Spanish gastronomy leaps out of frying pan and into the fire
Bahía Taberna's award-winninng baby squid pizza is one example of Spain's “eclectic food” offering

Spanish gastronomy leaps out of frying pan and into the fire

Liz O’Keefe
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For years the culinary world has looked towards New York for gastronomic inspiration, from fine dining to the latest movement like street food. But now Spain, and in particular Madrid, is giving the food mecca in the Big Apple a run for its money. With Spanish cuisine setting trends and already filtering across to UK restaurants and taste buds, Produce Business UK takes a tour of the trends on the Spanish restaurant scene that look set to head to the UK, as we ponder the fruit and vegetable opportunities ahead

Fresher than fresh, the food scene in Spain’s major cities blends a happy medium of gastronomic knowhow and innovation; combining a 20-30-year history of molecular gastronomy led by superstar chef Ferran Adrià, with an everyday, feel-good home-cooked tapas offer. Some would go as far as to say that Madrid has stolen from Barcelona the title of Spain’s food capital, with many a chef craving a more balanced and relaxed way of business.

“Gastronomically, the moment is now for Spain,” says María Marte, head chef at Madrid’s two Michelin starred El Club Allard restaurant. “The world’s media has paid us a lot of attention and there is an increasing demand for haute cuisine. Spain is certainly one of the most important countries, culinary-speaking, and as the capital, Madrid has a great offer. There has been a breakthrough in haute cuisine. Now more than ever the general public is taking more interest in restaurants and consumers are more conscious of what they eat.”

María Marte, head chef at Madrid restaurant El Club Allard
María Marte, head chef at El Club Allard

Progressive Madrid restaurant Bahía Taberna’s head chef Daniel Vangoni agrees, saying his restaurant serves “eclectic food”; picking out the award-winning dish (in Madrid Fusión 2012) of Baby Squid Pizza and Pig’s Ear Taco as typical offerings. Vangoni describes Madrid’s food scene as “in a moment of gastronomic awakening”, and although he maintains chefs must fully appreciate Spain’s culinary background and traditional cooking traditions, he believes the only way is forward – with a gracious nod to the past.

Daniel Vangoni head chef Bahia Taberna
Daniel Vangoni, head chef, Bahía Taberna

Fresh is best

Known for long eating hours and food being celebrated an event rather than just a basic need, Madrid sits right at the heart of Spain; feeding its constant hub of eateries with the freshest, natural ingredients. Supplies are sourced from prestigious growing regions like Navarra and Andalusia, which chefs claims produce the best-quality and sought-after ingredients in optimum growing conditions, like artichokes, asparagus, nocellara olive, piquillo and padrón peppers and tomatoes, to name a few.

Madrid’s restaurants also take influence and sometimes products from the city’s many large bustling consumer markets, where food stalls exist in their multitudes, including many run by high-end restaurants selling fit-for-purpose versions of their usual dishes. The most popular is probably Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel market, where stalls of fresh produce and meat sit side-by-side numerous eateries, much like London’s Borough Market, but on a bigger scale. Already, the hand-held street food-esque paper cones of Iberian ham made famous at markets like Mercado de San Miguel have made their way into London’s Soho.

“Having good-quality produce is the most important thing in a restaurant; it is the base of any cuisine,” says Marte, who is originally from the Dominican Republic but has been working in Spain for 12 years, and so cooks a fusion of the two. “All produce must be fresh, especially now when people take so much more care over what they eat. The different cuisines available in Madrid are so diverse and as, the capital of Spain, we have so many different products at our fingertips.

