The dishes that reign in Spain

Millions of holidaymakers will head this year to Spain’s costas and vibrant historical cities to soak up the sun, immerse themselves in the country’s culture and enjoy their favourite dishes. Here’s a tantalising taste of the most popular Spanish fare to try while you’re there, plus some recommendations that might not be so familiar. Buen provecho!

The paella served in Valencia is the real deal, with not one pesky prawn in sight

Paella (Valencia)

The dish associated worldwide with Spain originates in Valencia and the real deal contains rice, chicken, rabbit, green beans and often snails. In the 18th century, when meat was unaffordable for many, water voles were one of the main ingredients as they were abundant in the Albufera rice fields not far from the city.

A proud Valencian wouldn’t touch the touristy versions, which contain prawns, crayfish, mussels, clams, calamares and, for some strange reason, garden peas.

The best paella I’ve ever had – and the one by which all others are judged – was in Casa Carmela, facing Valencia’s Malvarrosa Beach. Cooked in a pan as big as a wagon wheel on an open range fuelled by orange-tree wood, it’s so popular that reservations are a must, especially on Sundays when families pack the place.

TOP TIP: Valencia is a hugely enjoyable city break destination, and the outrageously ornate Cafe de Las Horas bar is a must-visit to try Agua de Valencia – gin, vodka, cava and freshly-squeeze orange juice.

Succulent cochinillo asado, a speciality of Segovia

Cochinillo asado (Segovia)

My most memorable meal (apart from the best-forgotten bull’s testicles I was tricked into eating) during the many years I lived in Spain was Christmas dinner in a friend’s house in Marbella in 1984.

The star of the spread was cochinillo asado – roast suckling pig – which my pal’s mother, like all the other mammies in the neighbourhood, had entrusted to the local baker to cook overnight in his bread oven.

When Señora Fay came to carve it at the table, she didn’t use a knife – the meat was so tender she sliced through it with the edge of a saucer. It was like watching a magic trick.

TOP TIP: Chefs in Segovia, north-west of Madrid, will tell you the city is famous first for its cochinillo asado and then for its 160-arch Roman aqueduct. If you’re spending some time in Madrid, take a half-day excursion to Segovia (high-speed train from Chamartin station, 30 minutes, renfe.com, then hop on the local bus to the centre) and have a cochinillo lunch in Meson de Candido in the shadow of the aqueduct.

Cocido Lebaniego contains a bit of just about every animal that boarded Noah’s Ark

Cocido (Cantabria) 

At the end of a three-day, 72km trek along the Camino Lebaniego in the northern province of Cantabria, I could have eaten a horse. It wasn’t on the menu in the attic dining room of El Cenador del Capitan in Potes, but cocido was.

Every Spanish region has its own version of cocido, which is a vegetarian’s nightmare – a hearty winter stew that contains ham, pork belly, beef, baby goat, black pudding, sausages, chickpeas and beans. It’s ladled out in glutton-sized portions and has the same restorative powers Popeye gets from spinach.

TOP TIP: The Camino Lebaniego goes inland from the Cantabrian fishing port of San Vicente de la Barquera to the monastery of Santo Toribio just outside Potes, and every step of the way is a scenic delight. Fly to Santander and take a bus to San Vicente, then back from Potes (busbusgo.com).

When you visit Galicia, you must try pulpo a la Gallega

Pulpo a la Gallega (Galicia) 

Octopus Galician-style isn’t to everyone’s taste, especially after that Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, but I’m a sucker for it, and the very best is found in Santiago de Compostela.

Nothing could be simpler – it’s boiled, cut up with scissors, served on a wooden board, sprinkled with paprika and accompanied by sliced boiled potatoes and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The texture is rubbery and the taste divine.

TOP TIP: In Santiago de Compostela, the ancient and beautiful cathedral city at the end of the several Caminos de Santiago (unless you carry on walking to Finisterre), Meson do Pulpo (Calle Vista Alegre 57) serves octopus to beat the band.

Can you smell them? Sardines grilling on the beach

Grilled sardines (Costa del Sol)

The sardines that come in tins are tiddlers compared with those you’ll see – and smell from afar – being grilled on the beaches along the Costa del Sol.

These big bruisers are skewered on wooden sticks stuck in the sand in front of a wood fire, then served whole with a sprinkling of sea salt and half-a-lemon to squeeze over them.

They’re available from May to October, but are at their best in June, and a cold beer washes them down nicely.

TOP TIP: If you’re in Torremolinos or Benalmadena, wander along the seafront to La Carihuela, which is famous throughout Spain for its seafood restaurants, all of which serve grilled sardines.

Tuck in to a nice thick slice of simple yet sensational tortilla de patatas

Tortilla de patatas (Nationwide)

If any dish can be said to occupy the throne of Spanish cuisine, it’s the tortilla de patatas, the simple but splendid potato omelette, which is made with only three ingredients – eggs, sliced boiled potatoes and onions.

