Sunday, December 2, 2018


Only 25 days till Christmas! As the holiday countdown begins, I’ve put together a sort of Advent calendar of Spanish foods--from ham to cheese, from olive oil to marzipan--to help you with shopping, gift lists and menu planning

Many of the foods listed rate right up with the world’s gastronomic treasures (ibérico ham and saffron, for example). Others are splendid, but everyday foods that, none the less, light up the holiday season (eg., Valencia oranges). Many of my selections have denominación de origen (DO); denominación específica (DE) or indicación geográfica protegida (IGP). These designations represent controls of geographical origin and guarantee of quality.

1Ham, jamón.
The whole ham--good excuse for a party.  
(Photo of serrano ham by  ©Pilar Esteban-Ordorica from the book Slicing Spanish Ham.)

Get your ham today and, unless you will be doing a lot of entertaining, it should see you through the holiday season. Will it be ibérico or serrano?

Ibérico designates a breed of pig. The ibérico breed has the unique characteristic of storing fat infiltrated in the flesh, making for exceptional cured hams.

When buying ham and comparing prices, pay attention to the labels. Ibérico hams have four different categories (and corresponding prices). Black label designates “bellota 100% ibérico,” meaning it comes from thoroughbred (100 percent ibérico breed) pigs that have been fattened on acorns (bellotas). Red label is for “bellota ibérico,” meaning it’s from pigs that are cross-breeds (at least 50% ibérico) and finished on acorns. Green label is “cebo de campo ibérico.” These hams come from free-range pigs that can be thoroughbreds or cross-breeds, but are fattened on natural pasturage and pig feed. White label hams are “cebo ibérico,” from cross-breed pigs raised in feed lots and fed only on pig feed.

In ibérico hams, look for DOs Jabugo (Huelva), Los Pedroches (Córdoba), Guijuela (Salamanca) and Dehesa de Extremadura (Cáceres and Badajoz).

Serrano ham (pictured above) comes from non-ibérico pigs. Much is raised on an industrial scale and cured in big meat-processing plants. A few have designations: DO Teruel and IGP Trévelez (Granada) and Serón (Almería).

2. Raisins and dried fruits (pasas).

Christmas is not Christmas without the sweetness of dried fruits. Famous are the sun-dried muscatel raisins of Málaga (DO Pasas de Málaga). Look for them in handsome gift packages. Also typical are dried figs (higos) and apricots (orejones).

 3. Liqueurs (licores).

Aguardiente is anisette liqueur, both sweet and dry. It’s typically served, along with Brandy de Jerez, with a plate of holiday pastries and cookies.

 4. Saffron (azafrán).

Saffron is like gold--precious and expensive. It's expensive because it takes the tiny stigmas of 75,000 crocus sativus to make a half-kilo of the spice.  The finest saffron comes from La Mancha (DO Azafrán de La Mancha).

5. Oranges and clementines (naranjas y clementinas).

Winter sunshine. A splendid way to celebrate the winter solstice. (IGP Citricos Valencianos, Clementinas Tierra del Ebro).

 6. Olives (aceitunas).

To see you through every holiday occasion. Every olive-producing region in Spain has its distinctive varieties and methods of curing and flavoring olives. Try Andalusian aceitunas partidas, cracked, brine-cured and flavoried with garlic and thyme (DO Aceituna Aloreña de Málaga). Fancy, stuffed Sevilla olives. Empeltre olives from Aragón, Arbequina from Catalonia or Cuqillo from Murcia.

7. Piquillo red peppers (pimientos de piquillo).

Essential for holiday meals—for their inimitable bright color, sweet and piquant flavor. Stuff them with shrimp in sauce, toss them in salads, lay strips across the tops of canapés for vibrant garnish. (DO Pimiento del Piquillo de Lodosa).
8. Quince paste (membrillo).

 Serve sweet quince paste (sometimes called quince jelly) on a cheese board or as dessert. It’s an easy ingredient for making puddings and ice cream as well.

9, 10, 11. Cheese, cheese and cheese (queso).

With more than 100 different regional cheeses in Spain, you could conceivably have an “advent” calendar with a cheese a day! So, how about a cheese tasting party for your holiday festivities? Some cheeses are so distinctive that they have DO labels. Others are produced in such small scale that they are only available locally. 

A few to consider: DO Queso Manchego (sheep’s milk, La Mancha), Roncal (sheep’s milk, Navarra), Mahón (cow’s milk, Menorca), Idiazábal (latxa sheep’s milk, Basque), Zamorano (sheep’s milk, Castilla), Tetilla (cow’s milk, Galicia). Additionally, there are myriad goat’s  milk cheeses from many regions of Spain. Notably, are those of Málaga, fresh, white queso fresco and crumbly, aged cheese.

12. Nuts (frutos secos, nueces).

Almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts are all produced in Spain (as well as pecans, pistachios and more). A basket of them with a nutcracker next to the hearth is a jolly way to spend Christmas Eve. Use them in both sweet and savory dishes. (DO Avellana de Reus, hazelnuts of Reus, Catalonia.)

13. Pimentón de La Vera, smoked paprika (pimentón de La Vera).

Pimentón just means “paprika.” But that produced in La Vera, Extremadura, is smoke-dried over smoldering wild holm oak. Smoking produces an intensely red spice and adds an ineffable natural smokiness that complements many foods. It comes both sweet, dulce, and “hot,” picante. (DO Pimentón de La Vera.)

