Cuisine and restaurants in Madrid, Spain

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The city boasts a few regional specialties and a long list of fine restaurants representing Spanish cuisine as a whole.

Spain's culinary tradition is famous the world over. The tapas bar has taken snacking to another level. Legend has it tapas (literally, 'covers') were originally a piece of bread or a small dish placed over a customer's drink to prevent flies or dust from getting in. Over time, complimentary snacks were added and, as the tradition became more established, the word came to mean any of a variety of small snacks served in bars. Tapas may be thought of as the equivalent of the French apéritif snack, although they are far more varied and substantial, and not necessarily taken before a meal. Spaniards often make a meal of a combination of tapas, many of which are also available as the larger media ración (half serving) or ración (full serving), which can be shared among several people.

Tapas are generally served with a commensurate amount of bread or bread sticks. There is considerable regional variety in their particular recipes but common tapas consist in potato salad, manchego cheese, cooked pork leg or loin, smoke pork leg or loin, blood sausage, various cured sausages, marinated or fried fish including achovies, cod, and tuna, and various recipes of stewed pork or beef. A single tapa costs between one and three euros. Apart from olives, free tapas are a thing of the past unless you find yourself in Granada, where the majority of bars keep up the tradition. Don't abuse, though...

Pork and its use for traditional cold cuts deserves a special mention in Spain. The famous jamón serrano (mountain ham) is the cured ham produced from pigs raised mainly in the low mountain ranges of the country. The price varies greatly according to the grade of the ham, with the most expensive being the 'Pata Negra' (black leg), which can cost up to two hundred euros for a single leg.

Morcilla is the Spanish blood sausage, more complex than its French or German counterparts, and containing onions and rice as well as a mix of spices.

The famous and generally spicy Spanish chorizo comes in various forms, ranging from hard and thinly sliced to soft and eaten in chunks. Served either cooked or simply cured, it is alway made from pork and red in color, from the paprika and chili used in its confection.

A mention should be made of Spanish olives and olive oil. The green olive is far more popular than the black, and is produced and exported en-masse in provinces like Jaen. Olive oil from southern Spain was once used to fill bottles deceivingly labelled 'Italian' and re-exported to non-mediterranean countries. Olive production on the Iberian peninsula goes back to Roman times and today's Spanish olives are spiced with ingredients like garlic, anchovies, rosemary, thyme, and paprika.

Olive oil is extensively used in cooking. For example, it is an essential ingredient of gazpacho, the famous Spanish cold vegetable soup. The additional ingredients of gazpacho are crushed tomato, cucumber, green peppers, garlic, salt, and, sometimes, bread crumbs. Gazpacho was born accidentally: it was once the staple of starving peasants from Andalucía who could not afford other foods than the locally produced vegetables. Salmorejo and porra are more substantial derivatives with additional ingredients like boiled egg, ham, and bacon bits.

Also using olive oil, a deliciously simple breakfast staple in many regions of Spain is pan con tomate, toast or fresh bread with a spread of crushed tomato, olive oil, and salt. Occasionally, crushed garlic is added to the spread.

Finally, the Spanish love fish and seafood, via both the pan-fried and deep-fried delivery systems. Spain is a great place for squid and octopus, the latter often prepared in one of a variety of traditional marinades and served as an expensive tapa or salad.

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