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The International Writers Magazine: Eating

Buying & Cooking Food in Spain
Colin Fisher

Frankenstein squid and shops the size of wardrobes The daftest thing I’ve 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, it’s everything it shouldn’t 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 doesn’t. It’s 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 everyone’s recipe, which they naturally got from their grandmother, is better than, well, everyone else’s. 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 here’s 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 didn’t 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 husband’s recipe or the tall foreigner who seemed to be taking up an unnaturally large amount of space in her shop. I don’t know if Spanish women think that every foreigner is a spy but I’ve met this reaction quite a few times. I’m 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 I’d 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 I’d ever seen. It was sitting up on the spoon and if a squid has eyebrows then I’d 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 fishmonger’s wife thought that if anybody could cope with the Beast From The Deep and then eat he must be alright after all.

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 we’d chat a little about the weather. Being Madrid the conversation tended to go along the lines of:
-Hace calor (It’s hot).
-Hace mucho calor (It’s very hot).
Or sometimes
-¡Que calor! (It’s 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 wasn’t 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 it wet).

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 don’t 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, Spain’s very own Bastille, and where apparently it is very, very cold.

I’d like to think I could reassure all the married women of Spain who work in shops the size of wardrobes that I’m not really a spy, here to steal the secrets of Asturian grandmothers. I’m just a very tall foreigner who likes to eat (and cook) Spanish food. I know they’d be reassured if they knew that the fabada I made was far too salty and the pulpo a la Gallega too tough. It’s one thing to have a recipe.
It’s quite another to have a grandmother from Asturias.
Colin Fisher March 20th 2008

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