My first visit to Galicia a decade ago was on a wine trip. Or so I had been led to believe. The invitation had come from the Rías Baixas regional consejo, after all, and, as I leafed through the schedule over breakfast on my first day, I found a list of producers’ addresses that, put together, charted a mazy course around the fjords, estuaries and wide beaches of the home of Albariño.
But the first stop of the week was not a winery or a vineyard or a tasting room. Our hosts had instead decided to collect us from our hotel in the centre of the estuary town of Pontevedra and take us on a short stroll to the Lérez river waterfront to visit the Mercado de Abastos local central market.
It’s a pleasant if scarcely spectacular building, a large, light and airy two-storey construction of columns and arches in the local granite stone entirely rebuilt in the early 2000s. But once we’d stepped inside we soon grasped that our hosts’ reason for bringing us there wasn’t to admire the architecture. If your mission was to get people to understand why the great modern white wines of Rías Baixas taste and feel the way they do, here was a significant, overwhelmingly sensual part of the explanation. Stall after stall piled up with the fruits of the Atlantic ocean that crashes into Galicia’s 1,000km-plus of craggy coastline, a parade of creatures from every corner of Jules Verne’s imagination, the air dense and damp with iodine, salt and the melodious calls of the stallholders.
If Galicia’s costa del marisco (seafood coast), is a seafood-lover’s spiritual retreat, then the region’s markets are its churches, places where you can marvel at and worship the marine abundance. Hake, tuna, mackerel and octopus brought from the ocean to Europe’s largest fishing port in Vigo; crabs, mussels, scallops, and – most distinctive and challenging of all – the livid red, intensely iodine-flavoured percebes barnacles foraged by divers who scrape them from the rocks in wave-lashed rocky coves.
And as I soon discovered, the Albariño-based white wines that are the essence of the Rías Baixas DO are the very definition of a ‘grows together goes together’ match. No matter how succulently fruity or ripe they may be, the best wines have a distinct saline-mineral feel to go with the flowers and the fresh stone and citrus fruit. These are wines that are born to be drunk with the region’s local seafood, whether served simply without adornment, or in a dish such as pulpo gallego. The carefully and slowly simmered octopus doused in olive oil and paprika, served on a layer of potato, is a Galician original that’s now widely adopted as a Spanish tapas classic.
Pulpo Gallego (Galicia)
1 octopus (2kg), cleaned and ready
1kg potatoes, cleaned and halved
Pimentón de La Vera (smoked)
good olive oil
Slowly simmer the octopus in a large pan of water for up to 40 minutes until tender. Let the octopus rest in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove and leave to wait in a bowl. Using the same water, boil the potatoes for 15 minutes. Strain, remove the skins, slice and arrange on a serving plate or wooden platter. Cut the tentacles into roughly 1cm pieces and arrange in a layer on top of the sliced potatoes. Sprinkle with pimentón and salt, then drizzle with plenty of olive oil. Serve with crusty bread.
The wine: Alberto Nanclares, Dandelion Albariño, Rías Baixas, Galicia 2020
Castilla y León
Travel east from Galicia’s coast and you move towards its border with the extensive inland region of Castilla y León. Galicia itself isn’t all about the fruits of the sea – the province is home to Spanish gastronomic specialities such as padrón peppers, the soft and tangy Tetilla cheese and the meat of indigenous cattle (Rubia Gallega) and Celtic pigs.
As you continue east, the distinct vinous and gastronomic cultures of Galicia and Castilla y León meet in Bierzo, a DO that lies just inside the Castilla y León region. Split between the granite and slate mountainous Bierzo Alta and the flatlands of Bierzo Bajo, in terms of wine this is Mencía country – the same red grape that predominates back on the other side of the border in the inland Galician DO of Ribeira Sacra. These bright, fragrant reds – such as Raúl Pérez’s Ultreia Saint Jacques Mencía, Bierzo (2020, £15.95 Vin Cognito) – are perfect for drinking with the kind of hearty soups, broths and stews found in both inland Galicia and León. These are filling, warming combinations of cabbage, potatoes, pork, sausages and black pudding, with the chickpeas that – along with beans and lentils – characterise the cuisine of Spain’s interior Meseta. They’re a particular feature in the caldos and cocidos dishes of León.
