A culinary journey through Spain via the unparalleled medium of informal oral testimonies. This is written in English. If you would like a Spanish/Spanglish translation may I recommend reading slower, louder, and adding the letter “o” intermittently to the end of words. This is the second part in the series of this crash course in Spanish cuisine. An introduction to this tale can be found by clicking here, and you can see the first foray of this adventure by scrolling down and reading more of this blog, which I would recommend that you do anyway.
On coming to meat-loving Spain, some vegetarians split the difference and become pescatarians. I have only been to coastal Spain and they are certainly a fish and seafood-loving people. My host family even have a full set of fish knives and forks. I realise a lot of people probably have fish cutlery, but it hasn’t been a particularly common occurrence in my life thus far. In this last month, I have certainly used fish knives far more than in the rest of my life combined. One of their freezers is completely full of assorted fish. I’m grateful to have found a family that love fish as much as I do, and that they are much more formal in their appreciation and dining habits.
I remember on my first day in this house the mother showed me the cutlery drawer during a tour of the house and started to tell me what to use each of the items for. Now, you may think that this is a little patronising, but there were two full drawers and they do have rather specific cutlery (watermelon forks? Watermelon forks.)
I have been very fortunate in having Spanish hosts by the coast, where fish and seafood that is just two hours out of the sea is readily available. It would be a damn travesty to not revel in the wonder of the treasures of the sea. Such variety, such vigor, la comida para la buena vida.
And remember: ‘pesces’ en el mar pero ‘pescado’ en el plato (‘pesces‘ when a fish is in the sea, but ‘pescado‘ when the fish is on the plate).
Angula, or baby eel, is a Spanish delicacy which “I say no-one at this table has tried the real ones”. Apparently real angula costs around €1,000 per kilo. Thankfully one smart company has reproduced them, in looks at least, using pulverised fish. The only visual clue that they are not real angula is that they don’t have eyes, but the family commented on how impressed they were that the colouring of the top and bottom of the eel was reproduced.
Fake angula has a taste not dissimilar to, though milder than, seafood sticks, and was sauteed in oil and garlic. For real angula, San Sebastián is the place to go after a quick chat with your credit card company.
Atún a la Plancha
In brief, this is the family’s most often cooked fish dish. I would say favourite, but you can’t conflate ‘often’ and ‘favourite’ as you have to consider that ‘ease’ and ‘cost’ comes into ‘oft’, and if it happens to be your favourite as well then, why, that is simply some good luck, friend. Healthier than frying and quicker than cooking al horno, a la plancha is the cooking method for the modern woman.
I have a friend who doesn’t like fish. There is much more to his personality than this, but it’s not relevant for this particular segment. Now, were I to recommend a type of fish to him as a gateway fish, I would recommend a tuna steak. Heck, it even has steak in the name. Or maybe I would recommend mackerel, but no, for the purpose of this segment I would say “friend, you should eat a ton of tuna” (plus that helps you remember how to say tuna in Spanish).
Forget your sad tuna and sweetcorn sandwich from Sainsbury’s. Throw away your John West cans. A lightly oiled tuna steak will ignite seafaring dreams for even the most hardy landlubber. Serve with a salad, grilled verduras, escaliveda, or whatever your creativity compels you to.
Eating a filete de atún with a fish knife and the ensuing remnants of the bone and skin on the plate is one of my most vivid food memories of Spain. Take from that what you will.
“I don’t like. It takes no effort.” One of the pitfalls of being a good cook is that expectations are high. The father of the family is on the whole quite an exceptional home cook, and his children have come to expect as much at every mealtime. So when one day he made a hake stew, the son commented that this dish wasn’t complex enough and that it was for poor people.
I like fish and I like stews, so a fish stew was perfectly enjoyable to me. Indeed, hake is one of the cheaper fishes and thus can stand being boiled asunder. The stew usually contains carrots, potatoes, onions and peas, as well as additional fish stock. For a simple stew it remains quite rich, tasting more highly seasoned than I would have expected. The somewhat rubberiness of the texture of the fish is overcome with its luscious moistness – fine, it’s a stew, but I have had many a dry fish stew.
Salmón: Sashimi o a La Plancha
“A la plancha or sashimi?” is a question that I feel wouldn’t have been asked of European children under the age of 13 ten years ago, and it would have been even less likely that they would all answer “sashimi”. But this is 2017, and it happened.
The family tells me that the only restaurant they like going to in Barcelona is a Japanese place. When I was 6, 8 and 12, my restaurant of choice would have been a Pizza Hut or a burger place (to paraphrase Marina O’Loughlin, children should have terrible taste). Kids have got fancier, though I remain the same. I would have preferred a la plancha (cooked on an iron plate) but majority rules, and to be fair it was more to do with my apprehension of home-prepared raw fish, a fear that I needn’t have had. We all, children included, dipped the sashimi in soy sauce and wasabi, dining in the sunshine.
As with most everywhere that I have been in the world, Japanese cuisine is proving popular here in the Barcelona suburbs. In Andalusia I also went to a sushi restaurant which also served dim sum, meaning that they did neither particularly well, but passably enough for Spain’s Hollywood.
Calamares a la Romana
Or just plain old “fried calamari” in plain old England. When I was a kid (it takes nothing more than three weeks with children who were born after 2010 to make this thought come into your head more than several times a week) we had fish fingers. Now the kids are all about calamares a la Romana. Even the picky-eating cousin found herself going back for more and more. Squid? For children? Saying this, I believe that I liked squid as a child when going to Chinese restaurants I indulged in some squid, relishing in my exoticism.
But for Spanish – and I suppose Italian, as the a la Romana suffix suggests – children, calamari, breaded or not, is a more common part of the cuisine. They haven’t had to wait many decades for Waitrose to penetrate the depths of society and push sophisticated cuisine on us.
The children love it. I love it. Captain Birdseye’s vessel sinks.
I don’t give a frying fish. I reiterate my comment about fish fingers from above. Here, fried fish is what it says on the tin, but not the tin as the fish are fresh and this is a blog. Take a whole sardiña, cover in a flour/egg batter, fry, serve, and watch the children eat with a fork and fish spoon, elegantly placing the bones at the side of the table.
Serving fish frito, as with serving meat frito is simply a way of making it more palatable for children. Good fish shouldn’t be fried: advice my mother gave me in the form of criticising a restaurant for ruining a perfectly good sole. Mother knows.
To do it the more Andalusian way, you can leave the fish (dark fish) in a vinegar and garlic sauce for two days or so beforehand. The family didn’t enjoy this so much. They are an a la plancha people.
More on pescado in part two.