30 September 2013

Legumbres Pedro - keeping a finger on the pulse

One of the biggest attractions of Alcalá for me is the locally produced food (along with the people, the weather, the scenery, etc etc).  I've already written about our cheeses, retinto beef, vegetables and breads, and am conducting ongoing research into the pork-meat products of Embutidos Gazules (i.e. eating my way through the catalogue) for a future post.  But today it's the turn of the pulses, those protein-packed dried seeds that are a staple of the Mediterranean diet - lentils, chickpeas and beans.

In 1969 Pedro Benítez Barroso founded Legumbres Pedro to package and sell the garbanzos traditionally grown in the area by small farmers. By the 1980s the business had grown to cover growers in the whole of Andalucia, and subsequently expanded into supermarkets, widened its product range to include rice and flour, and started to supply the catering trade via the HORECA distribution channel.

In 2008 Legumbres Pedro moved into its current premises on the Poligono La Palmosa, fully equipped with modern processing and packaging equipment, and started marketing its Alta Selección gourmet range.

These days the pulses come in resealable plastic packs, or pre-cooked in glass jars, but you can still by them the traditional way, by the kilo from hessian sacks in Alcalá's little grocery stores.

Here are some of the products available from Legumbres Pedro, and some recipe ideas for what to do with them.  If you are concerned about unwanted side-effects, read this first!  How To Make Beans Not Make You Fart

Chickpeas (garbanzos)

Chickpeas  have been cultivated for at least 7,000 years and were probably introduced to Spain by the Phoenicians.  There are three main varieties of chickpea grown in Spain today:

Blanco lechoso andaluz - pale, large and irregularly shaped, grown in the Andalucian provinces of Cádiz, Córdoba, Sevilla and Huelva.  They have a fine skin and a creamy texture after cooking, ideal for absorbing the flavour of other ingredients.
Castellano - rough-skinned and yellowish, valued for keeping their shape during cooking.
Pedrosillano - small, smooth and caramel-coloured, grown in central Spain.

Legumbres Pedro sell the lechoso and pedrosillano varieties.  They also sell chickpea flour (harina de garbanzo), which is used for shrimp pancakes (tortillitas de camarones).  I use it for onion bhajis (it's the same as the gram flour you get in Indian cuisine).

Every region has its garbanzo-based dishes and around here the most common one is puchero, an economical one-pot stew containing chickpeas and whatever scraps of meat and vegetable are around. Ham bones are often included for flavour, and the broth is ladled off and served as soup for starters. Berza is similar but more substantial, and chickpeas with spinach is very popular.  The Spanish often use pressure cookers to speed up the cooking time and save on gas.

Hummus is not part of the Spanish tradition, but I often make it using garbanzos lechosos.  Here is a version incorporating pimentón (smoked paprika), which adds a distinctly Spanish touch:
2 cups of dried chickpeas
1 large garlic clove, crushed
2 tsp pimentón (dulce or picante, it's up to you!)
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
Juice of one large lemon.

  • Soak the chickpeas for 24 hours (they will double in size).
  • Strain, rinse and cook them for 45 minutes in a pressure cooker or 90 minutes in a saucepan, starting with cold water. Do not add salt. 
  • While they are cooking, put all the other ingredients in a blender and mix well.
  • If the chickpeas aren't completely soft, cook them a bit longer.  Reserve some of the cooking water while straining. 
  • Add the cooked chickpeas and some of the cooking water to the blender and mix till you have a soft paste. Add more of the cooking water if it's too thick.
  • Decant into a bowl, sprinkle with paprika, drizzle with olive oil and serve. It will keep for a few days in the fridge, covered in clingfilm.

Lentils (lentejas)

Lentils, whose name comes from the same root as "lens" because of their shape, have been eaten by humans since Neolithic times. They originate from southeast Asia.  They have the highest level of protein of all the legumes except soya beans, and are an important source of fibre, vitamin B1 and iron.  There are three types used in Spain, all sold by Legumbres Pedro:

Lenteja pardina - small and reddish-brown, with a firm texture.
Lenteja rubia castellana - large and pale green to start with, darkening with age.
Lenteja verdina - very small, greenish with black spots (also known as Puy lentils).

Lentejas con Chorizo is one of my favourite winter dishes, tasty, cheap and nourishing.

