International Writers Magazine: Eating
& Cooking Food in Spain
squid and shops the size of wardrobes The daftest thing Ive
ever done in Spain was to go into a shop with a recipe for a bean
stew. After all, context is everything and in Spain walking into
a shop which sells Asturian food with a recipe for fabada (which
is what I did) is a bit like walking into a fish shop with a picture
of a fish and then telling the man who sells the fish how fish work.
You see, fabada is much more than just a bean stew.
Made well, as it
is in Asturia in the north of Spain, its everything it shouldnt
be. As a dish made with large white beans, or fabas, smoked morcilla,
a little like black pudding but sweeter, chorizo, Spanish sausage, and
a lump of pig fat, and a large lump at that, it should lie heavy in
your stomach, a warning against eating a pig. And yet it doesnt.
Its the kind of food you could give to someone recovering from
a tropical illness or an elderly relative who needs to eat food that
is both nourishing yet very light. You feel that the Asturians had a
good look at chicken soup and said This is nice but can you imagine
what it would be like if we made it from a pig?. In fact this
is just what you would expect from a race of people that is slightly
insane but like a challenge.
I suppose there is a recipe for fabada. But Spain being what it is,
a large country with lots of people who like talking, you just know
everyones recipe, which they naturally got from their grandmother,
is better than, well, everyone elses. This is the trouble with
oral traditions - nobody can agree on anything. I downloaded my recipe
from the internet and this is what I handed over to the man in the shop.
An Asturian man, wise in the ways of Asturia, above all its greatest
export - fabada. A man, doubtless, with a grandmother. In fact, very
possibly, with two of them. Each with their own recipe for fabada. When
you included his wife, there in the shop with him, an Asturian woman,
even wiser in the ways of Asturia, you now had four Asturian grandmothers,
all with their own recipe for fabada. True, my recipe had the word Asturia
printed in a nice shade of blue but the few seconds spent printing it
out was a dagger aimed at the collective heart of Asturian grandmothers.
But heres the weird part.
The guy in the shop read it. Something which he must have known by heart
he read carefully before scurrying off to find the ingredients (given
that the shop, like many in Spain, was the size of a wardrobe he didnt
have to scurry far to find them). Each time he came back he placed them
on the counter, re-read the recipe, looked at me (I could swear I saw
a line of sweat on his upper lip), looked at the recipe once more and
resumed his scurrying.
Throughout all this his wife stood in the back of the shop watching
me carefully. She said nothing and took no part in the search for ingredients.
She did draw a little closer to her husband as he explained the importance
of soaking the salted pork before putting it in the fabada. She clearly
suspected something was not right: either her husbands recipe
or the tall foreigner who seemed to be taking up an unnaturally large
amount of space in her shop. I dont know if Spanish women think
that every foreigner is a spy but Ive met this reaction quite
a few times. Im in a shop and the husband is serving me. In the
back of the shop is his wife, standing, looking at me, not saying a
word. Not long after my experience in the Asturian shop I decided
Id like to make pulpo a la Gallega, a wonderful dish of squid
served on a bed of boiled potatoes, covered with olive oil and paprika.
Like a lot of Spanish food it sounds ridiculously simple and is stunningly
delicious. The fishmonger explained the importance of using fresh squid
and cooking the potatoes in the water with the squid. His wife folded
her arms and stared at me. As I paid for the squid she suddenly said:
-You must put the squid in the boiling water three times before you
cook it. In and out. Three times.
I now realize that this was a test because cooking a whole squid is,
frankly, a little weird. Following her instructions I dunked it three
times in the boiling water. Now, the squid was quite clearly dead before
I put it in the water, a shapeless form of tentacles and suckers that
slid easily from the serving spoon. However, when I took it out for
the first time there, staring at me, was the liveliest dead squid Id
ever seen. It was sitting up on the spoon and if a squid has eyebrows
then Id swear this one had cocked one of them at me. Each time
he surfaced from the boiling water his cooked body was firmer then before,
the tentacles stuck in their pose of casual disinterest at all that
was happening. I guess the fishmongers wife thought that if anybody
could cope with the Beast From The Deep and then eat he must be alright
Even buying something as ordinary as ham from a woman can be an experience
akin to making an appointment with the Inquisition. Below my flat is
a fiambría, a shop that sells cold meats. Being Spain this includes
the wonderful jamón de serrano. I started going there about six
months ago. If the guy served me wed chat a little about the weather.
Being Madrid the conversation tended to go along the lines of:
-Hace calor (Its hot).
-Hace mucho calor (Its very hot).
-¡Que calor! (Its bloody hot!).
If his wife served me I always had the feeling she was thinking of calling
the police. But by then I was used to this level of suspicion exhibited
by married women working in shops the size of wardrobes and thought
nothing of it. Then one day as she put away the things I had bought
she said: -¿Como lo comes, el jamón? (How do you eat jamón?)
I wasnt sure how to reply. After all, up to that moment all she
had ever said to me was -¿Mas?
That wonderful way the Spanish have of asking -And would sir be requiring
anything else today? Perhaps it was a trick question and she was
simply keeping me in the shop long enough for the police to arrive.
-Con pan. I answered nervously. With bread.
She thought for a moment -¿Mantequilla? (With butter?). She had
obviously heard of the unspeakable practices of the anglosajones with
bread and butter.
-No, I answered, solo con pan. No, only bread.
She thought for a moment.
-Mejor, she finally answered, mantequilla le moja (Good, butter makes
And with that she handed me the bag with the jamon. She probably gave
some kind of secret sign because by the time I left the shop the police
snatch squad was nowhere to be seen. I dont know what would have
happened if I had answered yes but I might well have been writing this
from the prison of San Marcos in Leon, Spains very own Bastille,
and where apparently it is very, very cold.
Id like to think I could reassure all the married women of Spain
who work in shops the size of wardrobes that Im not really a spy,
here to steal the secrets of Asturian grandmothers. Im just a
very tall foreigner who likes to eat (and cook) Spanish food. I know
theyd be reassured if they knew that the fabada I made was far
too salty and the pulpo a la Gallega too tough. Its one thing
to have a recipe.
Its quite another to have a grandmother from Asturias.
Fisher March 20th 2008
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.