The 6 Weirdest Things I’ve Eaten in Spain

October 20, 2014 • Eat Like a Local, Featured, Madrid, Spanish Food, Where to Eat In

Since moving to Spain, I’ve learned it’s often better if I just don’t ask what that pot of red paste is or why that circular piece of chicken-like meat has purple suckers. Some things, I’ve discovered, you just have to taste before you translate.

This is a country where every (and I mean EVERY) part of a pig is considered edible, where the creatures of ocean nightmares are commonly found on elementary school lunch trays and where an animal’s organs are often more popular than its tenderloins. Spain is a haven of possibilities for adventurous eaters and a culinary wheel of fortune for the rest of us.

Yet, shockingly, most of the nastiest-sounding things on the menu are surprisingly scrumptious. My current tapa obsession, boquerones en vinagre, are something that four years ago I wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole. Did I ever imagine I’d be singing the praises of pickled anchovies? Hell no. But this is Spain. And in this always-surprising culinary utopia of a country, the most delicious dishes are all too often the most bizarre.

Raw white anchovies in vinegar

Homemade white anchovies with vinegar and pickles.

So if you’re feeling adventurous, or just really want some darn good Spanish cooking, here are the six weirdest things I’ve eaten in Spain and where you can taste them for yourself:

1. Snails

Okay, so on the worldwide scale of weirdness, snails might not rank too high. But after walking to school every morning past a fence-full of those squirming shells, my toothpick took a definite pause before diving into my first stewed caracol. Turns out, I love them.

Unlike in France, where the escargot (could you possibly give a more elegant name to a less elegant creature?) are typically served in a cream or butter sauce, Spanish caracoles are usually stewed in a highly-spiced tomato sauce. Think  garden-fresh tomatoes and great olive oil meet spicy paprika and a sturdy punch of cumin. Add a plate of fresh-fried potato chips and an extra-cold caña of Mahou and you’ve got the perfect Sunday afternoon snack.

Snails and Small Beers at Los Caracoles in Madrid

For the best snail experience in Madrid check out Los Caracoles on Calle de Toledo, 106. This old-time Spanish bar is super close to the Rastro market that sprawls through the La Latino barrio so I highly recommend hitting up both on a Sunday morning!

2. Pig’s large intestine, stuffed and cured

If it sounds positively medieval that’s because it is. Records of monks eating botillo, as it’s called in Castillian Spanish, date back to the twelfth century before the Americas and the modern-day botillo´s main ingredient (paprika) were discovered.

While the spices have evolved over the years, the pig parts haven’t. As a Spanish mother (and excellent cook) explained to me, botillo is where all the parts of the pig that you don’t know what else to do with get stuffed. Bones and ribs and tail and a slew of other unidentifiable pig pieces are spiced with paprika, garlic and salt, then stuffed into the sack of the pig´s large intestine. The lumpy oval of meat is then smoked and cured in a process similar to curing sausage.

Stuffed Pig Large Intestine

To actually eat the botillo it must first be boiled. The typical Botillo de Bierzo, the most popular variety that comes from a region in the northern province of León, is served in two plates.

First comes a bowl of stewed leafy greens similar to kale or collard greens which have been boiled along with the botillo. Then the sac-o-meat is cut open to reveal the enormously tender, marvelously spicy and positively succulent smorgasbord of pig parts. It may sound disgusting, but the meat inside that intestine is downright delicious.

Botillo being a dish served almost exclusively in León, in order to get a good one in Madrid you best be sure you’re in a Leonese restaurant. I suggest Prada a Tope on Calle del Principe, 11, between the Sol and Sevilla metro stops.

3. Pig ears

This so-called “delicacy” definitely fits the “weird¨ category but doesn’t even come close to delicious. There are few foods in Spain that I just can’t stomach and oreja a la plancha, or pan-fried pig ear, is one of them.

While the flavor isn’t too terrible – it’s basically generic pork flavor with olive oil, salt and sometimes paprika – the texture is torturous. If you’ve never eaten cartilage before (and I don´t recommend it) it’s a lot like crunching down on a thin sheet of gristly plastic. That delightful texture is sandwiched between two layers of firm fat and topped with a patch of skin that still has fine hairs poking out of it.

