by: Jennifer Sy
A foreign colleague once mentioned that he had never had lunch so early in his life, but because he missed dinner the night before, he was starving. I asked what happened to his dinner. “You guys eat early”, he replied. Ah yes, he is from Seville. Dinner to him is not until 10:00 pm. Many kitchens in most parts of the world do not stay open that late. But lucky him, he gets to live in a barhopping, sherry drinking city peppered with magnificent architecture, beautiful orange blossoms and delectable tapas.
EAT YOUR WAY THROUGH SOUTHERN SPAIN
Andalusia is known for many things. The southernmost territory of the Iberian Peninsula, they say, is the quintessence of Spain, where flamenco dancing and bullfighting began. It is a landscape of dramatic mountains, breathtaking coastlines, rustic countryside, ancient architecture, picture perfect villages of white pueblos; a land that inspired Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.
It is as much a cultural feast as it is gastronomic. Known for its obsession with small plates or what they call “tapas”, Andalusia boasts of a scrumptious Moorish inspired cuisine drawn from land to sea. It makes traveling in Spain such a delight.
Food has always been at the core of the Spanish way of life. Eating and socializing are embedded in its culture. The Andalusian cuisine centers on fresh local ingredients with the freshest fish available in coastal regions, the finest meat inland and an array of fine wine and sherry all over. It has become one of Southern Spain’s major attractions and to explore this fabulous world of Spanish cuisine is to experience Spain. Mealtimes here, however, need a bit of getting used to.
The familiar old saying “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper,” is unheard of in Spain. There is no such thing as far as the Spaniards are concerned. A simple breakfast of cafe con leche (strong coffee with milk) and toast or bolos (sweet rolls) is enough to start their day because, by mid-morning, you’ll catch them in a café having a few bites of tapas. Lunch is their largest meal of the day, usually from 1:30-3:00 pm then another few rounds of tapas follow at 5:00 in the afternoon. Known as “la merienda,” this afternoon snack tides them over till dinnertime which is anywhere from 9:00 pm to midnight with a siesta in between. This unusual eating habit is at its most extreme in Andalusia, – and when in Andalusia, do as the Andalusians do – because it’s the only way to go.
You can’t be in Spain and not do a tapeo. A local tradition turned international phenomenon of a tapas crawl where you’ll find the whole gamut of tapas from the usual (and simple) bread and cheese plate which has evolved into a fancier feast of foie gras and truffles, to cite the extreme. They also do not come for free anymore as they once did in their humble beginnings. A tapeo is essentially a twist on barhopping. What used to accompany the drink (the tapas) has actually become the star these days, hence an event has been made out of it.
A typical tapas bar would have hams hanging from the rafters, tables filled with small plates of finger foods complemented by a pitcher of sangria, a glass of Manzanilla Sherry or a few bottles of Cruzcampo beer, people pressed together at crowded counters flowing out to the street, eating, drinking and socializing.
The way to choose a bar is to drop in spontaneously at the one with the most action – it generally spells affordability or scrumptiousness. Food and drinks are usually cheaper at the barra or the counter. While many prefer to eat standing, I like my meals on a mesa (table). And when the sun is out, an outdoor table in the terraza, is worth the extra spend.
Have a few rounds of drinks and tapas then move to the next bar or stay where you are. There are no rules. An evening “de tapeo” is all about kicking back and having a grand time— it could even be an alternative to dinner, although many meals are still consumed later at home.
And while you’re at it, do keep in mind these FAVORITE DE TAPEO EATS.
1. Ham and Cheese
Jamon Iberico y queso Manchego is a fixture on the menu because the Spaniards just love their ham and cheese. The Iberico ham is produced from black Iberian pigs that roam freely in the countryside of the Southwestern part of Spain. They mainly feed on acorns that fall off the trees, giving the ham a nutty aroma. And the swirls of fat yield natural sweetness that melts in the mouth.
Ham and cheese are ultimate partners that can’t go wrong, and the perfect match to Spain’s favorite ham is Spain’s best-known cheese – Manchego from the Castille – La Mancha region. Made from the milk of the Manchega sheep, it is firm and compact, sharp and sweet with a smack of buttery goodness.
2. Cured Meats
Spain’s love affair with pork extends to the smoky chorizo, likewise ubiquitous in the Spanish menu. And because the pig is king in Spain, the Spanish charcuterie is usually a platter of pork splendor. From the finest Jamon Iberico de Bellota Jabugo to a selection of chorizo, salchichon, morcilla ... all these will satisfy the appetite for traditional Spanish cured meats.
3. Fried Fish
Andalusia is known in Spain as the zona de los fritos (fried fish zone). Fried fish or pescaito frito is a favorite in the coastal regions, but also quite popular in the inland regions. Dredged in flour ala Andalusia – with no egg, the fish or seafood is deep fried in olive oil then sprinkled with salt before serving, resulting in dry, crispy nuggets sans the grease.
No trip to Cadiz, or any of the five coastal regions, is complete without trying their pescaito frito. Popular selections include boquerones (anchovies), sardinas (sardines), puntillitas (baby squids) – a few squeezes of lemon, and you’re in seafood heaven.
4. Cold Soups
Cool and refreshing, it is a summertime staple usually taken as a lunch starter before the main entrée. Andalusia’s best-known cold soup, Gazpacho is the essence of culinary simplicity. It is a cold tomato soup blended (originally in a mortar, now in an electric blender) with cucumber, bell pepper, garlic, white bread, olive oil, vinegar and water. Close cousin Salmorejo and the straightforward Ajo Blanco (cold almond and garlic soup) are less-known regional variations that are just as impressive.
One great meal after another.
When asked what his most memorable meal of 2013 was so far, Anthony Bourdain, who goes on culinary adventures around the world to discover local cuisines mentioned his recent visit to Granada (one of the provinces in Andalusia) as “one great meal after another.” The well-known chef-tv personality-traveler-to-parts-unknown whose mission it is to share his “food trips” pointed out “what’s so good about Spain is the little everyday things—the Jamon Iberico, the shellfish, and the fact that
– you eat so well in an ordinary, casual way .”
And that, simply put, is the Spanish way of life.
Images by Jennifer Sy.