Archive for Food and Eating

Denominación de Origen / Certified Origin in Spain

Wine bottles showing labels for different Spanish D.O.

So you like food, wine, and all those good things?  And specifically Spanish food? Read on to learn about Spain’s  Denominación de Origen quality control system for agricultural products.

What is the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) system? It’s a Spanish regulatory system for some kinds of agricultural products and some kinds of food. Technically in English this is called Appellatation of Origin, but I prefer the easier to remember Certified Origin. Many other countries have their own regulation system, especially in the European Union (EU)

When was this system established? Spain’s main system is from 1996 (with some later updates) and is similar in some ways to the 1992 EU system. Two Spanish wine regions created their own regulations long before this date: La Rioja in 1926 and Jerez (Sherry) in 1933.

What are the advantages of the D.O. system? The D.O. system is a quality guarantee that protects and educates consumers. You know what you’re buying, and if you love or don’t love a product, you can read the specifications and learn for another time. The D.O. system also protects responsible producers by creating an identifiable product with a quality seal on the label, so no manufacturer can sell Rioja wine, for example (with all that name recognition) that does not meet Rioja quality specifications.

Who does the regulating? At the top is the Spanish Ministry that regulates agriculture (see suggested websites at the end). Every D.O. has a local administrative body called the Consejo Regulador; the Consejo is in charge of making sure the D.O. stipulations are followed and that the products labeled with the D.O. do indeed meet the requirements. The Consejo may also help new producers get on board, work with the government if regulations need changes, and also help promote the product outside the D.O. region. Additionally, if a private citizen sees or hears of infraction they can notify the Consejo, who should carry out an investigation and take action. (a cheesemaker I know did this when he learned that another cheesemaker was selling Torta del Casar cheese that didn’t meet the specifications and notified the Consejo of that D.O. It wasn’t a direct competitor, but the man I know said for the D.O. to work, it must be taken seriously by everyone).

Are there any disadvantages? The D.O. system imposes conditions / restrictions on producers, so there is less latitude to experiment with other raw material or other production techniques that might create an interesting new product. And while having a D.O on a product is good, not having a D.O. label can make success difficult for any product without the seal, even though it may be of very good quality.

So are there good products not certified by D.O.? Yes, many are excellent. There might be a wine producer very near the D.O. geographically, but cannot be a D.O. wine because the vineyards are not inside the geographical limitations. Or a cheese producer that cannot be D.O. because the goats are not the local girrrrls. Or products from areas that do not have D.O. certification (perhaps not enough producers or no agreement on the parameters), or the many agricultural products not covered by D.O. anywhere in the country. So a well-informed but cautious customer could make some really interesting discoveries, always with some caution and always checking for the registro de sanidad / official hygiene certificate / seal. (side note: very small family producers may not have the certificate and be fine, but buyers should always take care – best to not buy a case of wine or huge bottle of olive oil unless you are very sure of what you’re doing!).

What products are under D.O. in Spain? Most of us only think of wine for D.O., but this system also covers cheese, cured ham, sausage, seafood, olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rice, saffron, paprika, honey, butter, hard cider, fruits, raw meat and vegetables.

What elements are described and regulated? As the name indicates, most important is the origin or geographical area (larger or smaller): that’s why the excellent Spanish bubbly is “cava” and never “Champagne”. Depending on the level of the regulation, the product probably must be grown (for plants) and raised (for animals) within the area; some D.O. also require the production process (if any) to take place within the area. The D.O. usually also includes requirements about the raw material – kind of grapes for wine, olives for oil, animal or even breed of animal for cheese and meats – and of course the fruits and vegetables certified are specific types. Items under D.O. that include some kind of manufacturing process (wine, olive oil and cheese, for example) also may stipulate the production process.

What else?

Spain’s certified origin system is actually more than D.O. In addition to the Spanish D.O. system, you might see European quality labeling on some products, like the European DOP or Protected Denomination of Origin; IGP or Protected Geographical Indicator, similar to D.O. but a little less specific geographically; ETC or Traditional Specialty Guaranteed, products made with traditional ingredients or recipes; PAE for natural, environmentally friendly production methods; or the two Catalonia-only categories “A” for small, family-run businesses crafting a very distinctive product; and “Q” for foods with superior raw ingredients, production methods or presentation.

In Spain the stars of the D.O. show are……

Wine has over 70 D.O, so you have opportunity for getting past Rioja, Ribera de Duero and Albariño. (try Somontano, Ribeiro, Bierzo and Priorat, for example). In addition to D.O., wine has other nomenclature. Table wine category is not usually linked to a geographical region, though often is produced in a wine region though with fewer specifications than D.O. Vino de la Tierra is a bump up from table wine, a little more specific in geography though still without all the D.O. regulations. Within most D.O. there is crianza and reserve, denoting age of the wine, and if you are travelling in a wine region you might get vino del año (year’s harvest), perhaps a glass of respectable Rioja at 0.50 centimes! And at the top of the line, some wine cellars bottle under a 2015 nomenclature called Vino de Pago, which is even smaller geographical area, sort of like terroir and estate-bottled.

Olive oil has around 30 D.O. We all know about olive oil in Andalucia, but did you know there’s also oil from the north and northeast? Usually the D.O. specifies the kind of olives, which may only exist in the D.O. region. Yes, there is a considerable difference in oil made with different kinds of olives, from mild to quite flavorful, with different oils appropriate for different uses (salad oil probably stronger than oil for making mayonnaise, for example). Olive oil is truly one of Spain’s star products, so it’s worth trying many to find your favorites – and worth having more kind in your cupboard at any one time. Learn more about olive oil here: http://www.bridgetospain.com/olive-oil-always/

Cheese has around 25 D.O.  Spanish cheese is excellent, really varied and not well known outside Spain, except for the ever-present Manchego. There’s smooth and cured, cow, sheep, goat and mixture. Get beyond Manchego by trying lightly smoked Idiazabal from the north; Majorero goat cheese from the Canary Islands; Cabrales blue-type cheese from Asturias in the north; and Torta del Casar sheep cheese from the west, a cheese so gooey that it’s best to lop off the top and serve as a spread. And that’s just to name a few cheeses of the many kinds in Spain – and not all with D.O.

