Spain has welcomed British holidaymakers to its shores for years. And the Brits have reciprocated by drinking plenty of the country's wine - but unlike Italian food they have yet to take Spanish cuisine to their hearts back in Blighty.
"Spanish food has been on the point of taking off for some time and we have been disappointed that it hasn't happened yet," says Adrian Pryce, managing director of specialist importer Select Spain.
It's not surprising that Spain still lags behind its Mediterranean neighbour. Under Franco, it was a closed society until the mid 1970s whereas mass emigration from Italy at the turn of the 19th century gave Italian cuisine a head start on the international stage.
However, there are signs that Spanish cuisine is finally catching on with British consumers and this presents a wealth of opportunities for exports to the UK, say the experts. A stronger relationship between the two nations should also create opportunities in the Spanish grocery market for British products and retailers.
One of the drivers is a waning domestic market. "There is more interest in exporting now as Spanish producers realise there's a market outside Spain for their product, whereas previously the strength of their national market kept them looking inwards," says Claire Roff, marketing controller for Spanish fine food importer Brindisa.
Spanish food and drink suppliers are also beginning to realise the importance of broadening the scope of their marketing. "Marketing for Spanish food was often limited to brands and some individuals, yet a lot of exports are fresh produce or private-label," says Ann Burbridge, managing director at importer Minster Fine Foods.
Now, suppliers are getting involved in umbrella marketing strategies that promote national cuisine as a whole. Foods From Spain and its subsidiary Wines From Spain are both embarking on high-spend campaigns to raise the profile of the nation's produce. They're being aided and abetted by ever-more adventurous British tourists.
"Good marketing is what it's all about," says Foods From Spain MD María José Sevilla. "Spain is being rediscovered and this will help its food industry. Brits are moving away from the Costas, which has been helped by strong marketing for tourism and restaurants."
Tourism-driven campaigns from Spain are also encouraging a younger generation of Brits to explore the country. "A generation growing up with cheap airlines and skiing in areas such as the Sierra Nevada and the Pyrenees means many young people are now going to Spain" says Burbridge. "It is doing a great deal of good for Spanish cuisine and has led to the opening of many Spanish restaurants in the UK."
A growing awareness of the high standards of Spain's restaurants is another important driver. The nation has more restaurants in the list of top-ten restaurants in the world than any other country, such as El Bulli, considered by some the best restaurant in the world.
In the UK, meanwhile, tapas is becoming ever more popular, to the extent that consumers can now even find tapas-style offerings in supermarkets and c-stores.
The trend for convenience foods is also growing in Spain but its market is a step behind the UK. So Spain could appeal as a destination for UK producers in this field. The sort of UK products that fare well in Spain are foods such as gourmet biscuits and shortbrea?d or jams and preserves from suppliers such as Walkers and Tiptree.
"The Spanish have a romantic view of the Brits," says Pryce. "English breakfast products should fare well."
Spanish suppliers eyeing the UK, meanwhile, will be able to capitalise on the healthy credentials of many of their offerings. Issues such as obesity are also affecting the Spanish population. "But it is encouraging to see how food markets are thriving in Spain, with some cities even opening up more market sites," says Sevilla.
Spanish consumers like buying their food fresh from the market, but with economic development and the changing role of women in Spain, grocery retailers are becoming even more important - particularly those that offer convenience.
Convenience presents possibly the biggest opportunity for UK suppliers. "Spaniards have a deep appreciation of food and even the most humble housewife has a good understanding of ways to cook things such as prawns or mushrooms," says Pryce. "The biggest social change, however, is the rise of working women and therefore a growth in convenience foods."
International food retailers haven't been slow to seize on the opportunity. A number of French retailers such as Carrefour and Auchan, with its Alcampo stores, have entered the market. Aldi, Lidl, Metro, Spar and Dunnes also have a presence in Spain and it was reported last year that Tesco was interested. The retail scene is less concentrated than in the UK partly as a result of the importance of its neighbourhood markets, local butchers and bakers, though there are examples of important regional players, such as Capabro in Catalunya.
The retailer began the roll-out of its refurbished stores last September in a bid to strengthen its fresh offer and improve the shopping experience. Mercadona is also a strong domestic player, while department store El Corte Inglés, which boasts an in-store supermarket, has a strong presence in major cities.
Spain's organic food industry is another area that is less developed, according to Pryce, although it is attracting more interest. So there should be plenty of opportunities for UK specialist organic food producers brave enough to dip their toes in an untested market. n