Heading south into the Meseta, the vast high-altitude plain that extends across central Spain, you begin to grasp the single most significant influence on the food and wine culture of Castilla y León. Namely: water, or rather, its relative absence. Pulses, like vines, are one of the few crops that can cope with the low rainfall in a terrain whose bleached earthy colours and dazzling skies stand in contrast to the variations on a theme of green in Galicia. This is a place, too, for roaming livestock: cattle, sheep and, in the vast dehesa or holm oak forests, pigs foraging for acorns and mushrooms.
Different iterations of the red wines of Ribera del Duero, made from Tinto Fino (the local name for Tempranillo) are primed for drinking with the local animal produce. A youthful ‘jovén’ wine, such as Quinta Milú’s (2021, £16.50-£17.40 Bottle Apostle, Forest Wines, Seven Cellars), with minimal oak influence and bountiful succulent mulberry fruit, is best enjoyed with a slice or five of sweet, melting jamón Iberico. A wine with a little more density, time in oak and heft, but maintaining that quintessential Ribera high-plain freshness, is the perfect match for chuletas – lamb chops cooked over a smoky fire made of vine cuttings. While a glass of golden, mouthfilling Albillo Mayor white such as Valduero’s Ribera del Duero Blanco (2020, £25 Wine Raks) is ideal to match with the salty and almost toffee-sweet hard local sheep’s cheese Zamorano.
There’s a deceptive simplicity to my own favourite Castilla y León eating experiences. Back home in England, for example, I often try to recreate the heavenly combination of the local morcilla black pudding, plump with rice and sweet with onion and spice, roasted whole or fried with a few squares of the juice-absorbing, focaccia-like torta de Aranda bread and served with a fried egg. It’s never quite the same. But a glass of something like Pago de los Capellanes’ lustrous crianza certainly helps foster the illusion of being there.
Morcilla de Burgos con huevos (Castilla y León)
1 Morcilla de Burgos (black pudding) cut into 2cm-thick slices
6 large free-range eggs
2-3 tbsp of milk or cream
knob of butter
1 tbsp olive oil
Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the morcilla for a couple of minutes each side. Remove and set aside. In the same pan, melt the butter and the beaten eggs and milk. Carefully stir the eggs until thick and silky. Serve with the morcilla and toast of your choice.
The wine: Pago de los Capellanes, Crianza, Ribera del Duero 2020
The Basque Country’s 21st-century emergence as an essential stop on the Airbnb and easyJet circuit means that tens of thousands of British mini-breakers are now familiar with one of the true joys of gastronomic Spain: the slow, leisurely crawl around the dozens of pintxos bars that line the streets in the old towns of the region’s two main cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián.
What can seem, initially, like a rather simple and humble idea – a set of more or less elaborate bite-sized appetisers – is in fact, a site of all- neurons-firing culinary creativity. Classics include toothpick-skewers of green chilli, green olives and anchovies; cod or hake cheeks; Txangurro spider crab tartlets; chipolata-sized spicy-smoky cured txistorra sausages… The list approximates the infinite, and each bar has its own specialities, its own takes on new and old. Favourite spots of mine include the always-bustling Bodega Donostiarra in San Sebastián and the wonderfully old-school La Viña del Ensanche in Bilbao.
But pintxos culture is only a part of what makes the Basque Country such a draw for food lovers: Euskadi, to use the Basque language name for the region, was one of the original engines of the post-Franco new Spanish cooking, and it remains at the forefront of alta cocina. The region has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per head in the world, with 33 stars spread across 23 restaurants, as well as three establishments – Asador Etxebarri (6th), Elkano (16th) and Mugaritz (21st) – in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 list.
But even the less rarefied, more everyday food is taken seriously here. There is a love of (and quality of) fish and seafood to rival Galicia. There are some world-class cheeses, notably the hard, sharp but creamy Idiazabal made from unpasteurised Latxa or Carranzana sheep’s milk. And there are the gloriously glossy black Tolosa beans, a luxurious base for a bean and pork rib stew.
The region’s winemakers never lose sight of their products’ role as a partner for food, whether it’s considered part of high culture or low. The red wines of the Basque corner of Rioja, Rioja Alavesa, are the natural partner for meaty dishes (you can read more about them, and the foods you might drink with them, in our Rioja guide with next month’s issue). But it’s Txakoli, the pin-sharp, prickly dry white wine, that is the wine of the pintxos bar and the seafood lunch – often served in stubby glass beakers, its function is to provide a burst of lemon-like acidity and bite to wash down the succession of delicacies. A new wave of producers, such as Astobiza (2021, £15.95 Thorne Wines), Bengoetxe (2020, £18.50 The Sourcing Table) and Gorka Izagirre (2021, £13.95 Slurp), is taking the style in new, more minerally, concentrated directions, without losing sight of the style’s traditional role.
