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Dining in Spain
Until the Moorish occupation of Iberia, Spanish food was, like early Eastern Mediterranean counterparts, a very basic mix of local ingredients limited in variety and simple in preparation. The Moors brought the art of irrigation farming which enabled the cultivation of rice and with easily obtained local produce added, this became the famous paella. They also introduced a number of new plants, notably the almond, planting vast groves that one can still find in the Algarve and Levante to this day. Figs, citrus fruits and Eastern spices like aniseed and cumin also came with the Moors. And when they finally departed after their 700 year stay, these foods were firmly entrenched in the Spanish diet.
Using seafood along the coast, and all kinds of local produce inland, the food of Spain has comprised, like its Italian, Greek and Turkish counterparts, whatever could be grown and freshly harvested in the region. Accompanied by bread or rice it was washed down with wines that were better known for their quantity than quality.
The chefs of Spain who worked in the paradors, inns and restaurants, aimed to alleviate hunger-pangs and satisfy appetites rather than to excite gourmets or strive for international Haute Cuisine standards.
But in the last two decades or so, as Spain gradually integrated into Europe, a number of Spanish chefs, many of whom had trained in famous establishments around the world, emerged into the culinary limelight. With the prospect of substantially increased tourism, greater affluence and the Spaniards themselves starting to demand a much higher standard of fine dining, these chefs became first recognized, then highly respected and eventually feted.
Today, Spanish cuisine standards are going from strength to strength and the country has a substantial number of world-class restaurants. Here are four of the best for you to try.
In suburban Madrid, a pink awning bearing the name "Zalacain" beckons. The moment you step into this warm, traditionally elegant restaurant you will be in the heart of what most in that city consider its finest dining experience. Chef Benjamin Urdiain hails from Giardia, a Spanish town with a tradition of fine cooks. At 16 he headed for France, training in various establishments and finally worked at the prestigious Plaza Athenee before returning to Spain.
When he moved to Madrid in 1973 to open the Restaurant Zalacain, he was immediately acclaimed by local gourmets. By 1978 he had obtained two Michelin Stars and in 1987 was awarded his third, putting him into the highest possible category.
The memorable cuisine of this fine establishment is enriched by the traditional decor. Russet tonings carry across to curtains, carpets and even the flowers. White tablecloths that almost reach the floor and comfortable chairs with armrests and padded seats add to guests' comfort.
Dishes are based on classic French recipes but adapted to Chef Urdiain's style and preference. Appetizers include such favorites as Goose Liver Salad with Artichokes; Lobster Salad with a Sherry Vinaigrette; Lasagna with Wild Mushrooms and Goose Liver; and Fish Soup with Parmesan. Locals delight in Urdiain's seafood which ranges from a simple Sole with Soya Sauce and Field-Beans to Spanish Scallops with Albarino Wine Sauce and Leeks or a Sea Bass with Two Wines Sauce and Fried Beets.
Meat and poultry courses like Grilled Young Pigeon with Lemon Peel and Honey or Beef Tenderloin with Red Wine Sauce contrast with Stuffed Pigs Feet with Lamb and Mustard Sauce.
Desserts range from Chocolate Cake and Hot Stuffed Apple with Cinnamon to Crepes Zalacain.
The Prado Museum and Zalacain's Restaurant are two Madrid treasures that should not be missed with visiting the Spanish capital. (Alvarez de Baena, 4, 28006 Madrid, Spain; Tel: (34.1) 561.4840, Fax: 561.4732)
San Sebastian is not far from the Atlantic border of France and Spain just south of Biarritz. In this lovely old port town which looks as if time had stood still, is the Restaurante Arzak. Here, Master Chef Juan Mari Arzak Arratibel known as "Donostiarra" demonstrates his superb expertise in the cuisine of the Basque country. Arratibel, educated first in San Sebastian and then in Madrid, attended the Madrid Hotel School for three years before working another three at his mother's restaurant.
Following this period he decided to work with the great chefs of France. And what a lineup his training restaurants were! He spent a year each with Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Troisgros in Rhone, Senderens in Paris, and Boyer in Reims.
These masters gave him a thorough insider's knowledge of French cuisine at three Michelin Star level. He then went back to the Spanish side of the border, settling down in the picturesque seaside city of his forefathers. Between 1974 when he was awarded his first Michelin star, and 1992 when he gained his third, Arratibel won award after award.
The woodpanelling of the Arzak Restaurante exudes warmth and atmosphere. Dining tables adorned with elegant silverware and fine porcelain feature fresh flowers, their color themed to that of the tablecloth.
But it is the food itself, rather than the ambiance, which makes this restaurant such a hot favorite with locals and visitors alike. Traditional Basque ingredients are lovingly prepared to produce dishes of superb standard that retain their regional authenticity. Appetizers include such delicacies as Salad of Baby Eels with Fresh Spring Onions; Pate with Carrot Bread and Currant Jelly; Fresh Chestnut Pasta with Vegetables and Veal with Basil; Codfish in a Sauce of Red Peppers and Walnut Oil with Fresh Cheese.
Your main course here could be Oven-baked Mullet with Cream of Broccoli and Cardamom or Roast Pigeon with Ginger and Potatoes Baked with Apple and Turmeric. It is only in the desserts that Arratibel reverts to international favorites, offering such delights as Prune Tart with Chocolate and Palm Honey or Orange Crumble with Dried Apricots and Vanilla covered with Condensed Cream with Pistaccio Puree and served with Sorbet. Another favorite dessert is Warm Chocolate Cake with Orange Ice-cream and Raspberry Coulis.
