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From Iberia to España
A Glimpse into Spain’s Past and Its Regions
For thousands of years, the Iberian Peninsula has been the object of desire for many civilizations, all of which have left a permanent imprint on its culture and countryside. The earliest settlers of Spain include the Iberians, the Celts, and prehistoric groups who may be the ancestors of the present-day Basques. But let me start with the Phoenicians, whose traces are still highly visible more than three thousand years later. To cite just a trio of examples of their legacy, they established two major European trading cities in the south, Málaga and Cádiz, still vital today, and they introduced the olive tree, which blankets much of our contemporary landscape. Six hundred years later, the Phoenicians were followed by the Greeks, who ruled Spain, or Iberia as they called it, until their defeat by the Romans.
New rulers, new name: our land became known as Hispania and remained under Roman rule for almost five centuries. In addition to bringing their language, the Romans built roads, bridges, and aqueducts; introduced wheat and the systematic cultivation of the olive; taught us to preserve foods in salt; and established wine making. With the decline of the Roman Empire, Spain became a feudal system of small kingdoms under the control of the Visigoths and Vandals, Germanic tribes who migrated south to expand their territories. During their violent and bloody reign, livestock farming was developed.
Heading north from Africa, armies of Arabs and Berbers, whom the western Europeans called Moors, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain in 711 AD, where they remained for almost eight hundred years. Spain’s vast south–called Vandalus in the time of the Vandals, and changed to Andalus because the Arabic alphabet lacks an equivalent to the letter V–became a Muslim stronghold. Not only did the Moors bring cultural advances in scholarship, science, architecture, and other disciplines, but they also reintroduced the works of the ancient Greeks, which had been lost to Europeans. Fascinated with water, they developed irrigation systems and planted citrus and almond trees in eastern and southern Spain and on the Balearic Islands. They also introduced such everyday staples as rice, sugarcane, figs, apples, pomegranates, mint, cilantro, saffron, cumin, and cinnamon.
A good-sized Jewish population was already resident at the time of the Muslim invasion, having begun emigrating to Hispania primarily during the reign of Hadrian (117—138 AD). The Jews enjoyed recognition for their industrious character and intelligence, but when they suffered the first anti-Semitic legislation in Spain under the Visigoth rule of King Sisebut, they quickly turned their support to the Moors. The Jews already in Hispania and those arriving from Africa with the Moors played an important role in administration, letters, and science. Jewish and Moorish cultures flourished in Spain: their wise men, including doctors, mathematicians, architects, scientists, and philosophers, greatly enriched the contemporary society.
For centuries, Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together harmoniously on the Iberian Peninsula, which should serve as an example for the tolerance and compatible coexistence needed today. However, that harmony would end with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and the establishment of the Inquisition soon after, an atrocious period forever incised into Spanish history. Pacts made with the Moors of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, were broken at the same time, and the Moors were forced to leave or to convert to Christianity. Many basic culinary preferences seen today in some areas, such as the choice of lard over olive oil and pork over lamb, are echoes of the persecution of Jews and Muslims during this time.
These vile actions were initiated during the reign of King Fernando and Queen Isabel, whose marriage in 1469 led to the unification of the peninsula’s two largest kingdoms, Aragón and Castile, in 1479, a union that helped define today’s Spain. The Catholic Kings, as they were known, sought not only to unite their kingdoms, but also to reconquer lands still under Muslim rule, as their treatment of the Moors of Granada illustrates. With the kingdoms united, the monarchs were able to turn their attention to the larger adventures that lay ahead in the Age of Exploration. It was under their rule that la Pinta, la Niña, and la Santa María set sail with Christopher Columbus at the helm.
While Spain’s national treasury was undeniably enriched with New World gold and silver, its culinary stores were equally enriched with the introduction of crops then unknown to the Old World–crops that would eventually change the cooking habits not only of Spain but of the whole of Europe. What would it have been like to cook without potatoes, peppers, corn, tomatoes, or–just imagine–chocolate? The Spaniards, in turn, introduced many Old World crops and livestock to the New World, including wheat, barley, sugarcane, wine, bananas, citrus fruits, cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens.
