THE warm evening air is caressing my skin, the chilled albarino wine is cool and uplifting, and the warm almonds at the centre of the table a delightful extra. At surrounding tables, elegantly dressed Madrilenos with deep husky voices speak animatedly in rapid Spanish.
We are high above Gran Via, Madrid's main street, at a terrazas (terrace bar) that looks out over the sparkling evening cityscape punctuated with centuries-old cathedral towers.
"Salud" toast my new-found amigos, as we laugh about the joyous challenge we have been set for the next week - to discover more about the food and wine of Spain.
Favourite culinary memories from this part of the world include eating finger-licking gambas (prawns) in the coastal town and home of Salvador Dali, Cadaques; swilling sangria on hot sweaty nights in Barcelona bars, and having a picnic of jamon, olives and Manchego cheese in the gardens of Alhambra in Granada.
These traditional dishes are still very much part of the Spanish experience, but as I was soon to discover there is much more going on in the cocinas of Spain.
Every generation has its new music, fashion and food. Here in Spain it was the now world-famous Ferran Adria whose molecular gastronomy and restaurant El Bulli that put this country on the map in recent times.
With Adria due to close his restaurant in December when he turns it into a creative cooking school, the exciting news is there appears to be many more chefs ready to take up the gauntlet and challenge our perception of Spanish food.
For those who never managed to get a table at El Bulli - and you had to book a year in advance to get one - he has opened a gastro tapas bar called Tickets in Barcelona with his brother where, as would be expected, they continue to create truly imaginative dishes.
Indeed, Spain Gourmetour magazine reports the trend for taking traditional tapas to a whole new level has caught on in some of the country's leading bars and restaurants. They've nick-named it "pop-in posh food" and it's being served in the chicest of gastrobars.
Madrid, the home of tapas, is oozing with such establishments. Thanks to the city's elegant architecture and appreciation of art and design, beautiful old buildings are transformed with designer fittings and the food created is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat.
A leading example is El Cabrera situated in the Justicia district, one of the smartest parts of town, its neighbours include boutiques such as Marc Jacobs and Carolina Herrera.
Here chef Sergi Arola, who has twice been awarded a Michelin star, has cleverly combined a tapas bar with a deluxe cocktail bar for a sophisticated vibe.
Another, Estado Puro, opposite the Prado Museum, was Madrid's first gastrobar where they apply "haute cuisine knowledge to running a tapas bar".
In Spain the philosophy for life is siesta then fiesta! Lunch is at 2pm, dinner at 10pm and then it's cocktails til dawn. On a Saturday night in the old part of Madrid, street after street, plaza after plaza, is filled with tables and locals eating out.
Our party walk and walk, taking in the laid-back cosmopolitan buzz. For us, however, it is the renowned El Chaflan (Avenida Pio XII, 34) where we are heading to dine. With its all-white interior, a generous skylight, fairy lights and a simple olive tree as its centrepiece, this award-winning restaurant oozes a subtle sophistication far removed from the jostling tables on the old cobbled streets we've passed.
Head chef Juan Pablo Felipe has carved out a reputation that lifts local produce into an international league without losing sight of what makes it original. The waiters in sharp black dinner suits and bow ties are slick and swift, and our table tucks into tapas ranging from the juiciest olives and porcini to banana with paprika, all of which are artfully presented. We opt for the degustation - why not?
From essence of gazpacho (an agua de tomate with a light gel-like texture featuring jamon on top), to artichoke with macadamia nuts and vanilla sauce. This is served with a sherry "not just for drinking" advises the sommelier passionately, "but for smelling and feeling with the artichoke". He is right and the artichoke and sherry come together to create a surprisingly nutty and woody flavour.
We move on through courses of lobster paella, tuna with a tomato sauce, salt and rosemary; and roasted suckling pig salad with pomegranate and lemongrass that is so light it just melts in your mouth.
With each course we make the most of El Chaflan's reputation for having more than 600 vintage and sweet wines in its cellar. The wine flows and I'm having difficult keeping track of the flavours and conversation - the light, elegant albarino wine goes beautifully with the seafood, while a 2001 reserve rioja is smooth and smoky with the tuna. And then there are the cheeses and dessert ...
The conversation flows and those with the energy hit the bars until late ... which makes getting up the next morning a challenge. But a cafe con leche and croissant gets the system going and we're heading to the airport to fly to Galicia (pronounced "Galithia" ).
