Many who are visiting Spain for the first time are disappointed by the food. Oftentimes this is because people have expectations based on experiences with Central and South American cuisine, with its bold spices and flavors. It’s not that Spanish food is bad, or of a low quality, but rather it has a different flavor profile than Latin American food. In contrast to the spicy peppers and acidic citrus that shows up in most Mexican restaurants around the United States, Spanish food is generally more subtle. Garlic and onions tend to be the predominant flavors in hot meals, while meat usually has no spice added. Though we’ve been trained in the United States to expect big flavors in all our meals, Spanish food is delicious if you taste it on its own terms.
Four particular foods (and one drink) deserve mention because Spaniards do them very well and are proud of that fact. First, the almonds. Marcona almonds, though pricey at times, are some of the best nuts you’ll ever taste, and worth a try while you’re on the Camino. Second, the olives. Olives show up in salads and in bars as an included snack with your drink, and they are extraordinary. Spain is the world’s top producer of olives and olive products, so they’re worth a try when you stop by a market. Third, the cured meats. Spain’s sausage and ham, though pilgrims may grow tired of them due to their prevalence on the Camino, are also some of the world’s best for flavor. Fourth, the cheese. Spain especially excels in sheep’s milk cheese, manchego being the most renowned. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Spain’s wine. While connoisseurs will recognize the Rioja region as they pass through on the Camino Francés, there are a few others of note along the Camino – Bierzo, for instance – and even cheaper bottles from your average market are of a higher caliber than the average wine in the States.
When it comes to meals on the Camino, there are a lot of different dishes in the various regions of Spain, but these menu items show up just about everywhere and provide the majority of your sustenance on the road:
Bocadillos – One of the best ways to get a sample of cured meat in a region, these sandwiches are made with a crusty white baguette, your choice of meat and cheese, and, all too often, little else. (Some places will put crushed tomato and olive oil on the bread for flavor.) Their novelty quickly wears off for most pilgrims who crave condiments or a softer bread, but they remain one of the cheapest and best ways to get some protein and carbohydrates into your body during a snack break.
Tortilla Española – Often just called “tortilla” on a menu, this creation of egg and potatoes can be pretty bland on its own (like a quiche without a crust), but some places dress it up by putting sausage or other vegetables in it. It’s another quick way to get protein and carbs that you can find at just about every bar and cafe, and some places even serve wedges of it inside a bocadillo.
Ensalada mixta – With bread, cheese, and cured meat being just about everywhere, many pilgrims will find themselves craving a little bit of green that’s below room temperature. You’ll see other salad options here and there, but the “mixed salad,” with its iceberg and romaine lettuces, tomatoes, white onion, olives, hardboiled eggs, and canned tuna, is the easiest to find. Fans of more diverse greens like spinach and arugula might get tired of the bland lettuce, but it’s better than nothing and the eggs and tuna are good sources of protein! Just be ready to remove a lot of raw onion if it upsets your stomach.
There are plenty of regional dishes that deserve their own blog entry like caldo gallego, pulpo, and the like, but the ones I’ve described are the ones you’ll find everywhere. Did I miss anything? What are your favorite dishes on the Camino?
Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to practical advice he has lived and collected. He and his wife Stephie's dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. They currently live in Greensboro, NC. hunter@CaminoProvisions.com