Spain's food culture is full of delicious items cooked on the grill. For barbecue inspiration this summer, look no further than these classic Spanish dishes and ingredients
When the sun’s out on a weekend afternoon, attention almost always turns to the barbecue. The smell of charcoal, the sound of conversation over fences and music in the garden – it all acts as a prelude to a joyful late lunch or early dinner, cooked over hot coals and served to share around an outdoor table.
Many countries have their own versions of this tradition, from slow smoking in the USA to table-top barbecues in South Korea. And while the great British barbecue is a fixture of the summer months around the UK – from burgers, sausages and chicken drumsticks to potato salad and corn on the cob – one country Brits can look to for grilling inspiration is Spain.
Distinct Spanish grilling and barbecue cultures exist around the length and breadth of the country, from the famed grill restaurants of the Basque Country to the fishermen preparing the day’s catch on roadside grills in southern Spain, and plenty more besides. And underpinning all of them are some essential Spanish food and drink products that provide these historic and much-loved dishes and preparations with distinctive and quintessentially Spanish flavours.
Take, for instance, Pimentón de la Vera. This beautifully rich smoked paprika, made from ripe red peppers and available in sweet, hot and bittersweet categories, adds a burst of vibrant red colour alongside its distinctive flavour, and makes its presence felt with just a teaspoon. For those barbecuing in the spring, use it to enrich a classic romesco sauce alongside roasted red peppers, almonds and vinegar to serve with the Catalonian delicacy calçots when they’re in season – or in the summer, serve romesco sauce with leeks, blistered and charred on the coals until they’re sweet and soft, peeling off the outer layer to serve.
Pimentón is also what gives one of Spain’s best-loved food products its red flavour and spicy character: switching out your standard sausages with chorizo cooked over the grill, can create a mouth-watering centrepiece. And alongside garlic, paprika also flavours the legendary ajada sauce, served alongside many Spanish grilled items from fish and seafood to steak. Ajada sauce is beautiful alongside grilled octopus – available from many specialist fishmongers – first poached and then finished over the coals. For any of these items, the key is a PDO-protected Pimentón de la Vera in its characteristic rectangular tin, with a flavour that accepts no substitutes.
A hero drink in Spain, Sherry can also be used as an ingredient in much-loved Spanish marinades for meat. Many types of sherries can be used in traditional marinades: a dry Sherry to marinate pork ribs alongside garlic in a classic Spanish recipe or push the boat out and glaze a secreto Ibérico pork fillet in sweet Pedro Ximénez for a flavour sensation that’s even more delicious when licked by an open flame.
Of course, gambas are so often a centrepiece to a Spanish barbecue for good reason, and large prawns drenched in good-quality Spanish olive oil and marinated in garlic and parsley are an absolute winner for a summer barbecue.
Barbecues may centre around the food, but drinks are never far away, and there are a huge number of wines, from still and sparkling to fortified, to pair with Spanish barbecue dishes. Much is made of Sherry, and for good reason, but on a summer day, a classic Spanish vermut, or vermouth, is a brilliant way to kick things off. A red or white vermouth over ice with a slice of orange and a couple of olives creates a sublime summer drink that’s sure to get the appetite going – alternatively top with soda water to make it longer and lower in ABV.
For the main event, there are a huge range of wine styles to choose from, and richer white wines are always a hit with grilled fish. For barbecues that combine seafood, vegetables and fish, you can’t go wrong with Spanish rosado – rosé wines from Navarra DO or Rioja DOCa have beautiful red-fruit notes and light tannins making them a great all-rounder. And for things like grilled lamb cutlets, the red wines of Ribera del Duero DO are excellent, but so are the wines of Bierzo DO in north-west Spain, usually made with the Spanish grape Mencía, which brings juiciness to rival red meats but enough lightness for afternoons around the grill, too.
The best thing? Classic PDO and PGI-protected products like Pimentón de la Vera and other regional specialities are readily available on the shelves of retailers around the UK, and on the plates of esteemed restaurants. Whether preparing dishes at home for the barbecue or dining out, these products are the ideal way to elevate the gastronomic experience and bring a little more Spanish sun to your garden party or barbecue.