Life in Marbella is an invitation to a whole culinary world of possibilities: walk through Puerto Banús or the streets of the city centre and you will find restaurants dedicated to the various cuisines of China, Italy, France, Thailand, India, Britain, Mexico, Switzerland, Greece, Holland, South Africa and Lebanon.
With all of these choices on offer, visitors sometimes forget that Spanish food is the equal of any of these. Certainly as far as British holidaymakers are concerned, the opinions of celebrity chef and successful restaurateur, Rick Stein carry considerable weight and his recent series, Rick Stein’s Spain, was a genuinely enthusiastic celebration of the glories of Spanish cuisine.
Like many repeat visitors, Stein first arrived in Spain on a family holiday as a small child and was immediately captivated by the sights and smells which then seemed definitely foreign. Now that almost every town in the UK seems to support at least one tapas bar, this sense of the exotic might have been diluted but there are, perhaps, still some for whom Spanish food means little more than paella and gazpacho.
As popular as these dishes undoubtedly are – with locals as much as tourists – there is far more to Spanish cooking than these old standards. With every foodie’s favourite, El Bullí, being hailed the best restaurant in the world for most of the years of its existence, international food critics have been forced to re-evaluate the very nature of Iberian cuisine.
As Rick Stein’s series of four programmes so brilliantly evoked, the manufacturers of such items as Manchego cheese, Rioja wine, olive oil and even tinned anchovies display a rare passion for their products.
One of the especially pleasing things about Spanish restaurants is that, while there are some superb five-star establishments for a special occasion (or when a wealthy family member or friend is paying!) it is still possible to eat like a king for comparatively little.
We recommend trying a traditional venta; these usually family-run establishments offer a set menu del día at a low price. There are normally three or four choices of the first and second courses, which are announced by the waitress, since the menu changes every day, depending on the availability of ingredients and the whim of the chef! The best ventas can be recognised by the tables full of workmen who can always be relied upon to sniff out the best food at the lowest prices.
It’s worth taking the plunge at a roadside venta and trusting to luck, since the waitresses almost always have an interesting range of mime to describe the dishes, even when their English and your Spanish proves unequal to the task of satisfactory verbal communication.
More importantly, these wonderfully individualistic eating places provide an excellent guide to the high quality of local produce.