A region often overlooked by tourists wanting the warmth of the Mediterranean, it sits above Portugal on the Atlantic coast from which much of Spain's seafood is harvested.
Our first introduction to the region, however, is a visit to Pazo de Senorans in the province of O Salnes, a vineyard which focuses on albarino - the most well-known grape grown in the region. At its heart is the 16th century Galician noble house (or small chateau) and its surrounding gardens, lemon, pine and eucalyptus trees are now used for weddings and special events.
Everything has been lovingly restored with vintage-inspired fabrics and furniture. We sit around a glass dining table with a giant chandelier hanging overhead, and taste the wines as the owner Marisol Bueno rattles away passionately in Spanish, and business manager Vicky Mareque translates.
Outside birds chirp in the giant magnolia that fills one of the courtyards and I am overcome by the history that surrounds us. I drift away and imagine great feasts with swarthy senores and elegant senoritas from times gone by. Perhaps it's the aguardiente or "fire water" I've just tasted.
The vineyard dates back 40 years, but the winery was founded in 1989. The vineyard has 10ha in grapes and because land is at a premium, leases another 8.5ha around the neighbourhood, bringing much needed revenue to small land owners.
The grapes are all hand-picked and around 10,000 bottles are produced with 60 per cent being sold on the local market and the remainder exported (unfortunately, not yet to New Zealand but to Australia).
"We depend a lot on the climate," Bueno explains.
"Since the vegetative circle is very long and because we are near the Atlantic there is a lot of rainfall."
Indeed, the centuries-old horeo by the entrance to the house is like one of many dotted around the region; built on stilts to help keep grain and produce dry.
From here we head to the coastline and weave our way amongst the ria and rio (bays and river) of Galicia's southern sea-facing province. Boats fill marinas, mussel farms are dotted around the landscape, and it's easy to understand that the sea plays an important part in this region's identity.
Indeed, Galicia brings in more fish, shellfish and crustaceans than any other region in Spain (or Europe) and the Galicians regard it as their staple diet.
But we are on the side of the wild Atlantic Ocean as opposed to the mild, cheek-by-jowl Mediterranean coast which we usually associate with Spain. This brings a wonderfully refreshing feel to the experience and at times as we head inland I almost feel we could be in alpine Switzerland.
Casa Lolina, a traditional restaurant filled with bric-a-brac and locals is situated in the old custom house in Villagarcia, and is famous for its seafood. Here we dig into a lunch of monkfish empanada, delicious fillets of white tuna belly, and gross-looking goose barnacles (percebes): steamed for just a few seconds these are considered a great delicacy and to eat you suck the flesh out of them.
El bogavante - smaller and tastier than lobster - is served, typically with rice, while razor clams - named for their sharp, long razor-like shells, are served in a sauce, and monkfish turns up again in a delicious stew. Plates are wiped down with plenty of crusty bread and the food washed down with Guitian godello - a white wine from the region.
Outside on the small terrace this seemingly never-ending meal is completed with a shot of orujo (Spain's version of grappa). Thank goodness for the Spanish and their siesta.
Next stop is the spa town of Mondariz where there is the option to soak in the natural thermal baths of the spa, first established back in 1873, or just relax in the enormous Palacio del Agua. As it is off-season, this hotel feels a little like we've stepped on to the set of The Shining while the landscape with its mountain ranges is cool and green compared to the dry spaghetti western-feel of the south.
This trip is not just about eating at fabulous restaurants - although it might sound like it. It's also about getting a glimpse of the innovative producers in Spain.
Coming from New Zealand we have an appreciation for quality produce, innovation and the need to grow new markets. Spain isn't in the strongest of positions economically, so it's fascinating to be introduced to some of the companies bucking the trend.
Aguas de Mondariz is a high-tech bottling plant and, as Spain's main exporter of bottled water, sells in over 30 countries worldwide with Angola in Africa being a major market. It's come along way since 1873 when a doctor first sold the water in pharmacies, today the company prides itself on innovation in its packaging and dedication to the environment.
(Look out for the water starring in the new Martin Sheen movie The Way which is set in Galicia, says export director Miranda Clegg. "It's on the coffee table in the scene with Diane Kruger." You've been warned.)
Something not normally on one's itinerary is a visit to a fish packing plant and while sitting stuffing fish into tins all day isn't my idea of a job, the end result is superb.