These were golden times for Spain. It was the center of Europe, serving as the gateway to the newly conquered lands in the Americas. The grandson of the Catholic Kings, Carlos I, ruled the sprawling Habsburg empire and became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. With the seat of the Habsburgs now in Spain, food traditions traveled back and forth all over Europe, affecting the eating habits of the entire continent. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Habsburgs gave way to the Bourbons, who introduced French styles to the Spanish court and upper classes. Naturally, this had its influence on the culinary habits as well, just as the long Spanish rule of Naples and Sicily can still be seen today in many Sicilian dishes. But the French-Spanish exchange went both ways: it has been said that the biggest loot taken during the French rule of Spain was the collection of recipes belonging to the Hieronymite monks in Alcántara. (As is often the case with neighbors, we are in constant rivalry with the French.)
In modern times, Spain’s rich and diverse heritage was threatened by the Spanish Civil War (1936—39) and its aftermath, the dictatorial rule of Francisco Franco. In addition to the repression of regional autonomy that followed the National Movement victory, postwar Spain was plagued by an economic depression that lasted into the 1950s. Even people who were well-off were deprived of legal access to such everyday goods as coffee, sugar, and tobacco, and black markets flourished to satisfy the demand. People (usually women) living near the borders even left the country to buy products unavailable at home: in southern Andalusia, they crossed to Tangiers or Ceuta in Africa, and in the north, to France. During this period of scarcity, Spanish cooking became more austere. The dishes based on fresh and stale bread or dried beans popular today, such as various soups and stews, were often the sole means of sustenance during that time of shortages.
After nearly forty years of dictatorship, when Franco died in 1975, Spain moved toward democracy and the nation underwent decentralization. In 1979, the former fifty-six provinces, previously ruled with an iron fist from Madrid, were grouped into seventeen autonomous communities, each with its own parliamentary government. Some of them were made up of many provinces, others of just one. For example, the largest of them, Andalusia, included seven original provinces, whereas Murcia, Madrid, Asturias, Cantabria, and La Rioja were each formed from a single former province.
Once Franco’s repressive government was removed, Spain began its race to catch up with more developed countries on the continent. Communities across the country began to reaffirm their cultural and regional distinctions and traditions, sparking a cultural renaissance in Spain that continues today.
During the 1960s and 1970s in France, a group of chefs led by Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, and Michel Guérard, among others, started the nouvelle cuisine movement, which emphasized fresh, clean flavors in cooking. Their innovations inspired new Spanish chefs emerging from the period of austerity. Luis Irízar, regarded as the father of Basque nueva cocina, joined the stream in the early 1970s, and many others soon followed, among them Juan Mari Arzak. Still on top of the wave today, Arzak, along with his Basque countryman Martin Berasategui and two Catalan chefs, Ferran Adrià and Santi Santamaría, has been awarded three stars in the Michelin Guide, and he continues to awaken and inspire new generations of chefs. In fact, the race to excellence has been joined by so many talented chefs from every corner of the country that today Spain can proudly claim that its top restaurants are among the best in the world.
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Spain is composed of a spectacular variety of landscapes, from high sierra to miles of coastline to river valleys rich in fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, olive groves, and oak forests. Rather than looking at the regions strictly according to their present political and administrative boundaries, I find it more appropriate in some cases to group them by the shared climate, geography, and natural resources that have shaped and continue to shape their cuisines. For example, although Asturias and Cantabria are separate autonomous communities, I have put them together because the fish of their shorelines and rivers, their meat and dairy industries, their crops and foods, and their recipes have much in common. So, in this manner, following bean stews rather than political boundaries, let us begin our journey though the culinary regions of Spain.
Bordered by the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in the south, Portugal in the west, Extremadura and Castile in the north, and Murcia in the east, Andalusia is Spain’s largest autonomous community. It comprises seven provinces with diverse landscapes: there are dehesas, or large extensions of oak woods and meadows, where the brave bull and the pata negra (the famed ibérico pig) live; the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range with snow-covered peaks in the winter only an hour away from the beaches of Málaga; the Sierra de Grazalema, which records the country’s highest annual rainfall, just a few miles from summer resorts with hardly any rain; and everywhere oceans of olive trees.