Now it’s time for you to explore the world of Spanish agricultural products!

 

Photo credit: thanks to my neighborhood wine shop Vinomania for many years of good advice and for letting me take this photo in the shop. Vinomania is a small shop with a very good selection, friendly service and always good suggestions. Vinomania, calle Humilladero 18, corner calle Sierpe, one block west of calle Toledo, Metro La Latina.

 

Websites for more information, unless noted otherwise, only in Spanish (but still useful)

Our friend Wikipedia has ha good article about Spanish D.O. (English) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denominaci%C3%B3n_de_Origen

Good descriptions of many products covered by Spanish D.O. http://www.cerespain.com/denominaciones.html

Good information on Spanish wine D.O., so you can do some exploring   http://www.cecrv.eu/denominaciones-origen/

Regulatory systems in the EU and elsewhere. (English)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographical_indications_and_traditional_specialities_in_the_European_Union

Pages on this same site with more information on products with D.O. (English)
Cider in Spain  http://www.bridgetospain.com/cider-in-spain/
Hot peppers   http://www.bridgetospain.com/pimientos-de-padron/
Olive oil    http://www.bridgetospain.com/olive-oil-always/

The Spanish Ministry that manages D.O. is the Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentacion and Medioambiente (Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, Food and the Environment). Their website is a labyrinth of pages, some very useful and some not at all. Here are a few.

This page looks like one of the better ones: you can filter by region (if you are travelling) or by product (if you are curious) to learn about Spanish products with D.O.
http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/temas/calidad-agroalimentaria/calidad-diferenciada/dop/default.aspx

Map of fruits and nuts with D.O. (interesting!)
http://www.alimentacion.es/es/turismo_agroalimetario/mapas_de_alimentos_con_calidad_diferenciada/frutas/boletin.pdf

Frecuent questions about D.O. (probably less interesting for most readers) http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/preguntas-frecuentes/faq_tcm7-48389.pdf

Statistics for some D.O. products   http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/temas/calidad-agroalimentaria/calidad-diferenciada/dop/htm/cifrasydatos.aspx

Bilingual Blips

 

Being bilingual is a blessing, and sometimes a curse. While doctors of various specialties extoll the benefits of knowing two languages, while cultural specialists sing the praises of people who can communicate fluently linguistically and culturally in more than the native language, the reality of living bilingual has some very odd side effects.

First, let me clarify. By my own very strict definition of bilingual, even after more than half my life in Spain, I’m not bilingual and never will be. My accent is way too obvious, though I’ve begun to suspect that’s a subconscious way of maintaining my original Anglo identity. But aside from that (and an occasional grammatical error) I’m totally fluent, including slang, puns and political rants in my second language. Most other people would consider me bilingual so let’s use that term here.

Usually I can switch between languages with ease – especially when listening I sometimes don’t even realize what language is spoken, it just goes to the processing center in my brain without going through any “oh, turn Spanish on/off”. This is mostly useful, though sometimes a word of the wrong language will sneak into a sentence. *

But sometimes that language switch gets stuck. That’s most noticeable when interpreting, when after a while I inevitably speak Spanish to the Anglo and English to the Spaniards.
Then there’s the written language. Again, usually this goes smoothly, but there are times when I cannot understand the English translation and must read the Spanish – alas, that can happen in museums or tourism sights, where the English translation is not very good (sad but true). When reading these English translations, it helps me to think in Spanish.

Menus are another confusing place. My restaurant English is not very good, so I almost always read the Spanish. Anyway, there are some very badly translated menus – one of my favorite bloopers is “steak in spit” (meat on a skewer).

Then there’s fast food. I really should collect all the ways to write “sandwich” in Spanish: sanwis (purely phonetical), samwis (phonetical plus grammar rule about mutating n to m), sandwhich (know-it-all who knows w always followed by h), and variations on these three (sandwis, samwich and the like). And my bilingual brain is still baffled at times by “hay sandwiches” which I’ve often tried to read as English (dried-grass sandwiches for horses) instead of part English and part Spanish, announcing the availability of bread slices with something in between.

Which brings us to my new favorite, seen when dashing through Madrid’s Cuatro Caminos rotunda-square: Low Cost Come. Hmmmm. We are not in the red light district of Amsterdam, and a second / third glance clarifies that we’re talking about food.

Translated, they’re talking about inexpensive food. Ungrammatical even in Spanish: using “low cost” like this seems to mean it describes the next word – but the noun is “comida”, not “come” which of course has a different meaning in English. One can only guess that small window space created a need to improvise – thus the command form “come” instead of the noun.

Better punctuation might help make this clear – or some indication that we are looking at two different languages. Anything else, in the situation, could lead to a bit of confusion, at least for anyone bilingual enough to notice the unusual combination of words.

And no, I do not have an especially dirty mind. Just a bilingual brain. Unless, of course, this is a supremely clever marketing strategy. Perhaps I should inquire?

 

*for a fun bilingual movie, look for Miguel y William (Michael and William), a 2007 romantic comedy about a fictitious meeting between contemporaneous writers Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare and their rivalry for a lovely lady. It’s partly in Spanish and partly in English, with subtitles in whichever language is not being spoken. Not to be considered Great Cinema, but it’s entertaining and has some great Spanish scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

Some are hot, and some are not.

 

Some are hot and some are not.

Ahem. We’re talking peppers here. Padrón peppers to be specific. As the Galician saying goes: pimentos de Padrón, unos pican e outros non. (Padrón peppers, some are hot and some are not).

So what are Padrón peppers? They’re a smallish green pepper from Spain’s Galicia region, and yes, some are hot and some are not. Usually not kill-taste-buds hot. But sometimes eye-watering hot.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

First of all, Padrón is a bit of a misnomer. Technically speaking, these peppers are from the Herbón area south of Santiago de Compostela (Galicia region, northwest Spain). Padrón is a town in the area, but important for the peppers: San Antonio Franciscan convent (14th c) is in the Padrón parish, and it was the Franciscan monks who brought these peppers from the Americas, probably in the 16th century.

