Eat, drink, and be merry. You gotta eat. Everyone likes to eat. Eat or die. Are you going to eat that? I could eat. Let’s eat. If you kill it you eat it. What are we going to eat? Have you eaten at this place? I couldn’t eat another bite. I can’t believe I ate that. Those were some good eats.
Translate that last paragraph of catch phrases into Spanish and you’re well on your way to understanding about 80% of what people talk about in Spain, day in and day out. To say that the Spanish have an obsession with food is doing a tremendous injustice to the definition of understatement. And whether you're getting by in Spanish, Catalan, Basque, or Gallego food acts as something of a lingua franca, at least when that lingua franca isn’t football. I’m not so sure about the state of my Spanish but I’m fluent in food and football. The worst insult that you can hurl at another man in Spain is to call him a hijo de puta, a son of a whore (I’ve always thought that there must be a support group called Mothers of Sons of Whores). I think most people here would agree that an even worse insult would be to say that someone’s mother is a lousy cook. Here in Valencia true fighting words would be to say “Your grandmother’s paella is shit!”
As with football, food has always been very important to the Spanish and just like with football they have always felt slightly inferior to their French and Italian neighbors, whether they want to admit it or not. Everything changed after winning the European Cup in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup in 2010. At about the same time Spanish cuisine has become internationally recognized as one of the best in the world so the people here have the validation they have sought for so long. It’s been a long time in coming and they deserve the recognition. I’m please to have been here when it all happened.
The egalitarian, mostly middle class nature of modern Spanish society means that great food is the domain of all, call it a birthright. Of course, there are luxury food items and some restaurants that are well beyond the means of average households but those anomalies don’t explain or define Spanish cooking. Although cooking and eating may almost seem like a competition in Spain it isn’t in any way exclusive. The price of admission is simply a will to learn the traditional dishes and perhaps a bit of invention to go beyond the ordinary.
Whether or not you’re a good cook has absolutely nothing to do with class or economic status in Spain while in America and probably other parts the new foodie revolution is basically an upper-middle class construct. This is not to say the new cooking awareness in the U.S. isn’t filtering down but it like with most things hatched on the internet; it began among the more tech-savvy middle class and above. Spain has its own version of the internet food upheaval but I’d say that most information about food and cooking is passed by word of mouth here, from parents to children, from friend to friend.
However, it could also be argued that there are a lot of poor people everywhere who eat better than their economic superiors simply because they’re obliged to have more skill in the kitchen. I think this is truer in Spain than in the United States as junk food and fast food is more expensive in Spain than making things from scratch. This is changing for the worse very rapidly in Spain as you see more and more processed food available to consumers and fast food joints are proliferating.
What truly defines Spanish cooking is the quality of the basic ingredients available, products on display every day at the local market or on the shelves of the supermarket. Once again, the things that make up most of the Spanish diet are modest in price but definitely not in quality. If you aren’t eating like a king or queen in Spain you can’t blame it on your income. Just about every dish that I have come to love was the result of poor people using what they had in the cupboard. This is true of probably every national cuisine.
Another important determining factor of Spanish dishes is the seasonal availability of whatever it is you’re eating, something especially true of fruits and vegetables. While there is lots of fresh produce year-round there are many other items that have their particular shelf life. Even if something is available out of season this doesn’t mean that it’s worth eating. Supermarket tomatoes are all of the hothouse variety and worse than what’s on hand in most American supermarkets. If there is nothing better to buy it’s better to change the menu. The 3-4 times a year when truly fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes appear at the local markets there is a frenzy of applications in recipes both old, new, and experimental. Cherries are a spring crop; plums arrive in late summer and early fall. Oranges are around throughout the late fall, winter, and spring while in summer those available have usually been frozen.
Wild mushrooms in Mediterranean Spain are almost exclusively an autumnal occurrence and have a devotional following bordering on the fanatical. In Catalunya a weekly television show chronicles the adventures of amateur mushroom hunters. Mushroom collection is a serious business surpassed only by the infinite variety of recipes dependent on an almost equally infinite variety of edible fungi. For city dwellers unable to forage in the woods the markets provide for your cooking needs. The autumn harvest has a lot to do with precipitation, especially in late summer so any inconvenience people experience from the rainy weather is usually compensated for in lower prices for wild mushrooms.
With so much about cooking being dependent on the seasons and the weather an almanac is almost as useful as a cookbook to Valencia chefs.
The most important lesson that I’ve learned in my cooking career, or rather something I have adopted from Spanish cooks is a respect for food. A simple yet telling example of this is how people won’t eat chips from a bag but will take the few seconds required to decant the contents into a bowl or on to a plate. It is food, after all, and we don’t eat food from bags like horses in a stable. It’s this respect that can turn something like a basic tomato and garlic salad into a dish fit for a fine restaurant. This deep respect for the food they eat is what prods home chefs to seek out complex and demanding recipes while appreciating the flavors of a single ingredient.
A fine example for this reverence for both the complex and the simple is usually called a tapa unless they call it a pinxo or a montadito or perhaps something else depending on where you order it in Spain. To say that Valencia isn’t famous for its tapas is an understatement and it completely depends on the bar you chose but in other regions of the country the little plate of food that accompanies your drink often plays a vital role in your plans for the evening. I’ve traveled for many days in Andalucía without ever sitting down to a formal dinner because of the interference run by the tapas bars. Stopping in for a quick drink can sabotage even the heartiest eaters when you are served practically a main course with your glass of wine or beer.
Nothing better illustrates Spain’s democratic approach to eating than their wine industry. In my humble opinion Spanish wine…wait, humble doesn’t even begin to describe my knowledge of wine. I’m not even a dilettante in this department. For as much of the stuff as I put away you’d think I’d be some sort of internationally-renowned expert on the subject but the more I try to learn the less I seem to know so let me rephrase the original sentence. In the opinion of this wine slob I believe that Spain offers the best value for the quality of the wine they produce. I think that a lot of people who do know an awful lot about this would agree. I think that it also boils down to the fact that Spanish wine consumers are too savvy to be hoodwinked into paying a lot for a bottle of wine.
Of course, Spain, the world’s third leading wine producer, has something for every pocket book and qualities to match any and every taste but to the Spanish wine isn’t a luxury item; it’s as vital to their sustenance as bread and olive oil. In the United States many people still view wine as some exotic nectar only served on high occasions, like a promotion at work or a college graduation, while in Spain that high occasion is called lunch on Monday. From what you see on the shelves of the local supermarkets people in Spain strive for the modest in their regular wine consumption and I don’t think that there is a single bottle priced over 15€ with the great majority under 5€.
In specialty shops the sky can be the limit but for most wine drinkers there most certainly are limits. This is why the mark up for wine in restaurants is so low, usually two times and rarely three times retail, at most. It sometimes seems that almost everyone in France, Italy, and Spain believe themselves to be wine connoisseurs and almost everyone is completely delusional on their wine finesse, however, people here are wise about purchasing wine and would laugh at some of the mark ups that I’ve experienced in American restaurants.
So in review: respect your food, take the time to cook, and order a bottle of wine already, it’s Monday and it’s lunchtime.