Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Food Journey in Spain

**Warning, do not read if you are hungry and not able to immediately eat.

Earlier, I introduced Happy Belly, highlighting the prominence of food as an aspect of travel. Nothing was more of an inspiration for this than the delectable Spanish cuisine. Our taste buds reveled in the plethora of flavors they explored while visiting the country.

Eating in Spain is an integral trait of the culture. You sit, you chat, you slowly enjoy multiple courses, you chat some more, all while sipping on a smooth Spanish red. Dining resembles an event, and the expectation is hours, not minutes of enjoyment. You are left alone if engrossed in conversation and not herded through the meal to turn the table over for the next guest. We felt very welcome and comfortable everywhere we went, even with limited Spanish speaking on our part.

As we ate in Spain, there was such a positive aura of sharing, reflecting, and bonding during a meal. It  is a lesson in appreciating time spent with others. Lunch takes place in the afternoon and is the main meal of the day. Then comes the late night snacking that Spain is famous for. We often tried hard to wait as late as possible to eat at night and still couldn't cut it with the locals.

Tapas - Sampling small plates (tapas) is my new favorite way to eat. The food is light, you can try different food without committing your whole meal, and tapas bar hopping is a blast. The beauty here is even if you order the same thing at multiple places, each chef adds their unique spin. The preparation and presentation of tapas is an art form mastered by Spanish chefs.
Tapas tour in MadridI have to confess that we had a little, OK, A LOT, of help on this topic. Our second day in Madrid, we took a tapas tour with Insider's Madrid, run by Joanna. Check out her site here and for more details, here is my review on Tripadvisor. She is phenomenal and the perfect resource to give you that slight expert edge to navigate Spanish tapas.

Another way to eat is by taking advantage of Menu Del Dia (Menu of the day). It is generally a 3 course fixed meal with a drink. This is how you can afford Europe. Describing how much food we ate for how little money is easiest by sharing a memorable experience at Nueva Galicia. The food was exceptional and the atmosphere low key, filled with plastic chairs, one server, and no fancy upgrades. We somehow had a conversation with guys at the table next to us (us in limited Spanish, them in limited English). They first thought we were British because of the soccer game that was on. When we explained we were from the States, they decided to give us their whole bottle of wine since they worked the next day. In all we both had a full appetizer, entree, and dessert, along with two bottles of wine. For 18 euros total! Only in Spain - and we just had to venture a few blocks from the main tourist zone.

 I could not come close to doing justice to all the food we tried, but here are a few of my favorites bites.

Tapas - Jamon Iberico
Cava and Jamon Iberico

Jamon Iberico - I rarely use "meat" and "melts in your mouth" in the same sentence, but this calls for it. These are thinly cut pieces of dried ham. However, to wield the Iberico title, the meat must come from free range pigs with an acorn only diet. The diet and their ability to exercise contributes to the flavor. From what I heard, the regulations are strict if you want the Iberico label, and the premium cost reflects the superiority. Jamon Serrano is also available and while still good, splurging for the higher quality Iberico is well worth it.  

Jamon Croquettas - Croquettas can contain jamon, chicken, or fish. Sauce is added in the middle and they are rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. The outcome is a bite sized portion I would most compare to a cheese curd in terms of look and texture. These were staples at every tapas restaurant we went to and also somehow ended up being ordered almost everywhere we went too! Never the same, I feel like the great recipes for these are closely guarded secrets that pass from generation to generation.

Chocolate con churro - Just look at the image below and not much more explanation is needed. Churros to dip in thick, hot chocolate. More prevalent in Madrid, the Spanish do not mess around when it comes to their chocolate. We went to several places solely dedicated to this.
Chocolate con churro
Bunyols - Basically just donut holes, but so scrumptious we stopped at a great local cafe every morning in Barcelona to get these freshly baked.
Paella - If we were not sampling tapas, this was what I sought. Key ingredients are rice, saffron, olive, oil, vegetables, and whatever medley of meats the chef desires. I prefer ones interspersed with seafood.

Sangria - Throwing in a non food, and I am being cliche listing this one, but the reason things are always talked about over and over again is because they are AMAZING. Sangria is another recipe that can be played with extensively. Wine and some mixture (we use lemonade at home), served with chopped fresh fruit and over ice. Yes please! Very refreshing summer drink for the patio.

I highly recommend seeking out some great Spanish recipes, but understand, the Spanish have perfected them. They are not easy to replicate, and the freshness requires a lot of ingredients best cultivated in Spain. We smoked out our kitchen trying to make croquettas, and a recent paella order at a restaurant was sub par compared to our now snobby taste buds. Going to give home-made paella a shot in the near future, but the often overwhelming instructions and ingredients have prevented us from trying it yet. Maybe our solution will be to just go back to Spain!

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