The Food of Spain: Brown flavours, Tortillas and Pintxos
While staying with Alfredo and Jimena, our Spanish teachers and hosts in northern Spain, one of my diversions was to suggest to Alfredo that I thought chorizo originated in Portugal. This scandalous suggestion never failed to provoke an entertaining combination of indignation and polite professionalism – I would be corrected at only slightly too much length. Alfredo should of course have known better than to fall for such a clear case of bear baiting. Someone who arrives for beginner’s lessons with a Spanish vocabulary that includes caldo (stock), marisco (shellfish) and membrillo (quince paste) while lacking more than a dozen Spanish verbs clearly has a more-than-passing interest in Spanish food. In fact, Spanish cuisine has long been one of my favourites and right now Spain, together with Japan and (predictably) Italy are my top 3 food countries out of the 30 or so in which Saul and I have indulged our immoderate appetites over the years.
This time, the pleasure of eating in food-obsessed Spain was heightened by a trio of blessings: 1. access to local expertise in the form of Jimena, Alfredo and their friend Luis-An (king of the tortilla), 2. the ability to talk and read about Spanish food in Spanish and 3. the opportunity to stay in accommodation where I could cook (in other words apartments chosen primarily for their proximity to the main food market of the town). Our Christmas Eve meal, shown here, is a good example of what happens when I am allowed to stay in an abode a hundred or so metres from a food market:
Spanish food, especially that of Asturias, abounds with brown flavours, which is one of my preferred characteristics in food. When I first mentioned brown flavours to Jimena, she thought the phrase was an example of my erratic Spanish. But it was not a mistake. It’s a description that’s been in my head for years. I’d like to say that it came to me the first time I ate truffles in Italy, but of course that’s just the kind of romantic nonsense that one might be tempted to make up for a food blog – I have no idea when I started thinking of certain flavours as brown.
So what are brown flavours? I think I found this easier to explain in Spanish after a couple of glasses of wine (i.e. with no expectations from my audience that I would be coherent), but let me try. It’s the subtle, deep, earthy flavours that you get when simple food is cooked with first-rate ingredients by someone who has not been to chef’s school but who knows exactly what they’re doing and have done it a lot. It’s generally autumn and winter food – meat, pulses, root vegetables, stocks – and it tastes infinitely better than it looks in photographs. A lot of the skill in cooking this type of food has to do with getting the texture right – when the texture goes wrong you get chewy or grainy or a nursery school mush. Or, more easily than you think, a really nasty combination of all three (think bad potjiekos). When it is done right, it looks like this:
Stews and bowls and one-pot meals are the obvious examples of brown food in Spain – they are everywhere. But the ubiquitous and humble tortilla is another fine example. In Spain “tortilla” refers to a type of thick omelette, not the flat corn wraps of Latin American origin that South Africans know as tortillas. Almost every Spanish bar has one of these omelettes, sitting on the counter like a cake and served similarly: in triangular slices. You can have it with your coffee for breakfast or with an early evening beer as a tapa. Or at any other time, day or night. A classic Spanish tortilla is made of five ingredients: eggs, potatoes, onions, oil and salt. The onions are controversial – if you want a long and surreal argument when you are in Spain, find a Spanish person who cares about food (i.e. any Spanish person), ask them whether a tortilla should contain onions or not and then take the opposite position. It’s almost as good as suggesting that chorizo originated in Portugal.
In many cuisines, brown flavours are brightened with a “green” sauce or condiment: something with a bright uplifting acidity, which may or may not actually be green in colour. Think of pesto, salsa verde, gremolata, chermoula, chimichurri and ponzu. Or, if you must, of the good old British mint sauce. In Spain however, or at least in the north and west of Spain where we spent the most time on our trip, sauces, green or otherwise, were rare. Interestingly, sauces in general seem to cause some difficulty in Spain. Several Spanish people we spoke to held the view that any sauce with meat is suspicious; an indication that the meat is likely of an inferior quality. As far as I could tell, the Spanish substitute for a green sauce is a piece of grilled pimiento (sweet green or red pepper) or the small pickled peppers called guindillas or piparras, which are traditional in the Basque country (there are some in a small bowl next to the brown bean dish in the photos above). We ate these classically Spanish meals with their 4 ingredients on the plate (meat, potatoes, pimientos and sea salt) over and over, the stark purity and minimalism growing and growing on me until I started developing some very Spanish misgivings about béarnaise, hollandaise and bordelaise.
Much as we enjoyed the meat-potatoes-and-pimientos combination, there were days when meat alone was enough. Those were the jamón days. If you know anything about Spanish cuisine, you will know that jamón, the dry-cured Spanish ham that is similar to Italian prosciutto, is a very serious matter indeed (the price alone will drain the blood from your face). While it is widely available in restaurants and bars, where a picturesque hunk usually hangs overhead, dripping fat into its small conical container, I was in pursuit of the holy grail of ham, jamón ibérico de bellota (from free-roaming black-hoofed ibérico pigs that only ate acorns). For this noble purpose, I obviously had to investigate every embutidos shop in every town we visited, an intensely pleasurable activity to which Saul eventually resigned himself (embutidos is the collective word for cured meats and sausages, e.g. chorizo and jamón). I think the fact that these shopping expeditions usually resulted in a dinner of jamón and a bottle of Rioja mitigated Saul’s suffering more than he would admit.
When we needed a change from cooked meat and cured meat, it was also no hardship to return to Spain’s spectacular seafood. Other than sushi, Saul and I aren’t really fish people. But who needs fish when there’s octopus, squid and more types of clams than you ever knew existed?
I haven’t yet mentioned Spain’s most famous culinary invention. And yes, of course we ate tapas. Or to be more precise, pintxos, since we did so mostly in the Basque country. Rather than embark on rhapsodical descriptions of the sheer variety and deliciousness or lengthy explanations of when and where it’s free or not, I’ll end this post by leaving you to sample the pintxos gallery for yourself. Click on the photos for individual captions, and please don’t drool on your keyboard.