Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Views on Spanish Cuisine

What's the inside track on the food we eat in Spain
I'm on comfy ground writing about food. I like it. I eat some every day. In fact I'd struggle to live without it. So here I'm going to dispel a few myths about Spanish nosh and probably make myself unpopular with the tourist board into the bargain.
 
Or maybe not. In the village in Murcia where I lived until 2009 there was a chap who worked in the tourist office called Santi, who was born and raised in the Basque country. While chatting one day I asked him what he missed about being so far away from home.
 
"The food" he said. His face was a picture as his mind drifted away in deep culinary reverie. Now I'd heard the reputation of Basque cuisine first hand since my neighbour Manolo and his wife had not long returned from a gastronomic coach trip touring eateries from Galicia to San Sebastian. Santi confirmed what they'd told me, that the food in the North of Spain is a cut above the food in the South. He put forward a bold theory that the high temperature experienced by the South of Spain for much of the year was a deterrent against cooking. Who wants to be stuck in a hot kitchen all day? In fact the kitchen is often purposefully kept away from the house. I'd been working with an estate agent at the time and I'd noticed a trend for houses to have 'summer' kitchens, often in a separate building. One old lady giving me a tour around her property showed me a pristine kitchen that looked as it had been totally unused, and probably it hadn't, because she then took me to another hut four doors up the street where she said she did most of her daily cooking!
 
Another consequence of Santi's conjecture is that simplicity is a common characteristic of the culinary art in the South. Generally the dishes here are prepared with as little fuss as possible, again as a conservation measure in the battle with the heat. I'll cover a few dishes I've encountered while living here, all of which will be noted for their simplicity.
 
The first thing I was taught to cook here (by my neighbour Jose - he of the Swimming Pool Saga post from last week) was chicken in garlic. If you've not had this you must try it. The same process can be used to cook rabbit and works just as well. Fry the chicken in oil on a medium heat for 15 minutes until it is nearly done, then near the end of the cooking process, throw in a handful of chopped garlic. Let the garlic cook for a few more minutes, then just as it threatens to brown, pour in half a cup of vinegar. As if by magic the vinegar boils, taking the garlic flavour into the meat and leaving a dry saucy residue. Plate it up and eat. Couldn't be simpler! I understand this technique was popular in Portugal, and was taken by Portuguese sailors to India during the Age of Discovery where it was adopted and developed into Vindaloo (from Carne de vinha d'alhos meaning meat with wine and garlic).
 
Another friend gave me a good lesson in cooking garlic prawns (Gambas al Ajillo). You can Google the recipe. It's pretty simple and widely available online. Tips I got from her was that she heated the individual sized clay dishes (cazuelitas) on the stove top - I'd always assumed they were heated in the oven. Also she used the cheapest olive oil called suave or refinado. I thought it would be all extra virgin but no, with the strong flavour of the garlic, the prawns and the cayenne pepper pods, you'd be hard pushed to tell the difference between the flavour of the oils so use the cheapest!  
 
Of all the dishes Spain is famous for however, seafood paella must be the best known. Strangely I don't think I've ever had it once since I moved here. This is probably because I live inland. Don't get me wrong, they get the paella pans out here and cook rice in it, but I've rarely seen fishy ingredients. Rabbit yes, vegetables yes, chicken yes, snails oh yes!! Again, it's an easy way to cook and a a rabbit and a kilo of rice will feed ten people from a one metre pan. Rabbit with rice (arroz con conejo) was therefore a popular choice during the summer fiestas of the towns in and around the North West of Murcia. Another popular fiesta treat is tortilla in bread. I found the doubling of carbs in having potatoes in a baguette quite heavy going but they serve them by the hundreds at the local feria. 
 
Tray of chicken straight from the bread oven
 
If you've never been to a Spanish feria, these are local events where a town or part of a city takes three or four days to party, with food and drink forming a big part of the celebrations. My best feria food-fest was in an office I worked in. The boss's extended family turned up in number to the office and on this particular day they brought with them a huge kitchen tray, about a metre wide and a metre and a half long. They filled the tray (pictured) with dozens of chicken quarters, added potatoes, tomatoes, lemons, onions, garlic, oregano and lashings of olive oil. Then half a dozen people ceremoniously picked up the tray and proudly marched it to the local bakers where it was cooked in the bread oven. I don't think I've eaten anything quite so delicious made from such basic ingredients! This has influenced the way I roast a chicken - now I always add the same ingredients and it tastes much better. 
 
One disappointing note about the cuisine in Southern Spain is the lack of vegetables, making it tricky for vegetarians and vegans to eat out. I find many restaurants think of meat/fish first, then add chips and maybe a little salad by way of a garnish. If it's a posh place and you're lucky you might get some goo that consists of a few varieties of seasonal veg boiled to death in tomato sauce for a couple of hours so you can barely identify what you're eating. Bread is served with everything, which together with the obsession with chips and dearth of vegetable makes me very sceptical about the merits of the so called 'Mediterranean Diet'. As someone explained to me recently, the chap who came up with the notion (Ancel Keys) did so after visiting the island of Crete, noting how fit and well-aged the population was. Apparently he visited the island during lent so had a rather skewed view of what was being eaten and he neglected to take into account his visit took place just after WW2, a period of harsh austerity when food was scarce and the population aged artificially because of the younger members of society being killed in the fighting. Untroubled by such facts, Keys got it into his head that the diet was the cause and went back to America creating his famed Seven Nation study to prove his idea, the results of which have since been widely discredited. However the myth that the food in this part of the world is some kind of panacea persists to this day.
 
