Total Pageviews

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bad times in Spain

The down side of Spain is the huge British influence. OK so Alicante and Benidorm are famed for their all day English Breakfasts and Watney’s Red Barrel but the Brit influence is far more insidious than that.

Great local markets exist supplying fresh and local ingredients. To cook daily with only the freshest is a dream, but that is not the aim of most ex-pats.

Brilliant local breads are available from small bakeries in every part but in Alicante province Iceland seems to be the supermercado of choice for the British population.

OK I can see that some essential icons are not available – Marmite seems to be a perpetual request from my Spanish based relatives but to walk into a shop and be confronted by freezers full of Mothers Pride and Aunt Bessie’s frozen products is just plain depressing.

If Spain is the aim embrace it, don’t just convert it to a sunnier Southend.

In the small town where my brother-in-law has settled there exists a corner shop – wittily called “The Corner Shop” which supplies all your British needs from papers to Instant Whip. Just around the corner is Cornish Pride purveyors of pasties to the retired.

On the recommendation of a 14 year old I tried their legendary Chicken Tikka turnovers and was immediately transported back home. It was that unique taste of Chip Shop Curry Sauce that provided the flavour though I have to say that the pastry was very good.

There again just a short walk away a baker was producing breads and pastries to die for.

Why go to another country and import your food from home?

And eating out was similar.

We had a superb meal locally, great taps to start, a wide choice of first courses, a range of regional dishes and desserts that were really good _ even the dreaded Flan – a Spanish staple- was fresh and tasty. Coffee and a liqueur finished the meal which, with wine thrown in cost a mere €22 per head.

There again we visited one of the worst restaurants I have ever eaten in.

It’s really good said the BIL, and the menu downloaded from the web bore this out. A wide range of dishes all of which looked delicious and a Welsh Chef using local produce to the full on an interesting a la carte menu. We piled into the car and set of for the 40 minute drive.

On arrival all looked well, a courtyard with tables or indoor eating. A chilly evening meant that indoors was best.

A 10 minute wait in an empty restaurant did not bode well and when the server eventually asked “Menu or Carvery?” my heart sank. Menu please was the request. It arrived bearing little resemblance to the one on the website.

“Oh, Chef has left” seemed to explain the changes, “but my wife has been cooking this for about a year so she’s well practiced.”

So to the meal. I ordered a starter of Crab Tuna and Prawn in a thousand Island dressing. What arrived was a travesty. Though the local fish market had all there fishy ingredients in abundance what I got was tinned Tuna, prawns that probably came from Iceland’s bargain range and worst of all Crab Sticks that had never borne any relationship to our cancerian friends, and an appalling cheap seafood sauce with Kiwi Fruit, Orange Segment and Strawberry garnish Utterly inedible though the detritus did not even rate a question from the server.

The main course was equally disappointing, a steak done to the consistency of a well- used army boot, greasy chips and a limp salad. Our party was not impressed and neither were a couple who ate there regularly under the previous chef.

To top things a table of 14 Brits were celebrating a birthday with the Carvery and the volume of their celebration was increased by the introduction of two wandering musicians who seemed under the impression that they were a Mariachi band whilst pumping out Brit Hits such as Guantamamera and Una Paloma Blanca.

The regular couple told the proprietor that they would have dessert in the bar as it was more peaceful and told me that they had been coming long enough to tell him exactly what they thought of the food and the experience.

It turned out that a local Carvery had opened and the owners were rushing to counter its success by introducing their own, cutting down on the menu and the quality of the ingredients used. The race to the bottom was more likely to be a race into bankruptcy than the salvation of the business.

Dessert was quite good though totally un-memorable.

The BIL was mortified by the experience and vowed never to return. I don’t think that he will have to, judging by our experience and the fact that, apart from the birthday crowd and our party of 5, there were 2 diners suggests that the restaurant will not be operating by now – hence my not naming it.

Good food gone bad, local dishes replaced by euro-pap and an attempt to bring the Harvester to Valencia – needless to say the owners were Brits.

One good introduction from these islands was found unexpectedly in the small mountain town of Mura. Turning a corner in the perpetual search for Café Solo I came upon a branch of Supervalu!!!

This should be good I told the BIL, in Ireland they champion local produce and high quality. And they did. Local meats and cheeses, fresh bread, great local vegetables and fish so fresh that it made even the fish market look stale and tired. Add to this a brilliant array of wines again many very local and you had a pleasure to behold.

Compare Supervalu to Iceland and there is no contest. Supervalu did what it does in Ireland, concentrate on good, seasonal and local produce, Iceland does what it does in the UK knock out frozen generic brands.

