What will you eat this Christmas in Spain?
If this is your family’s first Christmas in Spain, then there are a few important things to know. Firstly, Spanish families usually celebrate their big Christmas meal on the 24th (Nochebuena), at night time with their immediate and extended family. It is a very big deal and always involves the very best in food and wine.
Secondly, exactly what people eat varies by region (but of course!), however there are some common dishes that most families will include. Take a look below at the delightful dishes that you can add to your family’s meal this Christmas in Spain.
Let’s begin with the famous aperitivos – jamón, soft goats cheese and Manchego will vie for space with queso azul and cream cheese. Pate and crackers, sausages of every description, morcilla, salchichon, and chorizo… And these are are just to whet the appetite!
Jamón (Spanish ham)
Of course people eat jamón all year round but this is a time of year when a lot of Spanish families have a ´pata de jamón’ (entire ham leg) in their home and slice it as and when needed. It really is not as easy as it look and unfortunately, hospitals usually see a spike in hand cuts and injuries around this time of year!
The best Spanish hams come from Iberian pigs, a dark-haired, black-footed ancient breed that is known for delectable marbled meat. You can pick out the Iberian hams at the market or at a restaurant by the color of the hoof, which is black. In fact, this hoof is so important that most locals just call Iberian ham “pata negra”—black-foot ham
To make the top-quality ham, some pigs get treated like royalty. Once they’ve reached 100 kg in weight, the piggies freely roam the forest-filled pastures of the farm (called a dehesa), full of olive groves, acorn trees, chestnut trees, and wild herbs. The pigs help to fertilize the area, and the trees in turn provide them their food.
Aside from the wild herbs and grass of these pastures, the main food available to the pigs are acorns (bellotas). During autumaand winter, the pigs are let out to roam freely and gorge on acorns! As a result, every pig gains about two pounds of weight for every day of this process.
The sweet, nutty flavor of the acorns permeates deep into the meat, giving it a subtle and unique taste. The pigs also absorb oleic fatty acid from the nuts, changing the biology of their body fat. Because of the health benefits associated with plant-based fats, this ham has even been proven to lower your body’s cholestrol! Take a look at this video to understand why Jamón Ibérico is the world’s most expensive cured meat.
Seafood plays a big part in a Spanish Christmas meal, and is often served as the main course instead of the traditional turkey. Depending on the region of Spain, the mariscadas often also include shellfish such as mussels and “navajas¨(razor clams). They may also feature lobster tails and different types of crabs. These saltwater delicacies are in such high demand during the Christmas season that they nearly double in price during the last weeks of December!
Some families will include a fish dish like besugo (sea bream), rape (monkfish), or the less expensive bacalao (cod).
Cochinillo (Roast suckling pig)
A roast suckling pig is another favourite Christmas meal in many parts of Spain, particularly around the region of Castilla y León. The suckling pigs are normally halved and roasted and served in one piece on a platter, with head, hooves and all. They are cooked until the skin is brown and crispy and served with of onions and potatoes.
Lechazo (Suckling lamb)
Another Christmas favourite is lechazo. It’s important to note that it’s different to lamb in that it is usually about one month old and is still drinking their mother’s. These unique characteristics produce a meat that is pearly white or pale pink, very tender, juicy, and with a soft texture.
Pavo relleno (Stuffed Turkey)
It might make an appearance but usually on a much smaller scale compared to other countries as it not the main dish.
Cardo con almendras (Cardoons with almond sauce)
Cardoons are grown in the northern regions of Aragón, La Rioja and Navarra, so that is where this vegetable is most popular at Christmas. Vaguely like an artichoke in taste but with more consistency, like celery in texture but with a deeper flavor.
Escudella de Nadal (Soup of galets)
This is a popular Christmas dish in the Catalan region. Galets are huge pasta shells, which are usually stuffed with mincemeat and eaten floating around in a meaty soup.
Roscón de Reyes (Spanish Christmas cake)
The roscón is a sweet bread (almost like a brioche) that is baked into a circle or an oval shape. It isn’t always filled, but traditional fillings include whipped cream, chocolate cream, meringue or custard cream. It is typical to decorate the cake with colorful candied fruits, creating what looks like a king’s crown full of sparkling jewels. Bakers hide small trinkets throughout the cake, so be careful when biting into this pastry.
Turrón the most typical sweet to eat at Christmas time in Spain. A type of nougat, typically made from almonds. These days, you can find all different kinds of turrón for sale, from those made with peanuts to bars filled with candied fruit.
Marzipan iis another popular Christmas sweet – a sugary treat made from ground almonds and formed into various shapes. Some of the best marzipan in Spain can be found in the small historic town of Toledo, just south of Madrid.
What would a feast be without some of Spain’s finest wines; Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Albariño, Rueda…to name but a few.
No Spanish Christmas meal would be complete without a glass of Cava, the Spanish version of French Champagne. The best Cava can be found in the region of Cataluña.
Let the feasting begin! ¡Feliz navidad a todos!
Sinéad Galvin is an educational consultant and founded Steps into Spain (a boutique educational and relocation consultancy located in Madrid) to help families find the right school for their child in Madrid. She uses her professional and personal experience of Spanish schools, the Spanish education system and the Spanish way of life to ensure that parents are knowledgeable and informed about what to expect and can secure the best school for their child.
Steps into Spain will take stock of your children’s educational needs and overall family requirements (housing, paperwork and general settling in). A happy child is a happy parent, which is the central ethos of Steps into Spain, and one less challenge.