Published on December 1, 2021
Sundrenched farms in Spain produce a treasure trove of food — come hungry!
In Europe, Spain has the second-largest area of land dedicated to agriculture. And yet, the land is notoriously difficult to cultivate. Only 53% of Spanish land can be used for agriculture (on par with Switzerland). But it seems someone forgot to mention that to the headstrong Spanish farmers who continue to produce fabulous quantities of the world's finest oranges, olives, hams and more.
When traveling through Spain, expect to see golden fields of barley and wheat, streets lined with sweet-smelling orange trees and breweries overflowing with excellent wines and ciders. You'll get to see firsthand why there's so much fuss about olives!
Spain has surprisingly bad soil. Only 10% of it is considered "excellent" for cultivation by experts. With a Mediterranean climate and a mountainous terrain, farming isn't an easy undertaking. But every day, Spanish farmers wake up and make magic happen.
Farmland in Spain is divided up into massive estates (100-plus hectares), and much smaller "micro" farms. Thanks to the farmers' skill and irrigation technology, Spain produces the most olives and olive oil in the world, is Western Europe's top producer of citrus fruits and has the largest area of vineyards in the world.
While the big estates account for over half of Spain's produce, the smaller farms are beginning to focus more intensely on organic farming, which allows them to cut costs on pesticides while increasing their profits — a win-win for everyone.
Here are six of the most popular and fabulous foods from Spain:
These are the most commonly eaten oranges. They are sweet, juicy and perfect to enjoy on a summer day. They are used for fruit juices, salads, desserts and plain snacking. Try red blood oranges, seedless navel oranges, Berna oranges or juicy Roble oranges.
Sour oranges are grown primarily for cooking, marmalades, marinades and essential oils. The best place to find them is Seville, where they grow a varietal called narajna amarga (nicknamed the Seville orange). It was originally grown as a decorative orange, thanks to its striking color. Local Sevillians turn them into a delectable marmalade.
The best way to enjoy oranges is to head to the local market, pick up a freshly picked bunch in a net bag and tuck in. They're also sold in tarts, salads or fresh orange juice. A favorite dessert is oranges soaked in orange liqueur over vanilla ice cream. Mmmmm!
Don't think of the over-processed, salty pink slabs you slap on a sandwich back home. Spain's ham is simply gorgeous. A deep red marbled with fine white fat, jamón is made from "ibérico" (Iberian) pigs and is on par with the best artisanal ham in the world.
Jamón is made from the shoulders and hind leg of Iberian pigs (a hybrid of Spanish wild boars and domestic pigs). To make the ham, the pork is first preserved with sea salt for two weeks, then washed and hung for around a month. The ham is moved to a secadero (drying room) for drying. As the fat melts into the muscle, the flavor slowly intensifies over the next seven months. After aging is complete, the jamón is left to settle for two months before being packaged and released for sale. The whole curing process takes between 14 and 36 months depending on the producer.
There are different grades of jamón depending on the breed of the pig and its diet. Purebred Iberian pigs fed on a free-range diet of only acorns produce the most expensive jamón, complex in flavor. The grade of jamón is color-coded, with black being the real deal, red being 50% Iberian, 50% acorn-fed, and white at least 50% Iberian with no diet requirement.
You'll find it pretty much everywhere. In Spain, jamón is sliced into thin slivers by hand. You can tell it's the real thing if you walk into a restaurant, bar or market stall and see a jamón leg sitting out on the shelf. If you'd like to buy some to take home, head to your nearest market.
The most traditional way is to eat it thinly sliced as part of a charcuterie board. Pop it on top of fresh bread with some olive oil for a delightful blend of flavors. It pairs wonderfully with sherry or a glass of red wine. You can also find it cooked in a mouthwatering plate of Spanish croquetas in virtually every restaurant or bar.
Cider production in Spain can be traced all the way back to Roman settlers. It's unclear when apples were first introduced to Spain, but they are a major player in Spanish agriculture in modern times.
