Spain is located on the Iberian Peninsula, in the southwestern part of Europe. The population is about 45 million. Over the centuries, its cuisine has traveled to almost every part of the world, creating a culinary influence, especially in South American countries, Mexico and the U. S.

Geographic Influences
Spain is bordered by three regional sides of water: the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Bay of Biscay.  This means fish and seafood have prominence in Spanish cooking. Although many of the fish and seafood found in these bodies of water are the same, the cooking techniques are different, yielding a variety of flavors. An example is Spain's popular marmitako stew. This dish is cooked in each of the costal regions, but with different ingredients. Near the Atlantic Ocean, it is prepared with tuna fish, shrimp, mussels, clams, garlic, dry white wine and ground almonds, which are used as a thickener for the liquid, yielded from the cooking process. Near the Mediterranean Sea, marmitako stew is made with all the ingredients used in the regional Atlantic area, plus squid, onions, herbs and olive oil. And, along the region of the Bay of Biscay, all of the ingredients mentioned in both versions are present, with the addition of a green sauce made from squid's ink, plus herbs.

Another example of a geographically different dish is zarzuela, which uses Spain's well-liked anglerfish (white fish) as the main ingredient, followed by other regional ingredients. Canned fish and seafood products are a huge industry in Spain. Per capita, the Spanish consumer eats about 13lbs per year. Most of these canned products are packed in olive oil, which brings out the taste and makes the flesh juicier.

Olives Dominate
Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil, which is about 32%. Some of the best is produced in the Catalonia region. The tasting notes are described as smoother, with a refined, nutty taste, compared to other olive oils grown in Spain. Gourmet chefs throughout Spain use olive oil from Catalonia. It makes great-tasting salad dressings and mayonnaises, such as alioli (aka garlic and olive oil paste), which is made with olive oil, fresh garlic, salt and lemon juice.  Spain is also the world's largest producer of olives, about 36%, followed by Italy (25%) and Greece (18%). One of the most popular olives is the Manzanilla, which is usually packaged pimiento-stuffed.

paella; Spanish; sausage; seafood; ethnic

Pork is more popular than beef in Spain. There are thousands of traditional Spanish dishes that use pork as the main ingredient. Spain produces some of the world's most sought-after ham, which is called jamún Iberio. Like Kobe beef, Kopi Luwak coffee and Beluga caviar, jamún Iberio is known as the world's most expensive ham; it comes from the black Iberian pig, found in the south and southwestern parts of Spain. Their diets consist of acorns. After slaughtering, the hams are salted for two weeks, then rinsed and left to dry 4-6 weeks, depending on their size. The last stage is curing, which could take 1-3 years. The longer the curing, the more expensive the ham; prices could be as much as $100/lb in gourmet and specialty stores, worldwide. Jamún Iberio is much marbled, with an infused flavor of the pigs' diet--acorns. It is usually served sliced paper-thin, with cheese and olives as tapas.

There is also a variety of expensive sausages made from the Iberian pig, which are always in high demand. Chorizo is one of the well-liked sausages; it is made with chopped Iberian pork, garlic, paprika, a mixture of herbs and salt.

Rice is Nice
Rice is used to make some of Spain's most popular dishes, with paella being the most recognized. This dish comes from the Albfera region, where rice has always been cultivated and eaten. Paella was made, and continues to be made, with whatever is available in a typical Spanish household. Of course, rice is a main ingredient. In inland Spain, paella is made with any or a combination of duck, rabbit, chicken and snails. Along the coastal waters, it consists of shrimp, crab, fish and saffron. Paella is the backbone of several foods created around the world, including jambalaya and Mexican rice.

Like France and Italy, Spain has hundreds of varieties of cheeses that have been linked with its cuisine for many centuries. Some of the popular types include manchego (best known of all Spanish goat cheeses), serena (a handmade cheese made from the Merino sheep) and Cantabria (a semi-firm, mild cheese from cows of the Cantabria area, which is between the Atlantic Ocean and mountains).  Many of Spain's cheeses are eaten as tapas, during dinner, which is served late in the evening. Tapas are a popular way to eat throughout Spain. A variety of dishes are usually served on small plates--everything from marinated olives, cheeses and seafood, to simple rice and meat dishes. pf

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Sidebar - Spanish Cuisine
The Spanish are known for their delicious cuisine, including tapas, potato omelettes, Serrano ham, yellow (saffron) rice, paella, gazpacho, myriad seafood dishes, sangria and delicious desserts, such as almond candies, churros and flan.

Typical Spanish cuisine is not spicy, but very flavorful. The wide variety of spices used in traditional dishes (see chart "Herbs and Spices Used in Spanish Cuisine") allows flavors to layer and combine in such a way as to complement each other, adding a richness and depth that has made Spanish cuisine world-famous.

Spanish cuisine varies according to region. For example, a paella may feature seafood, meat or chicken, or a combination; vegetables or beans; and rice. A Spanish tortilla (an omelette) may feature potatoes, onions and eggs; some add mushrooms and peppers, for a colorful alternative. Whatever the recipe, Spanish food hardly disappoints!

--Julia M. Gallo-Torres, Managing Editor