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From Spanish ham to sherry: A culinary journey through Spain

I lived in Barcelona in 2001, and it didn’t take very long for my unchecked indulgence in Spanish cuisine – flavorful olives, tapas of all kinds, seafood paella, thick hot chocolate and fried, pastry-like churros, and, of course, copious amounts of Spanish wine and beer – to show up on my increasingly un-girlish figure, to the tune of about 15 extra pounds.

These days, when I go back to Barcelona, that initial weight gain (which I eventually managed to lose) remains a source of humor among a good friend of mine and her family who’ve known me since I first moved to Spain. “You’re looking skinny,” her mom, Rosa, will tell me in the distinctly direct manner of many Spaniards. “You’ve not been eating as much as you did when you lived here, have you?”

On this recent trip, Barcelona was the first stop of a whirlwind, multi-city journey; if it had been the last, Rosa likely would have told me I looked the same as when I’d lived there. That’s because, once again, I rediscovered my adopted country through its cuisine, from typical Catalan dishes like fideuà to the famous jerez, or sherry, in Andalusia to the citywide tapas buffet of Madrid.

Despite the lingering economic downturn, or la crisis, that has resulted in approximately 25 percent unemployment across the country, Spain’s renowned culinary scene doesn’t seem to have dampened too much. Restaurants and bars, though they’re not as full these days, remain popular gathering spots for locals to forget financial woes over tapas and drinks. In the wake of famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià retiring, a new breed of young chefs has stepped up to the plate. And, in order to make ends meet and draw customers, many establishments have dropped prices and allow such budget-friendly perks as a BYOB policy.

What this all means for visitors: Now is an excellent time to eat and drink your way across the country. Just make sure you pack pants with a bit of stretch in them.

Barcelona

My gastronomic journey kicked off in Barcelona. My dear friend Rachel, who lives in Sweden, joined up with me, and there was no better way to toast our trip – and togetherness – than with tapas and beers a few hours after arriving. We headed to Cervecería Catalana, a restaurant popular with both locals and tourists in the heart of upscale neighborhood L’Eixample. Only because it was around 6 p.m., hours before Spain’s dining scene heats up, we snagged stools at the bar and ordered a couple of cañas, or draft beers (in Spain, ordering a “cerveza” will get you a bottle), and plates of olives, patatas bravas, which are fried potatoes with a spicy sauce, and supremely tasty bacalao, or cod, dish. A few hours later, we ended up in a nearly empty restaurant near our hotel, scarfing a delectable seafood paella – a hearty dish that Spaniards normally eat for lunch – washed down with several glasses of rioja, for a surprisingly low price of about $52.

The feast continued the following day and night at Can Nou Travi, a rambling, 18th-century farmhouse-turned-restaurant on the outskirts of Barcelona. A stream of tapas made its way to our table, including tortilla española, a quiche-like dish made with potatoes and onion, croquetas, which are fried rolls of ham or fish, and the world-famous cured Spanish ham, or jamón ibérico.

This delicacy, which can cost anywhere from $15 to $237 a pound is perhaps the most beloved food among Spaniards. But, for uninitiated visitors, ordering it can be puzzling at best and a scam at worst. That’s because the country’s classification system is constantly changing, but two words to look out for are “ibérico”, which indicates it comes from the prized black Iberian pigs, and “bellota”, indicating the pigs were fed acorns, explained our guide, Simon Butler-Madden, a longtime resident of Spain.

He added that “there should be a decent proportion of fat visible, and if the ham has a slightly marbled appearance -- like U.S. prime steaks -- that, and for the same reason as beef, is a good sign. … In up-market restaurants the ham will usually be on display lying sideways in a special kind of clamp, and it will be sliced before your eyes with a long thin knife into fine slices or even shavings.” A final heads-up, he told me: “I would always be a little suspicious if it appears from the back of the kitchen.”  

Andalusia 

Our itinerary continued from Barcelona via plane to Granada, in the southern region of Spain known as Andalusia, then by bus to Seville, with side trips to Ronda, Malaga, Marbella, Córdoba and Jerez. In an itinerary heavy with Gothic cathedrals and museums, highlights for me were the food markets, meals, and a private tour and sherry tasting at Bodega Tradición, selected as one of the top 100 wineries in 2011 by Wine & Spirits magazine.

At the winery, which is tucked off a quiet street in Jerez, we learned about the fascinating process of sherry-making, which involves a “solera and criadera” system of aging the wine, which spans the crisp finos and manzanillas, the lighter-colored sherries, the robust olorosos, and the palo cortados, whose complex, arresting flavor is sought after by sherry aficionados.

