Innovation or Abomination? New Food Trends in Spain

Jonathan Harris | April 2022

A few weeks ago, I set off to attend the Alimentaria food show in Barcelona, long delayed because of COVID-19. This would only be my second trip to Spain since 2019. In the past, we were privileged to travel to Spain two or maybe three times a year, visiting with suppliers and discovering amazing new foods to share with you. Now we were excited to travel again!

On this recent trip to Spain, I was struck by how much innovation I noticed in the Spanish food scene. For many years Spain was staunchly traditional. After all, how could it get better than Ibérico ham, tortilla española, piquillo peppers and paella Valenciana? Why fiddle with such iconic fare? But what I saw, tasted and loved were new takes on these timeless classics.

One example was the bocadillo de jamón that I devoured at the El Prat airport in Barcelona. Let’s start with the fact that I was able to savor one of these classic sandwiches at the airport, while most airports in the U.S. feature homogeneous chain restaurants that leave you slightly dyspeptic as you board the plane. But what was exciting was that this was a new kind of bocadillo. Instead of the normal white loaves of bread filled with slices of Serrano ham, my bocadillo featured a fresh baked multigrain baguette coated in sunflower seeds. And the thin slices of delectable jamón inside were not Serrano, but Ibérico, Spain’s luxurious ham made from the indigenous Iberian breed. Was it the same as the bocadillos I’ve tasted in the past? Yes, but even better!

Another tasty discovery was enjoyed on a rooftop restaurant in the Las Arenas de Barcelona shopping plaza. Formerly the plaza de toros bullring, the rooftop of this building offers views of the monumental hill of Montjuïc on one side and Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, in the distance on the other. We ordered a delicious rice with butifarra sausage and wild mushrooms along with black truffle croquetas. But I was most excited to try the ‘patatas bravas.’ Translated as ‘fierce potatoes,’ this ubiquitous tapa consists of fried cubes of potato topped with a mildly spicy tomato sauce. This version was subtly but significantly different. The potatoes were long cut with skins on, somewhat like what we would call a steak fry. And instead of being smothered with brava sauce, it had dollops of alioli, salsa brava and even a few dots of wasabi. Was this revolutionary? Not really, but it shows how this beloved dish is evolving without losing its fundamental character.

Another innovation comes from Torrons Vicens, a venerable turrón company from the village of Agramunt. They are partnering with Albert Adrià, the famed chef of El Bulli and Tickets restaurants, to augment their traditional confections with experimental turrón bars filled with surprising ingredients. This groundbreaking collection includes flavors like gin tonic, chocolate con churros and white truffle. What I love about Adrià’s creations is how they merge two very Spanish but very different flavors together. What drink is more beloved in Spain than gin and tonic? Why not add the flavor to the traditional Spanish turrón candy bar

Now I am going to share the most mind-blowing food I’ve tasted in a long while. At the Alimentaria food show, we sat down with Sofía and Keila, two of three women entrepreneurs who started Calabizo in Galicia a few years ago. They proceeded to slice pieces of bright red chorizo sausage, with a wild twist. Instead of pork, this chorizo was made with calabaza, a Spanish type of pumpkin squash. Like a traditional chorizo, it was infused with the intensely smoky flavor of pimentón de La Vera and it was hung to dry like a traditional cured sausage. But this was the first vegan chorizo I had ever tried.

Now, I know what you are thinking – vegan chorizo is not chorizo. It is an affront to the proudly carnivorous soul of Spain, an insult to thousands of years of culinary tradition. And there is no way it can taste good, right? Well, my honest review is that it tastes very much like chorizo, especially since pimentón is such a dominant smoky spice. But the texture is very different. Instead of a tender, juicy bite, it is firm and somewhat waxy. Would I serve slices with bread and a glass of wine? Probably not, but it is a great candidate for sautéing with vegetables or adding to stews.

Whether you think these innovations are exciting, frivolous or an abomination, it is fascinating to see how Spanish cuisine is evolving without losing the core of what makes it great. The Spanish people are more sophisticated, prosperous and well-traveled than they were 50 years ago. It is inevitable that the culinary scene is adapting to new influences and ideas. I look forward to tasting whatever comes next!