Spanish cider is not what you expect. It's amber in color, cloudy, quite dry and not carbonated. Apples are harvested from September to October and fermented for just six months in barrels. Nothing extra gets added — no yeast (it uses the natural yeast from apples), no sugar, just pure apple goodness.
The real event is when Spanish cider is poured into your glass. Traditionally, the liquid should be poured from a great height and only allow for one or two gulps per pour. The last sip is mostly sediment and is either discarded on the floor or — more commonly in modern times — into a bucket.
Everyone knows the Asturias region produces the best cider in Spain. They create 80% of Spanish ciders and have plenty of breweries for you to visit. Basque Country also produces cider thanks to their climate being near-ideal for apple-growing.
The most authentic way is directly from the barrel at a local brewery. But if that's unavailable, almost any bar should be able to provide you with an Instagrammable pouring spectacle.
Spain is obsessed with olives. They have loved them for longer than most places and put them in almost every dish. Olives came to Spain some 3,000 years ago (along with grapes) and were planted in Andalusia near the port cities of Malaga and Cadiz. Today, more than half of the world's olive oil originates from the orchards of Spain!
Just like oranges, there are plenty of varietals of olives to try. Some are good for eating, others better suited to olive oil.
Table olives usually have a good ratio of flesh to pit and are relatively juicy. Manzanilla olives are the most popular and widespread table olives in Spain. They are fleshy and mild in flavor making them the perfect entry level olive for those unused to olive flavors. On the other hand, Hojiblanca olives have more of a sharp kick while the massive Gordal olives are often stuffed with cheese or pickled peppers. When in Madrid, try local Campo Real olives seasoned with fennel, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves and cumin.
All olives start off as green, but if left to ripen, turn a dark black as they oxidize. As a result, bitter flavors round out and the olive becomes much sweeter. Cacereña olives are some of the sweetest olives you can try. On the eastern coast of Spain in Aragón and Catalonia, you can find rare Aragón olives. They are small, nutty and sweet — an addictive combination!
Locals enjoy olives as a snack with drinks (tapas) or an appetizer before a meal. They're a great salty contrast to beer or fino sherry. In Malaga, you can order a fresh Ensalada Malagueña — a salad of cod, onions, potato, olives and orange. In the North, expect cute skewers of olives with peppers — the ultimate classic combo!
Prawns fried in garlic olive oil — it doesn't get simpler than this mouthwatering dish. Small Spanish prawns are fried in a traditional clay pot of olive oil and roasted garlic with just a touch of chili. Pure foodie heaven. If you're feeling adventurous, try the octopus-based Pulpo a la Gallega with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. You'll find it on the menu in Galician restaurants.
Then, the king of all seafood dishes — seafood paella. Paella is a famous rice-based dish packed full of flavorful spice, fresh seafood (usually clams, mussels and prawns) and vegetables. The dish is available throughout Spain but is considered an authentic Valencian meal.
Head to the small town of Vilafranca del Penedès (near Barcelona). This is the most important wine town in the Penedès wine region. Here, they produce reds, whites, dessert wine and sparkling wines from Xarello, Macabeu and Parellada grapes. A quick side-trip to Sant Sadurní d'Anoia will put you near the birthplace of Cava (sparkling wine) — the Caves Codorniu.
Joining in on a Spanish food festival is an experience like no other. On the last Wednesday of August, in the small town of Buñol (near Valencia) is La Tomatina. This fiesta is the largest tomato fight in the world and practically paints the town — and you — red! After the tomato fight is finished, the whole town has a party 'til the early hours.
Held in July in Nava (near Gijon) is the Nava Cider Festival. It's a cultural affair, with theater, talks and exhibits … until Saturday's firecracker goes off. At the sound of the firecracker, everyone wearing a green handkerchief is allowed to taste and drink as much cider for free as they want! Make sure you stick around for Sunday when they hold a dramatic pouring competition.