If however your appetite has been whetted by all this talk of grub, I suppose it would be fitting of me to offer you something for afters to finish with. Many of the desserts in Spain are things you would find elsewhere, ice cream, flans, rice-pudding etc. One that was new to me which I took a liking to was fresh peaches soaked over night in red wine - yum! By experimentation I found this works best by adding a little brandy too and by soaking the peaches in the fridge it makes the perfect supper for a hot summer evening.

The Swimming Pool Saga

This is the story of a swimming pool. Moreover it illustrates how folk work together to get things done in Spain.
 
The missus and I bought an old farm house in the latter part of 2003. One of the things that drew us to the property was a walled courtyard of about 15 metres by 15 metres which afforded us the opportunity to sunbathe in the nuddy. 
 
Towards the end of the following spring it started to get really hot. By the end of May the wife got the unshakeable notion in her head that a swimming pool would be required to get us through the summer. We made enquiries and got the same answer everywhere, that a proper sunken pool starts at two million pesetas (about 12,000 euros). Spain joined the euro on the 1st January 1999 but to this day, many Spanish people evaluate large purchases such as houses and cars in terms of pesetas. Curiously in the run up to the changeover to the euro, Spanish car-dealers did a roaring trade in Mercs and Beamers as panicked savers snapped up luxury cars as a way to launder the black money under their mattresses. I was told Murcia sold more 'Berliners' than anywhere in the world that year, a fact which I've been unable to verify but it sounds highly likely!
 
Anyway getting back to the story, 12,000 euros was way over budget so we looked at alternatives. We hit on the idea that an above-ground pool would not only be a cheaper solution but a quicker and easier one. We could easily fit one into the courtyard and by not having to dig down (which would require re-routing sewage and water pipes) we would make life a lot easier for ourselves. At this point we enlisted the help of our Spanish neighbour Jose who went with us to the shop to choose a pool. Involving Jose turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Although he worked in fruit canning and juicing factory, like all Spanish men he seemed to have innate knowledge of the building trade. What I knew about mixing cement at that time could have been etched on the head of a pin, so I was very glad when it became apparent that we needed a concrete base for the pool, that Jose volunteered to help build it. 
 
My wife unsurprisingly went for the largest pool we could comfortably fit in the space available. I can't remember the exact price but it was in the region of 1500 euros, a far more reasonable figure. It was roughly eight by four metres in size. There was a large steel skirt that went around the perimeter of the pool which was supported by metal buttresses, so we marked out on the ground a kind of 8x4m rectangle with legs every metre or so for the supports. Though the courtyard seemed level to the eye, it dropped by about 30 centimetres from one end to the other. This meant our base was 30 centimetres deep at one end, which required far more concrete than I had expected.
 
Jose led the work, turning up in his van with a cement bath, shovels, hoes and buckets etc. All this was new to me. We began by creating a mould with old bits of wood that followed the design we made on the ground, then Jose showed us how to mix the concrete. If you're not familiar with a cement bath it is a poor man's cement mixer, a metal tray about two metres long and a metre wide having the depth and appearance of a squared-off bathtub. The idea is to mix the concrete by using a hoe, pulling it backwards a forwards to bring all the ingredients together. We soon found it was back-breaking work, especially since it was already reaching 30 degrees at nine in the morning.
 
We all took turns mixing the bath and carrying bucket after bucket to fill the mould in the yard. It took the three of us the best part of a day but we finally had a base to be proud of. As we surveyed our work, Jose said he would return at the weekend with his family to erect the structure of the pool. It didn't sink in when he said 'the family' but because the steel skirt was so heavy it would take more than the three of us to manhandle it into place.
 
The Saturday came and several cars pulled up in the drive. Sons, brothers, sisters, in-laws, aunties and uncles teamed out of the vehicles, many of whom we'd never met despite having been to many social events at Jose's country house. There must have been twenty or thirty people, all cheerfully helping the foreigners build a pool. We trooped into the courtyard and unrolled the massive metal skirt. Even with Jose's skillful direction it took a good half an hour to manoeuvre the huge steel structure into place, with everyone holding their section and shuffling back and forth to get the perfect fit. Then we started to bolt on the side supports. It took a couple of hours until everyone could tentatively let go of the skirt and start the other tricky task of fitting the giant pool liner. The thing that most struck me throughout this process was how all these people, some of them complete strangers, were not only volunteering their time, but all the while they were happy, joking and generally having fun! I've since come to love this feature of the Spanish people. There should be a word for it but I can't think of one. What's a word for the joy shared in the co-operation with others? Answers on a postcard!
 
As soon as the job was done they all disappeared. I was frantically thanking them, offering beer and money but they were having none of it. They just smiled, waved goodbye jumped in their cars and left, completely without ceremony. It was this kind of event that often causes me to reflect on why I'm so extraordinarily fortunate to live in Spain. They are truly remarkable people!
 
Jose had one more gift of knowledge to impart. He said if we just turned on the tap and filled the pool it would cost a fortune. 32 cubic meters of water would take us over the limit of our monthly quota. I didn't even realise we had a monthly quota, but the way the water company prices the water is based on volume tiers, so as long as you keep consumption within the lowest tier the water is cheapest. Jump a tier and the price doubles. Jump another tier and it doubles again. His advice was that since it was near the end of the month, half fill the pool, then wait until the next month to top it up. I later checked the small print on the back of a water bill and he was correct, so we had to wait a week before the pool was finally full but then we were off to the races.
 
I offered to pay Jose for his help but he of course declined. I later repaid him with favours such as videoing his son's wedding and converting his old family videos of previous weddings and communions from VHS to DVD . This is the way things work in Spain, sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours", though one is never made to feel obligated or be in anyone's debt. It's a great way to live!