Pig Ear tapa in Santiago de Compostela

Still want to try it? Check out Casa Toni on Calle de la Cruz, 14. If the oreja awful, Casa Toni has a slew of great options for traditional tapas and raciónes. Hopefully a plate of their fried squid will be enough to get rid of all those cartilage remnants. 

4. Octopus tentacles

I couldn’t possibly live in Galicia, the octopus capital of Spain, without getting in on the pulpo craze. Pulpo, aka octopus, may easily be the most famous dish in that northwestern state, where bimonthly octopus fairs hop from tiny village to even tinier village and “pulperias” are the most common type of restaurant.

For my first octopus-eating adventure two years ago I decided to do it right: on a wooden bench in a white circus-style tent in my pueblo´s fairgrounds. Here they only serve one thing: boiled octopus. Huge copper pots with purple tentacles bubbling to the surface greet customers upon entering the tent. The octopuses are boiled whole.

Next chefs use kitchen scissors to snip the tentacles into bite-sized round medallions and heap them onto wooden plates. A libral dose of olive oil, a healthy sprinkling of salt and a pop of paprika and the whole dripping mess is half-thrown onto the long wooden picnic table. A loaf of bread and unmarked bottle of wine come flying across the table behind it. Since apparently forks are for guiri amateurs,we pick up toothpicks and dive in.

Pulpo at the Feria in Sarria, Galicia, Spain

Pulpo a la gallega would be amazing if not for the fatty ring of purple suckers that line each tentacle. The meat on the inside is fantastic. Dense and white, it’s like  a cross between calamari and chicken and positively soaked in olive oil paprika-y goodness. In Madrid, it is also quite common to find pulpo a la brasa, or grilled octopus. If you see it on the menu, order it immediately. It’s all the goodness of traditional pulpo without any of the gooeyness.

Get some stellar pulpo a la brasa at Albur on Calle de Manuela Malasaña, 15 or try the traditional “a la gallega” style at El Chacon, situated right next to Madrid´s river at Saavedra Fajardo, 16. 

5. Imitation baby eels

Yes, fake baby eels are an edible thing and yes, they are rather fantastic. Why imitation? Because real baby eels, called angulas, fetch a price upwards of about 130 dollars per pound (and that’s after the price plummeted this year to less than half the 700 euro per kilo the little water worms were going for in 2013).

The fake variety, gulas, are made from fish and usually served pan-fried with olive oil, garlic, cayenne pepper and often small shrimp. Gulas are typically piled onto a slice of baguette and sold as tapas or slathered in even more tasty olive oil and served on a plate as a ración to share. While I’m doubtful I’d ever be able to get over the snakey-ness of the real thing, I find the imitation eels to be quite fantastic. Especially if I think of it as a quirky fish pasta instead of itsy bitsy water snakes.

Imitation Baby Eels on Toast at Casa Gonzalez in Madrid

Casa Gonzalez on Calle León, 12 in barrio Las Letras has some of the best tostas in town, including a nice and spicy gulas tosta. The stellar tostas plus their impressive selection of fantastic Spanish wines by the glass makes it one of my favorite places in Madrid!

6. A pot of pig blood

Word of advice: when taking non-Spanish-speaking friends to a typical Spanish restaurant with Spanish-only menus, don’t let them order. You might end up eating a pot of pig blood.

Morcilla de León, or Leonese blood sausage, has really nothing to do with sausage and everything to do with blood. Unlike its absolutely awesome cousin, morcilla de Burgos, the León version is often served without the casing and (most importantly) doesn’t have rice to a add firm meatiness to the blood. Instead, this hearty and, in my blood-phobic opinion, gag-worthy dish consists of pig blood mixed with finely diced onion and spices like paprika, garlic and salt. The witchy concoction served in a clay pot, or cazuela, and eaten on bread or (if you’re really adventurous) by the spoonful. Admittedly, the Leonese morcilla has great flavor. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over the heebie jeebies of knowing I’m slurping up blood.