400g pardina (Spanish brown) lentils
1 chorizo
4 cloves of garlic (unpeeled)
1 onion
1 large or two small potatoes
1 large or two small carrots
1 tbsp pimentón (smoked paprika)
1 bayleaf

  • Soak the lentils for a couple of hours first (it isn't essential for the cooking, but reduces the fart factor).
  • Rinse them well, strain them and put them in a large saucepan.
  • Add the chorizo, cut into rounds about 1 cm thick, and the garlic cloves (unpeeled).
  • Add the potato and carrots, cut into bite-sized chunks, and the bayleaf.
  • Add cold water till it comes a couple of inches above the level of the ingredients.
  • Bring to the boil and then simmer on a low heat, stirring occasionally to make sure the lentils aren't sticking.  Add more water if necessary - it should be fairly soupy.  They should take about 45 minutes in all.
  • Meanwhile, finely slice an onion and fry it in olive oil till it starts to brown.  Remove from heat and stir in the pimentón.  Add to the lentil mixture, season and serve with good bread. Squeeze the soft garlic cloves from their skins onto the bread for the ultimate in yumminess.

Dried beans (alubias)

Dried beans come from the pods of green beans.  They come in many different colours and sizes and are eaten all over the world, being an excellent source of cheap protein and nutrients.  They need plenty of pre-soaking and take a long time to cook; a pressure cooker is invaluable.  You can also get them canned (think Heinz!) or in jars.

Legumbres Pedro sell a wide variety of dried beans, including alubias rojas (kidney beans),  alubias carillas (black-eyed peas),.stripey pinto beans, and alubias negras (black beans, cooked with rice to make Cuba's best.known dish, Moros y Cristianos). Most of them are not grown in Spain, but imported from elsewhere and packaged at the Alcalá factory.

The giant white fabada beans (butterbeans), from their Alta Selección range, are deliciously creamy when cooked.  They are perfect for this famous recipe, originally from northern Spain but popular all over the country.  Most supermarkets sell the chorizo, morcilla and panceta (fatty bacon) together in a pack, especially for this dish.

Fabada Asturiana (Asturian bean and sausage stew) - serves 4-6

500g large white beans (soaked for 24 hrs beforehand)
2  chorizos
2 morcillas (black pudding)
200g fatty bacon or belly pork (in chunks, not rashers)
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1 bayleaf
1 tsp pimentón
Pinch of saffron (optional)
  • Strain and rinse the beans and put them in a large saucepan (or if you prefer to use the oven, in a casserole dish).  
  • Sweat the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil in a frying pan with the lumps of bacon, and add to the beans.
  • Add the chorizos and morcillas, whole and in their skins, plus the bayleaf and pimentón.  
  • Add a few strands of saffron if you're feeling extravagant.
  • Cover with water and simmer for around 90 minutes, or until the beans are very soft.  Check regularly while cooking and add more water if necessary.
  • Remove the sausages and cut them into bite-size chunks.  Season the beans and put the meat back in before serving with good crusty bread.

28 September 2013

Summer waves goodbye

Last night we had the first proper rain since May, clearing the dust from the air and sparking off the growth of lush winter grass which our livestock farmers depend on.  We don't get polite little showers here, it comes down by the bucketful (llueve a cántaros) and soaks you to the skin in  seconds.

Back in May the forecasters were predicting the coldest summer in Spain for 200 years.  Well, if that was a cold summer, bring on some more please.  Daytime temperatures peaked in the low 30s Celsius (90s Fahrenheit) and we didn't get that extended sweaty humid period that usually keeps us awake on August nights.

As always, Alcalainos took full advantage of the summer months to celebrate their fairs and festivals.  Here are some pictures recording the summer of 2013 by a young local photographer, Pedro Martín Sánchez, more of whose excellent work can be seen on his blog Alcalá a través de mi objetivo.

Candlelit concert in the patio of the Sagrada Familia school
The Soloists of London - up close and personal

All the fun of the Feria

Ladies who lunch - women's day at the fair
Rebujito - standard feria drink made
 from pale fino sherry and lemonade
Football doesn't stop just because it's summer!
Alcala beat Gibraltar Lions 4-1, but lost to Barbate
in the final.

03 August 2013

Summer Nights on the Playa

5comentario, now open all year round
Beach parties in Alcalá?  But it's 50 km from the coast!

"Paseo de la Playa" is a street-name more usually found in seaside resorts, as it means a promenade along the beach.  But we have our very own Playa.  Its origin isn't clear: some say it is named after a bar that's not there any more, others will tell you it's because there used to be a large sandy area where the municipal park is now.  But it remains an enduring source of confusion for visitors.

The Playa has long been an area for social activities, and being one of the few flat places in Alcalá, it's the ideal place to parade your new baby up and down or take your aged grandparents for a constitutional stroll before dinner.  Until the 1930s it was home to the bull-ring (now converted to flats, thankfully) and the August fair used to be held there until it moved to the purpose-built Recinto de Feria on the outskirts of the town. Twenty years ago, before the A381 motorway bypassed Alcalá, it had three discos and even more bars, and people came from all the surrounding towns and villages to party the weekend away.

