Inside the Spanish Pantry...Or What Should Be There Part 1

The old phrase goes "we are what we eat," but I believe we can also be summed-up by what we grow, produce and enjoy eating.

Take a peek into the what the typical Spanish pantry (despensa) should be made-up of, an exemplary standard of what eating from the terroir really includes. For all the Spanophiles out there, take note of what you're missing! Or pay us a visit, in the land of "cava wishes and jamón dreams."

Spanish olive oil:  Liquid gold, although most certainly the cheapest gold on the market. I remember when I first arrived to Spain and I started to see bottles, cruets (convoyes in Spanish), abundant and at times overflowing with olive oil, I quickly became accustomed to drizzling olive oil quite liberally on my salads, bread, or even lentils to give them extra "juiciness." It wasn't hard to imagine why Spanish waiters and bar owners find it so curious to watch the table habits of foreigners (tall Northern Europeans get the bulk of the blame), when they visit the south and literally lick the olive oil off their plates.

In turn, every Spanish household - and many the adopted expat - from Extremadura to Valencia, from Castile & Leon to Galicia, has liters of olive oil on hand; generally a lower grade version for frying potatoes and seafood, and a higher grade for direct consumption, e.g. salad dressings, gazpacho, etc.

Nuñez de Prado Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Baena, Cordoba, Spain. 4 euros at select El Corte Inglés stores throughout Spain. Handpicked from the finca, these olive groves represent the labor of seven generations of olive harvesters and olive oil makers. Flor de aceite, is the first naturally released oil obtained from the stone-ground process before the first cold pressing. Baena is also well known for its annual Olive Oil Festival (El Festival del Aceite de Oliva Virgen) in November. 

Tomatoes: The tomato alongside olive oil, is another ingredient that you can assure will be in any Spaniard's home. Unfortunately with agribusiness the way it is and loads of greenhouses working year-round in Almeria, most tomatoes no longer have the same aspect or taste as maybe their parents or grandparents enjoyed during the summer months. But it remains an indispensable cultivated Spanish product, and if not found fresh, or rallado (grated) for pan amb tomaquet in Catalan and pan tomaca in Castilian Spanish, then it will likely show its form in the cupboard as glass tomato sauce jars, tomate frito.

Pa amb tomàquet, bread with tomato is a classic eastern Mediterranean dish (speculation over whether its Catalan or Valencian is a hot debate for some local residents). Photo taken at Tapas 24 in Barcelona (note the olive oil also drizzled on top!).

Onions: Every sofrito (initial vegetable stir-fry, for example the mirepoix), the base of many soups, stews and roasts start with sauteed onions. There also exists a debate among chefs as to whether paellas should contain onions or not, and the famous tortilla de patata holds those in favor and against the addition of these tear inducing veggies. 2 kilo bags of onions are accessible and cheap and certainly found in the dark corner of your Spanish mother's cupboard.

Potatoes: Made their way to Spain in the late 16th century, brought by the conquerors from America and first introduced within the Canary Islands (of which the popular dish papas arrugadas evolved), spreading thereafter to the mainland, and through northern Europe. Today potatoes still make up an important part of the Spanish diet, without introduction needed are the tortilla de patatas and patatas bravas - probably the most famous potato dishes known outside of Spain - after that we have various potes and guisos (stews) with the potato as one of the main ingredients, as well as patatas a lo pobre, pulpo a la Gallega con patatas (boiled octopus with potatoes), patatas revolconas (mashed potatoes with bacon and paprika) and many more. Another cheap and accessible commodity, a standard 5 kilo bag runs for about 3€ euros, or 1.30-1.70 for a kilo of organic potatoes, and is also generally hidden in the dark drawers of your flatmates' kitchen.

Rice:  As I mentioned in a previous post, Spain has world famous rice growing regions. So logically Spain also consumes a lot of rice. Not quite as much as Spaniards' obsession with bread, because bread acts as a meal compliment, while rice is a main dish. Arroces or paellas make up the predominate usage of this product, but don't forget about the simple and fantastically tasty arroz con leche dessert (rice pudding).

Embutidos: What are embutidos you may ask? Well essentially any minced meat product encased in real or imitation animal intestine. Wow, I've sold that really well..sounds delish right? Well actually they really are outstanding examples of Spanish cultural heritage, tradition and flavors. Many pueblos (villages) have their own manner of preparing, spicing, or curing their embutidos. Widely ranging from fuet in Catalonia, sobrassada from Mallorca, chorizo of La Rioja, chistorra of Navarra, to morcilla (blood sausage) of Burgos, Castille & Leon. But their uses go much further than being found hanging on the kitchen walls by their strings, you'll find them stuffed inside breads, croissants, sliced as appetizers, cooked in cider, tossed with sauteed vegetables or even blended into some paellas.

Jamón:  Is another Spanish kitchen requirement which fits a wide range of lifestyles and budgets. It's not classified as embutido, because it's actually a "prepared leg" (the front or the back, which also affects price and meat quantity). And while the jamón ibérico de bellota receives a lot of attention and is rightfully known as the most expensive of the lot, it's quite common to find its economical cousin jamón serrano tucked inside a wrapping of butcher's paper - but it usually doesn't last very long!

Cheese:  As varied as the Spanish embutidos, cheese plays a important role in each region's history. What better way to preserve milk than to make cheese?! Outside of Spanish borders, queso Manchego usually gets all of the fame and spotlight, but recent interest in Spanish cuisine and foods from Spain have brought other cheese types into our vocabulary; such as the blue cheeses of Asturias (Cabrales), Basque raw sheep's milk cheeses (Idiazábal) or the bosom shaped coned cheese of Galicia (tetilla).

Above photo: Afuega'l Pitu Fuga de pitu from Rey Silo of Asturias, Spain; read more about this unique cheese at Culture Mag

Beer: Your ancestors drank it, you drink it, your mom even drinks it. Enjoying a caña (short glass of beer) in the outdoor terrace of your local bar is practically regarded as Spain's national sport - before or after fútbol depending on how your team is fairing. And while on a whole Spain offers a rather standard industrialized beer menu - in comparison to some other beer producing countries of Europe - there is change on the horizon as microbreweries and craft-beer brands are popping up all around the country. It's possible that will see a huge change in the coming years, but for now you'll surely be able to enjoy your Cruzcampo, San Miguel or Estrella Damm with some olives and picos (bread sticks) in the comfort of any Spanish living room.

James Blick shares his Madrid craft beer scene secrets, here.

Una clara, a half beer half orange or lemon soda refreshment. 

Wine: On the tails of the beer discussion is our trusted friend el vino. Another staple in the Spanish diet and nearly always on hand for every lunch or dinner meal. In restaurants el menú del día is generally served with a glass of wine, and therefore a standard bottle of wine will be given to your table for consumption. In homes around Spain, mini-bodegas can be found in the despensa (pantry), and there will surely be at least one bottle reserved for special occasions or long Sunday sobremesas - for example that gift from last Navidades (Christmas). The wine sector is further developed than that of the beer industry and with that fact you'll find a much wider selection at your local market or vinoteca (wine shop); good inexpensive wines from La Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Catalonia or Rías Baixas (Galicia) are often purchased by visiting Frenchman or Germans to take back home, where wine of the same grade is pricier.

Thanks for reading! Check back next week for Part II and please follow along on Facebook at Sobremesa In Spain


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