Usually when I travel the amount of walking, hiking and biking I do more than offsets any extra calories I get from, oh I don’t know, chocolate croissants and the like. I also tend to eat food that’s fresher than I do at home where processed and prepackaged foods usually rule the day. There have been exceptions to this though and most recently Spain was at fault. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be more delicious nibbles to enjoy but more than anything, these foods and beverages are an easy way to get fat in Spain.
Ham – I think I always knew that Spain was famous for its fine hams, that’s a fairly well known fact. Serrano and Iberico hams in particular just aren’t nicely cured, every producer has their own unique recipe and method of creating the perfect meat. In response, the Spanish people have adopted ham as their national food of choice, at least that’s what it seems like based on the sheer quantities of it available at every restaurant in the country. Every time I sat down to a meal, even before the appetizers came out plates of ham and bread with tomato were brought out, so commonplace that they soon seemed like a required condiment more than the meal it really is. Presentation was usually in the form of nicely sliced pieces, but in the more rural areas of the Pyrenees great trees of ham were presented, the meats hanging from branches like a carnivore’s dream Christmas Tree. I like ham, don’t get me wrong, but towards the end of the blog trip with the Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona Tourism Board I had reached my physical limit of ham consumption. I started thinking about my next hit of ham and more than once the happy meat product infiltrated my deepest of dreams. That’s when I knew I’d had enough ham and ever since I’ve been in a self-enforced ham time out. But once my porcine hiatus is over, I know there’s no better place to enjoy this meaty treat than Spain.
Cheese – What goes naturally well with ham? Why cheese of course. I thought that the French had the monopoly on fine cheeses, but after spending a week in the Pyrenees I realized that the Spanish are just as obsessed as their neighbors to the north. Just like the French, the Spanish take their cheeses very seriously as I learned during a cheese tasting in the village of Puigcerdà. Prior to the event in the trendy wine bar I envisioned a few cubes of cheese on a stick with a cracker or two. Of course the Spanish would have scoffed at this idea and instead presented me with a banquet of cheeses. A combination of cheese styles were paired with homemade jams and served with meat, bread and even vegetables. My hosts warned me beforehand that the experience would only be a ‘light snack’, which translated means huge meal. It wasn’t just at the tasting where cheese was showcased in a place of honor, like ham it was everywhere; at every meal for every occasion.
Ice Cream/Gelato – In Spain’s defense, they didn’t invent gelato or even ice cream, but they apparently are making up for lost time. A stroll through Madrid, Barcelona or even Girona reveals an astounding number of ice cream shops, almost on every street corner. I’m willing to bet the gelato stand/per capita ratio is fairly impressive. Of course gelato makes for the perfect sweet treat as long as you don’t over do it. The cheese gelato I found in Girona may have been overdoing it. At first I thought it was a funny quirk of translation but no, it was the real deal. Apparently the gelato is made with a mild sheep’s milk cheese and although it was a little strange, I actually liked the taste.
Wine – Of course one becomes quite thirsty when digesting entire herds of ham and dairies of cheese, and the Spanish rely on wine to quench this thirst. Spanish wines are known for their rich and hearty flavors, but they also produce a wide variety of delicate whites making it possible to enjoy wine at every meal, which is exactly the custom in Spain. In few other places have I consumed so much wine before 5 pm without feeling its effects, well except for exhaustion. The chemical balance of ham, cheese and wine seem to work together in perfect harmony to create not inebriation, but exhaustion and contentment. For an added challenge, some adventurous souls in Spain use the porron to imbibe their favorite varietals. The porron is a glass pitcher with a long neck and it’s a personal challenge to be able to drink from this unusual vessel. No matter how you choose to consume it though, it’s an absolute must for any visitor.
Spain is one of my favorite countries in Europe and even though I love visiting, I also feel like a trip to fat camp is a necessary post-Spain event. Maybe moderation would be a better idea, but then you really won’t be truly enjoying what makes Spain so great in the first place.