The peppers are so unique in Spain that they have their own Certified Origin, registered as Pimientos de Herbón, not Padrón, an important technicality if you’re at the market and want to be sure you get the right thing. But in a bar or if talking with friends, for now they’re Padrón peppers, just like they’ve always been – perhaps the alliteration makes the name sound better.   And scientifically, they’re Capsicum annuum.

Padrón peppers are best shared with a group of friends. Hot from the frying pan, liberally sprinkled with coarse salt and heaped on a plate, they’re an inviting sight. But beware: some are hot, and some are not. Sort of culinary Russian Roulette.

The traditional way to eat these peppers: pick up by the stem and pop the whole thing in your mouth (more cautious people will nibble the end first). Your friends are watching, either openly or out of the corner of their eye, evaluating the temperature of your pepper by the expression on your face. The theory is that odds change as more or fewer hot peppers show up on the plate – and while technically about 10% of Padrón peppers are hot, that doesn’t necessarily mean 10% on your shared plate. They could all be mild, or half hot: the 10% rule is over the entire production of peppers.

What makes the peppers hot is capsaicin, just like Padrón pepper “cousins” serrano or jalapeño peppers. But in Padrón peppers, the amount of capsaicin varies a lot depending on how much sun and water the plant got when growing. Traditionally Padrón pepper pickers have been women, and they mix the peppers they think will be hot with ones that will be milder. Thus the variation in pepper temperature when they reach your shared plate.

There is lots of lore about identifying which Padrón peppers are hot. Pepper experts say that the hottest peppers are longer in shape, or have longer stems, or are bigger and a bit reddish, or even that the coarse salt sticks less to hot peppers than to mild peppers. And a restaurant owner (as much of an expert as anyone on this topic) says that late in the season in a dry year, there tend to be more hot peppers, and hotter hot peppers.

Got a hot one? Don’t panic – and don’t try to cool down with water, beer or the local Ribiero wine (a great companion to any Galician tapa experience). The best solution is to eat bread. If at all possible, the hearty, coarse-grain Galician bread.

Still not ready to do it? Alas, the Padrón Pepper app promising to take the guesswork out of pepper tasting has disappeared from Google Play store. It had a hundred-percent accuracy guarantee: scanning the pepper with the phone’s camera it could evaluate pepper temperature. And if the pepper-eater disagreed with the analysis, the problem was with that person’s palate, not with the app.

So until the app or something similar appears, you’ll just have to take your chances with Padrón peppers: some are hot, and some are not.

Padrón pepper talk:

Padrón or Herbón? The Certified Origin regulation council is trying to change the name officially to Herbón peppers, to differentiate their peppers from similar peppers grown elsewhere.

Pepper season: the true Padrón pepper season is May to late October, though now peppers are grown in hothouses in other parts of Spain and Morocco and available most of the year. Hothouse peppers might have a slightly different taste and different proportion of hot and not.

Padrón Pepper festival: usually the first Saturday in August in Padrón town.

More about the peppers from the Herbón regulation council: http://www.pementodeherbon.com/en/home.htm

Cider in Spain

201612ciderapples

 

What traditional Spanish beverage needs a good eye and steady hands to be at its best? What traditional Spanish beverage is almost a sign of identity for its region? And what traditional beverage has a long list of health benefits?

The answer to all three questions is: sidra: hard apple cider, popular in many European countries and to some extent on the other side of the Atlantic. Here in Spain it takes on a personality all its own, with legends and lore galore.

Spain’s cider-land is mostly along the north coast: Basque region, Cantabria and especially Asturias, where about 80% of Spain’s cider is produced – and drunk, with about 90% consumed right in the region. For that reason we’ll talk about Asturias in this article – though by all means you should try sidra when traveling in other cider regions.

So what is sidra like? It’s a lightly alcoholic beverage made of fermented apple juice – in Spain usually 4º – 6º (like a hearty beer); alcohol content is sometimes higher in other countries, where the espumoso (bubbly) cider is more frequent than the natural that is so popular in northern Spain.

Cider apples are usually not table apples – they’re a little smaller and juicier. The Regulation Council for Asturian Cider accepts 22 varieties of local apples, rated as tart, sweet, bitter or mixed.

Like wine, cider makers use different mixtures of apples to get the final product they want. That’s quite an art: like grapes, apples are different every year, with varying sugar content depending on the weather, so finding the right mixture of still unfermented juices is a delicate process.

Depending on the manufacturing process and apples used, sidra can be very pale yellow to dark gold in color, and clear or slightly cloudy. Some ciders are bubbly and some are not – see the end to learn about different kinds of cider.

201612ciderpressMaking sidra natural The process is simple – many tiny cider houses and even country families and make their own for family and friends: see photo of Guillermo showing the traditional crushing – he’s made his own and explained the process, which is not very different for the industrial process.

Apples are harvested between September and late November, depending on the year’s weather and the variety of apples. Apple trees yield differently alternating years, with the even-numbered years a smaller harvest and the odd-numbered years cosechonas (big harvests), when the much larger harvest can last until early December.

First the apples are washed, then crushed to pulp separately by apple variety. The next step is pressing – the apple pulp is layered in a press that works with weight or a screw system and pressed several times to get all the juice. What comes out is apple juice, ready for the fermentation process (the almost dry apple pulp is often fed to livestock).

The juice is placed in stainless steel or chestnut wood vats to ferment for three to five months – shorter aging for a sweeter cider or longer for tarter cider, always varying with the kind of apple used. Cool weather is good for fermenting, so the temperature is controlled carefully during this time. After fermentation comes bottling in the traditional green bottles, taking care to not stir up the cider too much.

At bottling time, traditional llagares (cider houses) often still have a cask-tapping party called espicha for the holes in the cask. The espicha had – and still may have – the practical purpose of finishing off the unbottled cider in a cask or as a taste-test before buying a whole cask, but more than anything it’s a big party, with cider is drawn directly from the cask into pitchers or e traditional big glasses. Long ago, revellers would pay a flat fee into the cider house to drink all they could – and would pay again when returning after a potty break.

