I'll warn you now, by the time I've finished writing this post it may well have grown into a long and rambling eulogy to the joys of Spanish food.
I fell in love with Spanish food and the Spanish way of eating as recently as last year. I always had a sneaking suspicion that I was a fan, but had never really experienced Spain properly (Costa's notwithstanding) until I was lucky enough to spend two long weekends in Madrid and Valencia last spring.
Madrid was a revelation. I had planned it as a foodie weekend, with the intention being to explore the bars and immerse ourselves in the tapas culture. I went with high expectations, but never thought I'd be so blown away by the sheer generosity and variety of it all. Madrid bars generally offer a free tapa with every drink ordered and the range is astounding; - peanuts, olives, salt cod & chickpea stew, tuna pastries, manchego cheese, jamón offcuts, braised mushrooms, mussels in white wine, hunks of chorizo, open sandwiches topped with ham, cheese or pate, crisps, pork scratchings; - all of these things and more were served up with small glasses (cañas) of beer, beakers (copas) of wine or glasses of wonderful sherry rarely costing more than a couple of euros apiece and sometimes less. During an evening of barhopping the freebies were supplemented with paid for tapas or sometimes a larger portion (ración) of whatever tickled our fancy. In this way I ate some of the best ham (jamón ibérico de bellota), some of the best seafood (galician style octupus - pulpo a la gallega), some of the best spuds (patatas bravas done perfectly) and some of the best deep fried goods (wonderfully light croquetas de jamón or de bacalao) I have eaten in my life.
We didn't really dine in restaurants in the evenings, preferring to stick to the bar crawls, but did frequent a couple at lunchtime. Generosity, value and quality were once again to the fore, as many bars have a dining room (comedor) offering a set menu at lunch. In the most memorable of these I dined on a nourishing salt cod & spinach soup, a rich, reduced oxtail stew served with (proper home-made not frozen) chips, a large slice of custard flan, half a bottle of passable red and mineral water for the princely sum of eleven euros. None of the food was mindblowing, but it was all cooked on the premises, substantial and tasty. This kind of thing would amaze back home, especially for a tenner, but in Madrid it seems to be pretty much the norm.
Snacks and breakfasts were also in keeping with the rest, in that they were invariably delicious, readily available and great value. Freshly squeezed orange juice, crusty sandwiches de jamón, and of course the magnificent churros with chocolate (freshly fried long doughnut type things with thick, dark, bittersweet chocolate to dip them in), which the Madrileños like to eat in the early hours after a night on the town (slightly classier than your average doner..).
All in all, my brief sojourn in Madrid was nothing short of a foodie awakening. Valencia had a lot to live up to. The first potential pitfall was that the Valencia trip was a stag do, not usually the type of break associated with dining well.
I needn't have worried. It wasn't quite Madrid, but Valencia put up a pretty good fight, giving me reason to believe that any large Spanish city is likely to be worth an eating and drinking weekend. The food highlight of the visit was an outstanding beef chop (chuletón de buey), up there with the best steaks I've ever eaten, and this from a restaurant selected completely at random in the centre of town. Honourable mentions also go to the quality of lamb and pork purchased from the supermarket, the melting-fat deliciousness of a five euro plate of ham scoffed in a scruffy bar in the local town where our villa was situated, and a paella for twelve people served up in a seafront tourist trap that could have been expensive and dire, but was neither.
At this point, if anyone is still reading this, you may have realised that I rather like the food in Spain. You may also have recalled that this post is titled 'Where to find the best Spanish food in the North?', so you may reasonably be wondering why I have waffled on about Spain at such length. So, in a rather roundabout way, to Britain.
In Britain, we don't really do Spanish eating properly. Let us take tapas, as the majority of Spanish restaurants in this country tend to focus on the tapas theme. Tapas restaurants in Britain are not really like tapas bars in Spain. For starters most of them are restaurants, rather than bars, which rather defeats the object in the first place. I don't mind this, as Britain is not Spain. Unless there is some huge, unexpected cultural shift we are not going to have bars in the Spanish style in any significant quantity in British towns and cities. As I've already said, I don't mind this, as bemoaning this fact would be like complaining that you can't get a decent pint of cask ale on every corner in Madrid, i.e. a bit silly.
So if we are going to have to sit down and eat our tapas all in once place what we can do is focus on the quality and value of the food, and in this respect a lot of the tapas places in the UK seem to fit into two camps.
In the first corner is La Tasca and it's ilk. Fairly cheap, but mediocre at best food that I'm pretty sure all comes pre-packaged and frozen for assembly line reheating. I have been to La Tasca twice in the last year or two, neither occasion of my choosing. The first occasion was with a large group of blokes, and the party menu had been pre-ordered. What this means is that they bring out all of the food all at once, on huge platters. This bears no resemblance to tapas, it's basically just a massive, shit buffet (you know the sort of thing; - manky chicken legs and budget frozen garlic bread). The second occasion was after more than a few drinks, when one of our group had 50% off vouchers for the food. As expected it was all dull if not actively bad. I recall that the pork ribs came with a particular recommendation for being tender and delicious. The meat was indeed tender and fell off the bones, but unfortunately was drowning in a horrid brown, gloopy sauce tasting of sugar and artificial smoke-flavour. I am not a fan of La Tasca.
In the second corner is the increasing number of upmarket Spanish places that serve very good food, but at generally very enthusiastic prices. Now I understand that certain Spanish foodstuffs are very pricey because they are the finest, most exquisite of their type (yes I'm looking at you iberico ham), but this does not apply in all cases. Charging six or seven quid for a single scallop or a tortilla (it's just eggs!) is taking the michael however well executed the dish. These are the type of places where you will eat some delicious food, but leave feeling peckish and not even slightly pissed having parted with forty of your finest english pounds. I'm not really sure whether this type of Spanish restaurant has spread to the North in abundance yet, as I haven't sought them out since returning, but their numbers have grown rapidly in London over recent years.
So what am I actually looking for? Some sort of halfway house really. Good quality, well cooked, generous, unpretentious, good value Spanish food. Like in Spain. Sounds like a simple formula, but obviously isn't.
Here is a very short list of places that I have compiled from searching the web and reading a few reviews. I have only been to one of them, so I don't know whether the rest fit the bill or not.
Liverpool - Salt House Tapas
Manchester - El Rincon de Rafa
Ripponden - El Gato Negro Tapas
Leeds - El Bareto
El Rincon and El Bareto look like they are in the Spanish bar style, hence their inclusion. El Gato and Salt House are much more in the new, upmarket pricey mould but are included on my shortlist for their great value lunch deals. El Gato I know is great, because I went a couple of years ago at lunchtime and it was excellent, and Salt House is getting some fine reviews from some trustworthy sources.
All being well I'd like to visit those on my shortlist over the coming months, but would love to hear any comments or suggestions that anyone has to offer. I can't be jetting off to Madrid twice a year, got to satisfy the craving somehow...