A land of wine and jamón

For spring break, Randy and I skipped the white sand beaches crowded with bikini-clad women, largely because the 5 or so extra pounds on my midsection is not the kind of thing one wants to flaunt.

Damn culinary school.  If you ever decide to go, beware the culinary school version of the freshman 15.

Instead, we went to Andalucia, Spain.  Not a bad alternative.

We spent time on the Mediterranean coast, and in historic cities like Granada, Sevilla, and Cordoba.  The region has a captivating history, and incredible historic structures that bring it all to life.  We were really mesmerized and awe-inspired by much of what we saw.  And, oh the food! 

The emphasis in Spain is very simple preparations of high quality ingredients.    As Joan Mesquida, the General Secretary for Tourism and Domestic Trade says, “Spain’s great diversity of climate and geography makes it possible to find some basic products of excellent quality, both from the land and the sea.”  We definitely experienced this during our time in Spain.

toast with tomato and olive oil

Toast with tomato and olive oil, or "pan con tomate"

For example, a typical breakfast in Spain is toast with olive oil and tomato spread, garlic if you want it.  Sounds unremarkable, right?  But the bread is almost always a baguette, ciabatta, or other hearth baked loaf.  The olive oil is so flavorful – some of the best I’ve tasted anywhere.  And the tomato spread is usually a fresh concasse lightly seasoned with salt.  It’s so satisfying, and yet as simple as the toast with butter and jam we consume in the U.S.

The rest of the day, Spaniards go with a tapas approach.  Small plates of food that are usually a few bites of something delectable.   Spaniards will enjoy a mid-morning snack of croquettes – a béchamel-based filling using chicken, cheese or fish that is coated in breadcrumbs and deepfried – or bocadillos, simple sandwiches (you don’t see the loaded sandwiches in Spain. It’s usually a filling of one or two ingredients – chorizo and tomato, or jamón and cheese).

At  around 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. the people will enjoy their largest meal of the day.  Shops and businesses close, and the tapas bars overflow with tourists and working Spaniards alike enjoying a meal with their family and friends.   This is feast time.

Salmorejo...delicious (follow link for recipe and photo credit)

You’ll see goat cheese and almond salads, open faced sandwiches with cheese, jamón, or chorizo,  skewers of lamb and chicken, baked shrimp and octopus with garlic,  bowls of salmorejo(a cold soup/sauce made with cream, bread,

tomato, and garlic – it’s everywhere!) with bits of fried jamón and maybe chopped egg, fried potatoes with brava or garlic sauce, sauteed mushrooms, and much more.  It’s a feast for all the senses.

After the big meal, a little nap and relaxation are in order.  Randy and I really got into this rhythm!

At 4 or 5 p.m., Spaniards return to work for a couple of hours, and then around 8 or 9 p.m. the walking and night life begins.  In most of the cities we visited, you would find what seemed like the whole town out for a walk. Eventually everyone wanders into the tapas bars again to enjoy a late, light dinner.  These bars are often jammed until well past 11 or 12. We were never out long enough to see the streets die down, and we were often out well past 11 p.m.!

Thinly sliced jamon

Jamon is always served thinly sliced on a plate with little to no garnish. This jamon is from Huelva, one of the government certified D.O. regions.

At least one meal every day inevitably includes jamón.  Jamón is like the national food of Spain, and the “Ibérico ham is the jewel in the Spanish culinary crown,” says Mesquida. Seriously. It’s regulated by the government, and for good reason.

The Ibérico breed of pig is native to the Ibérian Peninsula, eats grass and acorns and roams freely in the field.  It’s a cured ham, similar to prosciutto, but with its own distinct character.  The curing process is carefully regulated by the government. There are many different types of jamón, but the types I saw most often were Serrano, and jamón de bellota, which is a very special type of ham.  The bellota indicates that the pigs were Ibérico pigs that were fed acorns, and that nutty, complex flavor is evident in the final product.   The jamón de bellota is rated according to the quality, which is based on the animal’s feed.  If the Ibérico pig was fed only acorns during its life, it has the highest rating and most complex flavor, and of course the highest price.

Many of the pigs are fed acorn, but finished on a diet of mixed grains.  The jamón that results is still wonderful, but not as complex.  This is the type you will find in many tapas bars throughout Spain.  There were fewer bars that carried the highest quality jamón.

I developed a great love and appreciation for jamón while in Spain, and I already miss not just the flavor, but the experience of eating it with a bit of olive oil, bread, and maybe a hunk of cheese. It’s so simple, but satisfying to the core.

wine and tapa

Wine and a tapa of shrimp wrapped in potato threads and deep fried.

A word about the wine.  It’s delicious. And cheap.  I’m talking $3.50 to $4 for a glass of wine, which was often less than you pay for a beer – or even a glass of water!

You ask for a vino de la casa, tinto (house red wine), and you’re almost always going to get a juicy, well-balanced young Rioja.

Occasionally we went for the bit more expensive red wines from the Ribera del Duero region. The extra buck got you a more full-bodied and complex wine to enjoy with your jamón.  This stuff is terrific.  Sadly, I didn’t bring any wine home with me. I’ll have to take my chances with the reputable wine shops in the area.

A trip to Andalucia definitely beat the beaches, and I can’t wait to return.

I didn’t write much about the sights, since after all, this is a food blog.  But here are a couple of photos (more on my facebook page).

We had one fancy lunch on our vacation, and in addition to cuttlefish croquettes and almond soup, we ordered salt encrusted sea bass which was filleted for us at the table.

This is a photo from the mountain town of Ronda. We didnt spend nearly enough time here. Its gorgeous, as you can see.

Alhambra

The Alhambra. One of the most impressive sights we visited while in Granada.

tiny kitchen in a small tapas bar in Ronda

The tiny kitchen used by the proprietor in a small, but popular tapas bar in Ronda.

Buen Provecho!

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