With three of Spain's top restaurants – one Catalan, two Basque – currently in the Top 10 of the World's Best Restaurants, and the Basque country's Elena Arzak awarded the title of the World's Best Female Chef 2012, there's rarely been a better time to investigate the country's culinary scene. But this is a nation where food is akin to religion and where the humblest of ingredients is celebrated with an annual festival in its honour, so even outside the Michelin-starred restaurants, gourmets have their work cut out.
Each region has its own distinctive cuisine, defined by Spain's varied topography and influences. In Galicia, the fishing region in the north-west corner of the Iberian peninsula, fish and seafood reign supreme; Catalonia's coastline and mountains have fostered mar i muntanya dishes such as rabbit with langoustines; the dairy country of Asturias produces excellent cheeses such as the pungent cabrales, while Navarre prizes vegetables above all else, many of its dishes entirely vegetarian in a country famous for its pork consumption.
Pork rules the table in Extremadura, in the form of jamón serrano, morcilla (blood sausage) and other carnivorous delights, while Andalucia is equally responsible for Spain's most revered cured ham – jamón ibérico bellota, made from the meat of the pata negra, the black Iberian acorn-fed pigs. Mediterranean Andalucia's culinary repertoire is rich and varied, with the strong Moorish presence and a more recent influx of North African immigrants reflected in the abundant use of spices. Paella, Spain's national dish, is also a product of outside influences, with rice and saffron introduced by the Moors and tomatoes brought back to the mother country from Mexico by the conquistadors.
Spain's cuisine is dictated by the seasons, hence Asturias' signature stew, fabada, a hearty melange of white beans, sausage and potatoes, providing winter nourishment, or Andalucia's repertoire of cold soups – gazpacho, salmorejo, ajo blanco – the perfect antidote for scorching summers. Dishes are often unapologetically unadorned: Galicia's famous pulpo a la gallega is simply grilled octopus with a smattering of sea salt and pimentón (paprika), while one of Malaga's biggest seaside treats is fresh sardines, grilled on spears of olive wood.
Obvious exceptions to this simplicity are Spain's two most imaginative and celebrated cuisines that have brought the country to the forefront of the epicurean world. Nova cuina catalana has introduced new ways of looking at food, largely personified by maverick chef Ferran Adrià. Rivalling Catalonia in creativity, the nueva cocina vasca, largely concentrated in San Sebastian, is dedicated to preserving the Basque country's culinary heritage while transforming age-old recipes and ingredients in unexpected ways.
The Spanish hubs with the most extensive air connections are Madrid Barajas, Malaga and Barcelona El Prat, served from the UK by airlines including Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Iberia (020 8222 8900; iberia.com), Vueling (0906 754 7541; vueling.com) and Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com). Other cities such as Valencia and Seville are also reached by Ryanair and easyJet, while BA starts flying to Granada in July. San Sebastian is slightly trickier, requiring transit from Bilbao or Biarritz in France.
Madrid is the largest hub of Spanish rail – Renfe (renfe.es) – with extensive connections to other parts of the country. Towns not reachable by rail are served by buses, with Alsa (alsa.es) providing the most extensive coverage. All major car rental companies have outlets at Madrid Barajas and Barcelona El Prat.
Culinary tours and cookery classes are offered by Annie B's Spanish Kitchen (00 34 620 560 649; anniebspain.com), which is based in Vejer de la Frontera, Andalucia; Tasting Places (020-8964 5333; www.tastingplaces.com); and A Taste of Spain (00 34 856 079 626; atasteofspain.com) which have classes in Andalucia, Catalonia, San Sebastian, Madrid, Valencia and more.
Spanish food is not complete without Spanish drink. Though rioja is the best known of Spanish wines, Catalonia's cava has also become mainstream, with cycling and tasting tours (00 34 93 897 22 07; elmolitours.com; half-day guided cava tour €35) one of the best ways to appreciate Spain's answer to champagne.
Staying at the luxury Hotel Marqués de Riscal (00 34 945 180 800; marquesderiscal.com; doubles with breakfast €350), designed by Frank Gehry, puts you right in the heart of rioja country; tours of the winery cost €10.25 per person and include a sampling of two vintages.
If sherry is your poison, then a visit to Jerez's oldest bodega, Domecq (00 34 941 279 900; domecqbodegas.com; €10) gives you two samples of the golden stuff and the bodega's history.
Connoisseurs of cider won't wish to miss visiting a traditional sidreria (cider house) in Asturias, such as the Tierra Astur Gascona (tierra-astur.com), where the tipple is traditionally poured into your glass from a great height, the bottle held above the waiter's head.
