Condiments in any cuisine are their distinguishing elements, almost the soul, giving a unique personality to each dish. In the Mediterranean basin it couldn’t be any other way: cumin, tarragon, dill, sage, anise, thyme, fennel, mint, cinnamon, cloves… However, we will focus on Spain’s essential herbs and spices we find most representative.
Those, of which many can be found in nature, wild, and others that were brought centuries ago to the Iberian Peninsula from distant countries. And keep in mind: the more fresh spices, less salt will be used, which is very beneficial for our health.
In this way we begin our journey with a very distinctive condiment, especially because of its color: Saffron, also called “red gold”, is the world’s most expensive spice that is obtained from the stigmas of the Crocus flower.
To achieve 1kg of this appreciated condiment, it takes thousands of flowers, as each contains only three stigmas and the process of growing and harvesting is very laborious. Harvesting takes place between October and November and it must be done during dawn to ensure the highest quality. Saffron is highly valued in gastronomy all over the world.
In Spain it is cultivated since more than a thousand years, especially in the region of La Mancha. In our workshops we roast it quickly to enhance its flavor, before adding to one of the most emblematic dishes Spain has to offer: the Paella.
Continuing with our selection of Spain’s essential herbs and spices, we have the Ñora – a red, round pepper of the “ball variety”, which is normally dried in the sun and used ground in countless dishes and products.
It is a widely used ingredient in Spanish cuisine that provides a distinctive color and flavor- a little sweet with an intense aroma, but without being spicy (although there are two varieties- so watch out).
They can be served fried as a side dish, but above all they are used for the production of paprika powder, an indispensable ingredient for the preparation of various dishes like Galician octopus, “chorizos” and other sausages, “patatas bravas” and rice, like Paella. Also you can grind the dry ñora with other ingredients like garlic in order to add it to a “sofrito” (vegetable sauce).
The laurel or bay leaf is another classic in almost every kitchen, but did you know that it is a very versatile shrub as well? Its leaves do not only provide characteristic flavors (slightly spicy and bitter) to slow cooking dishes like soups, stews, casseroles, rice, meat or fish, but you can also get oil from its berries for medicinal use.
Furthermore its hardwood is used in Andalusia for inlay and marquetry work (an artisanal Arabian tradition). The leaves of this valuable condiment are normally used as a whole and removed from the dish before serving, but they can also be ground.
This herb comes originally from the Mediterranean region and is associated with victory because of its use in ancient Rome as a crown of triumph.
Garlic in a dish definitely makes the difference- it goes from bland to tasty (it is indeed a natural flavoring) and we would even dare to say that it provides it with “soul”. Although it is so small, it’s very powerful and that in many ways.
Once again it comes from Asia and it has been cultivated already for thousands of years. Its name in Latin is very curious, because it means “strong” or “burning” and especially raw, it’s very fitting.
You can enjoy it in many forms: raw in a ripe tomato salad; fried and crunchy with oil, lemon and salt as a salad dressing; slowly fried and spread on bread; as an essential ingredient in many cold summer soups like “gazpacho” or “ajoblanco” or aioli; there is also pickled or smoked garlic for the real brave one.
Take into account that the way of preparation influences the flavor, but even the way of cutting it, where it is preferable to crush it, rather than to slice it; like this it releases all essential oils and achieves strong and rich notes.
It is also said that you should not use iron tools during the preparation- so take out this mortar again!
Moreover, it is a very healthy ingredient, because it acts as an antibiotic, it reduces the blood pressure and cholesterol, among many other virtues. And there is one more curiosity: a black garlic exists, which is obtained naturally by controlled fermentation at low temperature.
It has even more properties and today it’s one of the most innovative and surprising elements in modern cuisine, although it has been used in Asia for centuries.
The name of the next herb is beautiful and means translated from Latin into Spanish “dew of the sea” (rocío del mar), due to its close settlement to the coast.
Rosemary is popular in traditional Spanish cuisine, with many different uses and benefits. It’s a shrub that grows wildly throughout the whole Mediterranean basin and as a medicinal plant, it has great effects on our health.
As for the gastronomy, it works very well with roasted dishes prepared in the oven like potatoes, lamb, rabbit, goat- contributing with a distinctive nuance. You can add it to casseroles or stews, use it for flavoring oils and cheeses, there is rosemary honey and tea or put some on top of the paella when you let it rest before eating it.
But you don’t always have to eat it, it can also be used as a natural air freshener, putting a sprig between your clean laundry or, why not, in a relaxing bath.
6. CAYENNE PEPPER
In Spain’s essential herbs and spices, Chilli or cayenne pepper may not be missing, although it is native to the Andes, where it is said that it was discovered by Columbus and afterwards spread by the Spanish.
