25 July 2010

Cardos, corzos and caracoles – Food for free

Alcalá's location as the gateway to the Alcornocales Natural Park is one of its greatest assets for visitors and residents alike. But this vast area of cork-oak groves, shady gorges and sun-baked crags has provided a natural larder for Alcalainos for centuries. In the postwar era it kept many people from starving. Even today you see men returning from foraging trips with the panniers of their mopeds overflowing with wild asparagus, and sacks of tiny juicy snails are sold by the roadside the way strawberries are in England.

Wild asparagus
Espárrago (Asparagus acutifolius) is harvested in springtime, when the young shoots appear. It is thinner and darker than cultivated asparagus, and tends to grow under thorny bushes. Because of its rather bitter taste it is usually cooked with other ingredients rather than eaten on its own; stewed with chickpeas and other vegetables to make berza, or fried with garlic and beaten eggs to make revueltos.

Edible thistles
Alcalá is famous for its tagarninas – Spanish oyster or golden thistles (Scolymus hispanicus). Their spiky flowerheads are seen all over the meadows and roadsides in early summer. The stems are stripped and the tender inner parts are used in the same ways as asparagus.  At the Festival of St George festival (yes, he´s our patron saint too!) they are cooked in a giant pot for the revellers.
The cardo - cardoon or artichoke thistle (Cynara cardunculus) - is a relative of the globe artichoke but with a smaller head. It also produces a coagulant that can be used instead of rennet for to make cheese suitable for vegetarians.  The cardo borriquero or alcachofilla (Cynara humilis) appears at the same time as the targarnina and adds spashes of purple to the landscape. Its leaves are eaten while still tender and it also produces a small artichoke, used in stews or fried.

Fruits and berries
Juan Leiva, a writer who grew up in Alcalá in the 1940s, describes how wild fruits took the place of sweets for children in those austere postwar years. The fruits of the palmito, Europe's only native palm, were eaten when they turn red and sweet. The stems and hearts of the palms were apparently a great delicacy once, but the plant is now protected. The berries of the myrtle dyed children's mouths blue, and white hawthorn berries were particularly sweet and sticky. But the children's favourites were blackberries and madroños, the fruit of the arbutus or strawberry tree.found in abundance in the Alcornocales.

Wild mushrooms
Wild mushrooms, both edible and toxic, are referred to as setas: the word champiñon, from the French champignon, is generally used for cultivated button mushrooms. The most popular edible variety here is the cep or porcini mushroom. They are gathered in the autumn after the first rains, hopefully by people who know what they are doing.

Caracoles are served in pretty well every bar and restaurant from late May until the end of June and are incredibly popular. On one of our early trips to Alcalá before we lived here, I remember seeing dozens of people sitting out on the Alameda - old folk, young folk, nuns, lycra-clad cyclists - all tucking into glasses of what looked like chickpeas. Then I saw the telltale sign chalked on a blackboard outside the bar: “Hay caracoles”.

They are generally stewed in stock containing herbs such as mint or pennyroyal, and served in a glass topped up with the stock. You can spoon them out and suck the tiny molluscs directly from their shells, or delicately remove them with a cocktail stick. You can also get them in a tomato-based sauce. They don't actually taste of anything, but the stock is delicious! A larger form of edible snail, known as cabrillas, can sometimes be found in restaurants; these are more like the French escargots.

Game, large and small
Hunting is big, big, big round here. But pretty well everything that gets shot gets eaten (with the exception of foxes), either sold to restaurants or shared amongst friends and family. It is heavily regulated but a considerable amount of poaching goes on. Rabbits, hares, partridges, pigeons and pheasants are known as caza menor (minor prey). The caza mayor targets are the roe deer (corzo), red deer (ciervo) and the wild boar (jabalí). You won't find the meat in the local butchers, but you can eat it and sometimes buy it frozen at ventas (lunchtime eating places out in the countryside) for just a few euros.

Songbirds, I am glad to say, no longer form part of the diet of the Alcalainos - at least, not officially!


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