Tortilla de patatas needs no adornment, but if the onions are caramelised before being added to the mix, the omelette steps up from perfecto to perfectisimo. Some misguided cooks put chopped red peppers in their tortilla to add a dash of colour – a sacrilege akin to putting honey on a Highlander’s porridge.

TOP TIP: The tortilla de patatas served in Juana La Loca is considered the best in Spain. Juana La Loca (Joanna the Mad), the elder sister of Catherine of Aragon and sister-in-law of Henry VIII, was Queen of Castile from 1504 to 1555, but never actually ruled due to her mental instability.

Cordoba’s famous and fabulous cold soup, salmorejo

Salmorejo and oxtail (Cordoba)

Just about every cafe and restaurant in Cordoba serves the city’s two signature dishes.

Cold soup salmorejo – a simpler version of gazpacho – is made from tomatoes, bread, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and salt and is sensational, especially on a hot day (July and August temperatures in Cordoba often reach 40C).

Braised oxtail (rabo de toro) is what Cordobans dream of when they’re living away from home. Served on the bone, it’s a bit fatty, but the morsels of meat melt in the mouth.

TOP TIP: Cordoba is the only place in the world where Catholics go to mass in a mosque – the Mosque-Cathedral, with its vast forest of pillars and ornamental arches. The mosque was completed in 988AD during the Moorish occupation of Spain, and the cathedral was built inside it in the 16th century. If you’re spending time in Sevilla or on the Costa del Sol, Cordoba is only a 50-minute high-speed train ride away (renfe.com).

Jamon Serrano and Manchego cheese – add some chorizo and you have the Holy Trinity

Jamon, queso y chorizo (Nationwide)

A plate of wafer-thin slices of Serrano ham with half-a-dozen half-centimetre-thick triangles of Manchego cheese and some not-too-chunky circles of chorizo constitutes the Holy Trinity of Spanish snacks.

Available in every bar, cafe and restaurant in the country, this winning combination is eaten at all hours of the day as a stop-gap between meals and is best accompanied by an ice-cold glass of lager or a chilled dry sherry.

TOP TIP: Think Spanish lager and the names that immediately spring to mind are San Miguel and Cruzcampo, but the best two brews by far are Mahou and Estrella Galicia. As for chilled dry sherry, Tio Pepe stands alone.

A Majorcan ensaimada is best accompanied by a cafe con leche

Ensaimada (Majorca)

Visitors to Majorca who set aside a day of their holiday to stroll around the island capital, Palma, will be glad they did. Among its many attractions is the indoor Santa Catalina market – the beating heart of the city.

In any of the market’s many bars and coffee kiosks you can enjoy a cafe con leche and an ensaimada – a soft, sweet and fluffy breakfast pastry sprinkled with icing sugar. This uniquely Majorcan treat is the perfect way to start the day, and they’re available in several sizes to take back home in souvenir boxes.

Top tip: Palma’s Apuntadores/La Lonja neighbourhood is home to the most beautiful nightspot in the world, the flower-filled Bar Abaco. Gregorian chants murmur from the speakers, doves flutter around the rafters, rose petals rain from the minstrels’ gallery and incense fills the air. This former nobleman’s townhouse is as posh as they come, so don’t wander in wearing shorts – only local hero Rafa Nadal, who’s a regular, is allowed to do that.

Irresistible – churros dipped in thick hot chocolate

Churros con chocolate (Nationwide)

Churros are long fingers of deep-fried doughnut batter that you dip in thick hot chocolate and are a great start to the day, although they’re also devoured by nightclubbers on their way home at OMG o’clock when most people have been asleep for hours.

Top tip: In Madrid, Chocolateria de San Gines (Pasadizo de San Gines 5), which opened in 1894, never closes, so there’s no excuse for not feasting on this breakfast of ‘campeones’. Recognised nationwide as the best in the business, Chocolateria de San Gines serves 10,000 freshly-made churros and 2,000 cups of hot chocolate every day.

The selection of pintxos available in Bilbao is mind-boggling

Pintxos (Bilbao)

San Sebastian is the gastro capital of Spain, where you can’t move for tripping over Michelin-star restaurants, but Bilbao, home to the remarkable Guggenheim Museum, has many more visitor attractions.

Pintxos are the far-superior Basque version of tapas, and the selection appears endless, with bars, cafes and restaurants coming up with new versions on a weekly basis. My favourite Bilbao pintxo palace is Cafe Iruña.

Top tip: In Bilbao (a long-weekend top recommendation), rugby-loving and kilt-wearing cocktail expert Manu Iturregi owns Bar Residence, an award-winning Aladdin’s Cave of Irish, Scotch and world whiskies with regular live music sessions. A half-hour metro train ride from the city centre takes you to the beach.