Pot of Pig Blood at Albur in Madrid

To try your hand at the vampire lifestyle check out the Morcilla de León at Albur Calle de Manuela Malasaña, 15.

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14 Responses to The 6 Weirdest Things I’ve Eaten in Spain

  1. Oh man, I’ve become a very adventurous eater since coming to Spain two years ago, and I enjoy eating almost everything on this list! I don’t particularly care for the jumbo-sized Madrid-style snails, but the tiny Andalusian-style ones I really loved slurping down when I lived in Jaén.

    “thin sheet of gristly plastic” is the pERFECT description for oreja—I can eat it but it’s the texture, not the weird idea of eating ears, that grosses me out.

    And Morcilla de León is almost exactly the same as the morcilla en caldera that they eat in the province of Jaén down south! It, too, is basically the blood sausage filling…just sans the casing…mixed with onions, pine nuts, and fragrant spices. They usually eat it with cute little bread rolls called ochíos that are painted orange with paprika. Aaaaaaaa now I have to go back!

  2. Andy Byers says:

    Me gusta much Morcilla de Leon or Burgos!

  3. Sara Hintze says:

    I thought I could eat ANYTHING, especially if it involved garlic and Spanish paprika…however, I don’t think there is enough of either one of those to convince me to eat the pig blood dish. I absolutely loved the snails and would like to try botillo! And, yes, the eels are f a n t a s t i c ! (My crockpot dinner planned for tonight sounds pretty boring)

  4. Justine says:

    Oh my, the imitation baby eels are so weird! Nice to know why they would even imitate them in the first place. I seemed to have gotten over the pig’s blood thing, probably because I’ve gotten to love the taste of morcilla. I remember when I was studying here at the university, my classmates were appalled that they serve fish with the head. Haha..I cook it that way now 🙂 Fun post!

    • Amy says:

      Thanks Justine! I also was a bit creeped out by the whole fish, head (and eyeballs!) included thing at first. But it´s just so much tastier that way!

  5. “Witchy concoction” sounds about right! I like morcilla de Burgos, but the morcilla de Leon is just too strong to be spooning up.

    I think callos have to be one of the most adventurous dishes I’ve eaten in Spain. I had been avoiding them for several months, but then one day I was out with a Spanish coworker who happens to hate garlic. (How she survives in Spain is beyond me.) And, what do ya know–it turned out that callos was the ONLY item on the menu without garlic at this bar. While biting through the rubbery texture, certainly wished they’d been slathered in garlic to make them go down a bit easier!!

  6. veronica says:

    the text and comments really tells a lot about your different culinary culture.

    Im italian, and I grew up eating everything of many animals (not all italians eat all things though)…and indeed often the things put aside are -in my opinion- the best ones for sure…but unfortunatly are also the most fat ones that I should not eat for colesterol reasons.

    I`m personally furious if someone takes off the fish head as I love it, as I love all the headds,…try for ex the lamb one…oh my god…especially the brain, the fish one (especially of specif fish )…etc
    they are all gnammy gnammy things indeed…

    but I know it is difficult go over your own culinary culture and enjoy, my husband is english and he still do not eat this things, but better for me!

  7. […] Since moving to Spain my yearly Christmas shopping has been a breeze. I scoff at you, Black Friday. I slowly shake my head at you, epically long Target lines. I feel for you, family members who have no idea what to buy each other. Thanks to the  inexplicable lack of exportation of Spanish goods, America in general and Texas in particular are completely void of the wonders that fill the shops, markets and stores of Spain. […]

  8. Charo says:

    Amy, boquerones are not eaten raw, they are macerated in vinager, olive oil, garlic, salt and parsley.

    • Charo says:

      Forgot to add:

      the region of Spain where pulpo is famous (Galicia) is in North West Spain, is not a “northeastern province” (actually, Galicia has 4 provinces as you know…)

      caracoles a la madrileña, a la riojana, a la catalana… same snails, different cooking

      one of the main ingredients of gulas (or angulas for that matter, for those who can afford them) is guindilla (cayenne pepper)

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