It was a small mistake, but one that revealed how big the world really is. It was our first night in the Basque Country, and we headed to one of the innumerable, perfect pintxo bars that dot the old town of San Sebastián. The barman asked me what I wanted to drink. Easy, I thought, remembering a visit to Spain’s capital, and the crowds of well-heeled Madrileños knocking back their preprandial Sherries just off Calle Echegaray. Un Fino, por favor, I replied.
My (false) memory is that the bar literally fell silent. This, obviously, cannot have been the case. What probably happened is that a half-empty bottle was procured from the back of the fridge, and the weird tourist eventually got what he was asking for. But in the slight cocking of the barman’s head before he nodded in assent, I intuited that I had erred in some tiny but significant way.
It was a chastening introduction to the vast and occasionally opaque world of what I am loosely going to term Spanish snacking culture – and more particularly, the drinks that accompany those snacks. In Spain, the what and the where of how you eat and drink are inextricably intertwined: there is no other country on earth in which the precious act of eating and drinking something before eating and drinking something else elsewhere is so regionally specific.
Of course, this comes with some caveats. Beer is ubiquitous in Spain, as is the gin-tonic; we are not talking about a country divided into unbreachable regional silos. But that frisson, that sense of not-quite- rightness that I experienced in San Sebastián cannot, in turn, be ignored. Even as the nation continues to evolve and participate in an increasingly connected global economy, some of the old ways take a long time to die.
The basic principle of the aperitif hasn’t changed since the Romans, who lent us the term via the Latin aperire, to open: it is something to get the appetite going, to help you start how you mean to go on. In different regions of Spain, though, the exact mechanism of opening up varies hugely. What I should have asked for in San Sebastián, I quickly learned, was Txakoli, the zippy, crystalline local white wine poured from a great height in bars across the Basque Country. This eye-catching, theatrical serving style is mirrored 250 miles away in Asturias; in both instances, it is intended to aerate the drink in question, providing a dash of effervescence to beverages that are often lightly sparkling at best. But in Asturias, it is apples, not grapes, that have been fermented, and cider is king. On the other side of the country, in Catalonia, bittersweet, herbaceous vermouth holds sway; while down south, Sherry, bone-dry and saline, beads with condensation in frosty glasses.
Partly, this is simply a function of Spain’s unique topography. In her introduction to The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden notes, ‘The first thing you discover about Spain is the extraordinary geographical diversity.’ Different geography and climatic conditions mean, of course, that different things grow and thrive in different areas. The rains that lash Asturias result in lush grasslands that encourage dairy farming (hence the region’s nickname el pais de los quesos, the land of cheeses). The relatively cool climate elsewhere in the north prevents grapes from growing too sweet and lends the likes of Txakoli and Albariño their signature acidity. Even within regions, tiny variations create wildly divergent end results: in Jerez, the humid, maritime conditions aid the cultivation of a unique set of yeasts that lend the town’s Manzanilla Sherries a salty tang that is absent from the Finos produced further inland.
As Roden notes, “each community has its own history and culture, sometimes its own language, and a cuisine that springs from the land – the comarca, or terroir – and reflects the past”
Added to these factors is the history of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. As Roden explains, these were born out of the old medieval kingdoms. ‘Each has its own history and culture, sometimes its own language, and a cuisine that springs from the land – the comarca, or terroir – and reflects the past.’ The reason, for example, that vermouth rules supreme in Catalonia and not, say, in the Basque Country, is that Catalonia is directly across the Tyrrhenian Sea from Northern Italy (vermouth’s real homeland) and was therefore the logical trade partner for Italian merchants seeking to sell their aromatised wine into new markets in the 19th century.
The events of the 20th century also hold a darker explanation for Spain’s regional differences today. In the eyes of José Etura, co-founder of London’s Michelin-starred restaurant Sabor, the Civil War and ensuing Franco regime had two major effects. First, its hardships made the population strikingly resourceful, since they were forced to extract every ounce of nutrition from their surroundings. Second, it made them even more protective of their local heritage, in direct resistance to the regime’s efforts to smooth out regional differences in cuisine and culture. Post-Franco, Etura notes, ‘Even within the region, each city, each area has pride in its food and drinks and traditions.’
