Fresh, Local, Regional – Every Day in Spain!

Jonathan Harris | May 2011

A few weeks ago I sat down at a restaurant in El Puerto de Santa Maria that serves delicious fresh seafood. I ordered one of my favorites, acedias fritas, delicious tiny flounder fried to perfection. The waiter told me that it was unavailable – it was Monday after all! The fishing boats don’t head out on Sunday, and he wasn’t about to serve me two-day-old fish.

Earlier I marveled at the freshness of the fish, meats and vegetables at the local open air mercado at the center of Cadíz. Along with scores of stalls with the freshest of fruits and vegetables painstakingly displayed by the proud vendors, there must have been sixty vendors of fresh seafood. While each offered seemingly identical piles of freshly harvested merluza, chipirones and langostinos, each obviously had their own group of loyal and discerning customers. I have never seen anything fresher, even at small local seafood stores in coastal Virginia.

Why is everything so fresh in Spain? I think one reason has to do with the special regional culture of Spain. The people have a fundamental pride in the region of their birth, and it expresses itself most profoundly in how they eat. Often times we have been told that the beans, shellfish, wine, sausages, etc. of a certain location are vastly superior to those in a town that is only a few kilometers away. Sometimes it is true that there is a noticeable difference, but overall, it is an expression of pride in the local culture and traditions that span centuries.

Spaniards throughout the country are serious about what they eat. In Spain, should you choose to stop at what we would term a 'truck stop' you will find that the truck drivers are not drinking warmed-over coffee and some microwave concoction from the world of the fast and convenient. Instead of a machine of perpetually revolving hot dogs by the cash register, there will be a full menu of local cuisine. The truck drivers settle into a three-course meal with their buddies - perhaps some fresh fish or a thin solomillo steak, and ensalada mixta con atún - a hearty mixed green salad with large chunks of tuna and boiled eggs.

With the ready availability of truly fresh ingredients from the local countryside, most of the good restaurants concentrate on the local cuisine. Outside of the big cities, Spain does not have the American obsession with new flavors. It is hard to find a restaurant featuring good French or Italian food, never mind Thai, Japanese or Indian. In fact, even enjoying food at a restaurant featuring dishes from another region of Spain can be seen as a bit adventurous. Because of this, the meat, fish and vegetables are mostly sourced locally from the surrounding countryside or nearby sea.

This attention to quality is shared by all Spaniards. Whether they be customers or cooks, they learned to appreciate quality at their mother’s knee! We see it every time my wife and I take our two young daughters to a favorite local restaurant on the weekend. As a matter of course we will be seated next to a large family who are gathered around a long table. Grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins all come together on the weekend, spending hours together over great food. The sheer volume of discussions between family members is astonishing to an outsider – it seems as if everyone is talking at once! And the children and babies are included from the start, so they grow up enjoying the local cuisine and learning to discern what quality food should taste like.

Families also gather at tapas bars during the week, where a child learns that coffee does not come served in a paper cup, but rather from ceramic espresso cups, often lined up on the bar counter with a sugar envelope tucked in each saucer. When their parents order their café con leche or café cortado, the bartender swings into action in front of his elaborate espresso coffee machine. Preparing a serious cup of coffee is quite a ritual and fun to watch. 

First, to prepare one cup, there is the insistent tapping out of the old grinds by the bartender, to make room for his freshly ground beans. Then there is much steaming and bubbling as the coffee is completed and milk is foamed. The carefully prepared cup of freshly ground coffee is in another class than what we in America are used to – and often the blend of beans is tailored to match the taste of the local area where it is served. No corners are cut for a good fresh cup of coffee. As with the food, the coffee is plain and simple – unadorned with foreign flavors. 

Repeated visits by extended families are the lifeblood of these restaurants, and since their customers keep returning for generations, they must deliver what their clients want: fresh, local, traditional meals. I think this is the key to the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet. The vegetables are fresh and minimally prepared. The meats and seafood are cooked simply, no creamy sauces to hide old or processed ingredients. 

The movement to eat locally produced, wholesome food in America has been growing recently, and this is a good thing. It seems absurd to find California peaches in Georgia during peach season or frozen shrimp from Vietnam in coastal Carolina. We have a lot to learn from Spain, where the concept of fresh, local cuisine is not a cause to join, but a fact of every day life.

¡Buen provecho!
Jonathan Harris

This month's guest writer is Jonathan Harris, who is spending six months visiting vendors and exploring Spain. He is a co-owner and son of Don Harris.