FROM MODEST BEGINNINGS TO GASTRONOMIC GLORY
After my last, rather heavy, article on the Civil War, I thought I’d lighten it up a bit with a post on the history of some of Spain’s most iconic dishes. So much of Spain’s cuisine is world famous, but how many of us know where the foods originated? The history of Spanish cuisine is as interesting as the history of the country, and both go back a long way.
Paella – where the humble rice grain becomes a work of art.
Let’s start with Spain’s most famous dish – Paella, pronounced pa-eh-ya
When Jamie Oliver wrote up a recipe for paella with chorizo, there was such an uproar from the purists. There is much snobbery that goes on when it comes to getting a country’s national dish right. And everyone’s an expert. It was immediately labelled ‘paellagate’; “They went medieval on me man. It was serious,” said Jamie Oliver on Graham Norton’s show. “It trended for weeks. And I had death threats and all sorts because of a bit of sausage,” Some equated the addition to terrorism.
Clearly, people take their paella VERY seriously!
As it so often is with history these days, there are conflicting views on where paella originated and the etymology of its name. But almost everyone agrees that Valencia is the birth mother of this delicious saffron-flavoured rice dish. Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, is an important rice producing region dating back to when rice was first introduced by the Moors in the 8th century.
The Romans had introduced irrigation to the dry lands of Hispania and several hundred years later the Moors perfected it. The word arroz (rice) even comes from the Arabic and since then many varieties have been developed, among them J.Sendra, Senia, Albufera and Bahia - a few of the most common in Valencia. The rice, known for its round and pearly grain is perfect for paella. The cooking time and absorption properties differ with each variety, so as every Valencian cook will tell you, it’s essential to know your rice! There is no greater sin than overcooked and soggy rice. And chorizo, apparently.
The word ‘paella’ is actually the name of the pan it’s cooked in, though more commonly called paellera to avoid the confusion. It probably originates from ancient Sanskrit; ‘pa’ meaning ‘to drink’ and many of the Latin words are derived from this, such as patera or patella which referred to a plate or pan. The shape of the pan is round with a flat base and comes in various sizes, the largest reserved for fiestas, competitions and community nosh-ups which can reach up to several feet in diameter. The shallow depth of the pan is important to allow for even heat and maximum evaporation.
Other origin stories include the more romantic meaning - para ella (for her) because traditionally the paella-making is reserved for the men, much like the barbeque is for the Anglo-Saxons. Or maybe from the Arabic word baqiyah (leftovers) from when the leftover scraps would be mixed with rice and fed to the servants or lowest castes of the noble Courts.
However it started, it soon became common for fishermen and peasants along the Mediterranean coast to whip up a rice and seafood dish for lunch over an open fire with the twigs and small branches available. The same would apply to labourers in the fields, throwing in whatever foodstuff was on hand, such as rabbit, chicken, snails and vegetables, typically tomatoes, onions and beans. These days there are more than 200 types of paella dishes – the most notable being paella de marisco (seafood paella), paella mixta (mixed paella of meat and seafood), paella vegetariana (self-explanatory) and paella negra (black paella made from squid ink).
Tips for making a perfect paella:
· Don’t put in too much water - better to have to add than try to take away.
· Turn off the heat just before the rice is perfectly cooked and let it rest. The rice will continue to cook in the heat and absorb the rest of the liquid.
· Don’t worry too much if the rice sticks to the bottom of the pan. This crunchy brown layer of the dish is known as ‘socarrat’ and is highly valued. It’s usually an indication of a perfectly cooked paella!
· Outside Spain it can be difficult to find paella rice. As a substitute, I find the round grained Arborio rice does the job, but be careful to not overcook it. The rice starch will gelatinise very quickly once it’s reached its al dente stage and become soft and creamy and you’ll end up with a risotto, not a paella. But it’s certainly better than long-grain rice.
· An important Valencian rule is not to add rosemary to the dish if you’re also adding rosemary-eating snails. 😊
· If you can’t get your hands on saffron, a substitute (for colour, rather than flavour) is to use turmeric.