Sidra is as Spanish as vino  (wine) – and maybe more so in the north. So be sure to try it during your time in Spain – preferably up north, or at least in a Madrid cider bar.

Basic kinds of Asturian cider

Sidra natural is the traditional, most popular kind of cider, rather tart, even somewhat bitter if not poured correctly. Variations on this kind of cider: Natural ecológica, made with apples from orchards with ecological certification; Natural de manzana seleccionada, made with specific varieties of apples that have undergone an even more rigourous selection process.

El escanciado (pouring): Sidra natural should be poured from a bottle held arm’s height above the head into a big glass held at a slant at thigh level. That aerates the natural cider, making it a little sweeter and raising some bubbles – and that’s when true cider buffs can evaluate the cider for color and aroma. The sidra should be poured in a thin stream directly in front of the body, just hit the edge of the glass – and just enough for a few swallows as the bubbles soon disappear. After drinking, the last swig is poured on the floor to rinse the edge of the communal glass.

That’s the technique – but good escanciado is more than just technique. Style and ritual matter: a good pourer is admired for the ability to pour without looking and without splashing too much on the floor. The way the bottle and glass are held, even the flourish used to present the glass to the drinker, all are important parts of the escanciado ritual. The communal glass itself is part of the cider lore: sharing a glass puts everyone on the same level and last – but not least – lore says that pouring the last bit onto the floor thanks the earth for the cider, returning to the earth a bit of what the earth has given.

Obviously, drinking sidra natural the traditional way is a messy business. Inevitably some splashes during the escanciado, and pouring that last bit on the floor – well, cider bars always have sticky floors. Some cider bars now use the traditional glass and mechanical pourers, less fun but less messy, and smaller bars may use a plastic spout that does an ok job even with a regular glass, though without the charm of the traditional escanciado.

Sidra espumosa is a less-messy kind of cider. Like sidra natural, it’s made from fermented apple juice – then undergoes an additional process to create natural bubbles. This cider should not be confused with sidra achampañada, usually made with apple juice concentrate and added gas – the label should tell you what kind is in the bottle. Both kinds are bubbly, and often drunk at Christmas as a “poor man’s champagne” – but don’t wait for Christmas to share a bottle with friends – the bubbly goes really well with cheesy popcorn and a good movie.

Sidra natural nueva expressión A new product – it’s like sidra natural, but needs no special pouring. The manufacturing is slightly different, including a filtering and stabilization process. Supposedly this cider is fairly dry, with a hint of natural bubbles. It’s marketed as a lighter wine or “restaurant cider”. Hard to find in Madrid.

Coming in the future: ice cider (already made in Canada), brut cider (like cava), light cider, good quality cider vinegar and a lot more!

Cider trivia
– Apple varieties in Asturias: 2500 DIFFERENT kinds of apples!
– Cider manufacturered in 2015: more than 2.8 million liters (almost a million liters more than previous high-yield year 2013)
– Apples to cider, yield: it takes a little more than a kilo of apples to make a liter of cider
– Measurements big glass for sidra natural : 12 cms high, 9 cms wide at the mouth and 7 cms wide at the base (about 5 X 3.5 X 3 inches).

 

Eat like a local: Menú del día

201611menuSpain is a foodie nation. So how do the locals eat?

The outside world knows about tapas and pintxos, the little bar snacks that can easily be a roving meal. Everyone knows about paella, gazpacho and maybe even about potato omelette.

But most non-locals do not know about one of Spain’s favorite eating styles: the menú del día.

Menú del día, some history:
Spain’s tourism industry took off in the early 1960’s, with number of visitors almost tripling between 1959 and 1965. That took some adjustment for infrastructure, and thus the menú turístico was created by then head of tourism Manuel Fraga.

(We can also thank Fraga for the tourism slogan Spain is Different and for expanding the Parador hotel system, but let’s leave those stories for another time).

So what was the menú turístico? The goal was to offer local-style food quickly and economically to the mass tourism market: by national law, all bars and restaurants had to offer a set meal, with starter, first course, second course, dessert, (usually with several choices for each), bread and beverage. Prices were fixed for the full meal, and were the same for all establishments in the same restaurant category.

The downside was that the fixed price was so low that restaurant owners tried to discourage clients from ordering the menú, or added supplements to some of the choices offered, so only the most basic meal was available at the fixed price. Another outcome was that to save work and money, some restaurant owners dumbed-down their menú food to the lowest common denominator of local cuisine (bad paella, bad gazpacho and greasy fried food), instead of celebrating the rich and not-always-expensive variety of Spanish food.

In 1970 the menú got a makeover: higher though still fixed prices, slogans to encourage locals to order the daily deal and menú del día as its new name. The focus was still local cuisine, and with locals ordering too, the menú started working better for everyone. When Spain reorganized after dictator Francisco Franco’s death, regional governments took over tourism administration (1978) and fixed prices disappeared in 1981.

Nowadays:
The menú del día is immensely popular among locals – over 50% of Spanish workers who eat out choose this option. It’s fast and usually excellent, with food varying from traditional home cooking to some very imaginative twists on the classics. Even non-classic restaurants like Indian, Peruvian, Chinese or vegetarian (to name a few) have adopted this system.

The exception to the prevalence of the daily deal: high-end or luxury restaurants, where the menú is absent entirely or has changed into a more elegant and more expensive menú de desgustación (tasters’ menu) or another kind of fixed or semi-fixed daily deal.

Tips and tricks for the best menús :

The menú usually changes every day – you can find it chalked on a blackboard outside, on a handwritten photocopy in the window or on the table. Some restaurants don’t change the menú so frequently, so it’s part of the printed menu. And in some smaller places, the waiter will tell you the daily deal instead of a printed menu.

Usually the price includes two courses, dessert, bread, beverage and tax – but not always! Sometimes beverage or VAT tax is not included (10% for restaurants). The written menú must say what is included and what not – be sure to check as this can change the overall price considerably. (I got caught once when beverage was not included and wine was expensive).

