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From the bay leaf to the tiniest strands of saffron, discover what makes Spanish cuisine so special
by Gayle Hartley

Serrano Ham direct from Spain :

Herbs and spices are derived from strong aromatic plants, which have been cultivated for thousands of years to add flavour and colour to our everyday cooking. Herbs are usually the leaves of wild plants that grow locally, but spices are considered the more exotic of the two and tend to be imported from the Far East or the Old West.

The herbs and spices we use in food preparation come from a variety of plant parts, everything from the root or bark to the flower or the seeds. You can often tell where a dish has originated just by the aroma and taste created by the use of spices or herbs, whether Mexican, African, Indian or Mediterranean.

All dishes benefit from the careful use of flavouring, be it a pinch of salt or a few chilli peppers, and Spanish cooking is no exception with almost every dish calling for the use of a chopped herb here or a dash of spice there. However, apart from the spicy chorizo or alioli, we never describe Spanish food as being particularly spicy and that is because the use of herbs and spices in Spanish cuisine is subtle and it is the gentle hint of flavouring that makes Spanish food so special.

As in worldwide cooking, the Spanish use a mix of various imported spices and homegrown herbs. Below we shall discover the most commonly used herbs and spices in Spanish cooking and which the Spanish kitchen should never be without.

Herbs and spices: Paprika
The most famous of Spanish spices has to be "pimentón" or paprika. This ground capsicum pepper comes in both the hot or "picante" variety and sweet or "dulce." Apart from its strong flavour it is widely used in Spanish cooking for its beautiful deep red colour and can be seen in many dishes from the traditional chorizo, to chicken dishes to the paella.

Herbs and spices: Cayenne
Another pepper famously used in Spain is the chilli or cayenne pepper. The smaller ones, which are also the hottest, are called "guindilla" and often only the tip is used in traditional dishes. The larger, sweet variety is called "ñoras" and is best used dried and then soaked before cooking. You can see a variety of these peppers hanging to dry on strings in patios and on terraces from about August as they make up an essential addition to the home curing of chorizo and salchichon from about November during the annual "Matanza"

Herbs and spices: Garlic
Garlic or ajo, like its use in other Mediterranean cooking, is one of the most important additions to Spanish food. No Spanish kitchen should ever be without this essential spice and impressive plaited strings can be seen at markets and hanging in shop doorways. Garlic is used in such a wide range of Spanish dishes: rubbed on toast for breakfast, fried either whole or chopped, used to stuff lamb or beef and of course it is the main ingredient in the famous Spanish garlic mayonnaise "alioli" and other famous dishes such as paella and gambas al pil pil.

Herbs and spices: Saffron
No paella should be without the Spanish spice saffron whose sweet aroma and beautiful yellow colour really is the essence of the Mediterranean. Saffron comes to us thanks to the Moors and although grown in Spain it is a very expensive spice due to its cultivation. Approximately 150 flowers are needed to make one gram of dried saffron threads which is how this spice is usually sold.

Herbs and spices: Cinnamon
One of the oldest known spices used widely in Spanish cooking is cinnamon which comes from the brown bark of the cinnamon tree and is earthy, warm and sweet in flavour. It can be sold in sticks, which occur when the bark is dried and rolls up, or in its ground form. Cinnamon is often reminiscent of Christmas for many people but is used widely in savoury and sweet dishes alike. Cinnamon also makes an excellent natural insect repellent!

Herbs and spices: Cloves
Often used alongside cinnamon and nutmeg, cloves are also an essential Spanish spice. They go into almost everything in Spanish cooking from soups and stews, to sauces and sweet dishes. They can be cooked whole or ground with other spices such as black peppercorns. They are highly aromatic and have a beautiful intense flavour so are used sparingly.

Herbs and spices: Nutmeg
As with cloves, nutmeg is used widely in Spanish dishes such as the famous Creme Catalan and other custard dishes. It is also used in many chicken or potato dishes and is essential for cheese sauces and is often used to flavour Spanish style meatballs or "albondigas". It can be used ground but freshly grated whole nutmeg has the most flavour.

Herbs and spices: Vanilla
Vanilla is the spice of sweet Spanish life. The "pod" is more common than the bottled essence here and it is hard to imagine any Spanish kitchen lacking in this seductively enticing necessity. Cakes, ice creams, custards, biscuits and pastries all benefit from this fragrant addition, as do a few savoury dishes too.

Leafy homegrown herbs make up an important part of Spanish cuisine, for adding colour and flavour and most of them can be found growing on patios and in gardens across the country. Some, such as parsley are used so commonly that they are given away free in butchers or fishmongers.

