“Hunger is the best sauce in the world,” wrote Cervantes in what is perhaps Spain’s most famous book, Don Quixote (1605). That may be true, but the country’s wealth of ingredients and dishes born of strong regional traditions means that even if you’re not hungry, you’re probably going to want to eat anyway.
In addition to its cured meats and hams, Spain benefits from being practically surrounded by water. To the north is the Bay of Biscay, to the west the North Atlantic and to the south is the Mediterranean. The country has a strong tradition of fishing, and restaurant menus across Spain offer a multitude of seafood, of which squid is perhaps the most versatile. It crops up everywhere, either alone or alongside other fish or even meat in dishes as varied as paella and hearty stews.
Part of the cephalopod family, squid shares many similarities with octopus and cuttlefish – also staples of Spanish cooking. In the far northwest, tucked away above Portugal, the region of Galicia is Spain’s seafood central. One of its most famous dishes from the region is “pulpo a la Galega” (“Galician octopus”), which involves squid’s near cousin boiled several times and served with potatoes and pimento peppers.
As food, the squid is known as “calamari” in Spanish, a name derived from the Latin “calamarium” meaning “pen case” or “ink horn”. It’s apt: not only is the squid’s shape reminiscent of a writing case, but it also contains a sac that the creature can use for self- defence, squirting black ink to cloud the water and masking its rapid getaway when a predator attacks.
The squid is also an economical ingredient; every part can be eaten – except for the beak and the gladius, the long, hard internal body part otherwise known as the “pen”. The main body can be sliced into rings or stuffed, the tentacles battered and fried or diced, and the ink is used to colour rice.
“Calamares en su tinta” (or, “chipirones en su tinta”) is a dish in which the squid is stewed in its own ink. The result is very tender squid meat in a thick black sauce made of tomato and onion. If that seems a little unappetising to the uninitiated, squid can also be cooked very simply a la plancha – that is, fried or cooked on the griddle.
Of course, one of Spain’s great gifts to the culinary world is tapas: small sharing plates developed as a snack to accompany drinks at local inns. Today, nothing is more convivial – or more Spanish – than sharing a selection of tapas plates over a glass of Rioja, and this style of eating has been exported around the world.
These tasting dishes have evolved with Spain, absorbing its history and incorporating new ingredients and flavours with each discovery or influx of people. The Romans introduced the olive to the country while the Spanish conquistadores who travelled west to the New World brought back tomatoes, chilli peppers and potatoes, all of which have found their place in Spanish gastronomy. Tapas now encompasses all that is great about Spanish cuisine: glistening plates of ruby-red pata negra – the cured ham from the black Iberian pig, deep- fried croquetas, boquerones (white anchovies in vinegar), pimientos de Padrón (vibrant fried green peppers sprinkled with salt) and, of course, squid.
A familiar tapas staple is calamares a la romana, in which the squid is sliced into rings and deep-fried in a thick flour batter then served with lemon juice and mayonnaise. Calamares can be found on practically every tapas menu throughout the country, and in Madrid, a popular variation involves the flour-battered squid rings being tucked inside a piece of crusty bread to create a sort of squid sandwich that is occasionally topped with a tomato and paprika puree or garlic mayonnaise. Baby squid (puntillitas), can often be found on menus too, battered and fried whole, their tiny tentacles curled to a crisp.
Squid also crops up in zarzuela, the Catalan fishermen’s stew that incorporates pretty much anything and everything a fisherman might be able to throw in after a day at sea, along with potatoes and tomatoes. Served in earthenware dishes and accompanied by crusty bread to mop up the juice, it’s a hearty rich seafood dish that once again underlines squid’s versatility.