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Flavours of Andalusia

Andalusia is the largest region of Spain, situated in the south of the country it stretches along the coast from Almeria through Granada, Malaga and as far as Gibraltar. Inland Andalusia reaches as far as Cordoba and Jaen.

Andalusia represents the most well-known images of Spain; the romance and passion that stems from gypsies, flamenco and bull fights, flowered patios and ancient Moorish palaces. The region is so vast that a journey throughout Andalusia will take you to golden beaches, white washed hillside villages, gorgeous coastlines and rugged mountainous landscapes. Andalusia is a land of extremes, bitterly cold, dry winters high up in the hills, to hot sultry summers close to the coast.

From this diverse landscape, comes a variety of cultural experiences affecting every aspect of life and especially the food. You can experience everything from freshly caught sardines cooked on the beach, to the well-known Serrano or mountain ham, traditionally cured in caves high above sea level.

Not only is the food here so special, but in Andalusia offers a unique way of eating. Andalusia is the birthplace of the tapa and the region of Granada is the only place in Spain where tapas are still served free with your drink. In most other places you will generally be questioned if you want a tapa with your drink and if you do, then you will be charged a small extra. “Ir de tapas” means bar hopping but it is really different from what the British call “a pub crawl!” The Andalusians eat later than people of other Spanish regions and it is not unusual to have lunch at 4 o’clock or dinner at midnight. Because of this the tapas are an vital way of life for the people of Andalusia, they are very social people and they can indulge their like of mixing with friends over a drink without getting drunk! Having small parts of food throughout the day also keeps them going until the main meal at home.

This culture of eating a variety of different small dishes extends into the home as well. Since being in Andalusia, I have gradually started to adapt to this way of eating and instead of a plate piled high with meat and two veg, separate small dishes are brought out which is the tradition in Spanish homes. This gastronomic culture means the conversation flows during eating as everyone is not tucking in to a huge plate of food at the same time. Of course this also means that meal times last longer; another feature of Andalusian eating habits.

Andalusia is made up of 8 different regions and each region brings to the table its own speciality that makes Andalusian cuisine so far reaching and diverse.

Almeria, well-known as the location for many spaghetti westerns is a region dominated by dry, barren, rocky and nearly lunar landscapes. But, littering the area are pockets of paradise, lush oasis providing year round fruits and vegetables. Being on the coast means Almeria has an abundance of fresh seafood which is brought in to more inland regions.

Granada is the next region along the coast and is blessed with a variety of landscapes and architecture. It is home to the well-known Alhambra Palace in its capital city but also offers gorgeous beaches, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, and is home to a unique area of cave dwellings situated in a prehistoric basin, which can be visited when passing through the villages of Orce, Galera and Castillejar. It is in this region where the Serrano Ham is most famously produced. High above sea level where low humidity and cold dry winters provide the ideal conditions for curing this gastronomic cornerstone of Spanish cuisine. At its best just served in wafer thin slices, the Serrano ham is also the ideal accompaniment to melon and almonds. A local speciality in many tapas bars is “habas con jamon” broad beans with ham.

Malaga is the gateway to the Costa del Sol which is the part of Andalusia best known to foreign visitors. It has a thriving port and is home to the ancient and new with modern palm tree lined avenues and ruins of roman theatres in its ancient town. Among local specialities celebrated here is the “fritura malagueña” which is a selection of deep fried fish, the fish can be whitebait, anchovies, squid rings or small pieces of larger fish. Malaga is also well-known for its sweet dessert wines which are made from the moscatel grape.

The province of Cadiz it the southern most tip of Spain and indeed Europe. It is home to the coastlines of both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. As a consequence, the seafood in Cadiz is some of the best in Andalusia. Specialities of this area include “urta a la roteña” which is bream cooked with peppers and tomatoes. A fish stew packed with the best specimens of the area known as “abaja de pescado”, is a must when visiting the capital city.

Also in the province of Cadiz, is the town of Jerez de la Frontera well-known for its sherry, indeed it is from this town that the name sherry originates. As a consequence, many recipes from this area are cooked using this local brew such as “riñones al Jerez” which is kidneys in sherry sauce and “rabo de toro al jerez” oxtail in sherry.

Bordering Cadiz to the north is Seville, whose main city is the capital and cosmopolitan heart of Andalusia. Seville is well-known for its “ferias” and the atmosphere here is exotic and colourful. So too is the food here with the Moorish influence especially strong in sweet dishes such as “yemas” sweet eggs. There is a traditional dessert or type of confectionary for nearly every fiesta which are made following recipes nearly unchanged throughout centuries. The well-known “manzanilla” olives originate from Seville and are very well loved in salads or added to other dishes such as “pato a la sevillana” which is duck with olives. A very well loved local dish here is “huevos a la flamenco” which is a baked egg dish with chorizo, peppers, peas and asparagus.

Huelva on the coast bordering Seville and Cadiz is mountainous and has lovely coastlines and a thriving fishing port. The shrimps from this area are very well-known and continue to command high prices throughout Spain. Not surprising then that here as with many other andalusian regions seafood is of a very high quality and used in many local dishes. Amongst the most well loved are “raya al pimiento” skate in a pimento sauce and “atun con tomate” fresh tuna cooked in a tomato sauce.

Cordoba makes up the northern most region in Andalusia and was once the seat of the Moorish Kingdom. One if this regions most well-known speciality resulting from these times is “cordero a la miel” lamb or kid cooked in a honey sauce. The wines of this region which are similar to sherry are used in many game dishes such as “conejo en salmorejo” which is rabbit in a wine marinade. These types of dishes still testament to the Moors like of combining sweet with savoury flavours.

Jaen is surrounded by vast olive groves and its backdrop is a range of gorgeous mountains. It is situated on a steep hill with narrow streets leading up to a very imposing cathedral. The land in this area is for grazing and there are many wheat fields. A surprising food from this region is partridge pate and the locals here serve up a tasty dish of potatoes in a garlic sauce known as “ajoharina.”

Each region has its own culinary specialities which are derived from the produce and traditions specific to that area but Andalusia as a whole offers many well-known dishes well known throughout Spain and other parts of the world. Probably the most well loved is the “Gazpacho Andaluz” which is a cold tomato soup made with garlic, peppers, olive oil and cucumber. Blended together and served as a starter, this dish is available from about May is the ideal refreshment on a hot afternoon.

Frying fish in batter is something the Andalusian people do very well and varieties of this dish can be found throughout all regions. The result is a light crispy batter with a fresh succulent fish inside.

Garlic and olive oil are very vital ingredients in Spanish cooking, nearly all dishes are cooked in olive oil and most recipes require garlic.

Another vital feature of Andalusian dishes is that vegetables are rarely served as a side dish to main meals. They are eaten separately and often served as dishes in their own right for example spinach cooked with chick peas or baby asparagus stewed with onions, coriander and lemon juice. If vegetables are to be served as a side dish, they will usually be presented in salads or a very well loved dish is sautéed potatoes with green pepper.

For reasons unknown, Andalusians have in the past been criticised for their poor eating habits and for producing food that is either bland or drowning in oil. Above is just a taster of how the people here combine local ingredients and traditions to make a mouth watering variety of exquisite food which is often surprising. The only way to learn this gastronomic delight is to do as the Spanish do and frequent the tapas bars to truly experience the right flavours of this gorgeous and diverse region.

This article has been written by Iain Macdonald with factual information courtesy of “Andalucía” by Michael Jacobs

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