yo will find great wines for under 15 dollars, a wine you can drink daily with lunch. But there are those special vintages for the aficionados, like the L´Ermita 2011 Tinto or Teso La Monja 2008 Tinto, they both sell for 900 Euros a bottle. If you are going to visit Spain soon I suggest taking a wine tasting upon arrival, this way you can make the most of your wine drinking experience through your visit.
When I first found out that there was a producer of black sturgeon caviar, I was quite surprised. But as I thought about it and looked more into it, it made total sense. The Spanish love to eat but have also been raising the bar on creative cooking for over 30 years making Spain one of the best places in the world to dine. The quality of ingredients and the care that goes into producing them are world class. So yes, it makes total sense that Riofrio caviar is the only certified organic sturgeon farm in the world. The team at Rio Frio, just a hour fro Granda in Andalucia, have been producing caviar for over fifty years, earning respect from chefs around the world. They are also innovating with new product like their Caviar Cubes, made for use in cocktails much like cocktail onions or olives, great in a martini!
Probably the ugliest food you will ever try, percebes or goose barnacles are tube-shaped crustaceans that cling to wave beaten rocks along the shorelines mainly in Galicia. As ugly as they are the taste is sweet like lobster meat and has a texture like oysters, they lightly oiled with just salt and a bay leaf to be served hot. They best way to eat them is with your fingers and accompanied by a cold glass of a local Albariño wine. The difficulty of harvesting Percebes reflects their price at the market, during the year they cost around 60 euros a kilo but as the Christmas season starts the price can skyrocket to 120 Euros a kilo. This tasty crustacean can also be found in top seafood restaurants across the country.
Ron Otto is Onwer of Best in Spain.