Whatever the choice, one's dishes are sure to be interesting, often regional, and always full of flavor and superbly prepared. No wonder many people living 200 kms into France will specially drive to this restaurant to enjoy fine Basque cuisine.
Surprisingly, the restaurants of the Costa del Sol include some that are good, but few that are great. For those, one must look into the relatively tight corner of this country that makes up the Catalan region. This is where Spain's culinary stars shine brightest. (Alto de Miracruz 21, E-20015 San Sebastian, Spain; Tel: (34.9.43) 27.84.65 or 28.55.93, Fax: 27.27.53)
Hostal de la Gavina
An hour from the French border on the rocky coastline of the Costa Brava is one of Spain's finest resorts, the Hostal de La Gavina (Seagull Inn) at S'Agaro. Perched on a rocky promontory, this complex brings the visitor the very finest aspects of Catalan lifestyle, from architecture to cuisine and ambiance. La Gavina is the sort of family-run establishment that treats those staying there as honored house guests, providing every modern facility but in a style of old-time graciousness that is as treasured as it is scarce.
So its no wonder that with such a reputation, La Gavina is not only home to the elite of Barcelona and Madrid, but that this delightful establishment was discovered by the international jetset in the 50's.
At that time guests included Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, Joan Fontaine, Peter Sellers, Cole Porter, John Wayne, Dirk Bogarde and Clare Booth Luce, as well as Spanish heroes like Luis Dominguin, the national idol and Premier bullfighter of Spain. More recent guests have been tenor Jose Carreras, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, Britain's Edward Heath, France's Raymond Barre, the Finance Ministers of the European Community and even Juan Carlos, the King of Spain.
As one would expect, the cuisine here is as remarkable - and as excellent -- as the rest of this resort. There are no less than four dining areas, the most formal being the Candlelight Room where velvet-covered Louis XV-style armchairs ensure comfort and relaxation. On warmer nights guests dine on an outdoor patio surrounding an octagonal Zodiac fountain. Other dining areas are the Villa D'Este, Las Conchas and the least-formal, El Barco that adjoins the bar.
All dining rooms are under the watchful eye of Executive Chef Joaquin Oriol Coll, a brilliant local chef whose training included the Grosvenor House and Hyde Park hotels in London, the Hotel du Rhone in Geneva, the Hotel Trans America in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the Arzac Restaurante in San Sebastian. The menu here offers a mix of classic French dishes like Burgundy-style Snails or Fresh Duck Liver with Truffles, or Catalan delights such as Baby Broadbean Salad and Warm Prawns Spiced with Fresh Mint, the classic Paella Parellada or Lobster Ragout with Rioja Wine. Leave room for desserts when dining here!!! Hot chocolate Souffl»s are a house specialty and Baby Apple Crepes with Honey and Cider Butter, or Catalan Custard Cream will delight those who enjoy a hearty finale to their meal.
A fan of Orange and Grapefruit with Ginger Sorbet entices those who prefer a lighter finish. If you should be in the Barcelona area, your visit to the Hotel de la Gavina will be a highlight. (Plaza de la Rosaleda, E-17248 S'Agaro, Costa Brava, Spain, Tel: (34.9.72) 32.11.00, Fax: 32.15.73)
El Raco de Can Fabes
As passionate about Catalan culture and social issues as he is about his cuisine, Santi Santamaria is a man who puts his heart and soul into everything he does. We first met him just after he had opened this restaurant shortly before the Barcelona Olympics. Even in those early days we were overwhelmed with the excellence of the dinner we enjoyed here.
Since that visit, this unpretentious jewel of a small restaurant has gone from strength to strength. El Raco, with its rustic decor, exudes ambiance. But it is the subtle Mediterranean flavors of Santamaria's deceptively-simple-sounding dishes that really makes diners sit up and take notice.
Santamaria loves to create spectacular culinary 'events' such as his 1995 Truffles Special in which he offers Truffle Salad with Wild Turnips; Warm Vegetable Lasagna with Fresh Truffle; Saddle of Young Goat Stuffed with Truffle. However, one can also enjoy such dishes as Squid from the Coast with Potatoes; Sturgeon with Saffron; Pigeon in Cardamon Sauce; Crispy Veal and Rice and Rack of Pirinean Lamb with Herbs. If you wanted to experience the best of Barcelona, and find yourself leaving without having dined at El Raco, turn back! Some of the best is yet to come!
He now has the ultimate achievement of having gained 3 Michelin Stars. (San Joan 6, E-08470 Sant Celoni, Spain; Tel: (34.3) 867.28.51, Fax: 867.38.61 -- This restaurant is half an hour from Barcelona, well worth the drive)
A word about Spanish Wines...
Spaniards have never paid much attention to wine nuances. They produce a lot of good table wine, but only small amounts of wines that could match the French Grand Crus in quality.
So Spanish wines tend to be predictable --- you drink sherry as an aperitif and the wines of Rioja, considered to be the best, as an accompaniment to your meal.
Catalonian winemakers like Torres are also producing excellent vintages, and lifting the standards. Many experts consider wines like Riscal, Murrieta and Vega Sicilia to be Spain's best, but these are rare, and often priced way beyond their real value. So ask your Sommelier to recommend the best of the wines from the selection in his cellar. Unless they are extremely highly-priced, enjoy them for the excellent table wines they probably are.
Walter and Cherie Glaser are a truly global writing and photography team based "Down Under" in Melbourne, Australia.