The Mediterranean diet has long been hailed as one of the healthiest in the world. With an abundance of fresh ingredients such as olives and fish, and plenty of sunshine, the Mediterranean countries enjoy a relaxed and fulfilling pace of life. In this guide we take a look at Spanish, Italian and Greek cuisine and with the help of local experts, recommend what you should try on your next cruise holiday.
Traditional Spanish cuisine
Spain’s sunny Mediterranean coast draws millions of visitors every year. Offering tourists the opportunity to bask in the sunshine with a crisp glass of wine and world-renowned seafood, it’s easy to see why Spain tops the list for many as the ultimate foodie destination.
“Spain has a huge diversity of landscapes and climates,” said Miguel Ullibarri of food travel agency, A Taste of Spain, “with a very large part of the country dedicated to farming, agriculture and fishing – Spain produces more olive oil and cured ham than any other country, and has the largest extension of vineyards in the world.
“From a culinary point of view, the traditional cuisine of Spain is particularly varied and rich, it takes advantage of the great local products and the cultural heritage from Arabs, Jews and the Americas. It’s not by chance that in the past 15 years Spanish restaurants are ranked consistently as some of the world’s best – San Sebastian, in the Basque Country, has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere else. If this is not enough, Spaniards are welcoming people who love meeting people and sharing their time, food, wine and traditions with visitors.”
When thinking of Spain, many will immediately think of tapas. The country’s delicious cured meats such as Iberian ham and chorizo, coupled with seafood and spectacular wines, makes this part of the Mediterranean irresistible. Pablo Vasquez of Spain Food Sherpas, a food tour company in Malaga, said: “In our opinion, Spain is a wonderful foodie destination because of many reasons. We have the produce, being the vegetable garden of Europe, the biggest olive oil producer worldwide, home to quality products like the Iberian pig, cattle in the north of Spain, all types of seafood and our wines, red white, cava, sweet and sherry.
“Spain is very diverse. We have totally different products depending on the region you’re visiting. And every village, even the smallest ones, have a speciality they claim to be the best in the world.
“The cultural and historic heritage our cuisine represents includes Arabian, Roman or Sephardic influence, and we have some of the most special treats like rice fields in Valencia, sugar cane plantations on the tropical coast of Malaga and Granada for Saffron.”
Spain Food Sherpas shared their must-try dishes when visiting the ancient city of Malaga:
- “Fried fish (especially white anchovies) and ‘Espetos’ (grilled sardines). These are best enjoyed at a chiringuito bar on the beach
- Our cold cuts like bondiola or acorn and chestnut fed Iberian ham and goat cheeses of our local goat breed
- Aloreñas olives – the only ones with a designation of origin in Spain
- Malaga-style salad with potatoes, cod, onion, Aloreña olives and orange. An interesting mixture!
- Ajoblanco – a cold almond soup with garlic. Very different, surprising and tasty
- The sweet wine from Malaga cannot be missed – you can almost taste the sun in its sweet berries and wonderful fruity notes
- Our seasonal produce in general – loquats and cherries in spring, heirloom tomatoes, figs and peaches in the summer, mangoes and cherimoyas in autumn and citrus fruits and purple carrots in winter – just to name some of them!
- Porra Antequerana, similar to gazpacho
- Pil-pil prawns, one of the most typical Andalusian treats
Take a food tour in Malaga
If you have just a day or two to spend in Malaga on your cruise holiday, it may be worth considering a food tour to sample the best of the local cuisine. Pablo said: “Spain Food Sherpas is a small, local company that was founded in 2013 in Malaga at the hands of a team of food lovers that wanted to reveal and share the hidden culinary and cultural treasures of the region.
“Our passion is stunning produce, grocery stores with lots of history behind them, talented chefs that create mouth-watering combinations (traditional and with a contemporary twist) and of course the food markets, that are our cornerstone.
“We believe that one of the most enjoyable aspects of travelling is the opportunity to taste local cuisine and discover new flavours and like this, get a little bit closer to what the real essence of a place is – its culture, history and way of being through food.”
So, what can you expect on a tour with Spain Food Sherpas? Pablo said: “Our tours are about visiting places most people wouldn’t necessarily find on their own, like off-the-beaten-track ‘ultramarinos’ and specialty stores. Another interesting aspect is that we offer dishes we know are tasty and representative of our region, but we also try to make our clients experience food they wouldn’t have ordered by themselves.
“Creations that combine sweet and savoury notes, different textures or presentations of some of our ‘classics’ or simply a really good pairing of food and drinks that get your taste buds going.”
Experiencing Malaga on a food tour also opens doors to meeting locals and discovering the true essence of the country. Pablo added: “Our clients will meet local people, learn about the history of the city and province and taste delicious food as they stroll through the old town.
“There is much to learn about all the produce our region has to offer and we’re very happy when we can share this knowledge with them, so their stay in Malaga is hopefully even richer and more profound. We strive to give an insight of the local food and culture, exposing them to real local food and wine that the ‘Malagueños’ eat.”
