The Pyrenees Mountains, their snow-capped peaks soaring into the skies, divide France and Spain like a colossal wall torn from larger-then-life mythologies. Historically and culturally, this natural border has allowed the two nations to evolve quite distinctly. It is remarkable how life is steeped in France’s typical joie de vivre on one side of the mountains and how particularly robust and rustic everything feels on the Spanish side.
But one thing the French and Spanish share is their love of their unique cuisines and wines. Are they different? Absolutely … and deliciously so! But each is rooted in an agricultural tradition that spans centuries, from generations-old farms to prolific vineyards that date back to ancient Rome. Here’s our survey of some of our favorite culinary pleasures, from the sweeping plains of Normandy to the tapas bars of Barcelona.
FROM FARM TO PLATE
Normandy: Land of Cheese and Apples
Normande cows and apple orchards dot the rolling countryside of Normandy. This is one of France’s most dairy-rich regions, home to working farms that produce creamy Camembert and Boursin cheeses, among many others. The butter and cream made here is celebrated as the most delicious in Europe. Apple cider, too, is pressed from the region’s abundant apple groves. But perhaps the fruit is best appreciated in the popular calvados, or apple brandy. In many households and restaurants, the French drink a glass between courses in order to improve the appetite. And who can blame them? When your next plate is piled high with fresh oysters or mussels from Brittany’s shores or a freshly baked apple tart, you’ll want to eat all you can!
Périgord: Duck, Duck, Goose
It’s not safe to be a waterfowl in the Périgord, where life on the wing often ends on the plate. One of the region’s signature dishes is magret de canard. The fattier (and more intensely flavorful) French Moulard duck breast is pan seared and then served with a sauce of wine enriched with rendered fat. Found on the vast majority of local restaurant menus, it’s a true comfort food. Confit de canard—which uses the legs instead of the breasts—is even more indulgent. Slow cooked so that they render fat, the legs are softened and then fried, often with potatoes. The result is melt-in-your-mouth meat. But the ultimate indulgence is Foie gras, the rich liver of a goose or duck. Sliced into tender slivers, pressed into a paté, or wrapped in puff pastry, it is a delicacy known worldwide.
Northern Spain: Where Fresh Cuisine Is a Social Event
One of the great pleasures of visiting Spain is participating in its lively food culture. Throughout the Basque region and Catalonia, vast farmlands raise livestock and grow produce that makes its way into the restaurant kitchens of Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona. Then the chefs get to work creating the artful small plates for which Spain is known.
In Barcelona, tapas bars draw huge crowds of foodies every evening. These sophisticated small plates can be hot or cold – from simply presented olives and cheeses to more complex, richly flavored dishes that may be battered and fried or swimming in olive oil or delicious sauce. In the most authentic tapas bars, dishes may be on display in a glass case. Salted cod loin, meatballs, pickled vegetables, battered squid, sausages, croquettes and dozens of other items might grace a menu – reflecting the endless bounty of Northern Spain.
In Bilbao and throughout the Basque region, tapas go by a different name: pintxos or pinchos. Dry cured ham (or jamon serrano), anchovies, stuffed peppers and other often elaborate preparations are served on small slices of bread. These mouthwatering appetizers are named for the toothpick that secures the topping to the bread (a “pincho”).
Of course, to fully appreciate the incredible cuisine of France and Spain, it is best to pair your dish with one of the region’s wines. In France, vintners have been perfecting the art of wine-making for some 2,000 years, creating the largest wine economy in the world. Spain may have a younger viticulture, but it boasts the highest percentage of land dedicated solely to vineyards of any nation on earth. And both countries are passionate about the wines they make.
PERFECTION IN A GLASS
French Bordeaux & St. Emilion
As Bordeaux, known as “Little Paris” for the grandeur of its architecture, became a major port city, merchants ferried France’s finest wines to the Netherlands and Great Britain, creating a global demand. Still the epicenter of the wine industry to this day, Bordeaux’s 13,000 grape growers and 10,000 châteaux together produce nearly a billion bottles of wine every year.
The wines of Bordeaux vary by color, though the region is best known for its array of deep, rich reds. Bordeaux reds blend two wines—Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—and each vineyard determines the proportions. Vineyards on the left bank of the Gironde River are Cabernet heavy, while those across the water favor the Merlot. Both yield earthy reds, good with lamb, beef, truffles, and tomatoes. The whites here, drier than the reds, are excellent with seafood, including the sweeter varieties, which also shine with cheese.
Older than Bordeaux and further north, St. Emilion is one of the most romantic cities in France. Settled since prehistoric times, it is best known for its medieval architecture, with steep, narrow streets winding between limestone buildings. Some of the streets continue below ground into tunnels and catacombs, once home to the hermetic monk for whom the city is named.
Soon after its founding, St. Emilion was making wines commercially, expanding private vineyards that were planted a good 700 years before. When the Santiago de Compostela through France became a major pilgrimage route in the 11th century, a robust wine industry tempted visitors to stop here. Today, it is known for its reds, which most often blend Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a few wineries adding Cabernet Sauvignon to the mix. Reaching maturity—and your table—faster than Bordeaux vintages, St. Emilion wines stand up well to game birds, salmon, and nutty cheeses like tomme de savoie or reblochon.
Since at least the 9th century, when monks began tending vines, winemaking has been part of the local culture here, but it wasn’t until 1902 that Rioja was formally recognized as a wine variety, and not till the end of the 20th century that it was both awarded a certificate of origin (which guarantees its provenance) and given the highest classification Spain allows.
Though best known for its reds, white and rose Riojas are also produced here. Experts describe classic Rioja wines as bold and complex, with unmistakable cherry and vanilla notes. What makes a Rioja so full-bodied is the use of oak barrel-aging techniques inspired by the wineries of Bordeaux. Some Riojas are aged up to five years in barrel and bottle before their release. The result is a wine hardy enough to stand up to meat and strong cheeses, and, if you ask a Spaniard, to challenge any wine France can produce.
In a Discovery Tours small group, you’ll have time to indulge in every morsel on your plate and linger over every glass during our enriching itineraries to France and Spain, whether during included meals and tastings or during time on your own. We do hope you’ll join us to savor the culinary pleasures of these remarkable countries.