It is Spain people cite when they wish to pinpoint 21st century culinary innovation, experimentation and other-worldly dining experiences. People celebrate foaming liquids, hot gels set with seaweed extracts, pipettes of smoked this and bizarrely flavoured that. They eulogise pearls of pea pureée and melon ‘caviar’ held together with yet more seaweed and other chemicals that cause the mixture to stay runny in the centre. They excitedly extol egg yolks that taste of asparagus and a soup made from algae-covered rocks dredged up from the bottom of the ocean, partnered with tuna spine fluid (all of which I’ve experienced). France, of course, long maintained the role of culinary world leader and for good reason. For hundreds of years they worked single-mindedly at improving their traditional dishes: sauces more refined, smoother pureées, flakier pastries and less icy sorbets. Sous vide cooking (cooking in ‘plastic bags’ at low temperatures) become de-rigueur in kitchens all around the world (although I have to admit to having a huge dislike for all the plastic waste it produces). France set the standard for restaurant meals for hundreds of years, so it must be galling for them to see Spain taking this mantle from them. It is towards the various Michelin-starred, award-winning restaurants from Jerez in the south to Barcelona and Roses in the north-east, Madrid in the centre and Galicia in the north-west that young chefs head. Paris has given way to St Sebastian of all places - and it’s easy to see why.
Spanish chefs have been having fun and letting their hair down. They have been creating new techniques; discovering and blending new flavours and older textures. They have been exploring the world’s store cupboard and have made some very interesting discoveries. Every year there is a Summit Conference (for want of a better description) of the great and the good from the world’s stellar chefs. I attended it in 2005. It is called Madrid Fusion (the second word instantly appeals to me) and it is a forum where chefs who have ‘made it’, get to talk and teach techniques to those aspiring to do the same. It is part-hosted by Ferran Adria, of El Bulli fame. The year I went,
However, alongside this contemporary culinary extravagance there is also a really wonderful heritage of Spanish artisan meat and cheese production, and a fishing industry that leads the world in tuna, salt cod (baccalau), anchovy and sardine canning and preservation. The Spanish climate ensures the harvesting of a huge array of fruit and vegetables that ripen to perfection. Its geography covers almost every topographical extreme known to man, from the intense heat in the south around Cadiz and Jerez (the home of sherry wines), to the mountains of the Picos de Europa and the bracing seas off the northern coast of Galicia. It also has fostered a cuisine that is probably my favourite in Europe. What I love about the food of Spain is its heartiness. It’s deeply flavoursome, and it’s hugely satisfying. It also incorporates a national treasure that is tasty, versatile and delicious. This is cerdo negro or cerdo Iberico - also known as the Black Foot pig or pata negra. It is an ancient breed of pig that used to roam freely through the dehesa, the flat plains of the Iberian Peninsula where oak trees grow, munching on acorns, fattening up each autumn. However, the dehesa have slowly disappeared in many areas due to humankind taking over the land and they’re now quite scarce. This has caused these rare pigs to become the most valuable pork in the world, and also the most sought after, rivalling the best prosciutto of Italy. They are also clever. In 2006, I helped open a tapas bar in Auckland and I named it Bellota. Here’s what I wrote for our menu:
Bellota (pronounced bey-otta) is the Spanish word for acorn, and it’s the acorn that plays an essential part in the creation of one of the world’s most prized delicacies - jamon Iberico de bellota (literally Iberian ham of acorns). The Iberian pig used to live all over Spain, Portugal and many parts of the Mediterranean, but due to the decline in its natural habitat, the dehesa (oak forests), they are scarce and, needless to say, incredibly expensive. They’re also very smart pigs. I was speaking to a herder in Spain a few years ago and he said he’d noticed he was losing a few of the beasts every week. He suspected they were being stolen as they are so valuable, so he set up watch at the only gates that they could escape from. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He watched three piggies approach the cattle grid at the gates, and then one by one they got onto their bellies and simply rolled and rolled over the grid. They jumped up and headed for the hills. It’s because of this that we have to charge you what seems daylight robbery for just a plate of this delicious delicacy. But trust me, you’d be paying a fortune in Spain as well.