Archive photo: Feria on the Playa

Archive photo: Bar de la Playa
On hot summer nights, our Playa has all the festive holiday atmosphere you could want.  Indeed, with the economic recession grinding on and unemployment at over 30% here, "staycationing" is the only option for many families.  Unfortunately the fountain that used to be on the roundabout at the western end has been replaced by a tree, so there is no opportunity for a nocturnal dip, but the kids are compensated with a bouncy castle and kiosks selling sweets, home-made potato crisps and lurid-coloured granizados.  They can run round and play safely till the small hours in this extensive traffic-free zone, while their families enjoy a copa and tapas at one of the many open-air bars.  Even the fast-foodies are catered for, with Pizzería Palermo and Burguer Donald (no relation!)

Quiosco Luca (open summer nights only)

Deep-fried heaven - churros in the morning, potato crisps at night

El Pájaro Loco, located in the park behind Pizarros
(open from midday, summer only)

Best burgers in town, and you can wash them down with a beer or two!

14 July 2013

This Pamplona thing - what's it all about?

The nine-day San Fermin festival ends today, and the world´s media is once again aghast at the number of people (mainly foreigners) gored and trampled during the infamous 8 a.m. bull runs through the streets of Pamplona.

The question they are all asking is why, in the 21st century with all its health and safety regulations and increasing concern for animal welfare, is this event still allowed to take place?  I can't begin to answer that, but none of the runners take part without knowing the risks, and (unlike the bulls) they have chosen to do it. Some of these same newspapers are equally horrified at idea of their personal liberty being restricted by the state.  You can't have it both ways. 

Corneado - a young American is gored on the sixth day
of this year's festival. He is still in intensive care.
So given that you are crazy enough to want to follow in Hemingway's footsteps and run with the bulls, what are the risks?

There are health and safety measures, including a double fence to protect the crowds, and a comprehensive list of rules for participants, who must be over 18 and must register beforehand.  These include wearing appropriate clothing and footwear, not being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and not attempting to touch or distract the animals.  

There have been 15 deaths at San Fermin encierros since records began in 1910 (compared, incidentally, to 240 at the Isle of Man TT races over the same period).  The deaths are nearly all from being gored by a bull's horns, known as a corneado.

Every year between 200 and 300 people suffer minor injuries, mainly from falls. Yesterday's serious injuries were to runners caught in a tapón, where the narrow entrance to the bullring becomes blocked with people and the bulls stampede into them. There is a claim currently under investigation that one of the gates was left closed by mistake.   But a tapón is a relatively rare event, having occurred maybe ten times in recorded history.

Tapón on the penultimate day of the 2013 festival

History of Sanfermines

The festival is named after Saint Fermin, a Roman who converted to Christianity and became the first Bishop of Pamplona in the 3rd century. Originally the ceremonies honouring the saint were held in October, but in 1591 they were transferred to coincide with the cattle-trading fairs which took place in July, when the weather is better. The festivities included an opening speech or pregón, music, theatre, tournaments and bullfights. Firework displays and dancing came later.  By the 19th century the festival had extended to nine days' duration, and included bizarre fairground attractions such as a woman being fired from a cannon.  

The Spanish term for bull-run is encierro, from the verb encerrar (to enclose or lock up). Traditionally the bulls were kept overnight in an enclosure outside the town, and driven on foot through the streets early next morning to the bull ring ready for the afternoon's corrida. Their minders would shout and goad them in order to hurry them along, and It became the tradition for young men to show off their bravado by running in front of them. Records in Pamplona from the 17th and 18th centuries refer to bull runs attracting increasing numbers of foreigners, and express concern about excessive drinking and decadence.  Things haven't changed.

There is, though you wouldn't know it from the English-speaking media, a whole lot more to Sanfermines than bulls. Other "attractions", which attract a million or so visitors each year, include:

El Chupinazo - the festival kicks off at noon on 6 July with a giant rocket fired from the town hall balcony, followed by ... excessive drinking and decadence.

The Comparsa de Gigantes y Cabuzedos the daily parade of giants and “big-heads” dates from the mid-19th century.  The eight "giants" are 4 metres high and represent kings and queens of different races and countries.  The remaining 17 figures include kilikis and zaldikos who run around with foam truncheons frightening the children.

Procession of San Fermin - on 7 July a 15th-century statue of the saint is carried through the streets accompanied by revellers, dignitaries and dancers, who perform the traditional jota in his honour.  