· Finally….don’t add chorizo…
Gazpacho: ”De gazpacho no hay empacho” (There’s never too much gazpacho!)
There is nothing more refreshing than a cold gazpacho on a hot summer’s day. Evolving with the peasants who worked in the fields, vineyards, plantations and groves of Andalusia in southern Spain, it’s often described as a cold tomato soup or liquid salad. But it is so much more. If you get the balance of ingredients right, it is perfection in a bowl. If it’s too vinegary, too thick, too thin, or if the tomatoes are flavourless, then you’ll be in for a disappointment.
Gazpacho is another example of Roman and Moorish influences coming together to make a classic Spanish dish. Since its earliest of days, gazpacho has evolved into many versions, but the most common are tomato, garlic, peppers (capsicum), cucumber, and bread - though this last is optional. Roman soldiers carried dried bread, garlic and perhaps a little vinegar and oil with them to throw together a basic soup. This version is known as ajo blanco and added with fresh grapes is a popular dish in Malaga.
The word ‘gazpacho’ is thought to derive from the Mozarab word caspa which means, ‘small pieces, fragments’, referring to the pieces of bread and vegetables in the soup. It’s also been suggested that the word comes from the Hebrew gazaz meaning to 'break into small pieces' – again the bread reference.
Traditionally bread and garlic would be pounded in a mortar with some salt, oil, water and vinegar added. With the arrival of the tomato, pepper and cucumber from the Americas in the 18th century, these also became part of the staple ingredients. Today it can be made with fruit such as melon, watermelon, grapes or strawberries, seafood, avocados…it can be served by itself or with garnishes such as croutons, hard-boiled eggs, chopped ham, almonds, mint or chopped pieces of cucumber, onion or peppers. So basically, anything goes these days but any way you prepare it, it makes a refreshing addition to any meal.
A few tips to make life easier:
· I throw together tomatoes, red pepper, cucumber, a clove of garlic, salt, a splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and whizz it all up in a blender. To thin it out and make it colder I add ice into the blender last minute. Served with crunchy croutons, it’s quick, delicious, and cooling. In winter I replace the ice with hot water, and it becomes a warming (though not hot) soup (sorry purists!).
· Leftover gazpacho makes an easy pasta sauce or salad dressing. It can be carried in a thermos on picnics and hikes or makes a wonderful starter to any meal.
Recipe: Gimme Some Oven, Gazpacho
Tortilla Espanola – The simple pleasures of a potato omelette.
Meaning ‘little cake’ in Spanish, the Spanish omelette has no relation to the Mexican flatbread.
This is one of the simplest yet most complicated dishes to make – simple, as in all you need is potato, eggs, oil and salt. Onion will take it to another level but is a controversial topic when it comes to making the “classic” tortilla. Complicated because it takes a fair amount of skill to prepare it well.
It’s a common sight in many bars around the country to see plates of tortilla lined up on the counter tops. It’s often served with a piece of bread to go along with a caña (small glass of beer). It can be eaten as a main dish, in a bocadillo (bread roll) and of course, hot or cold. Lukewarm, in my humble opinion is the best temperature with a soft (but not runny) centre.
The origins of this dish do not predate the 16th century for the simple fact potatoes didn’t exist in Spain before the Conquistadors went to the Americas, so it cannot claim the same historic origins as the paella and gazpacho. Many of the sailor-conquerors came from Extremadura, a region in the west of Spain, so it very likely developed there. Pizarro brought potatoes from America to Europe in 1537, but as animal food, and for a long time people didn’t know what to do with this strange earth apple (as the French called them).
The name in Spanish (and where English gets its word) is ‘patata’, which itself comes from ‘batata’ from the American ‘taino’. The batata is a sweet potato but as they were so similar in size and shape, the word stuck. Choosing the right potato for a tortilla is very important – they must be starchy enough to absorb the oil and the onion flavours and of course, the salt.
But when it comes to the actual origin of the dish, no one can be sure. One story is that a General during the Carlist Wars of the 19th century was visiting a house in Navarra where they had nothing to offer him but potatoes and egg. It’s most likely, like so many dishes around the world, they were created by the produce available by people who couldn’t afford much else. Each region has its own version with one of the most popular additions being chorizo (here you go Jamie!)
