Saturday, 24 April 2010

Heading south

Next stop, la Dehesa.

Friday, 23 April 2010

El Mercado de San Miguel

Like a cross between Borough Market and Fortnum and Mason's food hall, transplanted directly into the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, El Mercado de San Miguel brings together the very best of Spain's food and drink under one architecturally-perfect vernacular roof.

The foodie equivalent of the most beguiling theme park you could ever imagine, it's a place you can lose yourself in for hours. And this is Spain, afterall... Take your time, eh? Tonight will be spent eating, drinking, drinking and eating!

First stop, the jamónaria, naturally.

Tortilla: "The snack of before... for all of life"

Regal-looking gambas at the seafood counter.

Berenjena y acietuna rellena - stuffed aubergine and olives

¡Cenamos! From left to right: The finest jamón iberica de bellota; Chorizo and tuna & red pepper empenadas; salchichon and chorizo; a selection of cheeses, including oozing queso de cabra (goat's cheese), manchego cured for 24 months, and queso de cabrales - a blue cheese from Austurias with a flavour so strong it almost burned our taste buds; almost emerald green olives; stuffed vine leaves and pimiento peppers (just seen); a good few glasses of Ribeira del Duero Crianza.

¡Vamos a comer!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Salad in the city

Funny what effect a night spent sat crooked upright next to a barking mad women in her forties can have on a man. Emerging from the sleeper train at Chanmartin station bleary-eyed and shaggy-tailed, I was a shadow of my former self. The self that had spent the day being wined and dined by the foremost exponent of Galician cuisine. The self that had also spent the night in the cheapest of the cheap seats heading cross country with only a bottle of the station's finest vino tinto to drown out my unwanted travelling companion's castellano warblings.

Bidding farewell on the concourse, she headed for her connecting train, and I stumbled towards the station coffee bar to gather my senses, which felt like they'd be left somewhere north of Valladolid. Still, stepping out of the Metro in downtown Madrid, it didn't take long for the fuzz to clear and the energy of one of Europe's greatest cities to take hold.

If Coruña marked the end of the first part of my journey through Spain, then Madrid has been a rogue chapter, complete with it's own sub-plot, floating somewhere between the beginning, the middle and the end.

Sat in a kitsch coffee shop in the trendy - dare I say hipster? - district of Masaleña, complete with mugs of cappuccino instead of cafe con leche, retro wallpaper, and lots of beautiful boys and girls tinkering away on their Macbooks, it could not be further from the farms of Austurias and Galicia.

What was going to be a quick stopover turned into a long weekend, then a super-sized mini-break, complete with all the distractions of modern urban living. Waking up late again to sunshine streaming through the windows of the loft apartment where I'd been crashing, it seemed like high time to repay my old friend, host, and honorary Madrilena in kind.

A good excuse for a day spent pottering in the markets for a leisurely dinner as the sun goes down over the city... Chipirones (baby squid) stuffed with chorizo, pumpkin 'fritas', sliced thinly and cooked briefly in a hot oven with lots of olive oil, roast garlic alli oli, and a couple of huge salads to make it all feel a little healthier.

Having leftovers for lunch for a couple of days might help me get back on track with my budget as well...

Roast cauliflower salad with saffron and sultanas

Saffron, alongside paprika, is one of the archetypal Spanish flavours. The addition of some plump sultanas, and the tangy sweetness of caramelised onions are a great way to balance this most decadent of herb's distinctive earthy flavour.

Serves four or five

one head of cauliflower, cut into florets

three or four cloves of garlic, bashed in their skins, but not chopped

half a lemon, skin on, cut into segments

an onion, finely sliced

a generous handful of raisins

a pinch of saffron

a couple of handfuls of rocket leaves

olive oil

salt and pepper

First, soak the raisins. You can do this in the morning, a couple of hours before you're eating, or whilst you're waiting for the oven to warm up. Put the saffron in a bowl and cover with a splash of boiling water. Leave to infuse for ten minutes, before adding the raisins and a bit more water so the fruit is almost covered.

Preheat the oven to medium-hot (say 180 degrees). Put the cauliflower and garlic on a baking tray, and squeeze the juice of the lemon segments over them. Add some olive oil and seasoning, and mix. Roast for 20 minutes or so, until the florets are beginning to turn brown. Meanwhile, in a frying pan with a little oil, slowly sauté the onions on a medium-low heat.

