Reflections on Spain
What's New is Old - 2018 Spanish Food Trends
Sometimes Spain’s culture and cuisine can seem eternal and unchanging. I recently feasted on roasted lamb in the shadow of the Roman aqueduct in Segovia. It wasn’t hard to imagine a similar meal occurring a hundred or even a thousand years ago!
Of course, this is just one part of the Spanish culinary scene. Spain is very much at the vanguard of modern cuisine with chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Elena Arzak deconstructing Spanish dishes to create stunning molecular gastronomy and twenty course tasting menu concepts. Still, outside the cutting-edge, much of what happens in Spain’s restaurants and tapas bars can feel timeless.
What interests me most right now are the dishes and drinks that seem like classic Spanish fare but are actually more recent innovations. Here are a few of my favorite examples from recent travels to Spain.
1. Fresh Acorn-fed Ibérico Pork
If you’ve traveled to Spain in the last decade you may have ordered a plate of grilled acorn-fed Ibérico pork, so marbled with fat and deep red in color that you could mistake it for a steak. Since Ibérico pigs are native to Spain, hasn’t this always been a popular dish? Actually, until recently, eating cooked Ibérico pork was quite unusual. This is because traditionally almost every cut of pork was salted and hung to dry, eventually becoming cured ham or sausage to be enjoyed later in the year. Even the blood was preserved, mixed with rice and turned into morcilla sausage. The only time you might have had the privilege of eating this incredible pork was on the day of the “sacrifice.” In the last couple of decades Ibérico pork began appearing on menus across Spain, from chops to tenderloins. I even enjoyed a plate of Ibérico carpaccio! Nowadays this incredible pork is so widely available you wouldn’t know that it was a rare delicacy.
2. Spectacular Gin & Tonic Cocktails
Step up to a bar in Madrid or Barcelona and order a ‘GinTonic’ and you will probably receive a large frosty goblet of premium gin and boutique tonic seasoned with botanicals like cardamom or juniper berries. Sometimes I find this frustrating because it can take a bartender ten minutes to assemble his masterpiece while I thirstily await my refreshing cocktail! Gin & tonic has always been a popular drink in Spain, but in the last ten years it has morphed from a simple refreshing drink served with a slice of lime into the impressive cocktail you find today.
3. Fried Artichoke Chips
Crispy fried wafers of fresh artichoke served with a refreshing drink is a newly popular tapa that deserves to become a classic. During our recent trip to the Alimentaria food show in Barcelona it seemed like fried artichokes were featured at every tapas bar we visited. Hopefully in a few years it will be so ubiquitous that we will start presuming that it was always a favorite!
4. Chuleton de Buey
These enormous steaks come from old steer (old ox is probably the correct term) that live ten or more years in the countryside of northern Spain, most famously in Galicia. The beef is aged for several weeks until it is exceptionally tender and flavorful. Cut into two-inch-thick slabs, the steaks are seared on a hot grill and served rare. You can find ‘chuleton de buey’ featured in restaurants across Spain commanding over $60 apiece. This carnivore’s dream must be a longstanding tradition in Spain, right?
Actually, it is a fairly recent trend to feature ‘buey’ as popular restaurant fare. Historically oxen were a valuable part of farming, pulling plows across the fields and carts of grain and hay during the harvest. Only after their useful working lives, often well over ten years of age, were they sacrificed and eaten – thus the origin of this culinary tradition. As farming became mechanized, oxen began to disappear from the countryside. Only recently was the tradition revived and expanded. Now oxen are raised expressly for their meat – we actually visited a couple of these massive beasts after a meal at the famous El Capricho restaurant near Astorga – I have a photo of my daughters Anna Bell and Sarah patting one of them! The popularity of buey has grown so much that there are not enough oxen, and older cows are also hitting the menu – care for a plate of vaca vieja?
5. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota
Well, it is not really true that Spain’s iconic ham is new, but official quality designations are surprisingly recent. Acorn-fed Ibérico pigs have been turned into delicious hams for thousands of years – I even saw a mural in a 12th century church showing a pig herder knocking down acorns for his hogs. But until relatively recently there was no distinction between Jamón Ibérico or Jamón Serrano – there was only jamón! The white pigs that are used for Serrano were only introduced in the last 100 years or so. Before that, all hams came from Ibérico stock. As far as quality, you had to trust your supplier because there was little oversight of the industry.
As Serrano hams took over the market there were a lot of fraudulent producers that would try and sell their cheaper hams as the more valuable ‘pata negra’ or black-hoofed, acorn-fed hams. There were even rumors that suppliers were painting the hooves on the hams black to fool customers! Not until the early 2000’s were national laws put in place to protect the quality of hams, and a new even stricter set of regulations only came into effect in January of 2014. So, the advent of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota ham that is of verified breed and certified to be labelled correctly only arrived in the last several years.
Continuity and Change
The amazing thing about Spain’s cuisine is how much has been preserved. Because Spain industrialized fairly late, many of the old food traditions still thrive. Ancient parts of the Spanish countryside such as the ‘dehesa’ oak forests and La Doñana wetlands have survived and continue to sustain the special plants and animals that define Iberian cuisine. To this day each region of the country, and often each town or village, takes pride in the unique products of their area. Whether you are nibbling on the famous cured sausage from the village of Fuet, or the hazelnut turrón candy only found in the town of Agramunt, you are enjoying a taste of Spain’s history and ancient culture.
That said, without change and innovation many of these traditions might fade into obscurity. The hyper-modern menus at Spain’s avant garde restaurants nearly always elevate the fundamentals of Spain’s cuisine, from deconstructing gazpacho and its garnishes, to featuring frosty green frozen olive ice cream as a dessert. By doing so they highlight the depth and breadth of Spain’s food traditions.
I can’t wait for my next trip to taste the new ways that the profound and diverse flavors of Spain are refreshed and elevated by chefs and artisans across the country. Thanks to the support of our customers, we are able to offer these special foods, and in our small way we hope to help sustain Spanish artisans as they preserve and adapt the traditions that make theirs one of the finest cuisines in the world.
"Actually Don we were eating buey in San Sebastián and Navarra 50 years ago. Always popular in the Pays Vasco!"
"Hi Jane - Thanks for your comment. Yes, buey has been available in certain parts of Spain forever. But until recently it was not available at restaurants across the country."