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The Top Flavors Of Spain

Updated on December 31, 2009

Spanish cuisine is a fortuitous consequence of location. Stretching between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Spain is bordered by France and Portugal, with only the Strait of Gibraltar separating it from Morocco. This doorway to Europe from north Africa has accumulated a history's worth of settlers, resulting in a diverse and complex country, both in culture and cuisine.

There is no unified culinary tradition here, though when most people think of Spanish food they immediately think of trendy tapas (hundreds of selections, all appetizer-sized portions, which perhaps originated in the principality of Aragon in the Pyrenees mountains). The closest Spain comes to having a unified cuisine is the country's widespread love of paella, that rustic slow-cooked rice dish (named after the steel two-handled skillet in which it's cooked), which depending on the locale could contain anything from snails and rabbit to calamari and mussels. "Olla," a far less common word to Americans, is the name of the earthenware pot used extensively throughout the land for yet another important type of one-pot cooking.

Olive oil, garlic and groundnuts are classic principals of Spanish cuisine. These ingredients are often used as sauce for fish, meat and vegetables, or as a flavor enhancers for soups and one-pot dishes. The combination of olive oil, onions, garlic, bell peppers and tomatoes are also typical sauce ingredients. The olive oil prized; the wine (namely Rioja), cheese (Manchego, firm and cheddar-like, made from sheep-milk, and Cabreles, a goat-milk blue), sausage (cured chorizo, blood sausage, etc.) and specialty mountain hams (notably Serrano) are also held in the highest regard. And Spain's dual coasts provide an endless supply of seafood.

Regional variations

Catalonia - Pervasive Roman heritage. North-eastern region of the mainland on Mediterranean border, includes Barcelona. Aioli (sometimes spelled alioli) is an art form here, the most traditional recipe of which includes only three ingredients: oil, garlic and a bit of salt. Modern mayonnaise versions can be made with fresh ingredients (eggs, oil, salt and often lemon juice) or simply by combining prepared mayo and garlic. Also noteworthy in the region: calcotada (a specialty tomato bread); small green onions, grilled over flames and eaten ceremoniously with piquant almond-tomato sauce; plus cheese curd, monkfish and shrimp. Fungi, especially truffles, proliferate in the forest. Catalonia produces one-third of Spain's wine.

Basque Provinces - Southeast corner of Bay of Biscay. The autonomous Basque provinces comprise a small section of France and a larger area of Spain. This peasant cuisine emphasizes the sea (salt cod among is a specialty here) and forest floors (for sought-after fungi). The Basque people adore their dried beans and cider as much as their lobster. Also noted for barbacoa (barbecue) and slow-cooking over coals.
 
Balearic Islands - Includes Ibiza. Peasant-style, "fresh and simple" island cuisine that still maintains Catalan influence. Generous use of vegetables, pork and sausage (sobrasada, the national sausage of the Balearic Islands), small spiny lobsters called langouste, Minorcan cheese, coca (specialty yeast bread with fillings and toppings), gin, liqueurs, and the ever-popular sangria.

Valencia - Coastal Mediterranean area, includes city of Valencia. Known as the garden of Spain, and home of the country's most famed dish: paella. Naturally, the food here focuses on seafood. Fields are fertile, and orchards produce bounties of oranges, clementines, kumquats and pomelos. The rice is a medium-grain type that absorbs a lot of liquid, making it ideal for paella, rice-based casseroles, and fish stews. Though Valencia is perhaps best known around the world for its seafood paellas of calamari, mussels, shrimp and clams, the region's oldest and more traditional version calls for rabbit and snails.

Castile, La Mancha - Central Spain, includes Madrid. This high plateau region produces the most saffron in Spain, plus plenty of olive oil, wine grapes and sheep. Garlic from La Mancha is bountiful and used throughout the country. Manchego cheese comes from here.

Canary Islands - Subtropical cluster of islands in the Atlantic near Morocco. Emphasis on plain but robust foods. Abundance of exotic fruits, bananas and tubers. Fiery hot red chili sauce is added to the roasting of meats, and a piquant green sauce of parsley or cilantro accompanies fish, along with "wrinkled potatoes" (small quick-cooking potatoes with a salty coating). Sugary sweet desserts, goat's cheese and strong wines are continually popular.

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