In 756, under Abd ar-Rahman I, Córdoba was established as an emirate aligned with, but independent from, Damascus, which until then had been the center of power of the Islamic world. The Moorish occupation of Andalusia lasted for nearly eight hundred years and left a legacy still visible today. Not only can you see vestiges of those remarkable times in the beautiful palaces and mosques and in the central patios and fountain courtyards in many country homes, but you are also constantly reminded of Arabic influences at the table, even if you only hear the names of local dishes: alfajores, alboronia, alcachofa, almendra, albóndiga, and berenjena, among others. Whether you are eating at home or dining out, sugar-dusted deep-fried churros, ajo blanco (almond gazpacho), fried fish, pastries such as pestiños (fried twisted dough brushed with honey), cabello de ángel (pumpkin preserve), and any number of sweets and savories seasoned with cumin, saffron, or anise reveal the strong Arabic presence in the culinary customs of the region.
The fascination that this region provoked in the many civilizations that conquered it is still present. Andalusia attracts tourists from around the world, and although today they don’t come to conquer, many can’t resist settling here for good. Its extensive repertory of traditional foods, a product of its varied physiognomy and rich mix of cultural influences, is one reason why. In its fertile river valleys, of which the Guadalquivir (“big river” in Arabic) is the largest, dishes like the original gazpacho, ajo blanco, were invented. An abundance of almonds must have been the inspiration for this delightful cold soup, which combines the nuts with bread, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and water. (The better-known tomato gazpacho appeared much later, after the discovery of the Americas and the slow acceptance of the New World tomato.) These same valleys supply a wealth of vegetables, including artichokes and alcauciles (wild artichokes), eggplants, endives, cidra (a fibrous pumpkin), green beans, fava beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. Most of these vegetables, with the exception of those introduced from the Americas, were first cultivated here by the Moors. Strawberries, or fresas, came from the New World and are extensively produced in areas of Huelva and Almería, the region’s westernmost and easternmost provinces, respectively; together they constitute the largest supplier of strawberries for the rest of Europe. Along the coast, warm-weather fruits, such as kiwifruits, pineapples, avocados, and mangoes, have found a perfect habitat.
Along Andalusia’s northeastern border, the Sierra Morena, the mountain chain that separates the region from the plains of La Mancha, is covered in holm oaks and maquis of laurel, broom, and thyme. A hunter’s paradise, the rugged land sustains a cuisine of fowl and game dishes, such as carne de monte, venison stew, and perdiz escabechada, partridge cooked in vinegar and wine.
Andalusia’s olive trees, which flourish on the rolling hills that lie between the mountains and the flatlands, are responsible for some of the best olive oils in the world and account for 75 percent of the country’s total production. Not surprisingly, this sizable, top-quality olive oil manufactory falls under the country’s rigorous Denominación de Origen (DO) program, a system of quality control that stipulates a product’s origin, production method, specific attributes, and other standards. Andalusia is home to eight different DOs for olive oil, including Priego de Córdoba and Baena in Córdoba Province; Sierra de Cazorla, Sierra de Segura, and Sierra Mágina in Jaén Province; Montes de Granada and Poniente de Granada in the province of the same name; and finally, Sierra de Cádiz in Cádiz and Sevilla provinces–a number no other region can match. Made from many olive varieties, these oils offer an ample spectrum of flavors, and when you drive along the roads that border the olive groves and olive mills, the air is filled with the intense aroma of the oil. Almazara, Spanish for “olive mill,” is derived from the Arabic al-ma’sara, which means “press,” another reminder of the centuries of Moorish influence in this part of Spain. Even the Spanish word for oil, aceite, which refers to any kind of edible oil, whether from olives, almonds, peanuts, soy, or otherwise, is derived from the Arabic a-zeit, which means “juice of olive,” reflecting the exclusive use of olives for their oil.
The oak woodlands of western Andalusia offer the perfect habitat for the pata negra (literally “black hoof,” the ibérico pig), which is made into the unique cured ham of Spain known as jamón ibérico. The Sierra de Huelva produces some of the best in the country. The pata negra also is the source of other delightful cured meats, such as lomo embuchado (also known as caña de lomo), which is made from the loin and rubbed with pimentón, salt, and garlic and then air cured, and morcón, a large, air-cured sausage made from lean pork cuts chopped and mixed with fat and seasoned with pimentón. The latter is also a specialty of neighboring Extremadura.