A culinary journey through Spain
For food tours and experiences in Barcelona, Catalonia, Andalusia, Galicia, the Basque Country and Central Spain, aptly named A Taste of Spain have got you covered. Specialising in designing and organising private culinary tours and activities for international foodie travellers, the agency launched in 1999 as the first tour operator of its kind.
Miguel Ullibarri of A Taste of Spain said: “On our food tours and activities participants get to know Spain and its culture through food and wine – not just enjoying great food, but meeting local farmers, producers and chefs, visiting food markets and learning how Spaniards cook and share time around food as an essential part of their social life.”
As well as tours, A Taste of Spain also offers cooking experiences. Miguel added: “We also organise hands-on cooking classes in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Cadiz, Galicia and San Sebastian, as well as food workshops featuring Spanish products such as Iberico ham, olive oil and cheese.”
With so many delicious meals to choose from, what should travellers prioritise on a cruise to Spain? Miguel said: “There are famous Spanish dishes and products such as paella, Spanish omelette, tapas, Iberico ham and sherry wines that shouldn’t be missed, but sometimes it’s not easy for visitors to get to enjoy their authentic versions, particularly in tourist areas. The list of regional specialities and dishes throughout our country is endless, Spain is a true paradise for foodie travellers.
“Also beyond what one eats, we believe that getting to enjoy food in the way locals do makes a huge difference – tasting tapas is a good example, the experience becomes truly special if one has the help of a local who knows the right places, the people behind the bar, each bar’s specialities, the best time to go, how to order.”
Spain is the third largest producer of wine in the world, so it’s safe to say it’s a pretty big deal. Its enormous variety of grapes (around 400) are harvested to create exceptional wines, with every region producing its own speciality.
In the rural landscape of Valencia, Vicente Gandia, a century-old winery, continues to produce exquisite Mediterranean wine. It was founded in 1885 and is currently managed by the fourth generation of the Gandia family. Considered to be the largest winery in Valencia, Vicente Gandia’s wines are enjoyed in more than 90 countries on five continents.
“Our winery remains faithful to its founding values,” said Paula Aguado of Vicente Gandia, “it contributes to the progress and welfare of society and is committed to quality and innovation without forgetting the wine tradition of our ancestors.
“Vicente Gandia controls the entire production process, from harvest to bottle labelling, allowing us to leave our own stamp on the wines we produce without stripping away the essence of their region.
“Valencia consists of four sub-zones (Alto Turia, Valentino. Clariano and Moscatel) with altitudes ranging from 250m to 1100m, this is a region with great wine variety that can offer both young wines, whites and roses with great freshness and aroma and modern and innovative reds.”
The landscape plays a large role in the creation and development of Vicente Gandia’s wines. Paula added: “The Mediterranean climate conditions of this area, with long hot summers and mild winters, result in high quality wines with Mediterranean character.
“We are equipped with all the technology for getting the most out of the land without damaging it; respecting it natural cycles, making best use of water, seeing each vine stock as something able to produce the multiple facets which, like a gemstone, some wines offer to delight all the senses.”
Traditional Italian cuisine
There’s no escaping it – Italy, Naples to be specific - is the home of pizza. Neapolitan pizzas were born in this beautiful ancient city and are now being made all over the world. But Naples has taken measures to protect the authenticity of its dish. The True Neapolitan Pizza Association was founded in 1984 to ‘promote and protect in Italy and worldwide the true Neapolitan pizza’.
Food is taken very seriously in Italy. In June, the port city of Genoa granted special airport waivers for those who wish to take traditional Genovese pesto home on the plane. Luckily this isn’t a problem on a cruise holiday.
Whether you’re tucking into a few arancini (crispy stuffed rice balls with ragu, tomato and mozzarella) or osso buco alla Milanese (delicious veal shanks braised in white wine), Italy offers a world of spectacular tastes. Each region has taken popular national dishes to give it their own twist. Take risotto, for example. Originating in northern Italy, this mouth-watering meal has been altered across the country with a local twist. In Milan, it’s made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard, cheese and saffron, while in Piedmont further north, it’s made using red wine, sausage meat and Borlotti beans.
Italy’s localised cuisine makes it a real adventure. Anyone setting off on their Azamara cruise can venture to the likes of Rome, Olbia and Florence on the ultimate food tour. Be sure to try authentic lasagne, prosciutto, ribollita (a traditional meal made with varying ingredients including white beans, meats and vegetables) and saltimbocca (slices of veal with prosciutto and herb leaves). Of course, for those with a sweet tooth, try a scoop of gelato, an indulgent tiramisu or torrone, a dessert made with honey, egg whites, toasted nuts and citrus zest.
Take a food tour in Florence and Rome
If you’d like to sample a bit of everything that Italy has to offer, why not take a food tour? Eating Italy Food Tours (part of Eating Europe), offer culinary journeys through Rome and Florence. Wibke Carter, organiser, said: “All of Eating Italy’s food tours take people through off-the-beaten-path neighbourhoods, giving them a taste of the best that each city has to offer. All the while, they’re having fun and learning about the foodie traditions and history that locals know about, but most tourists never get the chance to experience.
