Well I can provide my humble opinion, as devoid of “nationalist bias” as possible.
I have lived or spent time in most of Europe’s gastronomic capitals. I love most cuisines of the continent and (with few exceptions) they are all worthy of equal respect.
On the other hand, I am from Madrid and have recently returned to my home city after nearly two decades abroad. I am in a position to compare..
Does Spain have the best cuisine in Europe?
No…Not even close.
I would go as far as saying Spain doesn’t even have a cuisine. Not a cohesive, rich and elaborate cuisine in the way France or Italy do, for example.
There are localized provincial cuisines but they have little in common beyond the near total absence of dairy products (particularly butter), the generous use of olive oil and limited use of spices – garlic, paprika and, to a lesser extent Saffron and cumin.
The one thing which truly defines Spanish food is the focus – actually the obsession – with the quality of the raw ingredients or “materia prima” as we call it. It is the only thing that matters. And the way we cook things is as simple as possible – it aims to highlight/showcase rather than hide the quality of what we are eating.
This is why you cannot find good Spanish restaurants outside Spain. The quality produce is simply not available. They are devoid of purpose.
I’m not a rich guy. I don’t blow hundreds of euros a week on restaurants. Since I’m back in Madrid I eat out once or twice a week and never have I spent more than 50 euros on a dinner, including drinks. Normally far less.
The point I want to make is that we don’t have the best cuisine in Europe… we simply have the best food.
And, by far the best price-quality ratio.
Its hard to describe what my typical meal out will be like.Many dishes, all of them shared, invariably accompanied by one or two bottles of wine.
The equivalent in any country of Europe or North America, the freshness and quality of the “material prima” simply would be unaffordable to most people.
The best way to convey it is with some pictures.
Above is the street view of the average eatery I might go to. Often we don’t even bother to sit down. We eat at the bar while drinking.
The free-range, acorn-fed Iberian-pig ham – without a doubt the most prized pork-product in the world. See how shiny and beautifully marbled it is? That fat is over 60% oleic acid. It is actually good for you and reduces heart disease.
The tiny wedge clam known as “coquinas” might be a good starter with my beer.
Typical bar-food I love is a glass of snails, drunk in their own clear broth made with spearmint, cumin and chili – Cordoba style. This comes with my beer in the bar downstairs from my house.
I may certainly expect a small dish of fried anchovies free of cost, to wash down my drink. Ultimately that is what the word “tapa” means to a Spaniard – it means “I’m not paying for it”.
More serious business is this delicacy from Malaga: the Concha Fina which we eat raw with a dash of lemon.
And then prawns from the delta of the Guadalquivir or Odiel rivers – in the bay of Cadiz and Huelva. The most renown are from the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda – also known for its killer mosquitoes.
A snack originating in Granada I like: Floured and fried aubergine chips with bitter-sweet sugarcane molasses.
In autumn, we may have access to a selection of wild mushrooms which grow in the cold highland provinces of Soria or Burgos.
If we are willing to spend a bit, we will go for the “Carabinero” Deep sea scarlet prawn. An animal which comes also from Cadiz, makes lobster taste like chicken and is only available in Spain and Portugal. Sucking the juice out of the head of this animal is the seafood-lover’s equivalent of crack-cocaine.
We don’t really go for carbs when eating out in Spain. An exception might be using these Carabineros in a rice dish imbued by the strong flavor of this delicacy.
Baby eels from our northern coast is another delicacy – I normally cannot afford this but fortunately a surrogate does exist which works pretty well. I also find this ecologically unsustainable so we shouldn’t eat this.
Fresh wild tuna caught in the traditional “Almadraba” style, which exists in Andalusia since Phoenician times and retains its Arabic name is also a common choice. Cooked rare on a hot plate.
The tuna is so fresh I will often just eat it raw in a Tartare.
A specialty from the fishing town of Barbate: Tuna hearts or “Palpitos”
A hook caught squid, with olive oil, parsley and garlic. Again freshness is key. Straight from our ports caught yesterday, not defrosted.
A smaller variety of squid known as “chipirones”. I remember my mother as a kid squeezing out the fish they had just gobbled up out of their bellies before cooking them.
A traditional way to cook these chipirones is in their own squid ink. We also make a black rice out of this, similar to other Mediterranean countries.
The Choco is another species from the squid family we enjoy.
We even eat their eggs as an appetizer or “tapa”! Yes! Squid eggs!
In winter we can eat sea urchins – hyper abundant on our southern coasts and associated with Carnival in the south.
Meat in Spain is something else. Cooked rare on a hotplate with kosher salt. We don’t eat “angus beef” and other such marketing gimmicks. We eat a 7 year old ox which has free ranged it’s entire life in the mountains. Flavor comes at a price and it requires the meat to be aged for days in order to soften it. You recognize it because the fat is orange colored rather than white.
The “Presa Iberica” is a prime cut of our Iberian pig, somewhere above the shoulders. It is heavily marbled and the fat makes it extremely tasty. This meat is of such high quality we often eat it in a seared and marinated tataki.
Back to seafood… Our Galician razor clams are ubiquitous. They are a bit scary to see when they are still alive in their nets though.
The mythical goose barnacles or “percebes” of Galicia. Something you need to try before you die.
From the deep sea – our Monkfish or “rape”. At home I eat them breaded with alioli sauce.
Wild Turbot is another favorite. In one of the places I go to they specialize on serving only the head – a part of the fish which is so filled with collagen it melts in your mouth.
The ocean hake, above is the most consumed fish in Spain. We call it Merluza, a tasty and firm fleshed white fish from the Atlantic.
The baby version of this fish is known as pescadilla.
The Basques taught us to cook the cheeks of the Merluza in pil-pil style. The most delicate part of the animal.
Another Basque dish, Bilbao-style Blackspot seabream or “Besugo”.
How could I forget the Octopus – “pulpo a feira” made the Galician way with Paprika from Extremadura and Olive oil.
From the north, the “Sea ox” or buey de mar. I love pouring a bit of white wine into the head, mashing up the content and eating it with a spoon.
The Basques have turned this into an art-form with the Spiny Spider Crab… Txangurro, as we call it.
There are many ways of preparing it…
And one more simple treasure brought to us by the Basques – Breaded and deep-fried Piquillo pimento from Navarre, stuffed with a Codfish-based béchamel or brandade. Or (just thinking of it makes my mouth water) filled with “Txangurro”… Our answer to Mexican “Chile relleno”.
And remember those chipirones with squid ink? Excellent base for making Spanish béchamel “croquetas”.
Steamed cockles or “Berberechos” we rarely season with anything except lemon juice.
Clams or “Almejas” are great in “salsa verde” though…
I could go on… but you get the idea.
These are just the stuff we go for in our traditional restaurants.
But Madrid is now a cosmopolitan capital with nearly 25% of its population being foreign born. We have amazing international and fusion cuisine.
I would particularly highlight the contribution and influence of our large Peruvian and Zhejiang-Chinese communities.
Two dishes credited to them I recall tasting recently:
A Peruvian “Tiradito” of marinated Gilt-head Sea Bream (“dorada”) under a flambéed Scallop with Huancaina sauce.
Zhejiang style preparation of the head of our Merluza fish. A beautiful spicy dish and perfect leveraging of our local produce for the benefit of Chinese cuisine.
Some of you reading this may have been to Madrid. You may have eaten out at restaurants in our tiny city-center catering to tourists. Those places are not where we locals eat. For us they are overpriced and low-quality.
Next time you come, do some research and hook up with someone who has grown up here. It is a unique experience.