21 July 2010

Chacina, queso de cabra, nisperos and other gastronomic delights

When we first moved here in May 2008 I lost half a stone over the summer months. I felt very pleased with myself and believed it was due to a healthier diet and more exercise. The following winter it all piled back on, and then some. Not to worry, I thought, it will go again over the summer. But it didn't. Winter 2009 brought another inch or two of “padding”. This summer I have made a conscious effort to lose weight, if only to get back into clothes that I can't afford to replace. But my michelin, as the Spanish delightfully call their middle-age spread, stubbornly refuses to budge.

The problem is that the food here is just too scrumptious. The fruit, especially in summer, is so yummy that it is almost impossible not to meet the five-a-day target. Cherries the size of walnuts – I can eat half a kilo in a day. Paraguayos, or doughnut peaches, figs, nectarines, apricots, creamy custard-apples or chirimoyas, great juicy plums in a choice of colours - purple, red or yellow. Little orange fruit called nisperos, that taste like a slightly orange-flavoured peach, and which I have never found an English name for though I think they are related to medlars. Tiny bite-sized pears, sweet and firm, which the greengrocer hands round to the customers like sweets. Giant watermelons, fruity little bananas from the Canaries - totally different from the big woolly Caribbean ones we get in the UK, apples the size of grapefruit.


And winter brings the oranges – I had no idea there were so many different kinds – plus strawberries, grown in Huelva, which reach perfection in March.

All of this is grown in Spain so there is absolutely no food-mile guilt to spoil the flavour. All sun-ripened and bursting with sugar. No chemically-induced delays to the ripening process. You buy it ripe and you eat it straight away – three days later it goes mouldy. That takes some getting used to. Or you can just zap it all into a giant Smoothie.

Then there is the chacina. This is a generic term for all food made from the pig that is not actually pork. In the not too distant past it was common for people here to keep a pig, fatten it on leftovers and then have all their friends round for the matanza or slaughter, after which it was all hands on deck to turn every single bit of the animal into food to keep the family going over the following year. A lot of it was minced and stuffed into sausages.

Chorizo, which everybody has heard of (it's pronounced “choreetho” by the way, despite Delia Smith's insistence in calling it “choritzo”), is given its distinctive colour from pimentón, or dried smoked red pepper. Chorizo comes in many forms: thick or thin, lean or fatty, spicy or mild, long or short. They are strung up and left to mature, and are eaten in many different ways: added to stews, sliced thinly and eaten in bocadillos or chunky sandwiches, fried with scrambled egg, or braised in red wine to make the world's most delicious tapas. Other forms of sausage include salchichón, seasoned with black pepper instead of pimentón; morcilla or black pudding; salchichas, similar to English bangers but not padded out with cereal; lomo embuchado or smoked loin, eaten thinly sliced. All of this is still produced in Alcalá, though these days it is made in Embutidos Gazules, a little factory on the industrial estate rather than in people's back yards. Strings of chorizos hang in loops in every butcher's shop and general store, and many bars too.

Then of course there is the famous jamón serrano, cured ham made from the black Iberian pigs that graze on acorns in the dehesas.  You could not imagine anything more different than those appalling pork-factories where sows are too fat to stand and the animals never see the light of day. I have a vegetarian friend who breaks her own rules for jamón serrano.  Every family buys a pata negra, an entire leg, for Christmas, despite them costing upwards of 80 euros each.

We can't move on from the pig without mentioning chicharrones. If you like pork scratchings these are to die for. They are basically deep-fried chunks of pig skin but with some of the meat still attached. A hundred calories a bite!

Alcalá is famous for its goat's cheese. There are huge herds of goats all round the edge of the town, which makes me wonder what they do with all the little boy goats – presumably they are sold to restaurants in the big cities, as you don't see them in the butchers' shops here. Quesos el Gazul, next to the sausage factory, produces 5,000 kg of certified organic cheese a year – cured, semi-cured or “fresco”- creamy and mild and delicious sliced with quince jam, or cubed and tossed into a salad.

I recently discovered a sealed queso fresco in the back of the fridge, way beyond its sell-by date. The plastic wrapper had inflated like a balloon and I was about to throw it out but my natural curiosity (which gets me into trouble at times) forced me to open it. Once I had rinsed off the smell of old socks I tried a slice and it was sublime – very strong and tangy, just how I like it. It is hard to get strong cheese here, so this was quite a find. And no, I didn't get food-poisoning.

Being married to a diabetic I have no problem resisting all the delicious cakes and pastries that the Alcalainos adore, especially the churros – strings of fried dough dipped into thick drinking chocolate. Just as well, or I would be even more “well-padded”. But the bread is another matter. We eat three types of bread at home, again all produced in the town: barras gallegas, or Galician baguettes, shorter and stubbier than conventional baguettes and with more flavour; pan de campo, or pan moreno, traditional country bread, chewy with a hard crust – I call it “the bread that fights back”; and molletes, big soft floury baps flavoured with fennel seed made at the splendid Horno de Luna bakery. They are usually toasted and coated with olive oil and chopped tomato, but they also make great mini-pizza bases.

I'll save the 'food for free' – snails, thistles, wild asparagus etc - for another post, as I must admit it has not contributed to my present cuddly state. Food that provided nourishment during periods of famine isn't necessarily good to eat, although harvesting it it still provides seasonal income for some people here. And I haven't even mentioned vegetables, or tomatoes or home-made gazpacho. But my stomach is rumbling, it must be nearly lunchtime!

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