If there are several restaurants in an area, take a stroll to evaluate your options. With the menú posted outside you can see what’s available and select your favorite foods or avoid something you hate, not to mention comparing prices.

Sometimes this is called menú de la casa instead of menú del día, and on the Camino (Road of St. James) it’s usually called menú del peregrino (pilgrim’s menu), but the idea and the format is the same.

Some restaurants only offer the menú at lunch on weekdays, or have a higher price at night and on weekends. If you are a local or semi-local and find a place you like, take note so you can take advantage of this great deal.

The menú del día cannot be shared between two people, though many places have half-menus at lower (but not half) prices. Many places have special kids’ menus.

Not too hungry, or food restrictions? You can order two first courses, often more than enough since firsts can include pasta, rice, beans/legumes, soup, veges, salad and sometimes eggs.

Really not hungry, or in a huge hurry? Look for platos combinados (combined plates, badly translated): A one plate meal with some kind of protein (fish, eggs, sausage, chicken, meat), some kind of carb (usually fried potatoes, sometimes rice) and maybe some salad. These are less expensive, but do not include beverage, bread or dessert. In my experience these can be good, but usually the food is usually not quite as good or as healthy as a well-chosen menú del día.

Olive Oil, Always

OliveHarvest

Whether living in Spain or traveling in Spain, we all know that olive oil is king. Miles and miles of olive groves in the south, in the center, east and west; olive oil on almost every salad; as an option for breakfast toast; included in some form in almost every meal (if only a drizzle to do the fish); many meters of shelf space in most supermarkets…. yes, olive oil is very, very important in Spain.

Yet outside Spain, Spanish oil is only starting to be known for quality and quantity. How can this be? Let’s learn a little about olive oil in Spain.

Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, by a large difference. In 2013-2014 world production of oil was around 3,252,000 tons, with Spain at 1,781,000 tons; Italy was second with 463,000 tons and Greece third with 132,000 tons. Most of the other top producers were around the Mediterranean and a few in the Americas – USA came in far down the list with around 12,000 tons.

Digging a little deeper, statistics show that in the same year Spain consumed about 525,000 tons, Italy 641,000 tons and Greece 140,000 tons (both more than their production). Those figures look odd, don’t they? Especially thinking of the amount of olive oil that Italy exports?

The answer lies in the imports: Italy imported 268,000 tons of oil from a variety of countries, mostly in bulk and a lot from Spain. Italy exported 233,000 tons of oil in the same year, so at least some of the oil that Italy exports is not Italian oil at all, only bottled in Italy, something obvious when reading labels carefully, and even by looking at a map – there’s just not enough land in Italy to produce enough oil for local and export markets.

Yes, Spain does import some oil – around 144.000 tons in the same year. But they export a lot more: almost 280,000 tons in the 2013-2014 season. Traditionally that export oil has been in bulk to countries unable to satisfy their own demand, but finally Spanish oil is starting to get a name for itself, selling more and more bottled oil and less bulk, reaching 140 countries including many countries in the EU and as far away as Asia (China, Japan, Australia, India). Alas, the USA market takes only 92,850 tons of Spanish oil (lots in bulk), while Italian oil sells around 150,000 tons, and mostly bottled for consumer use. Hopefully those numbers will improve in the future, the USA is a huge market and very appreciative of good olive oil.

But while we’re in Spain, and here we can enjoy a wide variety of Spanish olive oils, and help spread the word to the world. Let’s see (and taste!) what Spain has to offer.

Kinds of olives: There are more than 200 varieties of olives in Spain. Some are small production or very local; about 20 varieties are used frequently to make olive oil. Often these varieties are associated to a region: Cornicabra is usually south-central Spain, Arbequina is usually found in Catalonia and Picual is frequent in the south.

Of all those varieties, three are most important and easy to find in stores all over the country:
– Arbequina: mild flavor with a nice fragrance
– Picual: Stronger flavor and perfume
– Hojiblanca: stronger flavor with a little bite at the end. My favorite, excellent on salads.

Other olive oil varieties that are relatively frequent and easy to find: cornicabra, empeltre, picudo, lechin.

Kinds of oil: Olive oil can be mono-varietal (made of just one kind of olives) or a coupage or mixture of different kinds of oils. Coupage olive oils try to bring out the best in the different oils used, and try to compensate for seasonal variations in production or flavor.

That’s important to remember: like wine, olive oil is a natural product and can vary widely from season to season, or even within the same season: oil pressed on the same estate early in the harvest and late in the harvest can vary in flavor. Or regional differences, since oil from a specific variety (say, Arbequina) can be different if produced in Catalonia or in central Spain.

Kinds of oil, part two: Olive oil comes in many different qualities with different names. To get the best, you should always get Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This specific name indicates manufacturing process – just mushing the olives and filtering the oil, no heat, no chemical process – and should (but alas, doesn’t always) indicate specific parameters about acidity and fragrance. The label should say Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra and “Aceite de Oliva de categoria superior obtenido directamente de aceitunas y solo mediante procedimientos mecánicos” (superior quality oil obtained directly from olives and only using mechanical procedures) – so really it’s olive juice with nothing added and nothing subtracted, except filtering the gunk left over after pressing the olives. Next step down is virgen oil – the manufacturing process is the same but it doesn’t quite meet the other parameters. Below that is just plain olive oil and other names. Don’t go there. Stay with Extra Virgin or if you cannot find it, Virgin olive oil. There really is a big difference.

Olive oil in cooking: A short note on the rumor that we should not use Extra Virgin olive oil for cooking: like all oils, olive oil breaks down if heated past the smoke point. But the smoke point is not really low: 160º-207º C (320-405ºF) for extra virgin, depending on quality, with virgin olive oil at a slightly higher smoke point. So it’s just a question of watching your pan to make sure temperature doesn’t get above that, or use a different oil if higher temperatures are needed. (oil with highest smoke point on my list? Avocado oil! Who knew?)

