15 of the best Spanish food experiences
From edible art in Madrid and truffle hunting in Aragon to Valencia's oranges and Alicante's rice dishes, here's how to get a true taste of Spain.
Crisp croquetas filled with gooey bechamel; succulent squid, charred and glistening under a coat of olive oil; a slice of lightly browned tortilla, packed with perfectly cooked potato. Spanish cuisine is mouthwatering wherever you eat it, but it’s at its best in context and on location.
The country’s flavours and traditions come to life when you’re hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar in Granada, sitting among new friends in a Galician home that doubles as a restaurant, or sipping something dry and delicious in the sunshine: cider in the Basque Country, sparkling wine in Catalonia.
These are Spain’s essential culinary experiences, and while you’re there, you can learn the tricks of the trade to continue the feast — and the fiesta — back home.
1. Take a tapas crawl in Granada
Tapas has become synonymous with Spain as a whole, but few places do it better than the Andalucian city of Granada, where every drink — be it vermouth or a tinto de verano — comes with free bites to eat. The best way to experience Granada’s tapas scene is to hop from one bar to the next along Plaza Nueva and Plaza Bib-Rambla. Try Bodegas Castañeda for broad beans with cured ham or blue cheese croquetas, served at the bar or on wooden barrels, and seafood restaurant Cunini for steamed mussels and fried anchovies — all for no more than the price of your drink.
2. Try ‘gastroarcheology’ in Cordoba
During Spain’s Islamic rule, Cordoba was one of the country’s most ethnically diverse settlements, a city where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side. But after the Christian conquest of Spain, much of Al-Andalus culture, including its cuisine, was forgotten. Through the meticulous study of ancient manuscripts and cookbooks, chef Paco Morales is reviving Al-Andalus recipes in his two-Michelin-star restaurant, Noor, where ingredients like wild coriander, dates and almonds take you on a sensory journey through Islamic Spain. Also inspired by Al-Andalus architecture, Morales often includes decorative motifs found on Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral and other Islamic buildings across the city.
3. Enjoy edible art in Madrid
Snagging a reservation at Madrid’s only three-Michelin-star restaurant, where none other than David Muñoz is at the helm, is a golden ticket to one of Spain’s most exciting dining experiences. Inspired by Spanish, Chinese and Japanese flavours, DiverXO’s avant-garde tasting menus — served on large white canvases made of porcelain — are presented as edible works of art. Roasted duck hearts come splattered with tabasco and tomatillo ketchup like an abstract painting, and miso asparagus and naan ‘orbs’ come with smoking dry ice towers. Muñoz’s love for the avant-garde doesn’t stop at the food: flying pigs hang from the ceiling, and an all-white, bright-light decor feels like stepping into a sci-fi film.
4. Hunt for truffles in Aragon
In Aragon — a landlocked region in Spain’s mountainous northwest — 80 tonnes of truffles are harvested every year, making it one of the largest truffle-producing regions in the world. Across region, but particularly in the provinces of Teruel and Zaragoza, from around November/December to March, you can join truffle farmers and their dogs, whose keen sense of smell helps sniff out the prized fungus that’s ripe and ready to be eaten. You can book truffle-hunting experiences through the Aragon tourist board or a multi-day truffle-themed trip through companies including Gourmet & Chic and The Spanish Touch. Most truffle-hunting experiences end with a tasting and a truffle-centred menu at one of the region’s Michelin-starred restaurants, such as La Prensa and Restaurante Cancook.
5. Dine out in Galicia’s unofficial restaurants
For just three months of the year, winemakers across Galicia’s coastal Rías Baixas area open their homes as pop-up restaurants. Known as furanchos or loureiros, these date back to when medieval winemakers sold surplus wine after the harvest, and today families adapt their garages and front rooms to sell homemade albariño wine and plates of padron peppers, flambéed chorizo and empanadas filled with baby scallops. Part of the fun is finding the furanchos — a bay branch hanging on the door is all that distinguishes them from any other country home.
6. Join the tuna fishermen in Cadiz
Every spring, shoals of bluefin tuna weighing up to 250kg migrate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, making it prime fishing season on the Andalucian coast off Cadiz. Fishermen here still use a show-stopping technique that dates back to the Phoenicians called the almadraba, where a net more than a kilometre long is cast along the migratory route and, once filled with tuna, pulled up to the surface for fishermen to dive in and finish the catch. And it’s one of the more sustainable fishing methods, too — the nets don’t harm dolphins or whales and the process generates a minimal amount of biological waste or discarded bycatch. Companies including Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen and Epicurean Ways will take you out with the fishermen to see the spectacle up close, before a tuna-cooking lesson and a tasting of mojama (salt-cured tuna loin).
7. Sip wine underground in Aranda del Duero
Below the streets of Aranda del Duero, the capital of the Ribera del Duero wine region in Castile y Leon, lies a five-mile network of hundreds of interconnected bodegas. Built during the medieval period, many of these historic wineries remain closed to the public, but a new generation of winemakers are beginning to open them up for subterranean tastings. At Bodega Don Carlos — a 15th-century wine cellar 45ft below Aranda del Duero’s main drag — tempranillo and albillo wine tastings come with morcilla de Burgos (blood sausage), roasted red peppers and mollejitas de lechazo, suckling lamb gizzards coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
8. Cycle Jaen’s Olive Oil Greenway
Introduced by the Phoenicians and Greeks, the production of olive oil has shaped the Andalucian city of Jaen for millennia. One way to explore the groves is on the Olive Oil Greenway, an 80-mile cycling and hiking trail along an abandoned 19th-century railway that once transported olive oil from Jaen to Malaga. Plus, many of Jaen’s almazaras (olive oil mills) offer guided tours and tastings, where you can learn about the region’s different olive varieties (picual and lucio being the most popular) and enjoy a traditional farmer's breakfast of olive oil bread with cheese. During the harvest season (October to early January), you can join farmers as they collect and process the olives.
9. Take part in a Basque cider ritual
Cider has been produced in northern Spain’s Basque region for more than 1,000 years. Despite a crash in the 18th century, 80 cider houses, or sagardotegi, remain, and more than 500 apple varieties still grow here. Astigarraga, a town on the outskirts of San Sebastian where cider is cheaper than water, is famed for its txotx rituals, where enormous cider barrels are tapped surrounded by a crowd of thirsty punters. Often draining hundreds of litres in one sitting, these boozy cider-drinking rituals come with chistorra (paprika-spiced pork sausage), T-bone steak and salted cod tortilla to soak up the alcohol.
10. Follow Extremadura’s Iberico Route
Spain’s wildest region is home to almost a million hectares of dehesa, natural farmland dotted with oak trees and hundreds of free-roaming Iberian pigs. It’s here that the country’s best jamón ibérico, including the prized ibérico de bellota — made from 100% ibérico breed pigs fed exclusively on acorns — is produced. The Dehesa de Extremadura Ibérico Route runs from the north of the dehesa to the south, where producers explain the jamón production process, from salting and washing to drying and maturation. Once you’ve had your fill of jamón, make a stop at any restaurant along the route for Iberico pancetta, Iberico blood sausage and morcones, an Iberico chorizo made with locally produced La Vera paprika.
11. Sample Alicante’s array of arroz
Valencia gets all the fame when it comes to Spain’s most famous rice dish, but the province of Alicante has more than 300 recorded rice-based recipes. From arroces secos (dry rice) like arroz al senyoret to arroz meloso (creamy rice) and arroz caldoso (brothy rice) with octopus and artichokes, Alicante’s historic rice dishes are as varied as they’re delicious. Recent efforts have been made by local chefs to promote local rice recipes, with restaurants such as Pocardy and Dársena serving creative flavour combinations like squid rice with prawn head emulsion, and red mullet rice with Iberico pork and artichokes.
12. Taste Catalonia’s sparkling wines
Family winemakers have been producing sparkling wines in Penedès, Catalonia, since 1872. But despite the region’s rich winemaking history, Spanish cava has struggled to gain the same recognition as French champagne. Yet, thanks to pioneering winemakers like Jesi Llopart, cava — or, simply, sparkling wine, as the Llopart family prefer to call it — is reinventing itself as a luxury product. Llopart and other wineries that are part of the newly established Corpinnat — a collective of Penedès winemakers whose grapes are 100% organic and harvested entirely by hand — offer vineyard tours and tastings just 35 minutes from Barcelona. You’ll learn traditional sparkling wine methods and sample a selection of fine wines paired with local cheese and cold cuts.
13. Learn to cook the Spanish way
Whether it’s recreating Michelin dishes or cooking paella over an open fire, a cooking class in Spain won’t disappoint. In Madrid, cookery schools like the Kitchen Club teach the classics such as tortilla and Basque cheesecake, while chefs in Seville and Galicia champion regional specialities such as Andalucian salmorejo and Galician razor clams. Serious cooks should head to Spain’s Michelin hubs, San Sebastián and Barcelona, where multi-day courses are spent making foams and liquid nitrogen spheres.
14. Check out Valencian oranges
A region scented with citrus since the Moors brought them across the Mediterranean in the eighth century, Valencia is home to some of the most flavoursome oranges you’ll ever taste. They come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the season: there’s the navel chocolate orange, a brown-skinned variety that’s low in acid; the sweet, pear-shaped navelina used in salads and smoothies; and the Sanguinelli blood orange blended into marinades, marmalades and vinaigrettes. For Valencian chefs like Vicky Sevilla of Michelin-starred Arrels, oranges are the star ingredient in dishes like orange-marinated fish and orange blossom crème brulee.
15. Try Castilla-La Mancha’s saffron and cheese
Castilla-La Mancha is world-famous for Don Quixote, but its cheese and saffron are just as legendary among Spaniards. Made exclusively from the milk of manchega sheep and aged for up to two years, manchego is considered one of Spain’s best cheeses, while La Mancha saffron is sought after by chefs worldwide. If you visit during the saffron harvest in October, you can join farmers in both plucking and toasting the spice by hand on guided tours with A Taste of Spain or The Spanish Touch, which also include visits to artisanal manchego cheese farms.
Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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