Herbs and spices: Parsley
Parsley is added to just about every Spanish dish except sweets and is indispensable. The typical variety in the Spanish kitchen is the small flat leaved one. It is fresh, bright and clean both in taste and in colour. It is used to add colour to stuffing, to garnish soups, it goes into salads, sauces and marinades and brightens up dressings, meat and fish dishes.

Herbs and spices: Mint
Mint, next to parsley is the most widely used and favourite of home grown herbs and as such is called the "good weed" in Spanish. Unlike the UK when mint is used with lamb, you will find it works really well with fish in Spanish cooking and can also be found in gazpacho and other tomato dishes. It is a great addition to the patio, if you can control it and there is nothing better than getting the cool scent of fresh mint on a summer's evening. Its cool refreshing qualities make it ideal to be added to bottled water (just a leaf or two) for the perfect refreshment in the heat of the Spanish sun.

Herbs and spices: Basil
Basil is considered to be the herb of the Mediterranean although it is not widely used in typical Spanish dishes. Its warm, sweet and mildly peppery flavour make it the perfect accompaniment to tomato dishes and of course is the essential ingredient is pesto sauce along with other Spanish favourites, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil. Basil is however an essential to the aromatic Spanish kitchen and is found in pots on windowsills or on patios where it is said to freshen the air. It is widely sold at markets for this very reason.

Herbs and spices: Rosemary
Rosemary is another intensely aromatic herb but unlike Basil is used more frequently in Spanish cooking and as it can be seen wild on mountainsides, it grows especially well in Andalucian gardens. This lovely shrub has violet flowers and is sweet and powerful both in flavour and aroma. It is used to add interest to vinegars and marinades and makes the perfect natural kebab stick, delicious with pork, sausages and barbecued vegetables. It is still sometimes used as fuel for bread ovens and wood burning stoves and when it is put on the barbecue with the coals, the most deliciously fragrant earthy smell is produced.

Herbs and spices: Thyme
Thyme has to be my favourite Spanish herb and many different varieties can be seen growing wild and in Spanish gardens. It has a very distinctive taste and smell and is a crucial ingredient in Spanish cooking. It goes especially well with garlic and lemon when preparing chicken and makes up a fantastic marinade or stuffing. Thyme also is delicious when cooked with rabbit, poultry and pork and can be found in a variety of Spanish soups and stews. It is still used traditionally in the home preparation of olives and vinegars to create a hint of the mountains and the wild Spanish countryside.

Herbs and spices: Sage
Another wild herb which makes a frequent appearance into the Spanish kitchen is sage with its beautiful furry, silvery leaf. Great with pork and like the UK is used to define the perfect onion stuffing. It is also lovely with rice and some vegetable dishes.

Herbs and spices: Oregano
Although considered to be mainly the Italian favourite, Oregano is the essential Mediterranean herb. Of course no pizza would be the same without a generous handful of this delightfully flavoursome herb, but in Spanish cuisine you will frequently find it in vinegar marinades, meat casseroles, pickled vegetables and sometimes in salads.

Herbs and spices: Bay Leaf
Essential to many stews and slow cooked casseroles is the noble Bay leaf. Usually added whole to the dish or pot, this bittersweet herb is popular for providing that little bit of extra special something to most dishes. Makes for a beautiful garden shrub too!

Herbs and spices: Tarragon
A truly fine herb is Tarragon and as it grows really well in poor soil and tolerates heat and drought, it is great for certain areas of Andalucia where these types of conditions are the norm. It is best used fresh and really is very versatile. It adds the perfect hint of subtle flavours to almost everything including egg dishes, chicken and vegetables and is great in salads too.

Herbs and spices: Salt and Pepper
Although not only for Spanish cuisine, salt and pepper have to be the king and queen of the spice world and indeed no Spanish kitchen should ever be without. Pepper is delicious in soup made from home grown pumpkins and no tomato salad would be the same without a sprinkle of salt before serving to allow the juices to thicken slightly for the perfect and most simple summer dish.

The gentle, time honoured way in which all of these herbs and spices are used along with the quality of fresh produce, almost always bought daily from local markets, is really the true beauty of Spanish cooking. Daily meals are still prepared by hand in the traditional way and the subtle addition of either, imported or locally grown herbs and spices create the true essence of Spanish cooking.

Researched and written by Gayle Hartley

© Copyright 2007 Orce Serrano Hams - www.orceserranohams.com

Published 20 July 2007

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