Eeek! So what should I get? All this may sound confusing, but it isn’t. Once you discover your favorite oils, you can have a lot of fun exploring the differences, or testing and tasting oils that are completely different from the one you usually use. Nowadays more and more manufacturers show the olive variety on the label, so if you know you like Arbequina you can go with that one (noticing what manufacturers you like best) until you are ready to try other kinds. Soon you’ll discover what kinds work best for different uses, and you may end up with several kinds of oil on hand, one for salads, another for doing fish and yet another for your morning toast.

My own choice? I always get mono-varietal, usually Hojiblanca. When really organized, I also have Arbequina for some uses. I’ve tried and like Empeltre, Alfafarenca, Cornicabra and Picudo. And yes, always always Extra Virgin. I use olive oil for almost everything, except a few odd recipes that need a no-taste oil to pull everything together.

Get more info at:
International Olive Oil Council: Headquarters in Madrid, logical after what we’ve seen. Lots of information on their website http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/    Source for statistics used here for other countries http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/estaticos/view/131-world-olive-oil-figures

Fundación Patrimonio Comunal Olivero: Spanish foundation to promote use of oil and educate consumers. Very good store in Madrid, everything is Extra Virgin (so it takes some of the guesswork out of your purchase). Olive oil from all over Spain, and many, different varieties. My choice for getting favorites and also for trying new kinds. Website http://www.pco.es

Sandwich Story

Bocadillos and tortilla, courtesy of cafeteria Desiree*

Bocadillos and tortilla, courtesy of cafeteria Desiree*

 

Pan con pan, comida de tontos (bread with bread is food for idiots), but bread with something on top is a fast and filling meal in many countries of the world. Spain is no exception: the issue is how to navigate sandwich, bocata, montado and pulga to get what you want.

Here in España, what’s inside your sandwich depends at least partially on the sandwich style you choose. There seems to be a rough division between the classic Spanish sandwich styles (bocadillo, montado) and international or “modern” styles (sandwich, tosta). For example, Spanish classics like potato omelette, pork tenderloin and squid rings do not appear between slices of white loaf bread, only in bocadillos. Lettuce, asparagus and mayonnaise are rarely used in bocadillos but frequent in sandwiches, tostas and even pulgas. Tomato is more universal – frequent in sandwiches, not infrequent in bocadillos and montados; in Cataluña bocadillos are automatically served with tomato-rubbed bread (not sliced tomato) unless you specifically ask for plain bread.

So how to get your sandwich? Here’s a fast guide to some of Spain’s sandwich styles.

Sandwich: In a cafeteria or restaurant this is usually made with toasted white loaf bread, and usually with hot filling (grilled ham and cheese, bacon) except for vegetarian options or chicken, also with toasted bread but usually cold. This is a casual sit-down meal, usually eaten with a knife and fork, though it’s no longer odd to eat as finger food. Some places like Rodilla and Vienna Capellanes chains do cold sandwiches to go, often made with a mayo-based sandwich spread and sometimes with other kinds of loaf bread. Trivia: the phonetic or half-English spellings can be confusing: samwis, sanwhis, sandwish are all logical spellings in Spanish. And don’t forget bi-lingual slips: hay sandwiches means “there are sandwiches”, not sandwiches made of hay.

Bocadillo: A hearty sandwich on baguette bread. The bread is usually cold though what’s inside might be hot (sausage, pork tenderloin, fried squid rings). Finger food, easy to eat while standing at the bar or perched on a stool. Trivia: the slang word for bocadillo is bocata, usually indicating a larger-than-usual size. Oddest bocadillo filling ever seen: patatas bravas (fried potato chunks with hot sauce).

Montado, montadito: Usually but not always open face, a slice of cold baguette bread with something on top. Frequent for lomo (pork tenderloin). Montadito is the smaller version.

Tosta: Almost always open face, baguette bread or slice from a big round loaf, grilled so bread is at least warm if not toasted and what’s on top is warmed up.

Pulga: Small bocadillo, usually cold, often on softer dinner roll instead of a miniature baguette. Trivia: pulga means flea in Spanish, and the dinner rolls often used for these sandwiches are called medianoches (midnights).

And a few with-bread concoctions that are not quite sandwiches:

Empanada, empanadilla: Originally from Galicia in northwest Spain, Spanish empanadas are not the same as the Latin American version. This is kind of a cold, covered pizza with a tomato-onion filling with tuna fish or sausage; in Galicia there are many other kinds of filling. There are two kinds of crust, one a flaky pastry, and the other a hearty though not too-thick bread. Empanadas are big and often sold by slice or weight, empanadillas are individual portions. Good for takeaway, easy to eat on the street, good party food and an easy option for a light dinner.

Pincho: If you’d rather pass on the pan (bread) you can still get a fast and light meal: just go for a pincho, something with a bit of bread on the side. Most frequently seen for tortilla expañola (potato omelette), sausage or pincho moruno (skewer of meat).

 

*Desiree, Cafeteria in Tres Cantos (calle del Viento 7, near the train station).  Friendliest people and best coffee in town! Excellent tomato toast for breakfast (insider tip: get “media”, the full size is too big for a normal person).  Good carry-out, too.  Why go to Tres Cantos if you don’t live or work there? It’s the beginning / end for some excellent hikes, and one of the stops on the yearly 100 kilometers in 24 hours challenge

Tomato Toast

KimMozilBreakfast1

 

Breakfast in Spain used to be divided geographically between olive oil on toast and butter and jam on toast, with Madrid in butter territory. Knowing Spain’s geography and traditional rural products this makes perfect sense: olive oil in the south and east (Mediterranean Spain and where most of the oil is produced) and butter in the north, where dairy reigns.

But that has changed. Now you can get olive oil even in dairy-intensive Galicia – they might think you’re nuts, but it can be done. And in Madrid, ah bliss! Now we can get tomato toast. We can even get GOOD tomato toast: toast with olive oil and crushed tomato.

So what’s the perfect tomato-toast?   As any taste-test, this is rather subjective, but here are some guidelines.

When pondering your breakfast order look around, if lots of people are getting tomato toast, it’s good.

The toast must be bread-bread, not white loaf bread, usually called by brand name Bimbo (yes, really). The best bread is one with a moist, open crumb to better soak up the oil. Traditional white baguette style is ok if properly toasted on the “plancha” (iron grill), but rustic “chapata” type is better.