Nova cuina catalana
For most, Catalonia is synonymous with the culinary alchemy of chef Ferran Adrià, but now that El Bulli has closed (it will reopen as a culinary academy next year), other Michelin-starred establishments have stepped up to take its place.
The three Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca, left (00 34 972 22 21 57; cellercanroca.com) in Girona, currently ranked only behind Noma as the best restaurant in the world, are renowned for their playful presentation of clever dishes that make optimum use of local ingredients (tasting menu €130).
Fusion touches such as tempura appear on Carme Ruscalleda's menu, otherwise rooted in traditional Catalan cooking at Restaurant Sant Pau (00 34 937 60 06 62; ruscalleda.com) in Barcelona. You can expect the likes of monkfish with calçot and duck with Swiss chard and wild celery from one of the world's best female chefs (tasting menu €149).
Also in Barcelona, Can Fabes (00 34 938 67 28 51; canfabes.com) carries on the late chef Santi Santamaria's tradition of seasonal Catalan cooking, offering robust dishes such as fresh fish with spring vegetables and Iberian ham with artichokes (tasting menu €135).
Nueva cocina vasca
With more Michelin stars than any other European city except Paris and creativity to spare, San Sebastian's dining scene is one to be admired.
At one of the original nueva cocina vasca establishments, Arzak (00 34 943 27 84 65; arzak.info), the father-daughter team of Juan Mari and Elena Arzak draw on traditional Basque dishes, above, such as hake in green sauce and baby octopuses in their ink, before transforming familiar ingredients into something unexpected (tasting menu €180).
Each dish at Martín Berasategui's namesake restaurant (00 34 943 36 64 71; martinberasategui.com) in Lasarte-Oria consists of just a few exquisite mouthfuls of stuffed pigs' trotters with quince or roast foie gras with horseradish curd (tasting menu €185).
The dining experience at Mugaritz (00 34 943 52 24 55; mugaritz.com) in Errenteria, involves 20 personalised dishes dictated by seasonal ingredients and chef Andoni Luis Aduriz's whimsy. The flavours are intense and the offerings designed to make you "feel" and "discover" (set menu €180).
The perfect paella
Named after the utensil it's cooked in, Spain's national dish hails from the Valencia region. A paella Valenciana, with rice, chicken, rabbit, butter beans and saffron, is prepared the traditional way over a wood fire at Posada Venta Pilar (00 34 962 50 09 23; posadaventapilar.com) in Buñol. Others can be sampled at Valencia's Casa Salvador (00 34 961 72 01 36; casasalvador.com) and Madrid's La Paella de la Reina (00 34 915 31 18 85; lapaelladelareina.com).
The reverence in which regional dishes and ingredients are held has resulted in a bewildering number of annual food festivals. One not to miss is Galicia's Festa do Marisco (bit.ly/GaliciaMarisco) – a nine-day October extravaganza in O Grove that involves tens of thousands of visitors gorging themselves on velvet crab, oysters, octopus, mussels and razor clams at hundreds of stalls to the accompaniment of bagpipes and tambourines.
In late February/early March, Catalonia goes crazy for the humble calçot (spring onion). During a calçotada, best attended at Masia Bou (00 34 977 60 04 27; masiabou.com), these are grilled on hot coals, the outer layers peeled off and consumed with a rich, spicy sauce of toasted hazelnuts, almonds, tomato, garlic, sweet pepper and olive oil.
Having started out as a glass cover to keep the flies away from your drink, tapas have evolved into an art form. Few cities still offer dishes on the house, but in León's Barrio Húmedo, at La Parilla del Humedo (00 34 987 21 45 52; laparrilladelhumedo.com), you might be served fried potatoes with aliolí, while Granada's Bodegas Castañeda (00 34 958 21 54 64) might present you with jamón serrano .
In Madrid, tiny helpings of the city's signature dish, callos a la madrileña (tripe stew), appear alongside other delicious titbits in the tapas-rich barrio of La Latina. Barcelona's tapas such as the tiny jamón, black truffle and mozzarella sandwiches and minute portions of cherry gazpacho at Tapaç 24 (00 34 934 88 09 77; carlesabellan.com) are some of the most sophisticated in the country.
At the pintxo bars in San Sebastian, mini masterpieces include foie gras with apple compote at La Cuchara de San Telmo (00 34 943 42 08 40; lacucharadesantelmo.com), tiny towering sandwiches and gambas a la plancha at Bar Goiz-Argi (00 34 943 42 52 04).
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