Every bar in Andalusia (and most bars in the rest of Spain) offers platters of cold cuts that include these or other similar cured meats. They make a perfect tapa and are often served as a first course. At the other end of the region, in the eastern mountain ranges of Granada, jamón de Trevélez, another excellent ham, is produced. It is cured for at least fourteen months at altitudes over four thousand feet, and because the pig used in the production of this magnificent ham is a white-coated Landrace, Duroc-Jersey, or Large White, and not the dark-coated pata negra, the ham is known as jamón serrano, rather than jamón ibérico.
The Mediterranean bathes the coast of Andalusia to the sun-bleached town of Tarifa, the most southern point on the European continent. Further west, the waters belong to the Atlantic. Exceptional local fish and shellfish are available in markets and restaurants. Little fish, including anchovies, chopitos, and chanquetes, are deep-fried, following the Arabic custom. Indeed, Andalusian cooks are masters of deep-frying, and they cook larger fish, such as marinated cazón (a member of the shark family), in the same way. These waters are also fished for urta, a special local red-skinned fish that is usually baked; carabineros, deep red jumbo prawns of exquisite and intense flavor; gamba blanca, the white shrimp of Huelva, and langostinos, prawns from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, both of which are primarily grilled; and atún (tuna), which has been caught in this strait since Roman times.
The unique mojama, a dry-cured tuna loin, is produced and celebrated in the fishing villages of Cádiz and Huelva. The only additives in this air-dried delicacy are salt, the sun, and a coastal breeze, exactly as Romans and Moors cured tuna centuries ago. Once the flesh is aged and firm and has turned a deep brownish red, the mojama is cut crosswise into paper-thin slices and served alone or on a slice of bread drizzled with olive oil. The fishing village of Barbate in Cádiz produces one of the best versions of this traditional preparation.
Andalusian cheeses are made primarily from the milk of sheep and goats, with the only cow’s milk cheese produced in the northwestern corner, near the border with Extremadura. Queso Rey from Ronda, a beautiful and ancient city surrounded by several mountain ranges, is one of the region’s best cheeses. Sheep and goat herding is widespread around Ronda, and the cheeses produced there vary from fresh to medium cured. The same is true for the other cheeses in the region, with the exception of Pedroches cheese from Córdoba, which is medium cured to cured.
Finally, Andalusia is celebrated for its sweet wines from Montilla, Moriles, and Málaga; the world famous sherries from Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar; and the wines from Condado de Huelva, each with their respective DO. But there are also promising new wines being produced in areas such as Ronda, where a group of progressive winemakers are practicing biologic viticulture. The high daytime temperatures combined with considerable overnight drops typical of high altitudes, and plenty of sunshine especially toward harvesttime, make this area ideal for vineyards.
La Ribera del Ebro:
Aragón, La Rioja, and Navarra
If the Nile is Egypt’s gift from heaven, the Ebro is heaven’s gift to La Rioja, Navarra, and Aragón. The Ebro–its name is derived from the Latin Iberus–is the longest and one of the most important rivers on the Iberian Peninsula. Descending from its spring in the Cantabrian Mountains, the Ebro first crosses La Rioja, where it receives the tributary Río Oja, which lends its name to the region. Then it enters Navarra and shares its waters with both regions, serving as their border until it reaches Castejón, where it turns into a true Navarran river for about a hundred miles. Thanks to its tributaries, the Ebro doubles its water volume in this area where, as the popular saying goes, “Ega, Arga, y Aragón hacen al Ebro varón” (“The Ega, Arga, and Aragón rivers make the Ebro a man”). Be it male or female, the Ebro enters Aragón as a considerable waterway. It then travels another two hundred miles before crossing the border into Catalonia with almost the same volume of water it will have when it joins the Mediterranean Sea.
