Ever noticed that despite Spain’s huge range of climates and soils that make this country a vegetable superpower, when dining in Spanish restaurants, it seems as though local eating habits revolve around meat, fish and dairy.
Our man on the ground in Spain, Paul Richardson, delves into the rich and wonderful history to provide us with a more truthful stance on vegetables across Spain. A fascinating read and exploration of the historical and cultural factors behind the topic.
Spanish Food Markets
As April turns to May and spring turns up the heat, there are few more impressive spectacles in the world of food than the vegetable section of a Spanish produce market. The displays at Mercat Central in Valencia or La Concepció in Barcelona (my favourites) are a carnival of colour and freshness with everything arranged for maximum aesthetic impact: the Swiss chard with its giant creaking leaves and ivory-white stems, the carrots in bunches with their feathery leaves still on, the heaps of baby broad beans still in their pods. It’s partly Spain’s huge range of climates and soils that makes this country a vegetable superpower. But it’s also the deep, rich culture of Spanish vegetable cookery, which exists in every region of the country to a greater or lesser extent.
To judge by the menus in restaurants, which is where most of us tend to eat during our Spanish travels, you’d think local eating habits turned entirely around meat, fish and dairy.
Vegetables at home in Spain
There are historical and cultural factors behind this. Vegetables in Spain tend to be associated with the honest-to-goodness, nutritive values of domestic cookery, as opposed to the more elaborate or luxurious food you might want to eat outside the home. Which means that if you want to get the measure of veg in Spanish life, you might need to get yourself invited to lunch in the kind of household where it’s served up on a daily basis.
Traditionally, the poor showing of verduras in restaurants has also meant that vegetarian and vegan travellers in Spain haven’t always had an easy time of it. When I first moved here in the late 1980s, non-meat-eaters were the object of incomprehension and sometimes amusement. They might be offered dishes containing vegetables, yes, but these would be cooked in a chicken stock. Or they were told by the waiter that a certain dish would be fine as it ‘only has a small amount of meat in it’. A vegetarian friend of mine remembers her travels through Spain in the 1990s being fuelled mainly by bread, olives, cheese, and an awful lot of tortilla de patata. (Which doesn’t sound so bad.)
Introducing plant-based diets to Spain
But in recent years things have radically improved. Except in remote rural regions no-one these days will be surprised to meet a person who has voluntarily given up meat. Plant-based restaurants are now easily found in big cities and even conventional places often indicate the vegan options on their menus. Rodrigo de la Calle’s El Invernadero in Madrid, which serves no meat of any kind, has a Michelin star and is among the best restaurants in the country, vegetarian or otherwise. Plant-based eaters are no longer pariahs, but pioneers.
More to the point, even confirmed carnivores are catching on to the incredible wealth of Spanish vegetable cookery. It’s true there’s a learning curve involved. You’ll soon recognise the vegetables that each region especially values and the best moment to eat them. Most Spanish regions have what you might describe as a fetish vegetable, lusted over as something extra-specially delicious: in Galicia it might be grelos (turnip tops), in the Basque country, long thin green chillies to be flash-fried or put up in vinegar; in Aragon, borrajas or borage leaves; in Navarra, the pocha, a bean that is eaten neither fresh no dried, but somewhere in between.
How Spain enjoys and cooks vegetables
Just as in other world cuisines, vegetables in Spain are prepared in innumerable ways: boiled, fried, baked, chargrilled, even raw. (My Spanish father-in-law, from the Vega Baja del Segura in Alicante’s deep south, used to sit at lunch with a pile of broad beans beside his plate, eating them straight from the pod along with the rest of the meal.) The technique of rehogado – briefly sauté-ing a previously steamed or simmered vegetable in olive oil sometimes with a little chopped ham and garlic - is often applied to Swiss chard or French beans. Chopped serrano ham is also a classic flavouring for broad beans - this is the essence of the classic Granada dish habas con jamón – and in Catalunya new-season peas are cooked with spring onions, baby garlic and fresh mint. The province of Cádiz has a wonderful speciality in its aliñaos featuring cooked carrots, potatoes or other veg dressed with a cumin-scented vinaigrette. The Spanish in general are also great vegetable-stuffers, too, and love to fill aubergines, peppers, or courgettes with minced meat and rice before baking them in the oven. Piquillo peppers stuffed with creamy salt cod is a timeless classic of the Basque Country and nearby Navarra.
Eating vegetables with the seasons
Seasonality is key, and there’s a vegetable dish practically for every day of the year. When summer rolls round and the body craves refreshment, the southern Spanish repertoire of cold soups comes into its own - but the best way of treating summer vegetables is surely the parrilla (char grill), which both brings out their natural sweetness of peppers and aubergines and overlays them with the scent of smoke. (Witness the Catalan escalivada, which combines grilled peppers, onions and aubergines in a silky salad with lashings of olive oil.)
Spanish vegetable traditions
Most Spanish regions have their vegetable cookery traditions, but some places hold veg in especially high regard. One such is Murcia, famous for the huertas (vegetable gardens) around the region’s capital and the fabulous vegetable-based tapas to be had in the city’s legion of bars. Another is the Ribera del Ebro, a 100km stretch of the river stretching from Logroño in La Rioja to Tudela in Navarra, home to possibly Spain’s most significant vegetable culture. Here is where you’ll find some of the country’s most spectacular verdura. Tudela, at the southern end of the Ribera, is a pilgrimage site for fans of its lettuces, its asparagus, its famous red cardoons, and its peerless artichokes. And here, among other places in the northern vegetable heartland, is the heartland of the menestra de verduras. This utterly delicious medley of spring vegetables - often including peas, asparagus, broad beans, artichokes, carrots, green beans, spinach, and onion, all of which should be stir-fried individually before combining - is the dish mostly likely to persuade meat-eaters to come over to the other side.
EAT YOUR GREENS: a dozen of our favourite Spanish veg-based dishes
TumbetThis Mallorcan vegetable bake, like a layered version of ratatouille, is made in high summer with aubergine, potato, peppers, onion and a rich tomato sauce.
Coca de recapte
Pizza-like flatbread from Lleida, topped with strips of roast red pepper and onion, anchovies or sardines.
Menestra de verduras
Peerless springtime dish made in Aragon, Navarra and the Basque Country: seasonal vegetables are sauteéd separately and briefly cooked together with a little chopped ham.