Cuca is a premium canned fish and seafood company which was established 80 years ago. It prides itself on using no additives or preservatives, and after a tasting session of white tuna, hand-selected sardines caught off the coast near Portugal and seasoned with olive oil, tomatoes, spices and lemons, mussels grown in the nearby rias and packed in a special Galician sauce, and stuffed squid, fresh cockles and razor clams - you'd be hard-pressed not to fill your suitcase with tins of fish!
Export manager Marcos Duran Montero reinforces the message "ecologico" and consumers' growing awareness of wanting to know how and where their food is produced.
Another morning we find ourselves clambering over rocks on the very edge of the Atlantic in the Coruna province, watching dolphins play off the nearby point and listening to Antonio Muino Insua share his passion for the potential of seaweed. His business has brought much needed employment to "Finisterre (fisterra)" - the end of the world.
Four million people live in Galicia (there are 45 million in the whole of Spain) and with 20 per cent unemployment it's difficult to find work. But Insua is revolutionising the world of seaweed. Having built up a successful business preserving mushrooms, this entrepreneur could see a growing market and the need for new locally-sourced products.
With more than 500 different types of edible seaweed growing along the Galician coastline he has developed a whole host of interesting foodie treats - think olive and seaweed tapenade, curry-flavoured condiments, seaweed pasta and more. His passion is infectious and I wonder if there's anything similar and as innovative happening in New Zealand's seaweed world.
As a lover of cheese, a visit to Nino Pereira's cheese factory is heaven. Pereira's family has been making cheese for three generations, but this innovator has taken traditional methods and modernised them. As we nibble our way through his different cheeses, Pereira shares how he is a part of a consortium which sells more than 60 different types of cheese to 24 countries including Japan and Russia.
This man loves to talk. Basta! Ya! - enough already, less talk more action (this is a handy phrase to know in Spain). There's only so much Spanish one can put up with not being able to understand. (Note to self: learn more Spanish).
There have been reports that the Spanish have been slow to take up the international trend for organic food and products. However, this is beginning to change as people become more informed and with the rise of eco-restaurants - those that focus on and value organic ingredients.
Spain Gourmetour reports that the late seven-Michelin star chef Santi Santamaria, who was at the forefront of the movement, held a workshop on the subject back in 2009. And more restaurants have followed, helping to educate people on the advantages of organic.
In Galicia, a coalition of restaurants including Casa Marcelo, another Michelin-awarded restaurant, report an ongoing commitment to organic produce, particularly supporting that which is produced locally.
Casa Marcelo can be found in Santiago de Compostela - capital of Galicia and the final destination of the Way of St James.
Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world arrive on foot following the trails from from France, Portugal and Spain. (Last year 200 New Zealanders did the walk.) They follow the camino trails through villages, staying along the way in hostels bringing much needed revenue. Their motivations vary from the religious to the physical challenge and for many it serves as a way to find themselves.
Indeed, walking the caminos is at the basis of the aforementioned film The Way directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his dad Martin Sheen.
At all hours of the day, ruddy-cheeked pilgrims weave their way through the streets of the city to the main square and the gothic cathedral where they queue to see the relics of the apostle James and to collect their certificate of completion from the pilgrim's office.
On the day we visited, 677 pilgrims had arrived and many were out in the evening enjoying the local food and wine and toasting their achievement.
My achievement was surviving yet another outstanding meal.
Without a doubt dinner at Casa Marcelo - Santiago's only Michelin star restaurant is worth booking in for (and with only 32 tables, you will have to book). Tucked away in an 18th century building in a lane just off Obradoiro Square, with its stone walls and open kitchen, this is an experience to remember. Chef Marcelo Tejedor, born and bred in Galicia, talks of taking inspiration from "the Atlantic breath and the melancholy of the land".
Details count here as we indulge in the prix-fixe meal (there is no doing things by halves here with no option of a la carte, one must commit - rather easily - to the eight courses which range from a rhubarb mojito served on ice in a mini foam chilly bin, through to tender slivers of sardine, seasonal vegetables with seaweed sourced from our friend Antonio Muino Insua, chicken wings with local razor clams, foie mousse with mushrooms, scallop and sea urchin cream, locally grown asparagus with almond creme, hake with a green pepper sauce featuring a note of lemon, a pre-dessert treat in strawberries - the first of the season - with a clear, light sorbet, followed by a chocolate mille-feuilles I'm still dreaming about.
Proud of his heritage, everything at Casa Marcelo is based on local ingredients.
To find the freshest of seafood, the reddest sun-ripened tomatoes and the most carefully cured ham, the best places in Spain to look are the many markets.