La Ribera del Ebro–the Ebro River valley–is a magnificent, fertile vegetable garden and fruit orchard, supplying the ingredients that constitute the pillars of the local cuisines. Artichokes and white asparagus from Navarra; cauliflower from La Rioja; snow peas from Aragón; and cardoon, borage, leeks, lentils, and Swiss chard, among others, common to all, are everyday ingredients for home cooks and restaurant chefs across the region. Peppers are used extensively in all three areas: a la riojana, which usually indicates the addition of peppers to any given dish, is almost identical to the chilindrones preparation in Navarra and Aragón. The renowned Pimientos del Piquillo de Lodosa are grown in Navarra, their quality guaranteed by DO guidelines. But peppers don’t understand borders or laws, and those growing on the other side of the Ebro in La Rioja are also superb, even if slightly larger and lesser known outside the area. Sometimes piquillo peppers are stuffed, other times they are simply sautéed with olive oil and garlic, but no matter how they are prepared, they are excellent.
However, La Ribera del Ebro isn’t the only important common influence on the region’s culinary traditions. La Rioja and Navarra border the Basque Country, which supplies both with excellent fish from the Bay of Biscay, so it is no surprise to find considerable Basque influence in their cooking, and vice versa. Aragón and Navarra border the Pyrenees, and the mountains, rich in game and freshwater fish, have shaped their cuisines in similar ways. Trucha (trout) and cangrejo de río (crayfish) are often prepared in the same manner in both areas, the crayfish served in a spicy sauce, with or without tomato (the better known crayfish are from La Rioja), the trout wrapped in cured ham and baked. Throughout the mountainous areas, you’ll find migas, or bread crumbs, cooked for breakfast. Residents in all three areas enjoy both roasted or stewed lamb (the lamb from La Rioja is usually the smallest), especially chuletitas al sarmiento, baby lamb chops cooked over a fire of vine cuttings, and a simple dessert of peras al vino tinto de Rioja, peaches cooked in wine.
El Camino de Santiago, or the Pilgrim’s Trail to Santiago, figures prominently in the common history of the region. Among its mandatory stops where it crosses the Pyrenees are Jaca in Aragón, Leyre and Pamplona in Navarra, and Logroño in La Rioja. A main itinerary for countless pilgrims, the region flourished in the Middle Ages due to the constant influx of cultures. Today, it still has a cosmopolitan feel and remains the primary route for travelers crossing from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
Although these areas share many similarities, each also has its local specialties. Chorizos from La Rioja are an essential part of the ubiquitous patatas a la riojana, a potato and chorizo stew. The delicate jamón serrano from Teruel, Aragón’s southernmost province, made from common white-coated pigs (usually Landrace or Duroc-Jersey), is memorable, as is the magnificent olive oil produced close by, between the provinces of Teruel and Zaragoza.
Navarra’s contribution to the regional cheese platter is considerable, including Roncal, which is made from the milk of two sheep breeds, Lacha and Rasa, and Idiazábal, a firm, creamy white sheep’s milk cheese ripened in mountain caves (though most of the production of the latter takes place in the neighboring Basque Country). Camerano is a delicious fresh goat’s milk cheese from southern La Rioja. The cheeses of Aragón are mainly fresh and made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, or a combination, with the exception of Calanda and Tronchón, which can be medium cured or cured and have an intense flavor and firm texture. Cow’s milk cheeses are restricted primarily to the Pyrenean province of Huesca, where Benasque and Ansó-Hecho are made, the latter a mix of cow’s milk and sheep’s milk.
Locals regularly enjoy their cheeses with wine, so it is fortuitous that wine is also one of the strengths of the region. La Rioja is home to some of the country’s oldest wineries and continues to be one of Spain’s leading wine-producing areas. The wine region known as Rioja doesn’t quite coincide with the administrative one; rather, it is divided into three sectors: Rioja Alavesa, which, as its name indicates, stretches into the Basque province of Álava; Rioja Alta, on the north bank of the Ebro; and Rioja Baja, on the southern shore. Navarra produces great red and white wines, too, and the region’s rosés are considered among the best in the world. It is also the source of pacharán (patxarán in Basque), a delicious anise liqueur unique to the area made of endrinas (sloe berries). Aragón has recently made great strides in the production of high-quality wines. Most noteworthy is the newer but excellent wine from the Somontano DO, grown in an enclave at the foothills of the Pyrenees.