Alicante is the name of both the province and city located in the Valencian Community that I am living in. It is located off the coast of the Mediterranean which gives it a great diversity in both culture and cuisine. Although Spain is a relatively small country, its geography ranges from beaches to mountains and from forests to areas that see little water. I literally can see the mountains from the beach. It’s absolutely beautiful here. I am a Spanish major and have loved Spanish all my life. Spain has always been at the top of my travel list, and I have been saving up to study abroad here for years. In preparation, I have taken countess Spanish classes over Spanish literature, language, history, and culture. There are 17 autonomous communities in Spain with two autonomous cities. The four official languages are Spanish, Occitan, Basque, Catalan, and Galician, although many other off-shoots of these languages are spoken in the different communities. Here in Alicante they speak Valencian which some people consider a dialect of Catalan and others assert that it is its own unique language. It is so similar to Spanish that I can understand it as well as I can understand an English speaker from England. From 711 until 1492 the Moors had control of Spain until the Christian monarchs banded together to create a unified Spain. Spanish architecture reflects their Moorish tradition and so does the cuisine.
Similar to all the different languages spoken in the different communities of Spain, there is also a variety of cuisine and cooking. Spain is famous for its olive oil from the central region, its oranges from the coast, and its wine from communities like Rioja. I have had the opportunity to visit and watch a wine tasting class (I watched because I don’t drink) and I also saw wild oranges growing yesterday when I visited La Lonja in Valencia. Since Spain has coasts on the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans as well as a large inner continental portion, the food can be categorized into three sections that later can be divided up into the different communities that make up each region. Since I am in Alicante, I decided to focus on the cooking styles of the Valencian Community. I took full advantage of the cheap seafood and delicious meats, breads, and cheeses located right outside of my door. The food here is way cheaper than in the US, but the quality is so much better! You can easily get a delicious lunch for under 2 euros, and wine is literally cheaper than water. Tapas and montaditos are a great way to fill up on a budget and they are fun to share with friends. You can try a variety of different tastes and flavors without breaking the bank. For my meal, I decided to make a variety of tapas so I could try out the famous Iberian ham and yummy cheeses as well as paella because paella is one of the most famous Spanish dishes and it happens to be from Valencia.
Here in Spain it seems like everyone is always eating. They have desayuno in the morning which includes bread, fruits, tea, and coffee; almuerzo around 10 which is generally a sandwich called a bocadillo with cheese or Iberian ham, comida between 2 and 4 which is their biggest meal of the day and is served with salads, appetizers, a main dish, dessert, and the ever-present bread; tapas in the evening; and then cena at 10 which can be a tortilla (potato omelet), paella, or some other dish served with more bread and plenty of wine. Wine is not considered alcohol here, and meals can last for hours. To fully represent a real Spanish meal, I had to incorporate some sort of tapas/montaditos/pinchos. Tapas are a great way to start off a meal and encourage conversation while you snack. They were originally served free along with your drink, and can still be found like this in certain places. Pinchos are a Basque creation of bread topped with olives, cheese, meat, or a variety of other foods and held together with a toothpick. Montaditos are like little sandwiches filled with all sorts of things. Here in Alicante, tapas, wine, and montaditos are about $1 each. That makes for an inexpensive meal.
Cheese is my favorite, so I had to include it in my tapa mix. Cheese here is so much cheaper in the US. At home this would have cost upwards of $10. I got it for $2.
Jamon Iberico and Jamon Serrano are a big deal in Spain. There are different levels of quality, and any store that sells food will have big pig legs hanging in the back for customers to take their pick of hams. It can get pricy, but the quality is amazing. Strict Jamon Iberico must be made by black Iberian pigs that are fed a diet of olives and acorns. Maybe that's why you can't really find it in the US.
The Spaniards really like their fish. I have tried deep fried fish with its head on it, anchovies, and all sorts of things that would make my American self cringe. These anchovies weren't too bad after I got past the fishy taste.
For my first plate of tapas, I decided to serve bread, soft cheese topped with spices, and olives.
My second plate of tapas included Jamón Serrano, roasted red peppers, queso de cabra (goat cheese), olives, anchovies, and chorizo.
To make the ham and cheese pinchos, take a piece of bread and top it with ham, cheese, and an olive. Prick it with a skewer and you have a two-bite treat!
Pincho de Anchoas y Pimiento
The other pincho I made had bread, anchovies, cheese, roasted red pepper, and an olive. It sounds gross but tastes delicious!
When the ancient Roman irrigation systems were improved by Moorish farmers, this led to rice becoming a staple of the Valencian table. Paella first started out as a rice and meat dish eaten by peasants and later evolved into the delicacy that it is today as more expensive meats and vegetables were added into the mix. Today it is said that there are as many variations of paella as Spanish households. There are traditionally three types of paella: Valenciano which includes chicken and rabbit meat, marisco which is seafood, and mixto which is a mixture of land and sea animals. I went with a seafood paella because although they do sell rabbit at the grocery store here, seafood is cheaper and I plan on cooking rabbit for Andorra. This way I get to sample a little bit of everything that the Mercadona grocery has to offer. I also scored a paella pan for $3 at a Chino shop. These little stores owned by Chinese immigrants are all over Alicante and offer pretty much all you could ever need super inexpensive. They put Dollar General to shame.
Paella de Mariscos2 ounces chorizo
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp Spanish paprika
pinch of saffron
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup rice (preferably bomba or calasparra)
¼ cup olive oil
1 ¾ cups chicken broth
1 red bell pepper, pitted and sliced
¾ cup diced tomatoes
2 ounces prawns
6 ounces crayfish or shrimp
2 ounces squid
2 ounces mussels
4 ounces clams
½ cup peas
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, sautéing for about 10 minutes. Stir in the spices, remaining oil, and rice. Turn the heat up to medium high and toast the rice for about 5 minutes until golden. Pour in the broth, bell pepper, and tomatoes. Mash everything together and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook for 20 minutes. Add the squid, clams, and mussels. Cook until the rice is done and all the moisture has been absorbed. Add the prawns, crayfish, and peas. Cook for another 5 minutes until the seafood is cooked through. Remove the pan from the heat and serve.
My Spanish meal turned out better than I could have hoped. The paella was absolutely beautiful and all my group members were shocked that I had made it myself. I have an allergy to tomatoes which is one of the ingredients in paella, so I have had to look on longingly as my group members ate their paellas and I had to eat plain chicken. I finally got to try paella for myself by substituting red bell peppers for the tomatoes. It was absolutely delicious. I am not a fan of seafood or rice, but everything except for the crayfish was amazing. I would definitely eat paella again! The tapas were all good too. I wasn’t a fan of the chorizo, but the cheese definitely made up for it. And like everywhere else in Europe, the bread here is amazing! I have like 6 bakeries just on my block. I know why the Spaniards are always eating. Their food is so good!