The Mercardo de Santiago foodmarket in Plaza de Abastos is a foodie's delight where locals come each day to stock up.
The eight covered halls bring alive a way of shopping that has been at the heart of Europe for centuries and the inspiration for the growing farmers' markets here in New Zealand.
Customers eye up the best cuts of meat, stock up on fish and freshly baked bread, sample olives and local cheese, and chat away with the owners of each specialist stall.
Another sign of how the face of Spanish cuisine is changing, however, is Asbastos 2.0, a restaurant which sits in the corner rubbing its small but perfectly formed shoulder with the traditional food market. Only 12 people can sit inside, perched along a narrow yet elegant uplit glass table, while others sit outside for lunch tucking into bowls of cockles washed down with wine.
Owner Iago Pazos and chef Marcos Cerqueiro create new dishes each day based on what they've found at the market.
The dishes are announced on a computer screen at the end of the restaurant as they are brought to the table in their exquisite, dainty glory: minced Galician pork sausage empanada; berberechos espresso - or fresh cockles steamed for just seconds in an espresso machine; mackerel that has been marinated for eight hours in oil and soy and served with wasabi seaweed with pickles and garlic; razor clams with lemon; red mullet with black noodles; octopus risotto with Galician parmesan.
I start to lose track and quietly give thanks for the Spanish siesta as flop on my bed in what has to be one of the most glorious hotels I've ever stayed in - the five-star Parador de Santiago, which dates from the 1500s and is situated right next to the cathedral.
As I drift off to the sound of the cathedral bells ringing, I give thanks to the joy of travelling and the opportunities to experience the new. I praise the universal language of food and how, no matter where you are in the world, you'll find people passionate about what and how they eat.
In Spain they have truly embraced the art of eating and conversation, of long gatherings spent socialising while enjoying the finest of what their country has to offer. Muchas gracias Espana, it's been a pleasure.
MADRID - DON'T MISS
Loewe: Specialising in luxury leather goods since 1846, the first store opened on Madrid's Gran Via but now there are stores all over the world and its fashion label is much revered since current director Stuart Vevers moved to Loewe from Burberry. Gran Via, 8.
Ceramica Cantaro: Go here for the selection of pottery and ceramics gathered from different craftwork regions around Spain. C/flor Baja 8, 28013, Madrid.
Zara: This chain store has taken the world by storm (one has just opened in Sydney). Renowned for great directional pieces at reasonable prices, Madrid is where the Zara story first began and they are all over the city.
David Delfin: If you're looking for Spanish fashion these two designer boutiques in the Salamanca district are definitely worth checking out. Amaya Arzuaga, who showed last month in Paris, designs clothes that are both sexy and comfortable. (Calle Jorge Juan,21) and Amaya Arzuaga (Calle de Lagasca, 5).
Prado: From the Flemish masters to Goya and Velazquez, his museum is a must for art lovers - allow yourself plenty of time, if not days, to see it all. (Paseo del Prada).
Reina Sofia: A mecca for modern art lovers here, too, you will need plenty of time to explore the works of Spanish modernists Dali, Miro, Picasso and beyond. And then there's the mind-blowing extension designed by architect Jean Nouvel with floors of contemporary works. (Santa Isabel, 52).
The Ritz Terrace Bar: In the heat of the day, this leafy garden with its white cane furniture and elegantly dressed Madrilenos in their designer best, situated just across from the Prado, making it just the place to toast being high on fine art and a fine life. (Plaza de la Lealtad, 5).
Enjoy the flavours of Spain without leaving home.
Calasparra rice: Perfect for paella and fishy stews. $15.90 from Sabato.
Ines Rosales Tortas: These handmade sweet biscuits are scrummy with blue cheese or served with a coffee. $9.20 from Sabato.
Avaniel Tempranillo de Duero Tempranillo 2009: This wine has a pretty, pure palate of juicy strawberry and raspberry fruit, aromatic nuances of rose and incense and subtle earthy undertone. $20.50 from The Village Winery, Accent on Wine, Wine Vault, Vetro Mediterranean Foods, Bacchus Cellars.
Torras drinking chocolate: Perfect for dipping churros, croissants or brioche in, from St Vincent's Cave.
Santo Domingo paprika: The ideal addition to any Spanish dish, from St Vincent's Cave.
Romulo sherry vinegar: From Jerez, the home of sherry, used to dress chickpea salads, in soups and casseroles. $22.90 from Sabato.
Amanda Linnell visited Spain as a guest of the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade.
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