One of the things that interests me most when I travel is the food. Just like the Roman aqueducts in Segovia or the Alhambra in Granada, the local flavors of a place display influences of past invaders, settlers, or traders. Spain has been colonized by Greeks and Romans (olives and olive oil) and Moors (rice and gazpacho); Italy’s pasta has Arabic origins. The first encounter a traveler has with a country is usually through food, often before the traveler even steps foot in the country!
Spanish and Italian Mediterranean food is very different from Latin American food. One of the biggest differences is that Spanish and Italian food is generally not spicy. My Catalan neighbor Cristina spent a year as an au pair in Massachusetts, and claims she almost starved to death. “The family’s cook was Mexican and the family told me that I would love her cooking, since I am Spanish, and the cook speaks Spanish. I couldn’t handle any of it—it was waaaay too spicy. I would go to my room and eat chocolate after dinner because I could never eat her dishes!”
Last night Cristina cooked me dinner. It was a salted cod dish from the Basque region. She put (I’m not kidding) a piece of mild cayenne pepper the size of a bit of glitter in the pot. “Ah!” she yelled after she tasted the dish. “I over-spiced it!”
Despite the Italian and Spanish aversion to spicy foods, Mediterrean food is fresh and terrific… especially Italian food. If you join a bike tour with Velo Veneto, there is a good chance you will stay in the Hotel Montegrappa. The Bolzon family that runs this hotel are incredibly hospitable. Luca, the owner, is also the chef, and he takes great pride in his menu. The food is simple and incredibly tasty, and he makes his own pasta fresh daily. Food like this would easily cost twice as much in the US.