“At El Club Allard, we use a lot of typical Spanish vegetables like tomato and garlic. We use tomato and beetroot in our usuzukuri dish. But I also use fresh produce from my home country, such as yucca, mango and guanabana, as well as Dominican banana that we cook like a crisp, which is very unusual in Spain. Our menu changes according to the seasons, but we have a dessert that defines our cuisine very well. It’s called La Flor de Hibiscus and is available all year round.” Pigs ear at Bahia Taberna
Pig’s ear taco served at Bahia Taberna

Tapas evolution

The fundamental principles of tapas are a great philosophy for cooking. Everything is pared back to basic, good-quality ingredients served in small, manageable dishes that celebrate just two or three key pieces. Also featuring soups and stews, authentic tapas (and by that I mean not just a few olives, sliced meats and some deep fried cheese) is usually a brilliant showcase for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Restaurant La Manduca de Azagra in the Chamberi district of Madrid offers traditional Spanish dishes that highlight vegetables and its culinary team looks to its supplier-producers for menu changes. Chef Juan Miguel Sola features ingredients like cristal peppers (a smoky delicacy from the Navarre region), all kinds of artichoke, cardoons (otherwise known as artichoke thistle), borage stems, and Pochas beans. Restaurants in Madrid are generally big foragers of wild mushrooms too; mainly cep/porcini, girolle, chanterelle and pied de mouton. Mostly, they are cooked simply on the grill during the mushroom season.    

Nonetheless, tapas is evolving. And, as all good recipes must, the cuisine is incorporating new and interesting ingredients, like pollen nectar and black salt – a type of rock salt that is  black in colour and used in widely South Asia. These types of ingredients are being seen in more and more mini-food markets opening in the city, like La Cocina de San Anton.”

Diversifying cuisines

Marte says Madrid is a capital with a great culinary diversity, which makes it a trendsetter. “We are going towards using the best ingredients and more simply,” she says. “Natural flavours are more important than ever. Chefs have to be the best stylists to reinforce all the qualities of the product, while at the same time surprising clients with a mixture of flavours and products, and always via the best presentation.”

Like a lot of capitals, Madrid is taking on a Pan-Asian influence as another string to modern fusion. “We consider fresh Spanish fruit and vegetables among the finest products out there,” insists Vangoni, who works with many different suppliers locally to find the best possible quality fresh produce. “But we also use a lot of mango, pak choi, ginger and sweet potato. Madrid is changing. Our advice is come to Madrid and plan your own gastronomy tour. There are so many places and dishes to discover.”

Oxtail ravioli at Bahia Taberna
Oxtail ravioli by Bahía Taberna

Glossary of Spanish produce ingredients

Piquillo peppers – Grown from September to October and usually preserved because of the short season, a piquillo pepper is a sweet, red chilli with no heat at all. It’s nicknamed ‘the little beak’ because of its wide shape. You usually find them stuffed with cream cheese in oil.

Padrón peppers – Originating in Galicia, northwest Spain, these are mild green small peppers that are typically featured in tapas and usually fried. Most people enjoy the ‘Russian Roulette’ style of the fruit’s heat distribution since around 15% of the crop is hot. You usually get at least one surprise hot pepper in an average bowl.

Cristal peppers – Regarded as the foie gras of the pepper family in Spain, cristal are native to the Navarre region, but also grow in France and Italy. Red and thin and about as long as your hand, cristal is described as having a sweet, smoky flavour.

Pochas beans – A Spanish string bean, again native to the Navarre region and also Rioja.   

Cardoons – A thistle-like plant that’s a member of the sunflower family. The small flower buds of these plants can be cooked and eaten much like a globe artichoke. The stem is often braised whole, although only the middle is of the stem is considered fit for eating. The stems resemble large celery stalks and have an artichoke taste, which some think is bitter.

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Read other articles in our Sourcing Spotlight on Spain:

UK appeal endures for Spain’s major produce growing areas

Eurobanan sweetens UK buyers with Canary Island bananas and tropical fruit

Canary Islands tomatoes strive to retain 130-year-old UK relationship built on quality

Spain’s Anecoop builds on historical citrus strength to stay ahead in the UK

Unica claims innovation and cooperation are vital to UK success

Persimon: the ‘unexpected hero’ in Spain’s UK supply basket

Supply-chain logistics throw up Spanish transportation challenge

Valencia’s top PGI organisation hopes to launch citrus brand in UK

Catalans look to UK for sales potential in wake of Russian import ban

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