In April we spent some time in Deutschland, and I reported what German things we’d been eating. It’s time to do “What we’re eating: Spanish edition.” Of course we’ve been eating a lot more than the things I’m listing here, but I’m concentrating on foodstuffs that are a little different from our normal fare. In a few cases we’re eating things we couldn’t identify, and in fact right now I have something in a pouch in the freezer I’m not really sure about, and whose label Google Translate refuses to illuminate. Keeps life interesting. The collection here is alphabetical, for want of a more compelling organizing principle.
Lots of olives. The ones we often eat are green, but not just those you think of when you hear “Spanish olives.” Those are Loquita’s favorites, filled with red pimento. El Guapo and I are fond of the more common aceitunas rellenas de anchoa (olives stuffed with anchovy), and quite like those stuffed with jalapeño, too.
In the US we have a favorite outing that includes wandering around the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge (think huge garden/park that happens to have graves in it), and afterwards stopping for lavash and spicy olives at an Armenian store in Watertown. Those olives made me think that I’d never meet an olive I didn’t like, but surprise, it has now been done. I brought home a couple of likely looking varieties from a store here that sells them by the pound, and found that I don’t actually like every olive. I nicknamed them “vicious olives,” which should give you some idea. We minced them up and used them as kick in a few dishes, but I was glad I hadn’t gotten lots. (Why didn’t I just toss them, you wonder? That’s a question for another post.)
Olives take up a lot more shelf space in grocery stores here, and a lot of table space at restaurants. And you can buy them in handi-paks, pouches to go, so you never have to be without them. I was at a picnic last weekend where the host opened what seemed like a huge can (probably 1.5 or 2 L) of aceitunas rellenas de anchoa, and they did not linger. This was not a big crowd of people, either. Spaniards seem to love their olives.
Chocolate a la Taza
Yes, it’s hot chocolate, but not the kind we’re used to. We had been told that it’s really thick, and that’s true, but it’s not thick like hot fudge; it’s thick like hot pudding. The first time I made it I wasn’t very impressed, but I hadn’t cooked it long enough for the thickener (some sort of flour, often rice) to do the job. Subsequent batches have been much tastier.
Frutas y Verduras
I get lots of fresh fruit from my favorite fruteria. Right now we’re reveling in quantities of inexpensive bing cherries, nectarines, strawberries, and Valencia oranges (they’re excellent, and currently 25 centimos per kilo). We’ve also recently been able to get apricots, which look a little strange, but taste fine. We’ve tried a fruit called nispero, an unusual texture, and quite tart. It’s called a loquat in English, and is native to southeastern China.
When I was at the fruteria last week I saw something that looked like a peach that got stuck on its way to morphing into a doughnut. Yesterday there seemed to be some that were ripe, so I ventured, and was rewarded–they’re really nice! Apparently they’re sometimes called doughnut peaches, sometimes saturn peaches, squashed peaches, or paraguayo peaches.
We get quite a few vegetables there, too, including one that I haven’t seen in the US. It’s called judia, what seems like a cross between a green bean and a snow pea, about a foot long. It features in classic Valencian paella.
The man who runs the fruteria is very personable. It’s a new experience for me to know my shopkeeper, to have him ask how the kids are, and for him to let me stow my bike in the back of the store when I find that I don’t have the key for the bike lock with me and I need to get a few things at the grocery store across the street.
I wish I could provide a recording for you of the street hawker call inviting folks to come and get it. There’s a long Orrrr, then a sharp dropped chat followed by a bounce up to a high AAah! to finish. El Guapo thinks I’m exaggerating, but I guess he hasn’t heard the ladies I’ve heard, standing at their little booths, displaying baskets of the chufa (also called tiger nuts) that are ground up in the making of the stuff. They’re closer to potatoes than nuts, and in Spain grow only in the Valencia region. The drink itself is a light tan, and rather sweet. We tend to mix it with milk to take the sweetness down a notch.
We’re not big meat eaters in general, and being in Spain has perhaps only accentuated that fact– we’ve bought animal flesh rarely in the last four months. But we have tried the local Serrano ham (serrano means “from the mountains”), and it can give prosciutto some competition. We’ve also had several different kinds of hard dry salami-ish things, which we cut in slivers and mix into things we’re making. It seems like a good way to have a little of the flavor of the meat without getting too weighed down. It took me a while to get used to seeing the big ham legs hanging in ranks in the grocery store. The smell is not so very nice.
Valencians are deservedly proud of their signature dish, and fridge magnets in the shape of little pans brimming with orange rubber rice grains abound at the dozens of tourist booths in the Plaza de la Reina. There’s the classic Valencian recipe, to be messed with at your peril, which features chicken, rabbit, snails, judia beans and some legumes that are like hulk limas. It’s very tasty. There are certainly many other kinds, including squid ink paella. That’s not one I can venture an opinion on yet, but I’ve looked up the recipe, and I’ll bet my local market can get me the small squid tubes and the three teaspoons of squid ink that it calls for.
Paella is also the name of the pan used for cooking the dish. It’s always shallow, with a flat bottom, but ranges immensely in size. There are pans that look like they’d about fit on your largest burner, and then there are those that wouldn’t fit into the back of a pickup truck. Here’s one we saw for sale, with Loquita beside it to give you a sense of scale. To cook with one that size, you either build a fire in the street, or hook up a propane tank to a special burner designed for the purpose, and set that in the street for cooking. The fact that many streets are closed off for Las Fallas works out well for the large-scale paella parties.
Bread of various kinds–mostly long loaves with decorative slashes, deliciously crusty–what most Americans might generalize and call French bread. I’ve been making my own bread a fair amount, but it’s quick and easy to pick up a fresh pan de pueblo when the mood strikes. We often eat it with
Ah, cheese. The grocery store we frequently go to has a store brand of Camembert (!) which has got us convinced. We also enjoy a Valencian-made cheese referred to as Semi-Marron, which just means partly brown. The cheese is creamy yellow, but the wax rind is brown, probably the reason behind the name. We eat various combinations of sheep, cow and goat cheeses, and we’ve had some wonderful Gouda with cumin seeds. In the past we’ve had wonderful cheese in Germany, France and Italy, so I’m not going to try to do any rank ordering, I’ll just say that Europe does cheese well.
Turning from what we’re eating, I’ll finish with a note on what we’re not eating.
There are a few things on this list, either because the ingredients are hard to get, or we’re trying to eat local, or because it seemed like the perfect opportunity to clean up our act a bit. Soy sauce, peanut butter, maple syrup, and cold cereal make the list (cereal fitting into the last category). Up until yesterday I would have included cilantro and salsa, but my produce guy came through for me (when I asked if he had any cilantro he went to the back to get some, and gave it to me for free!), and with his nicely ripe tomatoes, I made a very tasty fresh salsa, something we had been missing.
*A note on the Spanish word for olives: it’s unexpected. Olive oil is called aceite de oliva, so you might assume that olivas, or olivos, would be the word for olives, but no. Instead, we have aceitunas. I poked around a bit and found that the word has Arabic origins, where it looks like this: الزيتون (az-zaytun). It sounds like oil tuna to me, but then I’m not in charge here. The word for tuna is atún, and also comes from Arabic, as does aceite, the word for oil. If you wanted to mix up a little concoction of oil, tuna and olives, you could have aceite, atún, and aceitunas, but it doesn’t sound very appetizing. I guess it would depend on the proportions.