The most primitive cooking method of all, simple grilling -foods roasted over a wood fire- continues to be one of the most popular. In Spain, an asador is a grill restaurant; hoguera is hearth; parrilla is a grill or grate; brasa is hot coals; plancha is a metal hot plate or griddle set over coals. All are traditional ways of cooking.
Down through the ages, cooks in every region adjusted the technique to local foods and the kinds of firewood available. For example, on the Mediterranean coast, fishermen brought their boats in at dawn, laden with quivering fresh sardines. To cook their breakfast, they made a fast fire on the sand, skewered the sardines on sticks, stuck them in the sand before the fire or hot coals. Simple, tasty, healthy. No complications. Called espetones, spitted, grilled sardines are still prepared on the beaches of the Costa del Sol (Andalusia), where tourists line up to savor them.
Basque fishermen set a grate over hot coals for cooking the wonderful besugo, red bream, basted with a feather until the skin turned crisp and golden. Food this good needs no sauce.
Pilgrims on the road to Santiago de la Compostela snared tiny quail, wrapped them in grape leaves and grilled them over a campfire. In the wine regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, vineyard workers grilled tiny lamb chops over a fast-burning fire of vine shoots. Hunters in La Mancha made a fire from holm oak to grill rabbits and other small game. In Valencia, orangewood prunings fueled the fire to cook outdoors a paella.
In Catalonia, spring onions with their green tops, called calçots, cooked on the grill have become an excuse for a party. In the spring, everybody heads for the countryside, where not only onions, but also butifarra sausage and chops go on the grill as well, all to be consumed with romesco sauce (made with almonds and peppers, among other ingredients). Another Catalan dish, escalivada, combines eggplants, peppers, onions and tomatoes that have been grilled, skinned and dressed with olive oil.
While grilling is the simplest of traditional cooking methods, some chefs (notably Basques Juan Antonio Zaldúa and Victor Arguinzoniz) have turned it into high art, revolutionizing grilling by inventing new types of grates, controlling the intensity of heat and smoke, the type of wood, the perfume of herbs, the basting oil, as well as putting on the grill, not only gigantic steaks of Galicia beef, but foods not usually grilled—oysters, cod cheeks and baby eels, just to name a few.
Whether traditional or avant-garde, grilling experts agree that the high quality of the ingredients -meat, fish, vegetables, fruits- is foremost. After that, it requires practice to understand how to regulate intensity of the heat to enhance the flavors of the raw ingredients.
Janet Mendel is a food writer based in southern Spain. She is the author of several books about Spanish food, including Cooking in Spain and Tapas: a bite of Spain (Santana Books, Spain); My Kitchen in Spain and Cooking from the Heart of Spain-Food of La Mancha (Harper Collins), and Traditional Spanish Cooking (Frances Lincoln, UK).