When the cauliflower is ready, remove from the oven, and pick out the garlic cloves (add them to mayonnaise with a squeeze of lemon for a quick alli oli-style sauce), and the lemon segments. With a sharp knife, trim the pith and flesh away from the segments, so you're left with the roast lemon peel. Slice into thin strips. The flavour is quite strong so you might not need them all.

By now, your onions will be ready, and the raisins soaked.

In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower florets, sliced lemon peel, caramelised onions, and raisins, making sure you get all the saffrony juices from the bowl. If you can, leave to stand for an hour or so, so the flavours can come together, then stir in the rocket, and serve at room temperature.

Carrot and pomegranate salad

The sweet and sour flavours here make this salad a perfect zingy starter or palate-cleansing side dish.

Serves four or five

four or five large carrots, grated

two large apples, grated

an orange, skin trimmed off and cut crossways across the segments (save the juice and add to the mix if you can)

a red onion, finely sliced

the seeds from one pomegranate

the juice of a lime

a handful of fragrant green herbs, e.g. rocket, mint, coriander

olive oil

salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Check seasoning and add a dash of white wine vinegar if you want a sharper taste.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Guardian on Spain

There's a Spain special on the Guardian website at the moment (also in print in the Travel section for anyone who's not done their recycling yet), featuring some interesting pieces about the lesser-discovered corners of this huge and diverse country.

Have a look at the insiders guide to northern Spain. You might recognise one of the contributors...

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The last supper

My final meal in Galicia, at Restaurante Solla. In a land where food is often best described as gutsy, in all senses of the word, Jose Gonzalez 'Pepe' Solla has created a taste and style all of his own. Thirteen courses of his delicate and subtle take on Galego cuisine followed. Here's some highlights.

Pulpo as I've never seen it before.

Sea urchin for the second time in two days...

The famous "luxury" ribs, as immortalised in my dining companion's book, Everything but the Squeal.

Los chocolates, a coffee, a signed menu, and 45 minute chat with the man Pepe himself.

Sea urchin for breakfast

Fish markets always seem to be a lot of fun... All those odd little under-sea creatures to ogle at. A Coruña's market is particularly good. Here's some snaps from my early morning trip their yesterday.

Preparing my breakfast...

"My claws may be held together with elastic bands, but still, don't mess, yeah?".

My, what beautiful eyes you have.

Obligatory pulpo shot #1.

Local delicacies; Zamburiñas and percebes.

A rape's face. There's a gag in there somewhere, but I'm staying well clear.

Roe. Appetising, non?

Obligatory pulpo shot #2

Tenticle transaction.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Ah... Coruña

I got a good feeling from Coruña from the moment I stepped off the bus. Greeted with bright blue skies and a sense of excitement brought about my arrival in civilisation, I headed for the centre with the sun on my ruck-sack laden back, and a spring in my step. Wide avenues cutting through the city on one side, shiny yachts bobbing about in the harbour on the other, the whole world and their designer dog out for a Saturday morning stroll. The mix of bustling pavement cafes, modernist grandeur in the buildings, and vibrant street culture was quite a change to the farms I'd been used to. This is great, I thought to myself, soaking up the scene in the town square, it's just what I imagine Buenos Aires to be like. Which sort of made me wonder why I didn't just go to Buenos Aires. Bet they don't kill pigs with their bare hands there though, do they!

Coruna, or A Coruña, I should say - or even The City Formally Known as La Coruña, perhaps - has got a bit of everything. A huge sandy beach, a fancy marina, good nightlife, great architecture, a few decent museums, and some of Galicia's most dramatic coastline just a short hop away. Up until recently, it's also had a few problems deciding on what to call itself, although for the time being at least, the city seems to have settled on A Coruña.

Despite the inclusion - or not, as the case may be - of the 'L' becoming a not insignificant political issue in recent years (it's all to do with Galician nationalism, and therefore not something I'm really qualified to poke fun at), it's good to know that the city hasn't been held back. Quite the opposite: Coruña has gone from strength to strength economically, culturally and politically. The post-regency grandeur is now accompanied by a striking contemporary trim.

