There is more to Spanish cuisine than paella and sangria. Walking 150km of the Camino is enough to build an appetite for the place as much as the food. Spain is the home of seafood, ham, vino tinto and free-pour gin. Some of the best food in Spain comes free to the table. Tapas is offered when you order a drink, so this culture of eating while drinking is where you find the most authentic Spanish dishes. Territory Taste magazine embarked on a food quest as part of a journey that saw us walk and eat more than 150km of the Camino de Santiago – and we returned to Madrid to do a food tour and eat even more.
The Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrim ways leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Many follow its routes as a form of path or retreat for their spiritual growth. It is also on the bucket list of hiking and cycling enthusiasts. Interestingly, the pilgrimage to Santiago has never ceased from the time of the discovery of St James’s remains in 812 AD, though there have been years of fewer pilgrims, particularly during wars. It was an experience I signed up for as part of a Cancer Council NT fundraiser. I used the opportunity to also explore Spanish cuisine and report back. This needs to be clearly outlined because there are two very different parts to this story: the pilgrim food of masses of bread for dipping in Galician soups and fish stews, which are hearty and filling, and keep you going, compared with beautiful seafood and delicately cooked scallops, steamed mussels and plates loaded with octopus.We also walked through regions and towns that specialised in cheese, and saw restaurants and deli-type counters crammed with hanging cured ham everywhere we went. Jamón is the Spanish word for ham. Jamón is king of the food world in Spain and the best comes from the black Iberian pigs, jamón Ibérico, which sells for more than $1000 per leg. It is generally served in thin slices, and is a craft to carve. The thin, cured slices literally melt in your mouth. I think one of the most mind-blowing dishes was a home-made cheese and jamón pizza, which just combined all the best ingredients served up on a plate.
Wine is everywhere. We were serious about walking and covered 30km a day with regular stops. And those regular stops included sampling vino tinto from 10am. My personal mission was to see if I found one I didn’t like. The $6 bottle of house red was up there with top shelf you find in Australia and would be at home in the finest restaurants. Forget being a wine snob in Spain because they sell it by the random bottle and I don’t think I drank the same label twice in three weeks. Needless to say, after a solid effort I didn’t find one I couldn’t finish. You also can’t escape a sneaky wine because they even have fully-stocked bars at the service stations. The Spanish definitely have a more mature approach to alcohol than drinking to get drunk. With the legal age of 16, my daughter is about to get a cultural lesson in drinking responsibly when she goes on exchange to Madrid next year. I will have to learn how to share when she returns.This trip actually enriched all of our lives in ways I didn’t predict. I have made some great new friends and found experience holidays are so much better than sitting around a pool. And now Grace is learning a new language and heading off on an exchange that is going to shape her to always be local but think global. Spain is a foodie mecca, but not the place to be a vegetarian, that’s for sure.
Spanish food is inspired from different regions – the abundant coastline, rugged mountains, and rich farming land. Spain is home to a vast range of dishes that are simple and unpretentious, and use beautiful, fresh, seasonal ingredients. Spanish food is incredibly varied. Our Devour Tours guide Rafa said the first recipes were from around the 14th century and the cuisine has been influenced over the centuries by the Moors, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, French and Italians. The food is enriched by seasonal produce across the country – depending on geography, culture and climate – which has all led to a diverse cuisine that is more complex than paella and sangria, as I first thought. There are literally thousands of recipes and flavours to experience. Besides well-known dishes, such as tortilla de patatas (Spanish potato omelette), paella and the legendary jamon, stews, sausages, cheeses, beans and bread of every description all form a key part of the Spanish diet. Madrid is also one of that largest consumers of seafood and the normal diet consists of two -three meals a week of some kind of offering from the sea. Spanish desserts and cakes include doughnuts, muffin-type bakes, flans, custards, rice puddings, and the dangerously delicious churros (fried doughnuts dipped in hot chocolate sauce), which Miguel demonstrated at the Territory Taste Festival last year. Because I was on the Camino and considered myself a pilgrim for a portion of the trip, I had to try the tarta de Santiago or Spanish almond cake, also known as the Cake of Saint James.
The almond cake was OK – maybe a bit dry (but then it is named after a saint). Pilgrims didn’t get too precious about food. I did, however, become quite an expert dipping a sweet soft biscuit in a cup of melted chocolate and drinking the remaining smooth, rich liquid, particularly on a cold day. It is a treat so inspired by my inner child it almost felt naughty being so indulged. So I indulged often.
Eating is more than looking after hunger pangs for the Spanish – food is savoured and enjoyed communally and many traditions have evolved over the years, including the famous tapas – the series of small snacks eaten with a drink as the prelude to a meal. A tip from Rafa was to start a meal by only ordering drinks because tapas will be served anyway. Before that out on this tip, we made the mistake of ordering wine and some small plates only to be presented with even more small plates that we didn’t order. You could honestly make an entire day disappear just sipping wine and tasting small offerings that appear at the table without ever ordering off a menu.The wine bars are painted to reflect the specialty of the wine on offer. If the door and window frames are green they have good white wines; burgundy is for the reds or tintos. One of the best wine bars we visited had standing room for 20 people max. If it’s crowded, it’s good, so you just have to squeeze in. Forget personal space – if a place if busting at the seams, it’s worth joining the craziness.
Rafa said to look out for toothpicks and serviettes on the floor because they are a sign there were crowds earlier and the tapas are good. We experienced this crowding situation several times, including our last night in Santiago, where one restaurant had a constant queue and the surrounding places just had empty tables. As a rule, I don’t like to queue for food, but the locals clearly knew something we didn’t, so we joined in. The food was amazing. In Australia we’re familiar with some of the main culinary exports, such as tapas, paella and sangria, but we’re still coming up to speed with the lesser known zarzuela (seafood stew). Any meal is based on the quality of the ingredients and the Spanish cook with the best. Find good Spanish paprika, saffron, olive oil, be generous with garlic and wine, and have a go at making some Spanish recipes at home. Popular street food in Madrid is plates of fried peppers and also fresh calamari on a fresh white roll. Squeeze of lemon and you are sorted.
I was not over the moon about the thought of eating more bread after doing the pilgrimage, but this tasty treat is the best fast food on the run and so delish served fresh. At the end of our Madrid food tour, which took us to seven restaurants, Rafa took us to his favourite wine bar, where we decided to continue our quest of endless sampling vino tinto. Family run and the best butter bean and sweetbread stew served free as tapas I have ever tasted. We didn’t need Spanish to order here as we worked our way down the recommended board and Jose didn’t need English to be an amazing hot Spanish bar-keep. Another interesting fact in Madrid is to keep an eye out for brass plaques on the pavement outside restaurants. These are given to the establishment after 100 years of continued service.Our tour took us on a foodie pilgrimage and one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite places, Restaurante Sobrino de Botín. The artist Francisco de Goya also worked here as a waiter while waiting to get accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. First opened as an inn, the landmark eatery was founded in 1725 by French cook Jean Botín and his wife. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the world’s oldest restaurant and there is a brass plaque proudly stating it has been operating continually for nearly 300 years.
Today, Botín is famed for its rustic Castilian cuisine, including succulent roast meats and whole suckling pig fired in the original oven. So as not to be disappointed, you need to book in advance. It’s located in an old building with multiple floors that can house about 200 seated guests – and it’s still hard to get a table.
Address: Calle de Cuchilleros, 17, 28005 Madrid, Spain
Hours: Opens 1pm until late
Phone: +34 913 66 42 17