The nearly 8-centuries-old occupation of Southern Spain by the Moors has left a strong influence on the cuisine of Andalusia. The invasion by the Moors introduced exotic spices and ingredients still in use today, especially almonds, sweet peppers, and saffron.
The Moors also brought courgettes (zucchini), dates, lemons, rice, oranges, aubergines (eggplant), cinnamon, artichokes, and other delights to their capitals at Granada, Seville, or Córdoba. Ground almonds often replaced flour in cake or pastry making.
The Moors also imported recipes for making very sweet pastries. Ziryab was a famous 10th-century Moorish chef, and he is credited with introducing the custom of dining that begins with soup and ends with dessert -- in other words, a standard sequence of dishes that spread across the rest of Europe.
Andalusian cuisine in the post-Franco era is better than ever, using quality ingredients and more skilled preparation. Cooks use very fresh fish and seafood (often deep-fried) as well as extra-virgin olive oils. Parsley and garlic are added to many dishes, and the larder turns up game in the autumn, cured hams, chorizo, and fresh breads often baked in ancient ovens.
The original Southern Andalusian recipe for gazpacho now appears on menus around the world. It's a cold soup of ground vegetables, garlic, and bread in a base of freshly pickled and puréed tomatoes.
You can make an entire meal of tapas or hors d'oeuvres, going from tavern to tavern on a tapeo, the Spanish version of an English pub-crawl, but with food. Cervantes even praised tapas in his masterpiece, Don Quixote.
Tapas are said to have originated in Andalusia. Favorites include calamares fritos, a fried squid or cuttlefish, which first-time visitors sometimes mistake for onion rings. Others include gambas, shrimp cooked in olive oil and garlic, or patatas bravas, potatoes in spicy sauce. Salmonetes (small red mullet) are consumed at bars all along the coast, as are chancletes (whitebait cooked in oil and flavored with parsley).
Mushrooms are grilled, as are baby octopi or chopitos. Many residents on the coast begin their meal with sopa de pescado (fish soup) if not gazpacho. Another cold soup, heralding from Córdoba, is salmorejo, a thicker and denser gazpacho. Fresh sardinas or sardines are a favorite in Málaga, though residents of Cádiz prefer acedias, or miniature sole filets.
Each city and surrounding region has its specialties. Among meats, Spain's best cured hams come from Huelva, whereas Granada is known for its morcilla (blood sausage). From Málaga come Moscatel grapes, papanduas (small codfish cakes), or sardines roasted on bamboo spits. Cádiz cooks, in addition to seafood, are known for their cabbage stew and game dishes, along with squid, oysters, sea snails, and shrimp. A specialty is caldillo de perro (onion, hake, and tart orange juice). Squid is cooked in its own ink, and kidneys cooked in sherry is another favorite.
Huelva cooks are said to make some of the best fish stews along the coast, often using sardines and tuna. Arroz con almejas (clams and rice) is another much-favored dish, as is freshly caught swordfish.
The people of Seville feast on menudo (tripe) or cola de toro (oxtail). Soldaditos de pavía are fish sticks, and pato con aceitunas (ducks with olives) is another specialty.
The olive-oil based cuisine of Jaen ranges from alboroinia (a vegetable stew) to ajilimojili (potatoes cooked with red peppers). In Córdoba you can enjoy lamb stew, veal with artichokes, roast pigs' feet, and pigeon with olives.
Perhaps introduced into Southern Spain by the Phoenicians, winemaking is a tradition that spans 2 millennia, and it was a firmly established business by the time of the Roman invasion. During the Moorish invasion that followed, winemaking continued even though the Koran frowned on the consumption of alcohol.
Sherry is the king of wines, its grapes grown in the vineyards enveloping Jerez de la Frontera in the provinces of Cádiz. Ever since Sir Francis Drake ransacked the port of Cádiz in 1587 and sailed back to England with 3,000 barrels of sherry, the British have been the greatest fans of this drink, then called "sack" by the English.
There are various types of sherry, including fino, the palest, lightest, most delicate, and generally the driest of sherries. Served chilled, it is one of the best aperitifs, with an earthy aroma of almonds. Manzanilla, a fino sherry made in San Lucar de Barrameda, is very pale and dry with a flavor that is almost salty. Traditionally, the very dry Manzanilla is the drink of choice among bullfighters and the favored wine in Seville; it does not enjoy much popularity outside Spain.
With the aroma of hazelnuts, an exceptional aperitif is Oloroso, often consumed in tascas with cured ham. This is one of the two basic types of Spanish sherry (as opposed to fino). Dark in color, Oloroso ranges from a dark gold to a deep amber. Most Oloroso sherry is consumed as an after-dinner wine, and the best examples, or at least the oldest, include Matusalém manufactured by Gonzalez Byass.
Amontillados, produced in the town of Montilla outside Córdoba, is halfway between a fino and an Oloroso. This wine is fairly dry and somewhat pale, but not as dry as a fino or Manzanilla. Its best-known label is Amontillado del Duque, also produced by Gonzalez Byass.
Cream sherry, such as Harvey's Bristol Cream -- popular in Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands -- is Oloroso that has been sweetened, often with grape concentrate. It is generally served as a dessert wine and is also used in cooking. Another dessert wine is Pedro Ximenez. This very sweet wine when well aged is known as "P.X." Sometimes it is drunk straight as a liqueur.
The sweet wines of Málaga, made from Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes, enjoy favor among the British.
Montilla-Moriles, in the southern tier of Córdoba province, produces a poor cousin of the sherry of Jerez de la Frontera. The region grows the Pedro Ximenez grape, which is often shipped to Jerez to sweeten cream sherries.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.