The tomato should be natural, skinned and crushed. Some places add a touch of garlic. Usually the tomato is served in a small bowl or cup with a spoon. Don’t get tomato toast if you see them serving tomato in sealed plastic mini-containers. That stuff is not very good.

Ideally there’s a bottle of olive oil and salt-shaker readily accessible for you to do your own thing. Some places pre-mix oil with the tomato, that’s usually ok, but separate lets you fine-tune to your own preference. If there’s no oil on the counter or table, ask the wait-staff.

My system: first poke holes in the toast all across the toast surface and drizzle on some oil (the holes let the oil soak in). Spoon on the tomato, spread it all the way to edges of the toast – these details are important – then take a bite to check your combination. Add a little more oil and salt if necessary, then ENJOY!

Note: Some places spoon on the tomato prior to serving. Hmmm. I really prefer to do that myself, but if it’s good tomato, that’s ok.

Where to try tomato toast in Madrid:

Two favorites in my neighborhood  (other favorites are on the city walks on eastern Alcala street and in Chueca’s market):

Cafe San Millan, Plaza de la Cebada, corner of San Millan. Excellent bread, perfect tomato. Only issue: early in the morning tomato might be cold instead of room temperature. Oil and salt on the counter (you don’t have to ask). Coffee is usually in a glass instead of cup, if you want it another way, specify when ordering.

Riazor, calle Toledo 19 (a block from the Plaza Mayor). Another excellent choice in my neighborhood.  Quirky way of serving the tomato: in expresso coffee cups

Reader contributions:

Cafe Matilda: Calle de Almaden, 15 (near Caixa Forum on Paseo del Prado). A very simple tostada with just tomatoes and olive oil. Bread is thick and crunchy, perfectly toasted.

Biotza: Claudio Coello 27 (near Jorge Juan, a few blocks from the Retiro). Crushed tomato, nothing added, good texture. Their “cafe americano” is very good, too.

Thanks to Kim Mozil for the photo

 

Madroños

MadronoTree

 

 

 

Sign of the seasons for early November: madroño trees (arbutus unedo)

Here in Madrid this tree has a special meaning – or sort of.  Folk wisdom tells us that bear and tree statue in Puerta del Sol is a madroño tree and (word has it) a she-bear.  That’s what we all “know” – but the real truth is that the original city logo had only a bear.  The tree was added in the 13th century to show that Madrid’s forests belonged to the municipality, not to the church (that took a court ruling to decide), and it was probably intended as generic “tree” not any specific kind.  Why so? Well, madroños are not really frequent in Madrid or nearby (they like somewhat cooler and more humid climes)  AND…..  the tree was not mentioned specifically as a madroño until the 16th century.

But folk wisdom tells us that the madroño is as madrileño as the zarzuela musicals or the man’s checked jacket, so now all locals can identify the tree, or sort of.  When taking the photo above in the Retiro, two Spanish women stopped to watch and ask what kind of fruit it was, and immediately said oh yeah, bear and madroño, a tiny bit embarassed to not identify by sight something that an obvious foreigner (me) did know….

Non-locals are now wondering:  so what IS a madroño tree?

For some reason madroño is translated as strawberry trees, even though we all know that strawberries grow on vines, and that the madroño fruit doesn’t look like a strawberry. One very cool thing about the trees is that they flower and fruit at the same time – and now is their season. The flowers are a spray of little white bells/balls and when ripe the fruit is orangey-red and about the size of a marble, so seeing trees with both is quite pretty, as you can see in the photo above.

Where to see the tree? Though infrequent in Madrid these trees grow wild in the mountains in lots of north and north central Spain. Because of the bear-and-madroño story, they’re frequently used as ornamentals in the city: there are lots in the Retiro along the Paseo de Coches (the paved north-south street just east Crystal Palace) and some on calle Mayor near calle Bailen.

So what’s the fruit like? Hard to describe a taste, hmmm, a little tart and a bit grainy, no apparent seed so I’m guessing the graininess might be micro seeds. When ripe, this fruit can give a feeling of drunkeness (bear with a buzz?) but careful, too many will cause umm intestinal issues (poor bear) though the leaves of the tree can solve those issues (nature is wise). This fruit is sometimes used for jams, and there’s a madroño liqueur. Where to get the fruit: some upscale-ish fruit stores in Madrid (probably the one on Ayala near Serrano, some shops in La Paz market, maybe the Corte Inglés), or grazing while hiking if you are very lucky, though only if you know the tree (that’s the disclaimer). Season is very short, so if you are curious, start looking now.

 

Best Breads

MadridBread

 

What food is a part of almost every Spanish meal? The answer is……. bread. Although some people may consider bread just what goes under the cheese or ham, for many others bread is almost worthy of its own food group, or at very least an important part of the “vital miscellanea” food group that includes garlic, chocolate, cheese and wine.

Deciding what bread to buy has gotten more and more complicated in recent years. No longer just classic white in three classic sizes (barra, pistola y barrita), bread now comes in an astonishing array of sizes, shapes and colors. Not a serious bread-aholic myself (only at breakfast or under cheese), to learn more I visited a selection of neighborhood bakeries in the center city, asking questions to find out about the bread scene in today’s Madrid.

What makes good bread? All bakers agree on the basics: natural ingredients, no shortcuts, and daily baking. For these professionals, the frozen, pop-in-the-oven bread sold at gas stations and convenience stores is not really worthy of the name bread. “It’s all right while still hot, but inedible just hours later” sniffs one baker.

For great bread we enter the realm of opinion and trade secrets. Bread is just water, flour, yeast and maybe additional ingredients (malt, milk, seeds) for certain kinds of bread. The art is in the mixture, in the process of kneading, rising and baking; most good bakeries have their own recipes and techniques that makes their bread distinctively theirs. One employee told me that they re-trained even experienced bakers in their own way of mixing and baking, delicate processes that can vary depending even on the weather. Another baker says that the baker’s instinct on rising or baking time is just as important as the written recipe.