There are many similar dishes around the world, such as the frittata in Italy, the omelette in France and the kookoo sabzi from Persia, but the simple Spanish tortilla takes the (little) cake.
The ‘Dia de la Tortilla’ (Tortilla Day) is celebrated in many parts of the country around the time of Carnaval with plenty of places to enjoy all versions of this amazing dish.
Tips to keep in mind while tortilla-ing:
· The chopped potatoes are boiled slowly in olive oil which can be quite the diet killer, so for people wary of so much fat intake, I find that pre-steaming the potatoes first before mixing them with the other ingredients for the final fry-up is an option, but while you may be cutting calories, obviously much of the flavour is compromised.
· The trick to knowing when to flip the omelette is when most of the egg is set, but not fully cooked. Place a plate over the top of the pan, flip (carefully) and ease it back down into the pan slowly. Seal the final side quickly on a high heat. Tortilla should be a golden brown and not overcooked - that will lead to a dry omelette.
Recipe: Spanish Food Guide - Tortilla
Cocido Madrileno and Fabada Asturiana – food of the committed Christian.
Two of the most famous legume stews in Spain are undoubtedly the cocido and the fabada. The cocido from Madrid and the fabada from Asturias in the north of Spain are both popular heavy stews that incorporate legumes and pork.
Spain is very much a pig-eating nation. This goes back to the Reconquest of the Middle Ages when Moors and Jews were forced to covert to Christianity or be expelled from the peninsular. Many were accused of being Conversos falsos (pretend converts) and as a true test of their new faith, they had to show they were eating pig products. Then I guess everyone went a little overboard in their desperation to prove themselves and pork became the staple fare. Today Spain is famous for its pata negra pigs and jamon (cured ham), cochinillo (roasted piglet) chorizo and an array of pork-based dishes.
Cocido is made up of chickpeas, mixed meats such as beef, pork, chorizo, blood sausage and bacon, carrots, cabbage and sometimes potato. It is served separately with the stock eaten first as a soup with tiny noodles known as fideos. Then come the chickpeas, vegetables and meat. Originally it was a cheap way to use up meat offcuts, excess legumes and the cheapest of vegetables, and made a popular winter meal. These days expensive restaurants try to out-do each other in perfecting this peasants’ pottage. Leftovers are often turned into croquetas (croquettes) the next day.
Before their expulsion and conversion, the Sephardic Jews had a similar dish called adafina which also consisted of legumes and meat, with eggs substituting pork. The word ‘adafina’ comes from the Arabic ‘covered’. On Friday evening, they would put the ingredients in a large iron pot, cover it with pastry and set it on the warm ashes to cook slowly, ready for the end of the Sabbath the following evening.
From this dish, is it thought, that the fabada was born. An important part of this stew are the beans. The large white butter beans when cooked properly are soft, creamy and melt in the mouth. Again, using the leftover cuts of meat - usually a ham hock or pork belly, smoked pancetta and chorizo - it is not usual to add vegetables, but perfecting the stock is paramount to the success of this dish.
Tips for a jolly good fabada or cocido:
· Fabada was made for the hard-working mountain men and women of Asturias so I advise against eating it if you have a busy schedule planned afterwards. You WILL require a siesta.
· About a half hour before the fabada is ready, add the black pudding, otherwise it will break apart in the cooking. At the last minute add a little saffron or yellow food colouring dissolved in some of the liquid from the fabada.
· To make the broth thicker you can take out a few beans, puree them and add them back to the stock.
· Be sure not to stir the fabada with a spoon because it will break up the beans. Shake the pot gently to move them around.
· Add cold water to reduce the temperature of the fabada a couple of times to prevent the skin on the beans from breaking.
· If you don’t have fideo noodles available for the cocido, substitute them for any broken up thin pasta.
Recipe: Spanish Fiestas - Fabada
These have been just a few examples of the incredibly rich and diverse gastronomy of Spain. Maybe next post we’ll look at a few desserts! Now, I think it’s time for a tapa of tortilla and a beer. 😊