Traveller's guide: Gourmet Spain

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In the third instalment of our Spanish series, produced in association with Lonely Planet, Anna Kaminski explores the nation's vibrant regional cuisine and top-class restaurants

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 drinks

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).

Food festivals

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.

Tapas

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).

The new edition of Lonely Planet’s ‘Spain’ guidebook is out now, priced £17.99. See shop.lonelyplanet.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game