In early February 2008,
It’s 5.30 a.m., cold and dark and I’m hurriedly snipping leaves from a surprisingly healthy three-year-old kaffir lime tree that also produces wrinkly kaffir limes. It’s surprising because this particular plant lives inside our apartment on the dining table, all year long, on the top floor of an Edwardian block in West Hampstead far from its South-East Asian roots. My partner
We’ll be joining our friend
The matanza is an old tradition whereby a pig is slaughtered and then parts of it are preserved for future use or eaten fresh during indulgent feasting over the following days. Its blood is drained to make morcilla (mixed with rice or grains to produce blood sausage); the loins (lomo), shoulders (paletta) and legs (jamon) are mostly cured, and the remaining bits and pieces are either grilled for meals, or minced to produce chorizo, longaniza or botifarra. The head, snout, ears, knuckles and stomach are used to make a redolent stew called callos (pronounced kai-yoss), and the skin is deep-fried till crisply chewy and served as a snack.
So, before sunrise, a dozen of us assembled at the family home, which in reality is a small, one-storey town block, the outer walls made up on two sides by the narrow rooms of the house, another wall by a huge shed which formerly housed 3000 chickens but now finds itself home to a dozen Vespa scooters from the ’50s onwards, and the fourth wall - simply a wall. The vast internal courtyard had a fire burning all weekend, to either fend off the winter chill, or to barbecue the various slabs of meat and sausages that we produced. Nando’s diminutive Aunt Cari and her husband
The carcass was hung from two hooks in the courtyard and then swiftly and expertly portioned into the major limbs and joints by Uncle
Once the animal had finally been reduced to mere bones and pieces of meat, most of the former were mixed with the callos ingredients (Aunty having cleavered the head in half after chopping the snout off) and placed in a huge cauldron of water on the interior open fire where they simmered for several hours before having freshly ground almonds added (shelled that morning by Nando’s girlfriend
While we chopped, sliced and minced outside, the team inside were making two types of‘sausage’ - chorizo and longaniza. They mixed lean beef mince, in varying proportions, with the minced pork and fat, then either seasoned it with pimenton (smoked paprika) and dried garlic for the chorizo, or with cinnamon and cloves for the longaniza. I ingratiated myself onto the sausage-tying table, where I learnt to seal the newly formed 50-cm long sausages at both ends with a sneaky little twist of string. Having proved expert with this chore (sealing 20 sausages),
Two kilograms of reserved belly fat were cut into small pieces for making migas, our lunchtime treat and another traditional Spanish dish. Aunty fried the fat in about 3 litres of olive oil in a three-legged pot striding the internal fireplace, added 40 cloves of peeled, halved garlic, and fried this until it turned brown, then added 4-5 kg of freshly made coarse breadcrumbs. This was cooked over the fire, stirred continuously and then moistened with a little water. The end result was like cous cous, but rich and slightly smoky. It was served with red and green grapes and was surprisingly delicious - and quite bizarre when you think about its ingredients. Can you imagine sitting down to fried, fatty, garlic breadcrumbs with grapes?
The fabulous, raucous dinner that night comprised salad, chorizo, butcher-made morcilla and Jamon Serrano followed by boozy espresso (carajillo). Breakfast on Sunday was churros and thick hot chocolate, followed by an amazing rice dish, more like a risotto than paella (made from the pork rib pieces, rabbit, snails, wild mountain mushrooms, artichokes, potato and vegetables), which was cooked by
That same evening,
It’s because old traditions like the matanza, passed down over the generations, exist side by side with the extraordinary culinary experimentation taking place, that I love Spain so much. But I have to be honest, it is incredibly hard to get a green salad that doesn’t contain pork in some shape or form, or even some simple steamed broccoli or beans, in restaurants around the country. That’s all I ever miss in Spain - simple, steamed greens. But then, that’s what people are cooking at home every day of the week. When they eat out, Spain wants its diners to have a true Experience. And that is what they have, in every sense of the word.
© 2010 Peter Gordon. All rights reserved.