Want to the know the secret to Spain’s famous flavours? It all comes down to a handful of special herbs and spices. Without them, it would be impossible to create authentic Spanish dishes like paella.
So what are they? And where did they originate?
This is the big mama. Spanish food relies on salt not just for flavour but for curing meats. Jamon is cured in it, paella stock needs it and salted cod would be just cod without it. Spain is home to a number of salt mines, and some of the coastal regions produce sea salt, meaning that this once highly prized spice has always been readily available.
Paprika is one of the ‘holy trinity’ of Spanish seasonings, in addition to garlic and olive oil. Available in a range of flavours, including sweet, smoked and sun-dried, paprika is made from the dried and ground ripe fruit of the capsicum plant.
This humble green herb, native to the Mediterranean, also happens to be really good for you. In Spain, chopped parsley is used as a garnish on lots of dishes (possibly to counteract all that garlic) but it’s also used very deliberately for its flavour. Many seafood dishes come topped with a sprinkling of fresh parsley and some raw sauces use parsley as the base.
Made from the stigma and stiles (known as threads) of the crocus plant, saffron imparts a unique flavour and a deep yellow-orange colour to dishes like paella. There is no substitute for the rare fragrance of saffron, even though some chefs substitute it for cheaper alternatives. One hint: when using saffron in a dish, make sure you put it in warm water or wine before you add it (add the liquid too). This helps release the flavour.
Laurel wreaths are not just for Olympic winners. Bay leaves – otherwise known as laurel – have a pungent aroma that lifts a lot of slow-cooked braises. Used dry or fresh, bay leaves need to be removed before serving as they are tough and shouldn’t be eaten.
Next time you’re out at your local plant nursery, pick up some parsley, a bay tree and – if you’re feeling particularly ambitious – track down some crocus bulbs so you can harvest your own saffron!