In Córdoba, our last stop before hopping a train to Madrid, we toured the city’s charming, cobblestone streets, full of gift shops and tiny bars and restaurants. Our lovely local guide, Lola, pointed out the concave cutout design of some of the narrow city streets, designed that way, she explained, to accommodate the wheels of horse-drawn carriages in bygone eras. In more modern times, they serve equally well to accommodate visitors like me, whose midsections were surely expanding at an alarming rate.

Madrid

With less than 48 hours in Madrid, a city that draws foodies from all over the world, there was a lot of gastronomic exploration to be attempted. We started at La Venencia, a favorite haunt of writer Ernest Hemingway during his frequent travels to Madrid.

Located off a quiet street in the lively Santa Ana neighborhood, the bar seems unchanged from Hemingway’s days. It’s dark and melancholy, with backlit sherry barrels, taciturn barkeeps scribbling orders in chalk on the bar, and a black cat creeping around. A $15 bottle of tasty oloroso, accompanied by a plate of olives, was an outstanding bargain.

The barhopping continued at Del Diego, a chic bar in the Chueca district where Don Draper would feel right at home. Owner Fernando del Diego, a friendly, dapper-dressed fellow, is often mixing cocktails, as he was when we were there; the signature Diego, made with vodka, apricot brandy, Bols advocat (a liquor made with egg yolks), and a splash of lime, is dangerously drinkable. With cocktails like that, and a steady stream of snacks like potato chips and olives brought to the table, Del Diego is the kind of spot where hours pass like minutes.

We eventually made our way to a raucous tapas restaurant near the Plaza Santa Ana, still packed at 11 p.m., and ordered up yet more rounds of tapas and cañas. We finished the night at Chocalateria San Gines, with mugs of hot chocolate so thick and rich it would make Willy Wonka himself envious. We dipped long strips of powdered-sugar-topped fried dough called churros into it for a decadently sweet ending to the day.

On our last full day in Madrid, at my limit for cathedrals and museums, I opted to do some solo exploring. But first, I needed to burn at least a few hundred of the thousands of calories I’d accumulated in the preceding week, and a run in magnificent El Retiro Park was just the remedy. Along with photography exhibits, Christmas lights and, on that chilly morning, a puppet show, the Central Park of Madrid is full of miles of gravel trails – a beautifully forgiving surface for knees supporting a few extra kilos.

My next stop: the San Miguel Market, tucked just behind Plaza Mayor. Here, food vendors seem to have perfected the recipe for survival in Spain’s down economy: serve small, typical Spanish dishes at affordable prices, make sure the wine is similarly priced and constantly flowing, and create a convivial atmosphere that attracts more customers.

Indeed, I was at first intimidated by the crowds, but I quickly grabbed a glass of excellent, $4 tempranillo and jumped into the fray. I started off with some stuffed olives on skewers, which ran about $1.50 apiece, and then moved onto a delicious seafood paella, served from a pan bigger than a truck wheel. It was time for another glass of wine, so I made my way to another vendor, exchanging some pleasantries with some nearby customers about how easily the wine was going down.

A few minutes later, we ran into each other again and exchanged another round of smiles. A few minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see one of the guys in the group, who asked, “Are you alone? Would you like to join us?”

Of course I did. As I soon learned, my new buddies were a husband and wife, and the husband’s cousin, all about my age, who lived in the outskirts of Madrid and had come into town for the national holiday. They poured me a glass from their bottle of wine, a crisp albariño whose underlying minerality paired perfectly with the raw oysters they offered me.

I don’t normally like raw oysters – especially not without a saltine and heaps of hot sauce – but for some reason that day, the briny little bivalves tasted delicious. Perhaps it had something to do with the festive holiday spirit of the market. Perhaps it was the unexpected invitation to hang with these lovely locals. Perhaps it was that, after spending more than a week on a tightly scheduled itinerary, I was simply savoring the delight of doing things at my own pace, and discovering my own memories of a country I’ve loved since I first stepped on its soil more than a decade ago.

But whatever the case, in that moment, Spain delivered like it always has for me, filling my soul as much as my stomach.

If You Go:

Abercrombie & Kent Connections group journeys start at $3,395 per person, not including airfare. The “Spain: Seven Cities” package starts at $5,495, with travel on select dates April through October. For more information, visit www.abercrombiekent.com/connections.