“More than just a food tour, Eating Europe provides guests with a taste of daily life and an opportunity to feel part of the fabric of the community. Our food tours are generally 2-4 hours long and held in small groups of like-minded foodies and travellers.”
Italian cuisine is popular across the globe, but in Italy, it’s incredibly regional. Wibke added: “While the Neapolitans may be eating pizza, the Romans will be eating pasta carbonara, the Milanese risotto and the Florentines bean soup. The variations are endless!”
Take a look at Eating Italy’s food map to help you choose a tour.
Traditional Greek cuisine
Dating back some 4,000 years, Greek cuisine is engrained in the local culture. The foundations of ancient Greek cuisine were based on wheat, olive oil and wine, with meat being fairly absent from the traditional diet and fish only being eaten occasionally. Today, the cuisine is much the same.
Vegetarian travellers can revel in many of Greece’s traditional dishes, including vegetable moussaka, an aubergine-based dish with spices and cheese; spanakopita, a mouth-watering savoury pastry made with spinach and feta cheese; tomatokeftedes (tomato fritters) and kolokithokeftedes (courgette balls).
One of Greece’s most famous dishes is dolmadakia, or dolma, which consists of stuffed grape vine leaves with rice and herbs. There’s plenty of sweet food to enjoy too, including amygdalota, a delicious almond cookie; the more well-known baklava; and bougatsa, a sweet pie usually eaten at breakfast with creamy custard.
As with most Mediterranean cuisine, olive oil is an essential element of Greek cooking. Olive trees can be seen throughout the region and contribute to the overall flavour of the traditional dishes. However Greek cuisine uses more flavourings such as garlic, dill, bay leaves, oregano, mint, basil, thyme and fennel. The fresh and full taste of Greek food makes it perfect for enjoying in the sunshine. A traditional Greek salad or pastry, or a plate of crushed fava beans, are the perfect accompaniment to a glass of local wine or ouzo.
If you’ve ever dreamt of taking a cruise to Santorini, you may have seen photographs of octopus drying out along the coast. Hung out on a washing line, the octopus is left out to dry for a day in the sun, as it’s the best way to tenderise them. They are then grilled over hot coals and are a must-try for seafood lovers. For some of the best grilled octopus in Santorini, visit Fratzeskos Fish Tavern and Ammoudi Fish Tavern.
If you’re looking for Greece’s most traditional tipple, ouzo certainly tops the list. This unique anise-flavoured liqueur is very popular and brought to locals from old distilleries, such as Barbayanni Ouzo, and newer producers. Ouzo is believed to have originated from tsipouro, a Greek brandy, which was allegedly flavoured with anise by monks. The beverage eventually became known as ouzo.
Ouzo is traditionally mixed with water, forming a cloudy, white appearance. It is usually only served with ice along with mezes, essentially the Greek version of tapas. If you’re eager to sample some of Greece’s freshest food including small fish, olives and feta cheese, ordering a meze is one of the best ways to do so.
A culinary journey through Athens
In Athens, Culinary Backstreets take visitors on guided food walks to “tell the story of a city through its food,” according to its editor, Yigal Schleifer. He said: “We like to think of our work as serving as a culinary briefing that helps visitors and locals alike better understand a city’s bigger stories (while also getting into some great food spots).
“Our food walk brings together Athens’ ancient and modern history in one edible package. Greece has a long history culinary history – it could even be considered the birthplace of gastronomy, considering how much the ancient Greeks wrote about food – and our walk is a great way to dive into some of that background.”
Culinary Backstreets say their tours help visitors to get an understanding of modern Athens, its local culture, and what makes the city “tick”. Yigal added: “We like to support small, family-run businesses and backstreet eateries with a long and rich history – the kinds of places that help give a true sense of place.”
When asked which dishes he’d recommend to those visiting Greece for the first time, Yigal said: “A very difficult question to answer – there is so much to recommend! It really depends which part of Greece and what time of year, since Greek cuisine varies so much by region and season. But there are many must-tries.
“Pies (sweet and savoury) are a huge part of Greek cuisine and each region has its own version. Grilled lamb or lamb chops are another dish that somehow just taste better in Greece. Dishes made with the traditional avogolemono (egg and lemon) sauce are also highly recommended.
“For dessert, there’s Greek baklava prepared with honey, strained yoghurt with honey or spoon sweets and Galaktoboureko – a custard pie with a honey syrup. Of course, no visit to Greece would be complete without a taste of some of the country’s exceptional wine!”
While every country across the Mediterranean has its own, unique cuisine, they all share common principles based on their bounty of natural ingredients. Wherever you decide to travel on your next cruise holiday, be sure to try the regional dishes for a true flavour of the area.
Image credits: Aires Almedia, Life-Of-Pix, Yeray Diaz Zbida, Spain Food Sherpas, Anna Fox, Cazz, Sodexo USA, Klearchos Kapoutsis, XavierAP, Charles Haynes, Jenny, Jill111