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I have fallen in love with Spain and Spanish cuisine! My traditional cliché dishes of paella and sangria have been eclipsed by luscious Iberian ham, inventive tapas and smoky Basque fish stews. One of the best ways to explore Spanish cuisine is to visit food markets in cities like Valencia, Cádiz, Barcelona and Bilbao. These are only four of the many markets we have visited this summer, but I wanted to share some highlights with you.

IMG_1435 (Large)Franck Garanger, our Fleet Corporate Chef for Oceania Cruises, claims that the market in Valencia is the best in Spain. It is in a beautiful building with triple arches at the entrance. It is well lighted and the stalls are pristine. There are lovely little restaurants tucked away in the alcoves and alleyways that surround the market. I stopped in to one for lunch after a busy morning of shopping and feasted on a plate of fresh ham with almonds and Spanish olive oil and a salad of fresh tuna, tomato and melon, also with Spanish olive oil.

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The streets that surround the market in Valencia are so well integrated with the market that it makes lunch an imperative after a morning gathering fresh produce, cheeses and Iberian ham.

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No trip to the Basque country is complete without a visit to Bilbao. A short walk along the river from the Guggenheim finds you at a sleek, modern three-story market with stall after stall of meat and poultry vendors, produce merchants and cheese shops. 

IMG_1467 (Large)I love the quaint baskets of eggs here, and it reminds me of going out to my Aunt Edna’s hen house and reaching under the warm hens for their eggs. It is nice to see eggs in a basket instead of a Styrofoam container. 

IMG_1468 (Large)At home, most butchers are hidden away behind a sliding glass window. Here you have the opportunity to interact directly with the butchers, and their cuts are on display for your inspection, whether you wish to do so or not.

IMG_1470 (Large)The bakeries in the Bilbao market are also special, everything being so warm and fresh you want to dive face first in to the warm, yeasty goodies.

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I wanted to take a stroll down to the old section of town for a coffee, and as often happens, I stumbled on to a fantastic find – a fish market that blew me sideways with the variety and quality of the fish. You may not be able to catch the magnitude of this from my photo, but the tuna here weighs about as much as the fishmonger!

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I headed down to the Plaza Nueva for a coffee and some tapas for lunch. 

IMG_1444 (Large)Being in the Mediterranean all summer has taught me to take things a little more slowly, and one of my new habits is to sit at a tableside café and have a coffee and tapas or a glass of wine and take it all in. I just sit and relax and enjoy watching people.

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A Spanish port we all love is Santander. I haven’t had the chance to visit the market yet, but I did manage to find a great seafood joint that specializes in sautéed calamari in a rich, smoky tomato broth. Yes, Spain is certainly a lot about fish. Still, I am currently enjoying the book Everything But the Squeal, in which John Barlow writes about the love of pork in the Galician region of northern Spain.

Another unique market is in Cádiz. A sleek, modern building with the fish market on the bottom floor, this is really a treasure.

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Our resident Spanish chef told me to hunt for the bright pink langoustines that are common in this region. 

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As usual, the abundance was such that I found several species of brightly colored langoustines, all of which looked fresh and fabulous. And not to be outdone by the fish market in Bilbao, the market here in Cádiz had its own version of “Tuna Godzilla,” as you can see by this giant head in the middle of the market.  

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The eel and the scallops were bright and colorful and all displayed with such pride and care.

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It is difficult to capture the iridescence of many of the fish, but these mackerel looked like they had been swimming in the sea only minutes ago – such bright shades of shimmering grey and green.

IMG_1499 (Large) After a morning at the market, we took a stroll into town, and while it was too early for lunch, we poked our heads into a “jamoneria,” or ham shack, devoted to ham and sherry and beer – my kind of place! I made a mental note to spend more time there on our next visit. We walked though many shops with specialty olive oils and cheeses and wines… a very easy city for a stroll. Before too long the luncheon diners started to appear at the outdoor tables, and we wandered into a lovely restaurant and had a fish in that Basque tomato sauce made with the smoky Spanish paprika, pimentón. Like most restaurants in Spain, we enjoyed seeing the leg of ham displayed on the rack with a carving knife, knowing that our slices would be freshly carved.

In an earlier blog, you saw the many images of my favorite market in Spain, Santa Caterina in Barcelona. Perhaps it’s not fair to have a favorite – but we share a common name so that gives me a little latitude. When you are next in Barcelona (which I hope is on a voyage with Oceania Cruises), don’t skip this lovely market in the heart of the old city.

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Even as I discover so many new things about Spanish cuisine and share them with our guests, I am fond of the classics that we hold dear. Paella, as I have learned, is something the Spanish are passionate about.

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In our classes in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center, we teach both seafood paella and meat fideau (made with the little semolina noodles). I am currently nose deep in a great new book, Paella, by Alberto Herraiz. On page 96, he has a recipe for paella with soft shell crabs, and on page 116, there is a mouthwatering recipe for paella with Iberian ham, spring vegetables and foie gras. So maybe paella isn’t so boring after all…

Bon appétit!

Chef Kelly

Executive Chef, Bon Appétit Culinary Center