Spain’s modern food-and-drink culture represents a confluence of factors. Tradition, resourcefulness and regional pride dictate that residents of each of the country’s autonomous communities are especially adept in discovering and then promoting the best of their region.
It is a truism in food writing that what grows together goes together; it is a truism in wine writing that terroir is the truest expression of a given time and place. In Spain’s snacking culture, the two come together, resulting in some of the most harmonious and straightforwardly delicious pairings.
In Catalonia, the underlying sweetness of vermouth makes it a perfect partner for the conservas (tinned seafood) and spicy salsa de aperitivo produced by the legendary Catalan company Espinaler. At the bustling Quimet & Quimet in Barcelona’s Poble-Sec, owner Quim Pérez has created a bar unlike any other in the world, where dozens of vermouths are poured alongside an extensive menu of bite-sized dishes almost entirely comprised of tinned and preserved goods. Further down the coast in Andalusia, a taste for deep-fried seafood (fritura) makes dry Sherry the logical companion; Finos and Manzanillas also work beautifully alongside the local mojama, tuna cured in the style of a ham. Up north in Asturias, cider is, of course, on the menu; with it, expect to find the local blue cheese Cabrales – a Spanish version of the pairing of local Cheddar and scrumpy in the UK’s West Country.
Arguably the most iconic of these local hero pairings, though, comes from the Basque Country. The anchovies fished from the Cantabrian Sea are rightly hailed as the finest in the world; in nearby Ibarra, they grow the strikingly spicy, long, thin, green guindilla pepper. Olives, anchovies and guindillas were therefore commonplace bar snacks in the area – but it wasn’t until 1946 that an enterprising customer at the Casa Vallés bar had the idea of skewering all three together on a single cocktail stick. The blockbuster movie of the day was the Rita Hayworth classic Gilda, and legend has it that the newly created snack was named after her character in the film on the grounds that, just like her, it was verde, salado y picante (literally green, salty and spicy but, with a bit of poetic licence, something more akin to lascivious, witty and saucy). Add a glass of chilled Txakoli to this explosive combination, and it is hard to imagine a more effective aperitif – one is seldom enough.
“People normally stick with their traditions and the way they’ve been eating for many years,” says José Etura
And yet the Gilda may also be emblematic of the future of Spanish snacking. Like another product of the region – the ‘burnt’ cheesecake originally produced in San Sebastián’s La Viña – the Gilda has gone global in the past few years: it has been a mainstay in London’s hipper wine bars for a while now and has been reimagined in a variety of ways (including a smoked eel version that may be even better than the original). Delicacies that were once confined to their regions of origin are today free to spread their wings and fly. In an increasingly globalised world, it’s possible to get them not only in the rest of Spain but anywhere on earth.
This raises an interesting question: is the future of Spanish snacking more homogenous and less regionally specific? There is evidence of a process of cross-pollination even on the official, government-backed Spanish food and wine site, which now recommends pairing a Gilda not with Txakoli but with a nice Sherry. José Etura, though, remains confident it will not be easy to change habits wholesale. ‘People normally stick with their traditions and the way they’ve been eating for many years. It has been passed through generations, a lot of people and a lot of years, and to change that is very difficult.’ What would it take to change it? ‘Time,’ he says, before pausing. ‘And money.’
Money, of course, is something that is not in short supply for some of the global drinks giants. In September, I travelled to the Balearic Islands and spent many a happy evening getting sozzled on the local Xoriguer gin and vermouths from across the sea in Catalonia. But there was no avoiding the ubiquity of a certain orange-hued aperitif – one that has already invaded beer gardens and cocktail bars back in the UK. Even in Spain, the Aperol Spritz is coming. It would be a shame – for so many tiny, significant reasons – if it were to stay.