Owner of Bury St Edmunds Mediterranean restaurant CASA, Maria Broadbent celebrates Spanish Food and Wine month in a bid to debunk what she believes is a skewed view of what Spain has to offer
Abandoned by my family to write this article, they first passed on their views on Spanish food and culture – which were quite polarised: BF says varied and flavoursome having been taken to a variety of local restaurants, daughter says disappointing having visited mainstream/tourist establishments with a notable exception (more on this later). I think this typifies the average Brits somewhat skewed view of what Spain has to offer on a culinary level. Many of us experience holiday resort food that has been so anglicised it is no longer recognisable as true Spanish cuisine.
Running CASA (Spanish for home), a Mediterranean restaurant that specialises in tapas and meze, I was very happy to see that November is Spanish Food and Wine month here in the UK. Lots of events had been planned – but these ended up online and I did my first Zoom wine and food tasting. Despite the fact that there were two of us and we only had 50ml x 10 of shared wines, we ended up a bit squiffy. Mind you, it was 3pm in the afternoon – which may have had something to do with it? Being the recipient rather than the purveyor reminded me of the quality and diversity of Spanish food. Sturgeon canned like sardines in the most perfect olive oil, truffled cheese, pâtés and cooked meats – this all arrived by courier with an online Zoom tasting ‘lesson’. I was thinking ‘now this could be a thing!’.
Why the need to promote Spanish food in this manner you may ask?
Well I think Italy and France in Europe, plus China, Mexico and India further afield, seem to have a better PR department when it comes to their culinary prowess. Should anyone doubt the flare and variety of Spanish food, I highly recommend Rick Stein’s journey through Spain – currently available on BBC iplayer.
What is Spanish food?
Padron peppers, pimento, bacalao, saffron, manchego, jamon (ham) and chorizo are just a few of the ingredients that immediately spring to mind. The dishes most people think about include:
Patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce)
Gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns)
Paella (Mixed rice dish with lots of flavour)
Churros (a kind of doughnut with a chocolate dipping sauce)
Crema Catalan (a slightly less rich version of crème brulée)
This is before we even begin on their wines and fortified wines. Easily recognised are Rioja (made from Tempranillo grapes) and Albarino. Other white wines to consider include Verdejo and Gewurztraminer (yes – from Spain!) and reds could include Garnacha or Monastrell. Sherry deserves an entire article to itself – so delicious and perfect with tapas. Sherry is usually around the 15% ABV, which is only marginally higher than wine and less than port. It does, however, have so much more flavour and depth than many wines.
Sherry and tapas pairing is perfect – why?
Tapas dishes tend to be small and packed with lots of gutsy flavours. Therefore, a sherry wine that is confident enough to match these flavours and has been nurtured in the same part of the world is a treat many are missing out on. They do not all taste like the sherry an elderly aunt had oxidising in the sideboard from one Christmas to the next. These are sophisticated, well blended and complex wines that deserve to be drunk with friends and food.
The family have decided to reconvene as I am writing this article and both wish to share the highlight of their numerous work trips to Spain. Perhaps it was the mention of wine and sherry! Now Anabelle and I are armed with a glass of solera sherry (similar in sweetness to Harvey’s Bristol Cream) she is sharing her best Spanish dining experience. When working for an international events company, she was in Barcelona and arrived at El Xalet de Montjuïc restaurant. First impressions were of a rundown restaurant with an approach like Granny’s back yard! Then came beautiful plants and a stunning view of Barcelona from its vantage point near Camp Nou – home to FC Barcelona. The food here was presented as fine dining tapas and for her was the moment of realisation that Spanish tapas are not just bar snacks!
Seated on a terrace with the most incredible views across the cityscape of Barcelona, nibbling on freshly-charred Padron peppers and sipping the finest *Cava is a pretty good way to experience life in my opinion. White drapes and attractively laid tables created a perfect setting – until the thunderstorm arrived. A hasty retreat indoors did mean, however, the chance to sit in the revolving restaurant and take in the permanently shifting yet breathtaking view of both this city and the thunderstorm.
*Cava is made in the same traditional way that Champagne is and is very competitively priced due to it being less well known. Do give it a try this festive season – there are some stunning bottles around, including the beautiful Gaudi print one on our wine list.
In contrast, Andy’s story is much more rustic.
It was March 29, 2012 (National Strike Day) and Andy was in Bilbao, the biggest city in the Basque region, when major protests were kicking off in the region as well as all over Spain against austerity measures. His hosts whisked him off to Guernica and took him to what looked like a closed down restaurant. The host knocked on the shutters and a man peered out – a conversation ensued, and they were beckoned inside. On the wall was a huge painting of Picasso’s Guernica. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it is a brutal depiction of the wholesale destruction and slaughter of a village in Spain. The attack was requested by Franco and carried out by the Germans and Italians in 1937, it was the first aerial military bombing of civilians and seen by many as a war crime.
Like many restaurants popular with the locals, the décor was plain and simple and the menu consisted of traditional dishes simply presented. The conviviality of sharing food and wine (sherry or beer) around a table with family and friends is a wonderfully intrinsic part of Spanish culture. Maybe this didn’t help in his recollection of specific dishes other than the hearty bean and pork stew that features throughout this part of Spain in one guise or another. He also says he wimped out from trying the somewhat scary looking goose barnacles!
The geography of Spain is varied and this contributes to great regional fluctuations in the food and wine of each region. From the wet Atlantic facing region of Galicia – famous for seafood and Albarino to the warm heavily Moorish influenced Andalusia – Spain has it all. Should you want to really read up on this take a look at foodswinesfromspain.com. In the meantime, I’m conscious that many of us feel we have had our wings clipped this year so food is the only route to going abroad, So, let’s do a mini tour of Spain!
