Viva Espana

After a week in Spain’s gastronomic capital, Andalusia, F&HE food editor ANNA MONTALI has well and truly embraced the tapas culture

ANNA MONTALI

Spanish culture is synonymous with passion and tradition, and it’s particularly evident in its cuisine, and in its gastronomic heartland, Andalusia. Located in the south of Spain, Andalusia is divided into eight provinces: Huelva, Cadiz, Cordoba, Malaga, Jaén, Granada, Almeria and the capital Seville. Famous sons include Pablo Picasso, who etched his first drawing in his hometown of Malaga, and A-list actor Antonio Banderas.

Ernest Hemingway wrote passionately about the area and spent his last birthday there. Andalusian cuisine is famous for gazpacho, oxtail, Malaga wine, sherry, jamón and tapas. The Moors introduced olives, almonds, citrus fruit and fragrant spices to Spain, and their influence is particularly strong in Andalusia.

DAY 1: GRANADA

As we headed for Granada, we were welcomed by a glimpse of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance – a sign of the chilly weather that lay in store. The Spanish enjoy communal eating and nowhere is this more evident than in tapas bars: hours are spent standing, talking, drinking sherry and enjoying small tasty dishes known as tapas.

Tapas are little bites that are consumed between meals to help the body survive the period between lunch and dinner. A “tapa” is a lid or cover, and it is said that in the early days of tapas, bartenders served a glass or jar of wine covered with a slice of cheese or smoked ham to prevent insects from falling into the wine. Our first taste of tapas in Spain was at Casa Enrique, one of the oldest and most atmospheric bars in Granada. Forests of delicious jamón (smoked ham) hung from the ceiling. The ham was served with a plate of queso (cheese) and delicious tomatoes, drenched in extra virgin olive oil and accompanied by copious glasses of sherry.

Early that evening, we met our guide for a walk through the historic town to work up an appetite before dinner. Strolling through winding streets to the top of the hill, through old churches and Muslim bazaars, we encountered people standing in tapas bars and eating, or sitting down to enjoy a hubbly-bubbly before the evening meal. As we reached the top of the hill, the Alhambra Palace in all its illuminated glory came into view. It is strikingly beautiful, and really encapsulates the meeting of Islamic and Christian cultures and architecture – a monument to Spain’s turbulent history. Dinner at the Postres restaurant ended with a delicious piña colada soup with frozen yoghurt and a bite-sized hazelnut tart. Seville An organic olive farm in Jaén

DAY 2 – 5: GRANADA AND ÚBEDA

A delicious breakfast of toasted bread topped with salmorejo (a thick version of gazpacho, based on tomato) at the Hotel Meliá set us up for a daytime visit to the Alhambra Palace. Walking through the palace grounds took most of the day but was well worth it – especially when followed by churros and hot chocolate. We learned the phrase “churros por favor” pretty quickly and it became a morning ritual to order these deep-fried dough loops, which stick so perfectly to thick hot chocolate. (See my churros recipe on page 38.) From Granada we moved into olive oil country. Granada’s neighbouring town, Úbeda (in the province of Jaén) and the cities of Seville and Cordoba are Spain’s leading olive oil producers. In Úbeda, declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, you can see row upon row of olive trees rubbing shoulders with a magnificent cathedral and castle.

Lunch at El Seco was accompanied by the ubiquitous ceramic bowl of olives – delicious with hot local bread and loads of different olive oils. The best green olives come from Spain (Greece takes the honours for black olives): more than 250 olive varieties are grown in the country. Spain is the world’s top producer of olive oil and we spent an afternoon learning about, and tasting, outstanding olive oils. Olive trees are slow growers and traditionally they only bear fruit after 15 years, but modern techniques have produced trees that bear fruit after five years. Harvesting is still done by hand and olives are gathered from the end of November to the end of March.

The morning of our last day in Úbeda featured a tour of the local oil refineries and lunch at the Restaurante Parador Castello de Santa Catalina. On the menu: leek and boletus (mushroom) soup with goat’s cheese gratin; spring onion and orange salad with shredded salted cod; and olive oil cake with walnuts, currants and custard sauce. The feast was complemented by breathtaking panoramic views of olive trees stretching into the horizon. Then we were off to the Hotel & Spa Sierra de Cazorla to relish a relaxing spa treatment using essential olive oils.

