Is there a north south divide when it comes to Spanish food? One complaint often uttered by those living north of Madrid is that when they holiday south in, for example, Andalucia; the food on offer in restaurants is not as good as they are used to back home. The latest list of the world’s top 50 restaurants tends to support that argument. In the top ten are three Spanish restaurants. All of them are based in the north of the country.
I spoke to the prolific author of Spanish gastronomy books, Luis Benavides Barajas. He said: “It’s always been that way. I’m in my seventies now and Spanish food has always been better in the north of the country. Quality ingredients and chefs who know how to cook. “I am from Toro, so you might say I am biased, but I have lived in the south of Spain for many years so I am perfectly qualified to compare cooking both north and south of Madrid. The fact is that people in the north of Spain care more about food and about cooking. Chefs in the north are more professional though there is no doubt that things have improved in Andalucia in the last ten years.”
In my opinion that is due to some inspired cooking by talented chefs who have deliberately brought their skills to the south of Spain. One such person is Kevin Robinson, chef at Mirador de Cerro Gordo near La Herradura on the Costa Tropical. His team offer non typical, excellent food served in a professional manner. He says: “The northern coast of Spain is the culinary destination in Spain. I am looking forward to my trip to San Sebastian later this year. I will sample the tapas, steal an idea or two, and treat my wife Alix to a birthday dinner at Arzak. It came number 9 in the recent poll of the top 50 best restaurants in the world. “I think the sense of competition in the north drives standards up. They are far more gastro orientated up there. I’m afraid the south of Spain is not cuisine driven. Too many restaurants don’t expand or move forward. In part that is due to the Spanish diners who know what they like and stick to it. We still get Spanish diners who don’t look at our menu, they only want to order the food they are used to eating everywhere else. I’m afraid that down here in the south of Spain you could steal a menu from one restaurant and order their food at another restaurant down the road.”
Jason Enright is now based in London but from his time living in Spain, he knows what he likes when it comes to Spanish food. He got in touch with us to give his thoughts. “I lived in Madrid and Guadalajara for 10 years and eating out was a bit of a problem for me – especially when I first arrived way back in 1999 – as the food tended to be either full of animal parts (I have been a veggie for 20 years), too stodgy or too greasy. From my experience of travelling around Spain, I have to say that the food on the Mediterranean coast is far more palatable, although there are tasty dishes to be sampled all around the country." Jason adds: "The typical cuisine of central Spain tends to be very stodgy (cocido, asados), and in the south there is a lot of fritanga (fried food). The Basque Country is famed – and rightly so – for its gastronomy (porrusalda and bacalao a la vizcaína are to die for). Galicia is seafood heaven and has a distinct Celtic feel to it (lacón con grelos is – after all – boiled bacon and potatoes with a fancy name). There's nothing better than a good pisto manchego, escalivada or the humble tortilla de patata."
For my part, I live south of Granada. My work as a writer has seen me travel extensively throughout Spain. I am in no doubt that, while you can find gems such as Mirador de Cerro Gordo down south; the quantity of fine restaurants is greater in the north of the country. Whether it’s in places such as Bilbao, Girona or Begur, or throughout Galicia and La Rioja, one is spoiled for choice.
There are some excellent restaurants in the south, in places such as Cádiz and Jerez, they are simply fewer in number. You have to research harder to find good food down south. Word of mouth is crucial. The one thing that baffles me is why, when my local market has a plethora of fresh vegetables, do so few local restaurants serve them? You will either get tinned vegetables or none at all.
So I asked Kevin Robinson for his take on that one. He said: “I think there are three explanations. Firstly it comes down to the preferred eating style of the majority of the diners. They are used to ordering a salad to share, followed by eating half a cow with chips. In the kitchen the lack of vegetables is down to keeping things simple and, of course, profit margin. Also one has to remember that historically the chefs didn’t have access to refrigeration so tins and cans were the usual source of vegetables. It’s a case of ‘we’ve always done it this way and we always will.’” Kevin adds: “I went to Majorca on holiday determined not to cook for friends I was visiting, but the choice of vegetables in the markets there was so exciting I couldn’t resist.”
In addition to being a Spanish author, Luis Benavides Barajas was an award winning chef at restaurants he owned in London during the 1970’s. He says: “My relatives in the north of Spain pity me. They say: ‘Poor Luis, he has to eat in Andalucia.’ But for me it’s all about standards. Wherever you are in Spain, if you can find a restaurant with imagination, run by professionals, then you are home and dry. It’s about the style of the persons running the kitchen. The crucial thing is to find one chef who can give you an eating experience on one day that you will remember for years.”
Finally, for me, the difference in dining north and south in Spain comes down to the ‘C’ word. Consistency. I go to the same handful of places in Andalucia not because I am stuck in my ways. I do so because too often I have had a great meal at an establishment one week, only to find the same place to be dreadful on the next visit. The good news for diners in the north of Spain is that the area is fast winning a reputation as a centre of gastronomic greatness to rival France and Italy. The good news for diners in the south is that as long as restaurants such as Mirador de Cerro Gordo consistently serve good food; they need not travel north to sample quality. Wherever you live. Wherever you eat. It’s a win-win situation.