It is a condiment that is very appreciated all over the world, found in many cultures and that, once again, helps us stay healthy. It contains many vitamins and antioxidants and is like this good for the body and spirit.
Sun-dried, they´re incorporated in many local dishes, being the famous “pil-pil prawns” one of the most delicious options (a sauce made from oil, garlic and cayenne pepper). But be aware- the smaller, the spicier. Still, or maybe because of all this, there are chefs who have called it not only a condiment, but a “philosophy of life”.
These herbs and condiments support and reinforce the flavor of the main ingredients and produce of a dish, making them even more exquisite, distinguished and healthy delicacies, typical of the Mediterranean diet.
The next herb is called something like the “joy of the mountain” in Greek. Oregano is naturally found in the Mediterranean area and closely related to marjoram, which comes from Asia Minor.
It brings a lot of personality to each dish and thus, is able to improve them substantially, even when they’re “basic” products like a simple tomato salad for example.
Moreover, in the interior of Malaga’s east, it’s common to pour good extra virgin olive oil on a plate (if possible unfiltered to maintain its full flavor) with a little dried oregano sprinkled on top- in that you dip bread. It is used to marinate fish and poultry, to flavor oil or incorporating it in sausages and cold meats. Apart from its flavor, it also provides many antioxidants and its a true miracle for sore throats.
And last but not least, parsley. A classic among herbs, which is found and used worldwide. However, there are different types of parsley, depending on the country of origin and type.
So maybe you can surprise a foreigner in Spain with a type of parsley whose leaves are smooth and large, having a mild and delicate texture and flavor. However in most Nordic countries parsley is curly, small, robust and strong and quite different in taste.
The parsley used in the Mediterranean basin is delicious and it works great in combination with lemon, garlic and good extra virgin olive oil on grilled fish or sauteed vegetables. Use it for marinades, for stews, to decorate a dish or to add it in any kind of recipe. And the stalk may not be undervalued- it’s where most of it’s flavor is!
9. PIMENTÓN. SPICE THINGS UP IN THE KITCHEN!
Hundreds of years ago, when the Spanish conquered faraway lands, it was said that in their empire the sun never set. Few is left from these days when gold was piled up in towers like in the one of Seville… But a different kind of treasure did last throughout time: the spices and herbs the New World offered! And still nowadays, one of the most distinguished, special and famous condiments Christopher brought with him adds just the right zing to some of the best dishes in Spain: the paprika powder or “pimentón”.
Columbus introduced the peppers from Peru and Mexico to the Catholic Monarchs in a monastery in Extremadura (southwestern Spain), where they have been cultivated from then on until today. Over the centuries they lost some of their spicy features while adapting to the new environment, but still you will get a kick out of them!
To obtain this beautiful, aromatic, fragrant, intensely colored and intoxicatingly flavored powder, families followed over the centuries a traditional way of preparation: harvest in fall and smoke-dried with local oakwood in special smokehouses. The peppers need to be turned over by hand every day for a couple of weeks. Like this they get slowly smoked and obtain their unique flavor. Finally they get milled by stone wheels- again slowly. Good things take time.
Astonishingly many products and dishes contain this spice, sometimes a bit more obvious like sprinkled on top of the Galician Style Octopus or in a hearty chorizo sausage. But it enhances as well Paella, lomo (pork loin), sobrassada, brava and mojo picón sauce, stews and many other dishes. Add it to some mayonnaise and you’ll have the best dip ever!
Nevertheless, to get the real deal, there are some things you should take into account when buying it: the finest paprika powder, the one with a Designation of Origin (DO), is called “Pimentón de la Vera”, elaborated close to the original monastery. And furthermore, it depends on you how spicy or sweet you want to have it. There are three degrees: Dulce (sweet; Jaranda and Bola peppers), Agridulce (bittersweet, slightly spicy; Jaranda and Jariza peppers) and Picante (spicy; Jeromín peppers). Yet all have their distinctive smoky flavor.
Another authentic and well-known paprika powder is from Murcia, since the monks from Extremadura shared their secret with their monastery in a totally different part of Spain. It is sweet and only made from the Bola variety, picked by hand and sun-dried, not smoked.
So pimentón is absolutely indispensable to our cuisine and way of cooking. A burst of flavor and color that improves every meal. Enjoy it!
Spain’s essential herbs and spices support and reinforce the flavor of the main ingredients and produce of a dish, making them even more exquisite, distinguished and healthy delicacies, typical of the Mediterranean diet.
If you happen to be in Málaga and want to smell and taste these spices and herbst for yourself we will be glad to help you with that in our Malaga Tapas Tour and Market Visit.