It's an unashamedly bourgoise city, which makes it very unlike the rest of the province. The locals seem to enjoy nothing more than their evening paseo. Come seven thirty, everyone of Coruña's inhabitants take to the pavements, all dolled up in their snazziest clobber, not a hair out of place, like they're trying to collectively break the record for the most designer labels per capita in Europe. It's by far and away as glam as life gets in Galicia. In fact, this lot could give the England WAGs a run for their (extremely conspicuously displayed) money.

Thankfully all this posing is fringed by some rougher edges. It's not only the boutiques that do a roaring trade around here. There's also a very healthy tapas scene. Ok, maybe healthy isn't the right word, but there's certainly plenty of opportunities to eat a lot of it. I've been staying right in the centre of the 'tapas zone' where making the decision to stop eating can be a demanding exercise in self control. As with the other cities I've visited, each bar specialises in a different dish. Guided by adopted Coruñian John Barlow, who's appetite I first encountered in Santiago, I've visited the bar that's known for tortilla, the bar that's known for roast ham, the bar that's known for croquettes, the bar that's known for chorizo, the bar that's known for chiparones (baby squid), the bar that's known for zamburiñas (tiny scallops), the bar that's known for its home-made liquor (see picture above - inviting, eh?) and the bar that's known for just being very, very cheap.

Normally I tend to avoid places that adorn their walls with huge neon signs, but Meson do Pulpo, on the street of pulpo, in the city that specialises in the stuff... Well I couldn't resist. It tasted a lot better than it did out of a tin!

The great and the grelos

I'm going to put my neck on the line here, with a bit of a bold statement; I think it's fairly safe to say that Spring is finally here. Even in this drizzly, meteorologically-blighted part of the world, it feels as though we've taken a step towards summer, or at least, shuffled away from winter a little bit. With spring comes an abundance of produce from the garden, and in the last week or so, I've yanked radishes from the veg patches, picked field lettuce from the gardens, and grinned from ear to ear as plates of freshly cut asparagus have been placed on the dinner table.

For the Galician gardener this variety comes as something of a relief, as up until now the fresh crop has been limited to some cauliflowers, the odd chard if you're lucky, and a never-ending supply of grelos. I suppose it is for this reason, that grelos are such a bona fide Galician staple. No garden is complete without a patch of their straggly stems, shooting skyward in the hope of finding some sunshine amidst all the rain. They're also the traditional accompaniment to any hearty Galician meal. All the meat in a cocido means nothing without them, you'll inevitably find a few bobbing about in a caldo, and a plate of pink, juicy lacon is naked if deprived of their accompaniment. If it's early spring, and a Galego is doing the cooking, there's a strong chance they'll make their way onto the dinner table somehow, amongst all the potato and pig fat.

Despite sounding like the inhabitants of an alien planet in Star Wars, grelos, along with their relatives, the nabos, are actually part of the turnip family. Both are hardy enough to withstand the frosts of Galicia's raw winters, and eager enough to sprout that they pop up before most other greens have come out of hibernation. As is the case with the turnip, generally only the root of a nabo is eaten. With grelos, the root is discarded and fed to the cows, whilst the humans get the leafy green tops, and turn them into a slimy, over-cooked mush.

If truth be told, spring marks the end of grelo season. As soon as they start to flower, they're past they're best – it's time to chop their heads off and start again for next year. And that sort of makes this post obsolete; like telling you how to roast your turkey on the 6th of January. Anyway, I've started, so I'll finish...

They're barely grown anywhere outside of Galica, certainly not in any great quantity. Even in neighbouring Austurias, which shares similar geography and climate, they are far less of a fixture in both agriculture and diet. Bizarrely, they've never really made it beyond the mountains, which is far less than can be said for the many Galegos who've traded this rainy little corner of Spain for more exotic lands. In fact, so many people left Galicia for South America, that the slang term for a Spanish immigrant there is a Galego, no matter which province they come from.

Another little sociological aside is the curiously Galego trait of morriña, a kind of nostalgic for what they no longer have. For all those who've left the province for pastures new, this means a constant feeling of acute, rose-tinted home-sickness. I've heard stories of ex-pat Galegos welling up at the very mention of their homeland, stopping to clear the lump in their throats before they've even finished telling you about the bad weather. This may explain the huge export market for grelos, which are tinned and shipped to ex-Spanish colonies the world over. Those misty-eyed ex-pats need a taste of home.