DAY 6: CÓRDOBA

Our culinary adventure continued in Córdoba, a cultural melting pot and the capital of Moorish Spain. At a local cooking school we were shown a demonstration on Spain’s national treasure: jamón (cured ham). Jamón is more than a Spanish delicacy – it’s a part of every family’s life and every tapas bar and food store has its own hams.

Jamón is a flavourful ham cured in the country air, and the best is peta negra Iberico. These hams come from black Iberian pigs, which live on a diet of acorns and grass. The ham is made from the pig’s hind legs and shoulder cuts, and is distinguished by a red band around the leg, just above the hoof.

Learning to slice this delicacy takes lots of practise. After trying it (and failing miserably), we watched award-winning chef Antonio Garcia demonstrate his skills in slicing paper-thin slices of jamón. In the late afternoon we took a slow walk through the city where the crowds were spilling out onto the streets. The noise, laughter and chatter were deafening, confirming Spain’s reputation as a seriously loud country.

No visit to Andalusia would be complete without a flamenco show. This is a form of folk dancing created by the gypsies of the Andalusian region of Spain in the 19th century, and it is still popular to this day. As we entered a courtyard at the Palacio de Congresos, the spirit of flamenco was tangible. A beautiful woman with her black, red and white frilly skirt stepped onto the stage, and as the music built into a crescendo her feet started tapping. It was passionate, mysterious and seductive – dancing with attitude – and I loved it.

DAY 7: SEVILLE

The last day of our visit was spent in Seville, with its narrow streets and whitewashed houses. Seville is home to the largest gothic church in Spain, and the site of Christopher Columbus’s tomb. It’s also the tapas capital of the world.

People in Seville make a meal out of tapas by moving from bar to bar until they are full, feasting on marinated olives, delicate slices of jamón, Spanish omelettes, baked potatoes, croquettes, anchovies and kebab skewers. After a delicious lunch at Casa Robles, it was time to go home. The tantalising glimpse we had of the melting pot of cultures and cuisines that is Andalusia was just enough to make another visit essential. To create an authentic taste of Spain at home, turn to page 34 where you’ll find some of my favourite recipes, cooked and enjoyed with Juan Antonio Obregon, the commercial attaché from the Spanish Embassy, and his wife Eva.

ESSENTIAL OIL FACTS

Just like wine, olive oils have individual aromatic and tasting attributes.

• Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the first cold press, achieved by mechanical extraction. It has an acidity of less than one percent and has a perfect balance of flavour, aroma and colour.
• Virgin olive oil is produced from the first extraction, but has an acidity of one to two percent and a milder taste.
• Olive oil is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined oil. It normally lacks a strong flavour and it is best used at high temperatures when cooking.
• Pomace is a by-product of the pressing and is made from the solid remains and a small amount of olive oil to give it colour. It is only good for frying.
• Olive oil varies in colour from dark green to yellow and colour does not necessarily indicate the quality of the olive oil. The colour depends on how ripe the olives were at the time of picking.
• Olives are green to start with and become black as they ripen.
• It takes between 4kg and 5kg of olives to produce 1 litre of olive oil.
• Olive oil helps to lower bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and to raise good cholesterol (HDL) levels. It contains vitamins A, D, K and especially E.
• Air, heat and light affect olive oil, so ensure you store it away from direct sunlight.
• Olive oil does not improve with age like wine and should be used within a year.

JAMÓN FACTS

• Jamón undergoes a lengthy curing process which contributes to the deep flavour and the aroma. The lengthy curing means that the ham is less fatty and a lot firmer than Italian prosciutto.
• Jamón must be sliced paper-thin and along the grain.
• Hams are placed in sea salt for a short period of time and then hung, allowing them to be exposed to different changes in temperature.
• Jamón is tested by a ham-master, who inserts a long rod into the ham and then smells it to determine if it’s ready (in the same way that a wine master would sniff a wine’s cork).
• Jamón Serrano is the best known of the Spanish hams. Serrano means “from the mountains”. It is aged for up to 18 months.
• Jamón Iberico is the most prized of the Spanish hams and is considered equivalent to the best Iranian caviar or French truffles. The jamón Iberico de Bellota, also known as pata negra, is the crème de la crème of them all and is made from pigs fed on a diet of only acorns. Jamón Iberico is aged for up to 36 months.

Anna Montali’s trip was sponsored by Jaén Trade Chamber and Jaén Country Council (Cámara).

SOURCES
ANNA MONTALI

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