No Plain in Spain: A Hot Food Tour

The top spots for Iberian cuisine
By Larry Walker
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On our first visit to Spain, our knowledge of Spanish food began and ended at paella, which often doesn't survive translation into English. Like many Americans, we thought good food was confined to Italy and France. Anything south of the Pyrenees was not likely to make the cut. Or so we thought. Our first meal in Spain, at a little country restaurant called Cellar de Penedes (about an hour southwest of Barcelona), blew us away with an array of complex and unexpected flavors. And that was just the beginning. More than 20 years of sampling the rich regional delicacies here taught us that great food adventures are to be had in this land of Don Quixote.

All roads in Spain start at Madrid. There are restaurants that feature favorites from all over Spain; in fact, you could do a Spanish food tour without ever leaving the city. But there is one particular dish that is tipico of Madrid. It's a meat and vegetable stew called cocido madrileño. Don't leave town without trying it. In the tapas bars and neighborhood restaurants, the light and fruity red wines from vines that surround the capital are cheap and cheerful.
This is picture-postcard Spain. There are white sand beaches and romantic mountain villages, and everywhere, there are tapas, that delicious morsel that defines a lifestyle as much as a culinary style. To "do the tapas," as the Spanish would say, is to get together with friends, to share gossip over food and wine, and it reaches its pinnacle in the city of Seville. A tapa can be as simple as a plate of olives or a few slices of ham, up to the more complex tortilla española, a frittata style dish of olive oil, onions, potatoes, and eggs. The standard wine with tapas is a glass of chilled fino sherry, stony dry and utterly delicious.

La Mancha
You can look for Don Quixote, the quintessential Spanish hero, deep in the countryside of La Mancha, but you are more likely to find miles of olive groves and vineyards, fields of sheep, and the best garlic soup anywhere. There's also a vegetable stew, pisto manchego, which originated in La Mancha in the days of the Moors. One of Spain's best cheeses, Manchego, comes from La Mancha, and the world's most expensive spice, saffron, grows there. The wines of La Mancha are mostly sturdy country wines, both red and white—perfect quaffs for the food.
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Stretching east of Madrid to the Portuguese border is the harsh jumble of mountains and valleys called Extramadura. The food is a mixture of simple peasant dishes—roast lamb and pork—and more complex dishes that were developed during medieval times in the many monasteries of the region. Today, Extremadura is best known for hams from the famed black Iberian pig, which feeds on acorns. There are very good red wines made in Extremadura from the Tierra de Barros region along the Guadiana River.

Published: 15 Sep 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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