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.
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.