Whilst we're on the subject of second-hand trivia, I have it on good authority that morriña is not actually a socio-psychological condition, but a chemical one. Apparently the granite bed rock in Galicia contains abnormally high levels of plutonium. So it's not home sickness those émigrés are suffering from, it's withdrawal symptoms. Xago's Grelos, now with added radioactivity – you can almost see the slogan now...

What was the point of all this again? I think the plutonium must have gone to my head.

Two ways with grelos

Whilst grelos may not be the most glamourous of vegetables, they are certainly ubiquitous. At the Reitoral de Chandrexa, we had so many we ended up feeding the stems to the pigs (for some reason only cows will eat the bulb), whilst at Tanquian, I spent a whole day picking them, and managed to fill twelve carrier bags full. I spent much of that time day dreaming up recipes to use them...

Grelos con salsa de hollandaisa

A variation on the classic asparagus with hollandaise sauce. You could also substitute the grelos for purple sprouting broccoli.

Serves at least four

a bunch of grelos, say 20-30 stems (or a bunch of asparagus / purple sprouting broccoli stems)

two egg yolks

125g unsalted butter

lemon juice

a pinch of salt

Put the egg yolks and butter in a heat proof bowl, and place over a pan of simmering water, as you if you were melting chocolate. Gently whisk as the butter melts, so the two mix together. Keep whisking as you heat, and after a few minutes, the sauce will begin to thicken. Add a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste, and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, steam or boil your greens so they are just tender, and remove to a serving plate. Drizzle the sauce over the top, or use it as a dip.

Lasagne de grelos y castañas

Chestnuts are common as muck in Galicia, but if you can't find them, hazelnuts or walnuts would work just as well. Spinach or broccoli would both make ample substitutes for the grelos.

Serves at least four

one big bunch of grelos (or one large bag of spinach / head of broccoli)

one packet lasagne (or some fresh, home-made stuff if you have the time and the paraphernalia)

a large onion, finely sliced

a couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped

a large tub of ricotta cheese


a few handfuls of chestnuts (or other unsalted nuts), shelled

salt and pepper


Lightly toast the nuts in a dry frying pan, over a medium heat. Keep an eye on them, and give the pan the occasional shake, as they do have a tendency to burn. After a few minutes, they will have a bit of colour, and you'll smell the warm, nutty, aroma. Add a little olive oil to the pan, followed by the onions and garlic. Sauté until the onions are soft and slightly golden. Remove from the heat. Blanch your greens in lightly-salted boiling water for a few minutes. Remove and mix with the onions. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Lightly grease a suitable oven-proof dish, and put a layer of lasagne on the bottom. Put a layer of the vegetable / nut mixture on top, followed by some generous splodges of ricotta, and a grating of nutmeg. Repeat the layers until you've used up the mixture. Put another layer of lasagne on the top, plus some smaller splodges of ricotta, and a good covering of parmesan. Sprinkle a few more nuts on top, and bake in the oven for half an hour so if using dried pasta, 15 minutes or less if using fresh.

Serve with salad and crusty bread.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Pressing issues

That age old dilemma... You've finished making your chorizos for the year. Your lacon has been quietly maturing with the legs of jamon in the humadaria. Your panceta is just about ready to be brought up into the kitchen. There's a manita in the bottom of the fridge that you plan to use in a caldo, but those two pigs heads that are hanging in the basement still need to be put to good use... Sound familiar? Not, to me either. Until I came to Galicia, that is, where if you don't have at least half a pig hanging in your store room, plus a couple of live ones in the garden, your house is quite frankly incomplete.

Whilst the 'nose to tail' philosophy is still something of a novelty in Britain, in Galicia, you'd be looked at like a fool if you didn't eat the head, tail, feet, tongue, brains or in fact any other scrap of flesh that it was possible to obtain from an animal carcass without resorting to mechanically-aided extraction.

So, what to do with those spare pigs heads? Make cachucha, of course; Pressed pig's head.


This is the Galego version of what those who adhere to the nose to tail philosophy will know as 'brawn'. The key difference as far as I can see is that the brawn recipes that I've seen use fresh pig's heads, whilst in cachucha, the meat is inevitably salted and lightly smoked. Most don't even use any additional herbs or aromatics, but I've included some here, because a few bay leaves aren't going to offend anyone, and let's face it, if your stock pot contains literally nothing but piggy-smelling face meat, you're going to feel a bit like you're making dog food.