Green Spain – This is the area of high rainfall around Galicia and Cantabria. Lots of delicious fish, including sardines and, of course, premium anchovies. The pastures produce excellent beef and a raft of superb cheeses.
Andalusia – set between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bordering North Africa and Europe, this region is full of aromatic flavours. Many cultures over the centuries have influenced the cuisine, including the Phoenicians, Christians, Romans, Arabs and Jews. Olive oil runs, literally, as the common thread in this multi-faceted cuisine.
Valencia – It’s all about the rice and, in particular, paella is what this region is famous for. There is also plenty of fish, citrus fruits and sweet treats to tempt your tastebuds.
Extramadura – producing perhaps the most evocative smell/taste of Spain – smoked paprika. This region was among the first to receive the culinary delights from the new world – peppers, chillies, aubergines and potatoes. It is also home to the famous acorn-fed pigs that produce the much-coveted Ibérico ham. Don’t forget, too, there are plenty of sheep in this region producing excellent cheeses.
Catalonia – the mix of seafood with mountain produce is the signature style of this region. Fiercely independent with its own language – the dishes are rooted in tradition and are prepared, and indeed eaten, with passion.
Castilla la Mancha – this is where Manchego comes from and where many Westerns were filmed!
For greater detail on any particular region, this is a great website: spain.info/en/query/regional-cuisine-spain
PATATAS BRAVAS SAUCE
Originally from Madrid it simply translates brave potatoes, alluding to the fact that sauce has a real kick! You can do the sauce with any kind of spuds, you can even omit the oil and do it with Slimming World chips!
1 white onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
5 sundried tomatoes
Pinch of chilli flakes (optional – depends on how hot your paprika is and how brave you are)
1 teaspoon of hot smoked paprika
1 tablespoon of sherry vinegar
2 good pinches of salt
2 pinches of ground cumin
Pinch of black pepper
625g of chopped tinned tomatoes (good quality)
Fry onion and garlic gently – or if omitting oil, soften in microwave with a little water.
Place all the other ingredients into a large saucepan, bring to the boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring to stop mixture from catching. When the mixture spits violently, it is ready. Use a stick blender to zuzz together in a liquidizer to make it a sauce.
Now this has a burnt topping to be traditional – however, it still tasted delicious without it and can be decorated with fruit, mint, granola and coulis as in the picture. So don’t be put off by having to set fire to it!
500 ml whole milk
½ an orange
½ a lemon
½ a stick of cinnamon
1 vanilla pod
7 large egg yolks
95g sugar, plus extra to serve
1 heaped teaspoon cornflour
Put the milk, orange and lemon zest and cinnamon in a saucepan. Split the vanilla pod lengthways and add this too, then gently bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and cornflour until pale and creamy.
Pass the milk through a sieve and discard everything else, then return the milk to the pan and place over a medium heat.
Just before it reaches boiling point, slowly add the egg mixture, whisking continuously for about 7 minutes, or until it begins to thicken and coats the back of a wooden spoon.
Remove it from the heat and pour into individual dishes or ramekins.
Cover each serving with a disc of greaseproof paper to prevent a skin forming, and let it cool before placing in the fridge.
To serve, remove the greaseproof paper, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar on top of each crema and caramelise using a blowtorch. Alternatively, place the sugared custards on a tray under a preheated preferably gas grill for a few minutes, until the sugar turns dark brown. Allow the sugar to harden, then serve immediately.
Christmas Kitchen gift guide
For many people, lockdown has been an opportunity to skill up in the kitchen. I’m not a huge advocate of gazillions of gadgets, as many take up valuable space, are fiddly to clean and are too single purposed. I have done a facebook survey in a foodie group I am a member of and asked what gifts people would like. Here are some of the suggestions along with my personal favourites.
As always – if you can buy locally at either the Kitchen Kave (which is just that!) at the top of Risbygate Street, ProCook on St John’s Street along with the many gift shops and Debenhams this helps keep Bury St Edmunds busy!
Fridge magnets with weight and measure conversions are a great idea.
Bamix – the king of stick blenders in my opinion (Swiss precision).
Knives – a word of warning here, not just because they are sharp, but they are a very personal choice. I would therefore recommend asking for the ‘chef’s’ preference. If the recipient is new to the kitchen then Kitchen Kave do James Martin Stellar knives that are easy to handle, sharp and great value.
Jars with pre-weighed ingredients and a recipe – try Clear to Sea on St John’s Street for loose ingredients. Great for kids and/or the environmentally aware.
Reusable non-stick liners that you can cut to size are popular with bakers.
Josef Josef classic garlic press has been recommended by many, including my daughter.
Knife sharpener – I recommend the ‘Any sharp’ one that suctions to a work surface for those who don’t enjoy wielding a sharpening steel!
Slow cookers – inexpensive, versatile, time saving and much underrated
Vouchers for a restaurant. Many businesses in town would appreciate this as a gesture given that the dining out festive season will be curtailed this year.
Cookery books –Waterstones for new and charity shops for second hand.
Microplane – I have tested many variations on these and I bought this make for my Mum and still feel it’s as good as any.
For bakers in particular: A good set of scales – add measuring spoons and cups.
A book on preserving – add in a sugar thermometer or if a main gift a beautiful maslin (jam) pan.
Aprons and oven gloves? Not sure on this, again personal preference on both the practical and aesthetics!
A good rolling pin and top-quality nesting cutters.
Maria Broadbent is owner of Mediterranean restaurant CASA in Risbygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Tel 01284 701313