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The French fancy themselves, obviously. This is, after all, the birthplace of haute cuisine, a country in which food is taken more seriously than perhaps any other facet of life (save for wine and striking). France has spawned a form of cookery that’s famous the world over.
It’s the home of pate, of baguettes, of butter that’s a meal in itself, of stinky cheese, of croissants, pains au chocolat and tarte tatin. So it’s completely fair that the French would fancy themselves as gourmands. You could say they invented the word.
It’s also fair that when you consider what might be the world’s best travel destination for food lovers, France would come to mind. It’s hard to argue that any traveller who’s interested in stuffing their face with tasty foreign morsels shouldn’t have the country on their itinerary.
However, there are other nations that are up there. You could equally name Italy as the world’s best, with its pastas, its cured meats, its Parmigiano cheese and its pizza. Or you could go with Japan, a nation that thrives on high quality, meticulously prepared food for every meal. Or maybe you’d even say Thailand, or Vietnam, or Singapore, or Peru.
Any of those countries would be a sound choice. Any they would make a perfect destination for a traveller who’s into food.
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But they’re not the best.
The best place I’ve experienced as a foodie destination is one that seems to fly under most people’s radar. It’s known worldwide for a few dishes that are not even close to being representative of its cuisine. It’s also largely ignored on a global scale – while you’ll find Italian restaurants, French restaurants and Japanese restaurants in almost every city in the world, you’ll still have to seek out a place that’s dedicated to this country.
Spend some time there, however, and you’ll discover a nation of food lovers, of innovators and traditionalists, of three-star fine-diners and hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood boozers. You’ll find a place where everyone cares about their food, but no one makes too much of a fuss over it.
You’ll find yourself in Spain.
Yes, this is the home of paella, but no, no one really eats paella. I mean they do, but it’s not the culinary staple that you might think it is after having visited one or two of the rare Spanish restaurants in Australia. Yes, tapas is popular, but no, it’s not limited to patatas bravas and croquettes.
Spain is a nation that cares about food. Five of the world’s 20 best restaurants are in Spain, including the number one, El Celler de Can Roca. (France, in comparison, has two in the top 20; Italy has one.) That’s by no means the ultimate measure of a country’s greatness as a foodie destination, but it does give you some idea of how seriously cuisine is taken in Spain, and how bizarre it is that its dishes aren’t eaten the world over.
To travel through Spain is to discover a different foodie culture in every region. Down in the south you’ve got tapas at its finest, from simple slices of manchego cheese on a plate to intricately designed little mouthfuls of food that seem far too complex for such a small portion. Plus this is the home of the king of all cured meats: jamon iberico.
Then there’s Extremadura, with all of its hearty game stews and great cheeses. There’s the Mediterranean coast, where you’ll finally find paella in Valencia, as well as fish stew, black sausage, romesco sauces and cured meats in Barcelona. There’s Galicia, famous throughout the rest of the country for its seafood and soft cheeses.
And finally there’s the Basque region of the north, which is basically foodie Disneyland. If you love food and you haven’t been to the Basque country, you need to have a good hard look at yourself. The town of San Sebastian, famous for having more Michelin stars per capita than any place on Earth, is foodie culture at its finest, where every single bar and restaurant serves up innovative, tasty, and fresh cuisine.
But still, it’s not just the food itself that makes the whole of Spain great for travellers. It’s the way it’s eaten.
Food in Spain is casual, it’s unhurried, it’s unpretentious, and it’s cheap. It’s eaten standing up in centuries-old bars, where you screw up your used napkins and chuck them on the floor after eating. It’s consumed in town piazzas, washed down with cold beer or a glass of wine. It’s eaten family style, designed to be shared, intended to be a social experience.
Even the fine-dining restaurants, those places that sit in the top 20 in the world, are approachable for the average punter. The food might involve foams or weird gelatinous bubbles or blobs of sauce, but the service is casual and the crowd is friendly. At Etxebarri, the 13th best restaurant in the world, the maître d’ wears jeans and sneakers. The star dish there is steak – just a steak. Nothing else.
As with anything food-related of course, this opinion of Spain is purely subjective. You might like France more. You might prefer Vietnam. That’s fine. But what’s undeniable is that Spain is strangely underrated, largely ignored on the global gastronomic scene.
You rarely go out with your friends for Spanish. You don’t dream of one day travelling to Spain just to eat.
But you should. It’s the best in the world.
Where do you think is the ultimate destination for food lovers? Have you been to Spain? What did you think of the cuisine?
This content was originally published here.