Thanks to star chefs like Ferran Adrià; and Juan Mari Arzak, Spain's restaurants have piqued the interest of epicureans the world over. But it didn't take these maestros' innovative fare to create a passion for food in Spain. Quality ingredients, simple sauces, excellent wines, and a true love of eating have long made Spain a gourmand's paradise.
It's impossible to generalize about Spanish food; each region has its own specialties. The Basque country is rightly proud of pintxos (bite-size tapas), served at a variety of cozy bars and restaurants, and seafood dishes like baked cod, while Galicia is renowned for its amazing variety of shellfish. Don't leave central Spain without sampling the hearty roasted lamb and suckling pigs, and be sure to try southern Spain's crunchy fried calamari, succulent olives, and flavorful cured hams. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, and in Catalonia, Spain's nouvelle cuisine has reached its maximum expression.
No matter where you travel, breakfast is usually a simple affair featuring coffee, pastries, or a small sandwich. At least once, indulge in a serving of chocolate with churros; a big plate of these fried dough sticks is a sure cure for the previous night's excesses. Lunch starts around 2 pm and is the biggest meal of the day. Hearty specialties like paella, cochinillo (roast suckling pig), or a mariscada (mixed shellfish platter) are best enjoyed now, when they can be followed by a leisurely siesta. Early evening is the time to sample tapas, the bite-sized snacks that are served in bars across the country. Olives, a plate of cheese, tortilla española (potato omelet), or crumpled slices of jamón serrano (cured ham) are the most common tapas, but bars may serve more elaborate dishes like chickpea stew, spicy padrón peppers, or fried seafood. Dinner begins no earlier than 9 pm and can last into the wee hours of the morning, especially on weekends. While Spaniards generally have a light soup or sandwich supper at home, restaurants are an excuse to go all out and order multiple courses, as well as dessert and wine.