El Estruendo - the Roar - takes place on a different day each year.  Basically, it involves assembling at 11.59 a.m. outside the Town Hall and making as much noise as possible for as long as possible with any object that comes to hand.  The origins of his 50-year-old tradition are unclear.

Firework displays - held every night in the Ciudadela.  (Recession?  What recession?)

Traditional sports - every morning in the Plaza de los Fueros you can see examples of Basque sports such as Jai alai, a version of pelota, and rural pursuits such as bale-tossing and wood-chopping.

Pobre de mi - For anyone left standing after nine days of partying, this song ("Poor me") is sung at midnight on 14 July in the town square to round off the event.

08 June 2013

Alcalá's new favourite sons

This year has seen the adoption of two new hijos predilectos (favourite sons) by the town of Alcalá de los Gazules - one long dead and one very much alive.

The former is Diego Ángel de Viera, the priest who gave up his worldly goods to set up the charitable institution known as the Beaterio  in 1788.  There are various actos de homenage at the Beaterio throughout the year, including a musical evening on 6 July and an exhibition on 9-11 August.

The latter is the prolific artist, sculptor and writer Jesús Cuesta Arana, who lives and works in the town and is very much a part of its cultural character. His wife Isabel taught for many years at the local secondary school, and they have recently become grandparents.  Cuesta Arana has been described as a modern-day "Renaissance man".  Ever on a quest for new projects, he has recently taken up jewellery designing and engraving.

Cuesta Arana's paintings are full of life and colour, magic and mystery, humour and ambiguity, angels and demons. Many reflect his deep love of tauromaquia (bullfighting), flamenco and his fellow Andalusians.  In his own words: "My painting is very personal .... I'm not a landscape artist, but the landscape is in the atmosphere, the surrounding air that animates the painting, I'm not religious, but you can see a great picture I painted for nuns ... I let the brushes do the talking for me. I like grotesque masks, and so my work could be described as magical realism because it unites everyday reality with dreams."

Over a hundred examples of his life's work are on show at the Cento Cultural Santo Domingo until 7 July.  Others, including his lifesize scultpures, have to be seen in situ.  A good example is the tableau dedicated to the petenera flamenco artists in the nearby town of Paterna de la Rivera.

The celebrations include an open-air concert last night in the Alameda by the veteran ´60s rock band "The Rangers Black", who reformed specially for the occasion after 42 years.  On 9 August there will be a special flamenco night at the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo.

To see more of Cuesta Arana's work, visit his blog or follow him on Facebook.

04 June 2013

A trip to Zahara de la Sierra

Zahara de la Sierra
Last Sunday we visited Zahara de la Sierra, a pueblo blanco in the Sierra de Grazelema, the mountainous northern part of the Province of Cádiz.  We went with members of El Pavo Trotón, a group based in Alcalá which organises regular excursions.  The journey took about an hour and a half, passing through some stunning scenery.

Our trip coincided with the religious festival of Corpus Christi.  Zahara's celebrations, which originated in the 15th century, are famed throughout Spain and have been declared a Fiesta de Interés Turístico Nacional.  The locals get up early to harvest esparto grass, rushes and oleander from the surrounding countryside, and use them to line the narrow streets and alleyways, which are then decorated with flowers, and embroidered sheets are hung from the first-floor windows.

Church of Santa Maria de la Mesa
At 11 a.m. there is a Mass in the church, and then the symbolic body of Christ is borne by the faithful through the streets, stopping to pray at little home-made shrines on the way, and flower petals are thrown like confetti.

Streets lined with greenery

A little shrine in someone's doorway

The procession of Corpus Christi
  We skipped the Mass and headed up to the castle, which frankly looks better from a distance, although the views over the olive groves, the mountains and the lake (actually a man-made reservoir) are worth the steep climb.  It was built by the Moors and later used by Napoleon's troops, but these days only the central tower remains.

View of Zahara from the castle

Embalse de Zahara, a man-made reservoir

The restored remains of the castle

We returned to the square in time for the end of the procession, as it passed back into the church to be joined by children taking their first communion, all dressed in white like miniature brides.

Looking down on the church and the square

In the afternoon there was live music and dancing in the town square, and the various bars and restaurants were doing a roaring trade.  I was impressed by the fact that they didn't jack up the prices (just 1€ for a beer) and we enjoyed a very respectable three-course menú del día for 10€ at the Hotel Arco de la Villa, in a table by the window overlooking the lake.

All in all, Corpus Christi in Zahara a very friendly, intimate little festival, not at all solemn and not overrun with tourists, and the village is definitely worth a visit at any time of year.