Makes enough for one large terrine

one pig's head, salted and lighlty smoked. On the bone, but split into quarters

bay leaves, thyme, rosemarry, pepper corns (optional)


Put the pig's head in a sufficiently large pot, and cover completely with cold water, and leave to soak. Change the water every twelve hours or so for at least a day and a half.

After having changed the water at least three times, drain, rinse, and cover in fresh water, adding the herbs and any other flavours you choose. Bring to the boil, then simmer for three to four hours. Leave to cool. You now have some very tender pig face meat, and some very strong pig stock.

Pick the meat off the face and skull, trimming off any thick layers of fat. A bit of gristle is fine. Cut the ears, nose, and any other large pieces of flesh into strips. Layer and pack tightly into a terrine dish, cover with grease proof paper and tin foil, and use a brick, books, or any other heavy object to press down on the top of the terrine. Leave in a cool place over night, then refrigerate.

Serve in thin slices with toast and chutney.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Saint´s Week on the Sil

Semana Santa is a big deal here in Spain. Whilst some cities come to a stand still for holy processions, most people simply see it as a good excuse for a holiday. Like many others in the country, I headed for the hills, finding a rather fitting base for Saint's Week in an old church rectory, the Reitoral de Chandrexa, which sits perched on the slopes of the breath taking canyon of the Rio Sil.

The Sil carves it's way across Galicia's inland province of Ourense. This rugged, mountainous area is known as the Ribeira Sacra - one of the country´s best wine regions. As it twists and turns through the province, it creates a series of micro climates, which are perfect for Galicia's hardy and aromatic grape varietals, notably the godello and mencia. Grapes have been grown in the region for more than two thousand years, and when you consider the treacherous lengths that are gone to tend to the vnyards along the canyon, it's not hard to understand why wine making is looked upon here with divine significance.

Whilst there has been some time to visit the wineries (more on that to come), really I came here to work... The vicar has long since left the building, but the rectory is still in good use, now as a small farm and rural guest house. I arrived last week to a healthy measure of wine from the Reitoral's own vinyard, and hot empenada de cerdo – pig pasty – fresh from the oven. Each day is punctuated by the almost-regular chiming of the church bells, which ran 50-odd minutes fast, making their inaccuracy known roughly every fifteen minutes. Still, when the bells tolled three times, meaning it was sometime just after two, it was time to down tools and head to the house for a long lunch.

The cooking is distinctly Galego, but with many inventive twists. Chorizo con castañas, a dish that is typical of these particular hills, because of the abundance of chestnut trees. Lentijas con algas, lentils stewed with seaweed farmed in the shallow rias on the atlantic coast. Filloas – Galicia's version of pancakes – served with queso de pais – soft and creamy cow's milk cheese, made in the next village. Bread baked in the communal stone oven, which is shared with the surrounding households. Home-made jams, honey and juices. Cake made from a traditional recipe, served for breakfast every morning.

Pastel de Ourense

This most traditional of cakes is native to this particular corner of the Ourense province. Interestingly, it's made using a sour dough starter, meaning there's no baking soda or other rising agent. Served at breakfast time and after lunch, it's delicious as it is, but really comes into it's own when dipped into very hot coffee.

The recipe here may seem a bit loose, but that's because the landlord here at the Reitoral de Chandrexa has made it so many times, he just kind of throws it together as he goes about his other business. Be aware this is definitely one for the patient cook however, the sour dough means it takes a good half day to make.

Enough for a huge baking tray full

Make a sour dough leavan starter.

Mix with warm water.

Add half kilogram of plain flour. Form into a dough, cover, and leave to rise for five hours.

Cream half a kilogram of butter with twice that volume of sugar (about a kilogram).

Add twelve eggs, and another half kilogram of plain flour to the butter and sugar, and mix well.

Mix the butter / egg mixture together with the dough, and transfer into rectangular cake tins.

Bake in hot oven for 45 mins – an hour. At the Reitoral, they use a old fashioned wood burning stove, with a couple of large chunks of oak in the burner. If you don't have one of them, turn the dial to 180 degrees.

Remove from the oven when the top has turned golden brown and a skewer comes out clean after piercing.

Sprinkle with more sugar and leave to cool.

Serve for breakfast and after lunch with hot coffee for dipping.