‘Gastronomy has been the joy of all peoples through the ages. It produces beauty and wit and goes hand in hand with goodness of heart and a consideration of others.’
So wrote Charles Pierre Monselet, a French author, in the 19th century. He was right, don’t you think? Trying new foods is one of my favourite aspects of travel; I love to add to my repertoire whenever I can and then cook for friends and family.
Writing a new novel is a wonderful excuse to delve into the cuisine that is typical for the setting. For my Andalusian Nights trilogy, I was within my comfort zone of Mediterranean cooking, with its emphasis on delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and cheeses. The action in Indiscretion and Masquerade is largely set in Andalusia, with a small deviation to Valencia, and so I sampled plenty of foods from those regions – but as is the case in all countries, specialties of particular regions are also embraced elsewhere, so I toured all of Spain from my humble kitchen.
Today I have cooked up for you a simple dinner party menu that will give you the perfect taste of Spain. The recipes are from Andalusia, Valencia and Catalonia, but if you would like to tour other regions, why not draw up a wine list to accompany your meal? A Rioja, perhaps?
Gazpacho is served throughout Spain, in different varieties, but the original and true gazpacho is from Andalusian. It’s a cold soup, which to the uninitiated perhaps sounds odd, but in the hot climbs of Andalusia it’s wonderfully refreshing, and healthy too.
The soup dates back a long time, to the Romans, and it originated as a meal for peasants and shepherds.
The core ingredients are tomatoes, cucumber, red and yellow pepper, onions and garlic, blended together. Olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper are added, to taste, and then stale bread, broken into bite-sized chunks, is stirred through. I like to make the gazpacho the day before; the flavor matures when the soup is refrigerated for several hours. Serve a little chilled, but not too cold, for the best taste.
Typical Andalusian garnishes include slices of pepper, chopped tomatoes and cucumber, herbs, orange segments, sliced almonds and, served on the side, hard-boiled eggs and the local ham. If preferred, the gazpacho can be served as a tapa or a main meal.
Main course: Paella
No doubt you’ve heard of – even sampled – paella, and recognise it as an iconic Spanish dish. In fact, it is not the national dish, but a regional one, pertaining to Valencia.
The ingredients of the original Valencian paella may surprise you: rice, of course, seasoned with saffron and paprika and cooked in olive oil, but also white and green beans, artichoke, chicken and even, if you’re lucky, snails or duck. Seafood paella developed as a variant dish; its distinguishing feature is seafood still in its shell.
Traditionally, paella is cooked in the great outdoors over an open fire on which burn orange and pine branches whose flavour is unfused into the dish. But in our modern times most of us cook in a kitchen, of course.
When cooking paella at home, I recommend using the best-quality olive oil you can find; it makes a difference to the flavor. Really take your time in the cooking, and aim to build a socarrat at the bottom of the pan, a layer of toasted rice, by using a high flame on the hob. Once the paella is cooked, cover it with a tea towel and leave it to settle for five to ten minutes; when you serve it the juices will be perfectly absorbed. I like to serve lemon on the side as a garnish and some extra olive oil for drizzling.
Dessert: Catalan cream
As a resident of France for half of the year, I am well acquainted with the delicious dessert crème brûlée, the classic dessert comprising a creamy custard topped with a layer of hard caramel.
Did you know that the Catalans have their own variation of this dish? They call it crema catalana. The custard is made from egg yolk, milk and sugar, and is flavoured with cinnamon and the zest from an orange and lemon. The cook sprinkles sugar over the top, and this is then caramelised. Traditionally, for the Catalan cream you don’t use a chef’s torch for the caramelising, but a specialist iron: a round disk with a handle that you heat on the hob and then apply to the surface of the custard as a sort of brand.
You can make these desserts up to three hours in advance, but I advise doing the caramelising right before serving, so that the sugar is fragrant and warm. Delicious!
I hope you have enjoyed your gastronomic visit to Spain. Are there other Spanish recipes you’ve enjoyed? What other countries’ cuisines would you like to try?