14. Andalusian Christmas cookies (mantecados, polvorones, roscos de Andalucía).

In southern Spain, these distinctive cookies, usually made with lard, are produced just for the holiday season. Shops stock boxes of them in all sizes, offering a selection of the crumbly mantecados and polvorones and the tiny roscos or ring cookies. Every household has a platter of them to offer visitors who might come to see the Belén, the family’s nativity figurines.

15. Cherimoya, custard apple (chirimoya).

Cherimoya is a gorgeous—and exotic—winter fruit. Stocking stuffer? (DO Costa Tropical Granada-Málaga).

 16, 17, 18. Wines, cava, Sherry (los vinos).

For every festive occasion there is a perfect Spanish wine. Take a tour of the regions and choose the ones to accompany your holiday parties.

Will it be Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) to start (DO Cava)? Or, perhaps a fino Sherry (DO Jerez-Xeres-Sherry y Manzanilla Sanlucar de Barrameda? With the seafood course, a fresh and fruity Verdejo white (DO Rueda) or a citric, minerally Albariño (DO Rias Baixas). A medium-bodied crianza red will pair very nicely with hearty winter stews (DO Jumilla or La Mancha). And big, impressive Tempranillo reds to go with beef or venison (DO Ribera del Duero, Rioja or Somontano). For dessert, one of the luscious sweet wines, Pedro Ximenez (DO Montilla-Moriles) or muscatel (DO Málaga).

19. Avocados (aguacates).

Grown in southern Spain, avocados are in season in winter. The perfect starter for a lavish holiday meal.

 20. Seafood in cans; air-dried tuna (pescados en conserva; mojama).

Anchovies in olive oil, mussels in escabeche, sardines in spicy sauce, squid in its own ink—canned fish and shellfish are convenient and delicious ingredients for turning into party canapés. .(D de calidad Anchoa de l’Escala). A luxury amongst the fish conserves is mojama, air-dried tuna (pictured). Slice it thinly and serve as an aperitif

21. Almond nougat (turrón).

In Spain, this is a classic Christmas sweet—almond nougat bars. Soft turrón, made of ground almonds, is like fudge in consistency. Hard turrón is a white nougat studded with almonds. Try the variations on the originals, with chocolate, hazelnuts, sesame. (DO Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.)

 22. Olive oil, extra virgin (aceite de olivo virgin extra).

You’ll need it for cooking; it also makes fabulous gifts. Look for single-varietal oils—Hojiblanca, Arbequina, Picual are some of them—and single-estate oils. Keep several on hand to change the flavors for fish, meat, vegetables, salads. (Currently 28 extra virgin olive oils with DO.)
23.  Shellfish (mariscos).

 In Spanish homes, shellfish is typically served as starter at a traditional cena for Noche Buena, the late Christmas Eve dinner. From the simplest cooked shrimp, for guests to peel themselves, to elaborate sauced lobster dishes. Prices for fresh shellfish skyrocket in the week before Christmas. For that reason, many shoppers buy early and freeze their seafood. Wild-caught shellfish won’t have denominación de origen (DO), although some varieties do have surnames. Such are the famed langostinos (jumbo shrimp) from Sanlucar de Barameda (Cádiz), pictured above, and from Vinarós (Castellón). Atlantic farmed mussels do (DO Mejillón de Galicia).

24. Lamb, baby kid, capon (cordero, cabrito, capón).

The Christmas Eve feast often features baby lamb, kid-goat or fat capon. (I.G.P. Cordero de Navarra and Pollo y Capón del Prat;  DO. Cordero Manchego, Lechazo de Castilla-León and  Ternasco de Aragón.) Chivo Lechal Malagueño, pictured above, is baby kid from Málaga.
25. Marzipan (mazapán).

Happy Christmas! Let’s have marzipan to celebrate.  Marzipan is a paste made by grinding and kneading sweet almonds with sugar. It is shaped into charming figures, glazed and decorated. While it is confected in various regions of Spain, Toledo (Castilla-La Mancha) it the capital for marzipan. (DO Mazapán de Toledo.)

Many of these Spanish food products are available in the US at grocery stores and from La Tienda,
The Spanish Table and de España.

Recipes using some of these foods:
Winter Salad with Oranges.
Saffron Ice Cream with Pine Nuts.
Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Shrimp.
Olive-Cream Cheese Dip
Squash Salad with Raisins.
Quince Sorbet.
Carrot Cream Soup with Goat Cheese.
Fish in Pimentón Sauce.
Apricot-Nut Bars.
Andalusian Christmas Cookies (Mantecados).
Cherimoya Tart with Chocolate.
Shellfish Cocktail with Avocado.
Pasta with Mojama Tuna.
Almond Nougat Mousse.
Roasted Kid-Goat with Potatoes
Christmas Almond Soup.

To order the book, Slicing Spanish Ham by Pilar Esteban-Ordorica, go to


  1. Thank You for these good things, the History and customs of Iberia !
    Sweet Basil

    1. Sweet Basil: You're welcome! Happy holidays and good eating.

  2. Christmas giving sorted! Thank you, Janet