La Gilda pintxo (Basque Country)
32 pitted green olives, such as Manzanilla
16 anchovies in oil (from a tin, such as the great Spanish brand Ortiz)
32 guindilla peppers
some cocktail sticks
An extremely quick and easy route to an authentic Basque pintxo! I like to simply slide the ingredients on cocktail sticks in the following order: 1 green olive, 1 folded half of an anchovy fillet, 1 pepper, 1 olive, the remaining anchovy, 1 pepper. Repeat until you have 16 skewers.
The wine: Hiruzta, Hondarribia Txakoli, Getariako Txakolina, Basque Country 2021
Like the Basque Country to its west, Catalonia has developed a justified reputation for being one of the world’s centres of fine dining. Its two most famous restaurants of recent times – Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli (which closed its doors in 2011) and the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca (still very much going strong) – have both been named the World’s Best Restaurant on numerous occasions. And the number three restaurant in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 list, Barcelona’s Michelin two-star Disfrutar, has three former El Bulli chefs, Oriol Castro, Mateu Casañas and Eduard Xatruch, helping to keep the Catalan avant-garde flame burning. Delectably surreal dishes on the occasion I visited pre-pandemic included crispy egg yolk with mushroom gelatine and instant smoked cider.
The Catalan culinary avant garde has left its traces on the region’s wines, too. El Celler de Can Roca sommelier Josep Roca is an influential figure – and the World’s Best Sommelier according to the 2022 50 Best awards – while former El Bulli head sommeliers Ferran Centelles and David Seijas Vila have become a widely respected writer and judge (Centelles) and winemaker (Seijas). The Gallina de Piel wine brand made by Seijas includes a stylish Penedès white, Ikigall (2021, £14-£15 Alexander Hadleigh, Butlers Wine Cellar, NY Wines, Vino Gusto) and a polished Cariñena-Garnacha red from the Costa Brava DO Empordà, Roca del Crit (2019, £22.65 Alexander Hadleigh).
The cocina de vanguardia certainly remains a source of pride in the region, with its proponents given rock star status by the local media. However, Catalan cuisine remains deeply tied to traditions and seasonal produce. Mushroom hunting is a big deal in autumnal forests; so, too, the veneration of a specific ingredient’s moment in the growing season. The humble calçot – a member of the onion family that is somewhere between a leek and a large spring onion – is celebrated, for example, with an outbreak of late-winter barbecue parties, or calçotadas. The calçots are roasted on open fires and eaten with a romesco-like sauce of roast peppers, nuts, garlic, vinegar, bread and olive oil – all accompanied, naturally, at those I’ve been lucky enough to go to, with plentiful Cava.
Catalan cooks of all persuasions are also inclined to take full advantage of the region’s very varied conditions. The proximity of both the Med and the Pyrenees gives rise to the concept of mar i muntanya (sea and mountain) dishes, such as pollastre amb llagosta (chicken with langoustine). To my mind, this richly flavoured combination works best with a chilled bottle of a super- succulent, lightly tannined, youthful Garnacha such as El Garbi…
Romesco sauce (Catalonia)
From Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain
2 dried ñora peppers
1⁄2 head of garlic in its skin
6 tomatoes (about 500g)
60g blanched almonds or hazelnuts, or 30g each
2-3 tsp red or white wine vinegar
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Soak the peppers in boiling water for 30 minutes to an hour. Grill the garlic for 15 minutes and tomatoes for 25 minutes, allow to cool, then peel and place in a bowl. Toast the nuts in a frying pan until lightly coloured. Blend the cooked ingredients in a food processor; finally add vinegar, oil and salt.
The wine: El Garbi Tinto, Terra Alta, Catalonia 2020
The historic influence of the Arab world is always palpable in southeast Spain. One of the defining features of the landscape, the orange grove, was a 7th-century Moorish import which spread from Córdoba and Granada up the coast to Valencia during the centuries of Moorish rule. And the quintessentially Arabic confectionery combination of honey, ground almonds and egg whites is at the root of arguably Spain’s most famous sweet treat, turrón nougat, which originated in the town of Jijona/Xixona near Alicante.
