Apr 02 2024

Spanish Lentils, the Humble Delicatessen

This legume, firmly rooted in Spanish tradition, is both a staple for daily home cooking and a favorite of well-known chefs, and also a great option for those who want to follow a plant-based diet


by Harold Heckle - @HaroldHeckle

Imagine a food so tiny it sits on a fingertip, so humble it has fed the penniless for millennia and yet so revered it is considered a national treasure. It is versatile enough to satisfy picky children, kings' banquets and gourmets at Michelin-starred restaurants. It is the Spanish lentil.

A winter warmer

Spain surprises even seasoned travellers. Many consider it a sunny destination with deliciously warm temperatures, a refuge from Northern Europe’s depressingly dark, chilly months. Yet, Spanish winters can chill bones at -15°C, freezing lakes amid stunning, wintry landscapes. Spain is mountainous and Madrid is the highest European capital above sea level after Switzerland's Berne. This reality gave rise to a rich tradition of heart-warming winter dishes. Among the most beloved are recipes centred on lentils.

Lentils were a main source of sustenance for Spanish households in scarcity and hardship. In the 1936-39 Civil War, they saved thousands from starvation during war-ravaged times. They are ingrained in Spain's history, culture and traditions. Their cultivation, a gastronomic legacy from Roman times, took on greater importance during the Middle Ages. “They are mentioned in Spain's most famous book, Don Quixote,” said food expert Javier Fernández Piera. “He ate them on Fridays when they were vegetarian or viudas (widowed)” he said. Meat was avoided on Fridays as a religious observance.

“Lentils have always been popular as a plato de cuchara, a spoon dish,” said Rogelio Enríquez, President of Madrid's Gastronomy Academy. They abound in menús del día, two- or three-course menus offered by restaurants and casas de comida (excellent value eateries). People also like to cook them at home where both children and adults love them, Enríquez said. “Lentils are highly nutritious, packed with iron, they are what we now call a superfood because of the valuable nutrients they provide,” he added. His duty encompasses keeping an eye on Madrid's vast gastronomic universe, where lentils play a leading role as a very popular and traditional dish.

While lentils have traditionally accompanied game and other meat dishes, they are also a healthy vegetarian option. “Lentil salad, nowadays fashionable for being healthy, is a historical dish in Spain,” said Fernández Piera. As Monika Linton, owner of Brindisa -Spanish products distributor in the UK-, says “Spain can satisfy a lot of vegetarian demand.” She expects that “lentils and other Spanish legumes will become more popular in the next years” due to the rising number of people following a plant-based eating style. Do no forget: lentils constitute a phenomenal source of nutrients: they are rich in proteins, fiber, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, with a low percentage of fat, etc.

Lentils enter high-end cuisine

Three renowned lentil dishes stand out, Enríquez said. Number one is lentils with duck from Lera, a restaurant 255 kilometres (160 miles) north of Madrid. “They are stratospheric,” he enthused. Until recently, Abraham García set a reference point at Viridiana, his Madrid restaurant that closed upon his retirement. “Those lentils: tender, yet firm in a mild curry sauce with bits of chorizo and potato cubes, garnished with shrimps...,” remembered US-born wine consultant Jens Riis. And gourmands know you have to eat at Sacha's on Mondays because lentils are on the menu. “They are fantastic.”  Enríquez said, before introducing the two lentil varieties protected with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in Spain.

Protected as a national culinary treasure

Lentils from two regions, Armuña (Salamanca, Castille-León) and Tierra de Campos (comprising an area in Valladolid, Zamora, Palencia and León provinces, all in Castille-León), are treasured and given official PGI status. These are exported to international markets. Lentils from Tierra de Campos PGI have a brown or dun-colored skin, which is smooth and soft. The albumen is a bit creamy. These lentils are slightly astringent. They can be found under the commercial name “pardina”.

On the other side, Lentejas de La Armuña PGI have a distinctive green color and they remain intact after cooked. They have a butter consistency and a pleasant flavor.

Lera’s lentils

Travel three hours north and you arrive at a rural idyll brimming with wildlife and birdsong that expands to owl hoots, fox howls, frog trills and more as dusk descends. This is Castroverde de Campos, Tierra de Campos, where chef Luis Lera, his family and staff have earned worldwide accolades including Michelin stars, one of them a Green Star highlighting sustainable practices. Some 16 years ago Lera grew concerned. He felt gastronomy was “homogenating”, becoming alike. “I looked around and saw we'd forgotten about lentils,” he said. “So, 12 years ago I included them in our tasting menu.”

Visually, Lera exudes minimalist modernity like an Edward Hopper painting. Every detail is considered, from lighting, the gentle soundtrack, to the immaculately-stocked wine cellar. “My lentils rest a year before cooking. Right now I'm using the 2022 harvest,” Lera said. “We include duck and duck foie, and thicken the sauce with crushed lentils.”

Reinventing lentils

If Lera uses lentils from Tierra de Campos, many other renowned chefs use those from La Armuña in their preparations. In 2024, the first National 'Uncover the Legumes' Championship was held in Spain, which seeks to unite haute cuisine with the humblest of national cuisine ingredients. Óscar García Marino, from the Michelin-starred restaurant Baluarte in Soria (Castile and León), proposed a juice of La Armuña lentils with pigeon mousse.

On the other hand, Pedro Mario Pérez, from the restaurant El Ermitaño (Zamora, Castile and León), with a Michelin star since 2001, created a surprising La Armuña lentil cappuccino with Iberian ham foam. A demonstration that lentils are fertile ground for creative cuisine.

Lentils among the high and mighty

Legumes are loved in humble homes, creative restaurants and top quality restaurants. “You’ll find lentils in places like Saddle, a Michelin-starred Madrid restaurant where the rich and powerful gather,” Enríquez said. “Interestingly, Florentino Pérez (Real Madrid’s football club president) loves lentils and was known to eat them practically every day at Señorío de Alcocer, a once classic place near the Real Madrid Bernabéu Stadium.”

Close to the stadium we find the restaurant of Sacha Hormaechea, known professionally as Sacha, and one of Spain's great chefs. His eponymous restaurant oozes homeliness, making you feel at ease. “Lentils pose huge challenges for top-end chefs,” he said. “Every Spaniard compares them to those his mother makes, a monumental yardstick.” Get them right and they retain some bite, then explode in your mouth like caviar. Think about them and you delve into history, Sacha said. “I believe they were brought by the Phoenicians, before the Romans. But the cuisine they reflect is that of conversos,” he said. Conversos were Spaniards of Jewish or Islamic faiths who were forced to convert to Catholicism 500 years ago. “Lentil dishes hold all our memories, those of aristocrats and of the downtrodden poor,” he said. “They're cooked across Spain, every region has its style, they belong to everyone, yet no one can claim them as theirs.”

Two quandaries remain: Some maintain lentils taste better on the second day, and then, what wine pairs best with them? Aficionados claim Tinta de Toro, a Tempranillo clone, is the grape of choice.