The baking business is not easy. Another truth mentioned in several places. Baking is physically demanding: lifting heavy bags of flour, heavy trays of bread, dealing with heat and hustle to get the bread out to the hungry, hurried public. To the physical difficulty add long, long hours: baking starts well before dawn to get the bread out the door for breakfast, then come long opening hours for the public. A tough schedule for any business, but especially for traditional family-run neighborhood bakeries with few outside employees. Many neighborhood bakeries have closed in recent years: to survive, a bakery needs to have a great location, good service, special products (pastries, empanadas, cookies) and great bread to bring customers through the door.

Is there really any difference between differents breads and different bakeries? Judging from the long line outside some bakeries, or people’s willingness to wait for the next batch of “their” bread, some bread really must be better than other bread. Just imagine: a neighborhood bakery  in the Moncloa area makes 600 standard barras every day during the week and more than double that number on weekends – that’s just one kind of bread and doesn’t include their delivery routes.

What’s the BEST bread? You decide!  White or dark?  Chewy or fluffy? Factor in the situation: what works for breakfast, for sandwiches, for stew or for grilled fish may not be the same. Factor in the all-important location: you don’t want to cross the city every other day to get something as basic as bread. Factor things in, but be bread-venturous. Try new kinds from new places, you never know when you’ll find something so amazing it belies the Spanish saying “Bread with bread, food for idiots”.

Bread vocabulary (and explanations)

Bread varies s lot in the grain of the miga (crumb, inside) and the hardness of the corteza (crust). The most classic shapes are barra (classic long, wide-ish loaf), baguet (long but narrower), barrita (individual serving), molde (rectangular loaf like packaged bread), hogaza (circular loaf), rosca (big doughnut shape), and a variety of names that vary between regions or even between bakeries.

Bread also varies in the kind of flour and rising process, creating very different kinds of bread from similar raw ingredients. A few kinds of classic bread are shown below, but as you travel around Spain you should watch for and try regional breads: Castilla-Leon is famous for good bread, Cataluña for rustic payés, and Galicia for cornbread.

Candeal : White, fine-grain bread made with a special flour, golden crust. Comes in a variety of shapes, in Castilla-Leon sometimes a flat, round loaf with designs on top. Not available in all bakeries. Keeps better than most white breads.

Chapata: Similar to Italian ciabatta. Usually made from white flour with a little rye. Loaf is crusty, oblong and flat, inside usually spongey open texture. This bread is more complicated to make than standard white, has a different rising process. Good toasted with oil and for sopping up sauces.

Integral: Whole-wheat. Most frequent shapes are barra, molde and hogaza. Varies a lot between bakeries in crust, texture and moistness, you may need to shop around to find one you like; available in health food stores as well as bakeries. Keeps well.

Centeno: Rye. Comes in a variety of shapes, varies in color from light to quite dark, some breads are mixture wheat and rye. Some dark ryes are made with malt (first cousin to malt in beer or malted milk). Can be moist or dry, usually quite dense. Keeps well.

Multicereal: Mixed grain, sometimes with seeds on the crust or inside (poppy, sunflower, linseed). Might also be called cinco cereales (o siete cereales, etc) Not all bakeries have this hearty bread, but if you see it it’s definitely worth a try.

Special breads: Good bakeries or bread boutiques have bread with nuts, raisins, olive bits or other treats. Around Easter you can usually find a fine white bread made with milk, used to make torrijas (bread soaked in milk or wine, fried and sprinkled with sugar).

Good bakeries in Madrid, just a selection

Mas que Pan: Plaza Puerta de Moros 3 (Metro La Latina). Independent and in my neighborhood, has a coffee shop. This will probably become my place, for now I’ve only had their carrot cake and empanadillas (closed covered mini-pizza), both excellent.

Pasteleria del Duque:  Plaza Duque de Alba (Metro La Latina). Also independent and in my neighborhood, has a tiny coffee shop. This place has more cakes than breads but their cakes are SO good that I’m including here assuming the bread is just as good.

Puntal: Santa Engracia 56 (metro Iglesia). Independent bakery in Chamberi neighborhood, has coffee shop. Newish so I have not tried personally, but it looks like they have a nice  selection

Mercado de Barcelo (calle Barcelo 6):  Panaderia Israel, lower level, stand 126 (across from the olives).  Good multigrain and rye breads. So far I have resisted their chocolate bread. Not terribly friendly, or maybe just having a bad day.

Mercado de Maravillas (calle Bravo Murillo 122): Horno Atanor (stand 223, a little to the left of main entrance, near the front). Unusual breads, over 30 kinds on weekends, including teff, rye, mixed-grain, cheesey or pesto rolls. They also used to have really unusual cookies and while those have disappeared, the classic cookies are highly recommended (double chocolate, yum!)  Other place associated to this one, same selection of breads plus beans and grains by weight and some dried fruits and nuts: A Granel, calle Comercio 13 in northern suburb Tres Cantos.

La Panaderia de Chueca: San Gregorio 1 (Metro Chueca). Small independent bakery with a wide selection of breads, including breads for people with special food needs. Also has pastries, a few other products and a small coffee shop. Website is quite informative.  http://www.lapanaderiadechueca.es/

Celicioso:    Hortaleza 3  (Metro Gran Via)  http://www.celicioso.es    Gluten free bakery with bread, cakes and brownies.  Also has a small cafe for enjoying your treats right there.

Bakery chains. A newish trend – most of these have coffeeshop attached to bakery, and lots of pastries as well as bread.  As sometimes happens in chains, some places are better than others; even if product is the same people are not.

Granier.  Excellent German style rye, multi-grain bread, olive focaccio, cheesy bread, onion bread etc.   This chain has expanded dramatically since first arriving in Madrid, so you may have one near your home. Website http://www.pansgranier.com

Panaria  Santa Engracia 45 and other locations. The website is not very informative, but the barkies I’ve see all look good.  http://www.panariapanaderias.es

Panishop. Lots of locations. Their multigrain “celta” is good, and they have other specialities I have not tried yet. Good muffins  http://www.panishop.com/