23 July 2010

Gazpacho, paella and sangria - “traditional” Spanish fare?

Every year millions of tourists go into restaurants on the Spanish costas and eat chilled tomato soup followed by fried rice with prawns washed down with a glass of fruit punch. They believe they have experienced authentic Spanish cuisine. But just how authentic are these universal clichés of Spanishness?

Gazpacho has been eaten in Spain for hundreds of years – the jury is out on whether it originated with the Romans or the Moors. It became a staple in Andalusia, particularly in the region around Seville. It consisted of bread, olive oil, garlic, vinegar and water. Legend has it that Columbus took barrels of the stuff on his journeys across the Atlantic. Tomatoes weren't added till the 18th century; although Cortez brought tomatoes back from the Americas in 1519 they were originally thought to be poisonous, because the plant is part of the Nightshade family, and they were used only for decoration. A famine in Italy 200 years later saw starving peasants eat the fruit with no ill effect, and tomatoes started to be enjoyed across Europe.

Gazpacho was prepared and eaten by labourers in the fields, olive groves and vineyards until well into the 20th century. They would soak stale bread in large wooden bowls, add the salt,oil, vinegar and garlic and whatever fresh vegetables they had to hand, previously pounded with a pestle and mortar, and eat it for lunch straight from the communal bowl. It was not cooked, so it would have been eaten cold, but not chilled. However, hot gazpacho was and still is eaten in winter especially in Cádiz province.

Traditional variations include white gazpacho or ajo blanco, made with ground almonds and popular in Málaga and Granada, and salmorejo cordobés, where no water is added and chopped hardboiled eggs and ham are used a garnish.

Today gazpacho has become a generic term for cold soup and there are endless variations all round the world. It is easy to make, especially with a stick-blender and sieve attachment that traps all the seeds and skin. I did try some ready-made supermarket gazpacho once but it was so vinegary I poured it down the sink!


Paella actually means pan, and comes from the Latin word patella. In most of Spain, the more usual term for the big flat pan used to make the rice dish is paellera. Rice was introduced by the Moors, and cultivated in the Valencia region in Eastern Spain since the 8th Century. Workers in the paddy-fields would cook an early version of paella in the field for their midday meal, often using snails, eel or even marsh-rat to add protein. by the time of the Christian reconquest rice had become a staple in much of Spain, often combined with vegetables, beans and dried cod to produce an acceptable meal for Lent. In 18th Century Valencia, the traditional home of paella, rice was (and still is) cooked outdoors in the paellera for special occasions. Rabbit and chicken had replaced rats, and by the coast, seafood was used instead of meat. The mixed version is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Paella should be cooked over an open fire, and has a layer of crispy toasted rice at the bottom. This is considered by some to be the best bit. Oven-cooked paella or the microwaved stuff you get in tourist restaurants won't achieve this. The yellow colouring and flavour is achieved by the use of saffron, which is incredibly expensive, so food-colouring is widely used instead. If you are lucky enough to spot a restaurant or fiesta where a paella is being cooked in the traditional way, go for it; if you see a sun-faded board outside a restaurant depicting ten different varieties of paella, you might be better off ordering a sandwich.

Sangria literally means “bloodletting”. It is a served in a jug, comprising wine (usually red), lemonade and chopped fruit, with brandy and cinnamon as optional extras. There is no reference to it being drunk in Spain before the 19th Century, but some say it originated in the Antilles Islands in the Caribbean.  It is essentially a party drink designed to get people lubricated as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Its virtue lies in its freshness; if you order a glass of sangria in a bar in a tourist area you will get some chemical-tasting concoction from a bottle or carton, and almost certainly pay through the nose. I personally have never come across Spanish people drinking it in bars - instead they order tinto de verano, one-third cheap red wine with two-thirds lemonade or soda, on ice, with a slice of lemon if you're lucky. It's a very pleasant and refreshing low-alcohol drink, and at home I often make it with rosé instead.

At fairs and festivals in Cádiz province, people drink vast quantities of rebujito – one-third dry sherry (Fino or Manzanilla) and two-thirds gaseosa (7-Up or Sprite) with loads of ice. It is mainly served in jarras (jugs) and shared between friends, although you can get individual servings. Other parts of Andalucía use white wine instead of dry sherry, and sometimes mint leaves are added. Apparently the custom of drinking rebujito at festivals dates back no further than the 1990s, and is due to an advertising campaign by a local sherry producer trying to target the younger generation.

No comments: