Rick Stein’s love affair with Spain began on holiday in the 1950s when, as an eight-year-old, he tucked into a plate of squid in ink sauce with a relish uncommon for a child. At 17, it was his destination of choice for his first holiday without his parents; it was the place where he spent his honeymoon with his first wife, Jill, and it’s now the subject of his latest television culinary odyssey. It’s clear the relationship is still going strong.
“I mean, it’s where everybody goes,” he says. “It’s just one of those places that doesn’t feel as foreign as Italy because the Spanish are more like us; they’re more taciturn and they like pubs. They go into bars and have a few beers, where the Italians are in and out for an espresso.
“I think tapas are a fabulously civilised way of eating, the star attraction. To eat just a little portion of one delicious dish and then move on to another is sheer bliss. When we were filming the series we all found it a bit tough the way they don’t eat their evening meal until about half past ten, but I suppose it’s because they have all this fun going around the tapas bars first!”
Though we British are more at home cooking Italian food, Stein thinks that the time has come for us to embrace Iberian cuisine. “Spanish food hasn’t been as easily assimilated into domestic cooking because it used to be difficult to get hold of good ingredients, and success really does rely on top materials… really good chorizo, pimentón and saffron. You have to get used to the sort of food the Spanish like and understand what’s good about it. It’s really simple and it’s loved by the locals, but to get that appreciation of flavours over to other people is really hard.
“If I had to choose just one ingredient that epitomises Spain, it’s pimentón, the hot smoky paprika from north Extremadura and Murcia. Extremadura paprika is so special because it’s smoked over oak wood, dried in oak wood and then powdered. That, to me, is the flavour of Spain.”
Originally Stein wanted to call the series Secret Spain, because he reckons that Spanish cuisine doesn’t travel well. “If you ask people to name three Spanish dishes, most can’t get beyond paella,” he says. “That sounds a bit snobbish, but it’s true. I think that people just don’t understand how seriously good the food is, and what fantastic raw materials Spain has.”
The seaside towns of Spain’s northwest corner are stunning, and so is the seafood. Octopus, squid, scallops, crabs, lobsters, mussels – arguably the best in the world. It’s also a successful agricultural region, and their signature dish is a stew of pork and turnip greens called cocido. The first time I had it, a pig’s head, cut in half, arrived on my plate, teeth intact! Galicia’s well-aged beef is regarded by top restaurants as the best by far.
Asturias and Cantabria
The northern seaside towns remind me of St Ives because of the quality of the light. Cantabria is famed for its superlative sardines and anchovies. Asturias boasts the most fantastic Cabrales blue cheese, aged in caves of the Picos mountains. I ate a local stew called fabada, made of white beans, pork, blood sausage and chorizo. It’s a bit like cassoulet – so filling I spent about six days getting over it.
The Spanish Basque region boasts many Michelin restaurants, sharing the idiosyncratic food traditions of France’s Basque country. I rate their cooking very highly. The best thing for me is the way they cook fish, like turbot, over charcoal, with such delicacy. San Sebastián has sensational bars serving their version of tapas, called pintxos, and a slightly fizzy white wine, txakoli. It’s a civilised, elegant European city, more so than the better-known Bilbao; I’d say it’s the equivalent of Barcelona.
Rioja and Navarra
They grow the best vegetables in Navarra, in the northeast: beans, peas and artichokes, which I ate in a superb stew cooked in olive oil. Pamplona, a very atmospheric city, is famous for bull running and stews made with bullfighting meat. Riojan cooking is well liked in the rest of Spain, with many excellent pork dishes. They’re also very good with eggs – my particular favourite is a fresh vegetable scrambled egg. And we mustn’t forget its delicious wine.
It’s all about the seafood here on the Mediterranean. They claim the fish tastes different up and down the coast depending on what waters have run into the sea from the rivers and mountains behind. They feel very strongly about their raw materials, claiming they produce the best prawns in the world, and they make the most fabulous fish stew, suquet de langosta y peix. Catalan food is probably more French than Spanish; it’s sophisticated, light Provençal cuisine.
This is traditionally the home of paella, but you might be surprised to learn that the classic paella isn’t made with fish at all. It’s made with rabbit, chicken and snails. It’s a fantastic dish that has been mucked about with a great deal. In fact there are many rice dishes, not all of which are paellas. We went to a paella competition and they all had the same ingredients, yet not a piece of fish among them.
Castilla la Mancha
These great plains are in the centre of Spain: endless flats that are massively hot in summer, icy in winter. It’s a region that, apart from the capital, Madrid, largely goes unnoticed by tourists. Here they grow the best garlic and saffron, and it’s the home, of course, of Manchego cheese. They grow pulses such as lentils and chickpeas, and produce an excellent tempranillo red wine called Baldor.
Two of the most special flavours of Spain are produced here, where the country hits the Portuguese border: iberico ham and pimentón. Paprika peppers are smoke-dried over oak, then ground into a spicy red powder that gives the cuisine its distinct flavour. The same oak acorns are fed to iberico pigs, which lends the hams a salty sweetness. Cheese is also made here: Torta de la Serena is a ewes’ milk cheese whose soft, pungent flavour is an acquired taste.
Flamenco, which I watched in a packed, tiny bar in Seville, is part gypsy and part Arab, and the best food in Andalucía is similarly exotic; the combination of southern Mediterranean and North African cooking is full of fire and colour. And they love seafood: it’s a shame that we British don’t seem to appreciate that it’s OK to eat whole shrimps as long as they are small, as in my tortillitas de camarones.