Looking for Spanish inspiration this Christmas? Celebrated chef Omar Allibhoy has put together insight into the food of the festive season, and we’re looking at Sherry, Cava and other Spanish drinks as a perfect accompaniment to the festivities.
For those well acquainted with Spanish festive celebrations, the sight of grilled turbot, milk-fed lamb, suckling pig and more brings with it a warm, familiar feeling at this time of year, as families throughout the country get together to celebrate Christmas and ring in the new year according to culinary traditions that date back centuries.
But for UK consumers, those traditions may be entirely unfamiliar, especially to those used to turkey and all the trimmings around the table on the big day. So, with that in mind, what are some of the hero food and drink items you’re likely to see in a Spanish household during the festive season, from the build-up to the day itself to the new year and beyond?
There is perhaps no one better to shine a light on Spanish traditions to UK audiences on this than chef and restaurateur Omar Allibhoy, who has been doing that very thing for the best part of a decade through his restaurant group Tapas Revolution, as well as various pop-ups, TV appearances, cookbooks and more. “Christmas is a time for special meals, full of laughter and being together, seeing the cousins and uncles you don’t get to see, catching up, playing games and being jolly,” says Allibhoy. “For us, Christmas lasts longer than in the UK, as our celebrations finish on the Epiphany, opening the gifts that the Three Wise Men brought from the East,” explains Allibhoy. All of the key dates around Christmas are opportunities to celebrate and food takes centre-stage in our celebrations. We love a well-set table full of Spanish delicacies. It’s the perfect recipe to make memories.”
Beyond the turkey, there are a few regional specialties that sing of historic, esoteric Spanish tradition. “In our home in the Sierra de Gredos of Madrid, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day always start with an array of Ibérico pork charcuterie, Galician shellfish and my great uncle’s speciality brown or spider crabs al cava.” Allibhoy speaks also of “a large grouper baked in the oven with a simple garlic and olive oil dressing,” as well as empiñonados, pine nut marzipan, tejas, canutillos and more, as well as that Spanish staple of turrón (his recipe for which you can find here).
When it comes to Christmas drinking in the UK, the festive season is a time when its population pops the cork on sparkling, and rediscovers fortified wines, across myriad styles, countries and regions. And no wonder, when there’s such a huge range of fortifieds to dive into from its neighbours in Europe. But of all the European fortified wines on offer at this time of year, it’s perhaps Sherry that’s the most iconic. From dry styles like fino and oloroso to resinous sweet Pedro Ximénez offerings with dessert, there are a huge number to discover – many of which carry the dried-fruit and nut characters that drinkers so love at Christmas.
The good thing is that Sherry consumption has been greatly increasing in recent years – a trend noticed during the pandemic, which carried on into 2021 and looks set to continue as we go from a successful 2022 for Spanish wines into next year. The UK consumer is ever-more educated about Spanish wines, helped by sterling efforts from wine professionals, venues and retailers in serving and expanding consumer interest, and Sherry’s reputation as an old-fashioned drink is fast disappearing in favour of one whose bold, oxidative, umami-rich flavours are more than a match for tapas and charcuterie, as well as some of the best-loved Christmas dishes of both UK and Spanish festive tables.
Spanish drinks aren’t only a great accompaniment to food, but can even be used directly in cooking, too: while some of the dishes mentioned above are signatures of Spain, turkey does often feature on a Spanish festive table. “I only eat roasted turkey once a year, on New Year’s Day” says Allibhoy, “but it has to be our family recipe as it is the only moist turkey I have ever tried. With the help of a syringe, we inject it with half a bottle of Spanish brandy 24 hours in advance and the results are unparalleled. If anyone tries it, they will never go back to eating turkey any other way.”
Meanwhile, 2022 also looks set to be the year where more consumers than ever switch up the sparkling they know for Cava at Christmas. And Allibhoy agrees: “To drink, it has to be a good celebratory Cava,” says Allibhoy of his ideal tipple for both Christmas and New Year. And the timing fits, as the continued rise to prominence of Cava was already well underway, but a new labelling system brought in by the region is looking to capitalise on that interest and break down what some consumers find can be tricky information to decipher when it comes to labels.
With its quality not in question, and with many drinkers already knowing Cava is a traditional method sparkler that can offer fantastic value without sacrificing on flavour and richness, it’s already a safe bet for many when it comes to choosing sparkling wines for the Christmas table. But seasoned wine drinkers who default to Champagne because of a higher level of knowledge about its production may be heartened by the changes, which highlight clearer information on regions and sub-regions, and a labelling system to denote the length of ageing before it’s bottled, including Reserva and Gran Reserva categories.
Elsewhere, Spanish still and dry wines are always a fantastic choice for the Christmas table, with a huge diversity of styles on offer. Those who love rich whites with Christmas dinner, for example, can look to the white wines of Rioja, or even Chardonnay from across the country, especially with a hint of oak. A huge range of reds, from medium-bodied grapes in the north to bold Tempranillo rich with dark fruits, will match perfectly with everything from roast turkey to lamb and the festive cheese board.
When it comes to Spanish food this Christmas, it comes down to more: more information, more diversity, and more quality. Alongside a UK consumer who is more discerning, more educated and more curious than ever, the increase in consumption of Spanish food and wine may well start to shape what’s on festive tables outside the country this year, whether you’re having turkey or turbot.