It’s not just smells that are the signature of our new life – it’s flavours as well.
Of course, we probably all have favourite Spanish dishes – memories of holidays, favourites from our local tapas bar, or home-cooked Spanish recipes…
Jonathan’s blog, written in Oct 2014, with Cass’s comments in lady-like pink, and Jonathan’s rebuttals in manly blue.
…but there are some that are simply better experienced in Spain (who was it who said that it’s not wine that doesn’t travel well, it’s people who don’t travel well? You? Probably, I AM very wise). But I also think there are at least three tastes you can ONLY have in Spain – go on, read to the end to disagree!
Now, I reckon you’re pretty safe with something like chorizo, for example – chorizo tastes more or less the same everywhere, right? Actually, I still think that’s true; but don’t let the three competing butchers in our village overhear you – or their loyal customers. For some reason lost in history, our tiny village supports three separate butchers, all of whom make their own sausages. In fact *swanky wobble of the head* our village is rather famous for its sausages. People come up here at the weekend to go hiking, or mountain-biking, buy their sausages (all the butchers are open on Sunday mornings), and take them home to add to their family paellas. Top choices: chorizo, morcilla (black pudding-ish), and longanizas (thin pork ones).
However, there are a few Spanish things that I reckon are simply better in Spain. For instance, I’d had pimientos de padrón in England, but here in Spain they just seem more… intense. Do you know the ones I mean?
They look like fat green chillies, but only one in ten or so is actually hot. You fry them in olive oil, crush salt on them, and let the roulette begin! Alfredo (of Alfredo’s Café fame) gave us a couple of plants last year, and the pimientos just kept coming. If you’re interested, his recipe for making more of them hot (and his are, frankly, inedibly hot) is not to water them for four days before harvesting.
Our own tomatoes are pretty wonderful too. I know that’s cheating, because anything you grow yourself (tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, children !!!) always seem better than shop-bought.
Coffee is a new taste, too, in that it is so strong here that I now have to take it with a little sugar. Or, if I’m feeling frisky, I might have a café bonbón – espresso with sweet condensed milk.
I’ve learned that Maria Carmen, Alfredo’s wife (of Alfredo’s Café fame), makes the most sympathetic café con leche for the weaker (aka British) stomach. Sometimes I have to lurk around the bar while Alfredo is serving, pretending I’m reading the notice board (all the notices are in the local Valenciano dialect, of which I don’t understand a single word) until Maria Carmen comes out of the kitchen and it’s safe to order. I’m not saying it isn’t a bit sad. Shall I, then?
Every morning, in my perennial bid for husband of the year I’m not giving you another trophy, I squeeze our own juice, from the oranges which all of our lovely neighbours are so delighted to dump on us (everyone who has an orange tree also has a seasonal orange glut). And Yes! I know! We’re not supposed to drink juice in the morning, apparently – might as well be pouring Domestos down our throats, or something. It should, allegedly, be kale, and celery and wheatgrass. But there’s really nothing that says Buenos Días quite like Orange juice. I think it’s the fructose that’s supposed to rot our teeth, or poison us with sugar, or something else heinous, but the health brigade changes its mind about this stuff all the time, so I’m not listening. La la la!
Then there’s the olive oil (again, everyone has their favourite – usually from their local cooperative), there’s aioli (garlic mayonnaise), the absurdly smokey, and either hot or sweet, pimentón (paprika), and the handfuls of fresh herbs from our garden that we use in just about everything – oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, coriander, mint (and it’s not just that you can take handfuls, you have to, to make it more abundant). Back to olive oil just for a sec: my absolutely favourite breakfast/coffee time treat in Spain is tostada con aceite, which is just lightly toasted bread, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with salt. Never try to make it at home, it simply isn’t the same, but you can get it in even the most basic motorway caff, and it’s delicious. I like to think that I get a slight nod of respect too, when I order it. None of your jam and butter for this Inglesa! Olé!
So there are a host of things that either taste better, or different, or renewed, in Spain, but there are three that I honestly believe can’t, or shouldn’t, be tasted elsewhere.
The first is a drink called horchata.
It’s only available in Valencia, and is made from something called tiger nuts (yeah, I know, poor tigers!), which taste a bit like almonds, but grow like peanuts. Crush ‘em (I guess), mix with some sugar (okay, a lot of sugar), some cinnamon and nutmeg, and serve ice cold. It looks like milk, it tastes a bit like cookie dough (thanks to lovely Georgie Atherton for this comparison), and I suspect I might be the only adult who drinks it. Don’t, in any circumstances, be tempted by the bottled stuff: if it’s not fresh, it’s vile gunk. It isn’t my favourite, or many people’s (one visitor described the taste, with a grimace, as “like chewing paper!”), but it sure makes him happy. We just pretend that our pretend child is playing outside, just out of view This ploy also works in America when buying the world’s finest (trashiest) cereal: Lucky Charms. Also, for him, not me, btw.
Next is the ensaimada – Spain’s compelling answer to the croissant. Was there a pastry war ages ago that I don’t know about, and the croissant won? Why? Why are croissants everywhere, all smug, and Gallic, and hopelessly flakey, but you can’t seem to find the magnificent – originally Mallorcan – icing-sugar-dusted ensaimada outside Spain? Okay, I’m grumpy now – just try one!
One of the bakeries in the village makes chocolate ones. I got one for my sister (well, and me, obviously) last time she was staying, and she went into a wordless, ecstatic coma. Result. Similar result with our fab designer Zed Gregory when she visited.
And finally, the most controversial of my only-eat-in-Spain trinity, is paella. I know, it’s just rice, but if you think you’ve already tasted it, and maybe judged it harshly, please try it again in Valencia province, its home. In our village it is all meat – chicken and rabbit with maybe a meatball, or some morcilla sausage – and never a mix of meat and seafood. The mixed version is a) to be eaten only at sea-level, b) to be eaten nearer Alicante than Valencia (apparently seafood was added to the original recipe as it headed south), and c) to be eaten if you’re a tourist (I have nothing against them) or in another country. The mixed paella was, in fact, the version that won; but (in a startling parallel to the croissant/ensaimada debacle – see above) shouldn’t have. So do try a Valencian paella – the best ones are cooked on Sundays by and for the whole family, but there are specialist restaurants, too. Last thing: only eat it during the day – it’s lunch, not dinner.
I do enjoy paella, and I love going to those specialist restaurants, but then I don’t want paella again for, ooh, at least a month, possibly two. Saying this out loud in Spain or near your husband is a VERY poor idea. And when I describe to Spaniards the kind of food I enjoy cooking (and mention the variety that is so important to me), I get stares of pitying incredulity. I once took a homemade Greek (in that it had feta cheese in it) omelette to a party, and the Spanish guests acted like I’d tried to poison them – why on earth would I mess with traditional tortilla?? Having said that, I am all for people so united in their genuine love for their national food. They honestly believe it’s the best food in the world, and that’s pretty heart-warming. Also (just remembered this), they have a word – soccarat – for the slightly darker, stickier rice that catches on the bottom of the pan and is yummy and highly prized – got to admire that!
And finally, finally… the best paella I ever had was on a friend’s parents little small-holding, in Gandia, when I was sixteen. Everything except the rice came from the garden (including, unusually, snails – “Do you like snails?” A gormless, noncommittal nod from me, followed by a clip around the head for the youngest son by his mum: “Pedro, go and find some snails for our guest!”). Chickens ran over our feet, we passed around a bottle of beer with a spout on it (saves on washing up), and afterwards we reached up for a bunch of grapes from the vine that had been shading us throughout the meal. Beat that! I hate to say it, really I do, but you win. So… another trophy?