Did the Arabs bring what is still perhaps the Valencia region’s best-known grape variety, Muscat, or Moscatel, to the area too? One of the theories of Muscat’s origins is that it came from the area around the city in Oman with which it shares its name. Maybe there’s a whiff of the apocryphal about this story that’s every bit as powerful as the classic Muscat fragrance. But what’s undeniable is the ability of the lusciously citrussy local sweet wines, Moscatel de Valencia, to make a sublime match with a piece of brittle IGP Turrón de Jijona or the array of orange-based cakes and desserts, from orange-infused flans to the light airy sponge of a Valencian orange cake.
Dry Muscat, of which there is an increasing and increasingly refined number, is better suited to dishes made from an ingredient that is yet another Moorish legacy. It was the Arabs who converted the coastal marshlands into rice fields, and, as the great food writer Claudia Roden points out in her indispensable The Food of Spain (Penguin, 2012): ‘Valencia has the widest repertoire of rice dishes in Spain – paella was born here.’ So, too, the variation on paella, fideuà, in which short, thin noodles take on the role of rice. Both fideuà and a classic paella with chicken, rabbit, stock, paprika and saffron are brilliant with the kind of amphora-aged and skin-contact whites that have emerged in the region. Look for producers such as the great Pablo Calatayud of Celler del Roure in Valencia or Pepe Mendoza in Alicante.
Coca de llanda Valenciana (Valencia)
500g sugar, plus a little for sprinkling
250ml mild olive oil
16g baking soda
zest of two lemons (depending whether you want more or less lemon flavour)
rectangular mould (40×27cm)
Combine the eggs and sugar in a bowl, then slowly add the oil, followed by the milk and lemon zest and finally the flour. Mix well and add the baking soda. Pour into a baking parchment-lined tin, and sprinkle with the remaining sugar and cinnamon. Bake in the centre of a preheated oven at 200°C for 30 minutes.
The wine: Pepe Mendoza, Pureza Moscatel, Alicante 2021
Sherry, the emblematic wine of Andalucía, is an ideal aperitif – particularly in its driest and lightest forms, fino and manzanilla. In fact, it’s so refreshing, mouthwatering and appetite-whetting that it’s easy to understand why it can get overlooked as a wine to drink with food. A few days in Jerez or Sanlúcar de Barrameda is a good way to remind ourselves what we’re missing if we confine our Sherry consumption to the moment before the meal.
Those lighter styles – notably manzanilla with its discernible salty tang from ageing in the cellars in estuarine Sanlúcar – work particularly well with the remarkable array of fish and seafood dishes you find in a region where Atlantic meets Mediterranean. For someone raised, like me, on fish and chips, the deep-fried medleys of chunks of red mullet, anchovies, squid, hake and prawns served up at freidurias and tapas bars are pretty much irresistible when I visit this corner of the peninsula. Incidentally, back home I’ve taken to having a glass of manzanilla with my fish and chips, too.
Fino and manzanilla also have an affinity with the traditional cold soups of the Andalucía region. The vividly refreshing mix of peppers, tomatoes, Sherry vinegar, olive oil and bread that is gazpacho; and the Moorish mix of almonds, bread, garlic and Sherry vinegar of ajo blanco. To go with another speciality – the exquisite jámon Iberico produced from pigs reared in the oak forests in the Sierra Nevada and Sierra de Aracena mountains – I prefer a richer, glossier, but savoury dry oloroso or amontillado, styles whose abundance of umami notes make them the perfect partner with unctuous, rich slow-braised oxtail or rabo de toro.
Sherry is as much ingredient as accompaniment. The glass of molasses-like Pedro Ximénez poured over ice cream made simply from cream, eggs and sugar. The kidneys sautéed with garlic, onions and dry oloroso for riñones al Jerez. The almejas clams steamed with fino and jámon… All ideas for bringing a beam of Andalucía’s southern sun to a murky midwinter northern European kitchen.
Riñones al Jerez (Andalucía)
6 tablespoons olive oil
800g kidneys (veal or lamb)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
80ml fino or manzanilla Sherry
large bunch parsley, chopped
Wash and de-membrane the kidneys and soak in a bowl of water with a slug of vinegar for 15 minutes. Quarter the kidneys, fry in olive oil over a medium heat for two minutes each side. Add the parsley and Sherry and cook for a further two minutes, reducing the liquid to a sauce.
The wine: Hidalgo, La Gitana, Manzanilla, Jerez