Spain has the second-largest proportion of land devoted to agriculture in Europe, second only to France. The incredible diversity of ecosystems in Spain, ranging from the Mediterranean Andalucia to the dry plateaus of central Spain, to the 8,000 kilometres of coastline, make it suitable for producing a huge range of foods and flavours.
Agriculture in Spain has been dominated for centuries by small-scale production based in family farms and fishing vessels, with products destined for local markets and developed within the community. In many ways, Spain was slow to mechanise, slow to industrialise, and has struggled to adopt contemporary methods of crop production and to compete on the European market. This small-scale, largely traditional and local method of production may be old-fashioned, but it has some benefits: much of the food produced in Spain is hand-crafted, artisanal, local, unique, and incredible.
Oranges and citrus
Spain is a leading producer, and one of the world’s largest exporters, of oranges and mandarins. The modern orange is a hybrid first developed in China. It came to Europe by the Silk Road. The Moors began wide-scale cultivation in oranges in Andalusia in the 10th century, and Columbus took oranges to the New World. Valencia is the city of oranges, where orange juice is essential for breakfast, brides have orange blossoms in their bouquets, and Aqua de Valencia is always on the menu. Seville is the home of bitter oranges that are required for orange marmalade, and are exported to England and throughout Europe.
While tomatoes aren’t native to Europe, Spanish explorers were the first to introduce this crop, and nowhere was it embraced as much as it has been in Spain. It is Spain’s most produced and most consumed crop, the staple of signature Spanish dishes like gazpacho and sofrito. The annual Tomatina food festival in Valencia celebrates the tomato with an epic food fight, and up to 35% of the tomatoes consumed in Europe come from Spain.
Another New World crop, the chili pepper, has come to develop deep roots in Spain. Pimientos de Padrón (often called “Spanish peppers”) are grown throughout Spain, but are especially cultivated in Galicia, where they derived their name. They are typically mild, but approximately 10-20% of individual peppers are spicy (as the Spanish say: unas pican otros no), and they are a staple of many tapas menus. Pimientos del Piquillo (Denominación de Origen Piquillo de Lodosa) are a protected denomination of peppers from Navarra, where they are roasted, peeled, and marinated, with a resulting unique flavour and texture
Wine, sherry, and cava
Spain has been producing wine grapes since before written history in Europe, and the Phonecians found wine cultivation in the region when they settled it. It has more acreage producing wine than any other country in the world, and is the third-largest wine producer on the globe, and produces over 400 varieties of wine grapes. Spain has 12 distinct wine regions, and a winemaking philosophy that views the winemaker as more of a nurturer and curator than a producer. Sherry is produced in southern Spain, and is a protected term that can be used only for wines from the sherry regions of Spain. Cava is Spain’s famous sparkling wine, produced in Catalonia.
No mention of the flavours of Spain would be complete without Jamón, the ham produced from pigs of the Iberian peninsula. Curing meats is the best way to preserve them, and Spanish ham traditions date back at least to the Phonecians, who salted and cured meats for ocean voyages. Ham was used on voyages of Spanish exploration, and in the 19th century Spain exported large quantities of ham to fuel Napoleon’s armies. In the 20th century, Spain elevated ham to an art form, and true Jamón Ibérico is one of the most expensive hams in the world. Although Spain produces over 13,000 metric tons of Jamón Ibérico every year, worth over 4 billion Euros. However, production is so tightly controlled for quality that true Iberian ham cannot scale production up to meet demand. This means that most true Ibérico is produced for the Spanish market and not exported, and the international market has many fakes and counterfeits.
Spain is currently walking the line between old traditions and methods, the hand-crafted flavours they know and love, and the demands of the international marketplace and EU agricultural practices. It’s a delicate balancing act, and right now it means that the best place to experience the fragrances, flavours, and unique foods of Spain is in Spain itself.