What do you think of when you hear the word Spain? If you’re like I used to be, you probably think of bullfights and flamenco music; of sun-baked land and palmy beaches; of paella, sangria, and tapas .
But there’s so much more to Spain than that. The typical images described above come mainly from the south of the country. The north, on the other hand, is something altogether different. The frequent rainfall makes the land green and lush. The summers are cold and the people are reserved. You might find yourself eating purple slices of octopus tentacle or sipping on tart cider.
The variety within Spain is astonishing. The best thing is to get out there and experience it all first-hand, but if you don’t have the time or money for that, don’t worry. You can still experience the breadth of the fantastic cuisine from the north of Spain without going far afield.
If you’ve looked at a map of Spain recently, you might recall that it’s a big mass of land with a little extension in the northwest, like an arm wrapping around Portugal. That section is Galicia.
Galicia is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Cantabric Sea to the north. On top of that, the land is rocky and not ideal for farming. All of this put together means that seafood is a staple of the Galician cuisine. There are oysters, scallops, mussels, and lots of types of clams, just to give you an idea! My favorite Galician food is octopus, which is usually sprinkled with paprika and salt and served on a bed of potatoes.
If you’re not a seafood person, you’ll be happy to know that lacón con grelos is boiled slices of pork, and empanada gallega (a type of savory pie) can be found without any fish whatsoever inside. There are also the delicious pimientos de padrón, a type of green pepper cooked with sea salt and eaten in one bite. My Spanish friends are always telling me that one in every ten pimientos de padrón is spicy, but after having eaten way more than ten times ten, I doubt this story. (But keep in mind that Spanish people think ketchup is spicy, so who knows? Maybe my palate isn’t sensitive enough to notice the difference.)
For authentic Galician fare, I recommend Los Ángeles in the La Latina district. The food is excellent and the atmosphere is traditional (take that as you will). Try the octopus, try the lacón, try the mussels, and at the end, wash it all down with a small glass of crema de orujo, a traditional Galician liqueur.
Los Ángeles – Calle del Ángel, 8, Madrid. Telephone 913 653 631. Website here (in Spanish).
Asturias is a rainy, green province just to the east of Galicia, bordering the Cantabric Sea. That means, you guessed it, again the regional cuisine includes a lot of seafood. For example, merluza a la sidra (hake cooked in cider) is a popular dish. Unlike Galicia, however, Asturias is fertile farm country, a fact which is reflected on the menu. That’s why you’ll also see land animal products like ribs, cured meats, sausages, and chorizo a la sidra.
There are a lot of things a la sidra, now that it comes up, because sidra, or alcoholic cider, is the traditional drink from the region. It’s not the apple-y, autumn-y drink you might be imagining, however. Asturian cider has a more vinegar note to it. The first sip can be surprising, but if you drink it as you eat, you’ll soon see how the flavor perfectly complements Asturian food. I always enjoy my second or third glass more than my first.
Asturian cider is traditionally poured holding the glass low in one hand with the bottle in the other, high above the head. This is to aerate the cider and supposedly improves the taste. I couldn’t vouch for that, though.
A discussion of Asturian food couldn’t go without the fabada asturiana, an exquisite dish of white beans and sausage. And Asturias is known for its cheeses, particularly the cabrales, a soft blue cheese usually served as a runny sauce on meat. Yum!
A great place to eat Asturian food is La Burbuja Que Ríe, also in the La Latina district. It can be crowded and noisy, but the meal is worth it! Or if you’re in the Lavapiés district, try Casa Asturiana.
La Burbuja Que Ríe – Calle del Ángel, 16, Madrid . Telephone 913 665 167. Website here (in Spanish).
Casa Asturiana – Calle Argumosa, 4, Madrid. Telephone 915 272 763. Website here (in Spanish) ─ click on the “Sidrería” link.
The Basque country (or país vasco in Spanish) is located in the upper northeast corner of Spain, with miles of coastline on the Cantabric Sea and a small border with France. It’s known for its unique language which linguists say is unrelated to any other tongue in the world. I don’t speak Basque, but I have learned to recognize it as “the x language”: any time I see an unfamiliar word or name in Spain that uses an x, it’s almost certainly Basque in origin.
And so it is with one of the most popular ways to prepare Basque food. Pintxos, pronounced PIN-chos, is the Basque answer to tapas . Pintxos are small appetizers, usually a piece of bread loaded with something delicious. Well, I say appetizers, but in fact you can make a whole meal out of pintxos and many Spanish people do! Pintxos can be topped with cheese: brie, blue, hard Spanish manchego, among others. They can be loaded with imitation baby eels ─ they’re much better than they sound, trust me! They can feature sausage, chorizo, red peppers, tomatoes, olives, Spanish tortilla, and anything else the Spanish imagination can dream up.
It’s also traditional to drink sidra in the Basque country and it pairs perfectly with the earthy pintxos.
My favorite place to enjoy Basque pintxos is a combined bar/restaurant called Sagaretxe (that’s sah-gah-REH-che, in case you were wondering). It’s possible to get a table and sit down to eat, but I prefer to eat in the bar, which is standing room only. All the pintxos are showcased in glass cases and you just have to point to order. You get to try a variety of things and it’s relatively cheap. Don’t forget the sidra!
Sagaretxe – Calle de Eloy Gonzalo, 26, Madrid. Telephone 914 462 588. Website here (various languages, including English).