Sadly the majority of Brits who move to Spain only want the weather and do not want to embrace the culture or the foods, and want to live in the seventies as well.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Signs Of Spring - Fresh and tasty

April means the return of two of my favourite foods, Asparagus and Rhubarb.

The delicate green spears of Asparagus are a real treat and made more so by their short season. There is something very wrong about buying Asparagus in November, not just the huge number of food miles and CO2 expended to fly them in from Peru or Chile, but the flavour is coarser, less fragrant and subtle.

It is the short season, about six weeks that adds to the luxury of the experience, fresh Asparagus is more than an ingredient, it is an experience and a sure sign that summer is around the corner. Use them in season and use them often.

Asparagus Tips with a Hollandaise is a dish in its own right or an amazing accompaniment to a well-cooked rare rib of Beef or roast Cod. Asparagus Soup is a classic, light fresh and packed with flavour.

On a visit to my parents’ house near Canterbury I passed a sign in a field, “Our Asparagus available now”.

A short detour out onto the marshes at Seasalter led us past the Michelin Starred ‘Jolly Sportsman’ and on to Mallards Farm. The Asparagus had just been cut and was still being bagged when we arrived. Half a Kilo was rapidly aged to the shopping bag and my daydreams turned to dishes containing the delicate vegetable.

On arrival chez parents I spotted a well -developed Rhubarb patch. Three or four crowns were pushing their pink stems skywards and crying out for cutting. As I have not had Rhubarb this year a request for some was made almost before exchanging ritual greetings with the ancestors. Fortunately they agreed.

With both the Asparagus and Rhubarb as fresh as could be a method of getting it home in pristine condition became the priority, Canterbury to Cwmbran is 4 hours in anyone’s money and very dependent on the state of the M25. Added to this was a diversion to Hove for a visit to my daughter and grandchildren so the fresh produce could be as dehydrated as Peruvian produce unless I was careful.

A cunning system of damp kitchen roll, recycled plastic bags and a cool bag ensured the right ambient conditions for the journey and I am pleased to report that both ingredients arrived home safely.

What about the food miles I hear you cry. Well, to my mind there were none. I was visiting Canterbury in any event and thus the miles were being undertaken anyway, the produce was not sent to me but returned on a journey which was intended and not unique to the food.

Back home I converted the produce to Asparagus Soup and Rhubarb and Ginger Crumble, two dishes which bring out the real flavours of the main ingredients.

Asparagus Soup

500 grams of fresh Asparagus.

1 Shallot

500 mils Chicken Stock

Freshly ground Black Pepper

25 grams Butter

Chives to garnish.

Snap the Asparagus (it will break naturally where the soft stalk meets the woodier base) and wash well.

Dice the Shallot and sweat gently in butter. Add the woodier stems cut to ½ inch pieces and continue to sweat for 10 minutes or so. Add the Chicken Stock and bring to the simmer for around another 10 minutes.

Strain and reserve the liquid discarding the stalks.

In a separate pan seat the Asparagus tips, again cut to ½ inch dice. Add a good pinch of the Pepper. After 10 minutes add the reserved Stock and bring back to the boil, simmering for 5 minutes. Liquidise and add a little water if you like your soup on the thin side. Bring back to a near simmer and serve garnished with a few snipped chives.

200 mils of Cream may be added to give a light but creamy soup.

Rhubarb and Ginger Crumble

For the Rhubarb

700 grams Rhubarb

50 grams Stem Ginger

75 grams Sugar

For the topping

110 grams Plain Flour

110 grams Butter

50 grams Granulated Sugar

Wash the Rhubarb and cut into 1 inch dice.

Place in a pan with the Sugar and bring gently to the boil. DO NOT add any water as Rhubarb is full of liquid and a flood will ensue!! Simmer for around 10 minutes or until about half cooked. Cool slightly then add the Stem Ginger in small dice or thin strips.

Meanwhile rub the Butter into the Flour till it looks like large Breadcrumbs and then mix in the sugar.

Transfer the Rhubarb and Ginger to an ovenproof dish and scatter the topping over.

Bake in an oven for 20 minutes or until the topping is crispy and golden brown.

Serve with Crème Anglaise, Whipped Cream and Brown Sugar or Ice Cream.

Two good dishes that show off the real flavours of Spring and indicate that A Summer of really fresh fruit and vegetables is just around the corner.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Spain, the good, the bad and the unutterable

Just got back from a week in Spain, a small village called Orba in Valencia.

Spain has a weird bi-polar food culture, influenced hugely by the influx of foreigners with the British and Germans having a huge influence.

On the one hand there are brilliant local ingredients, fish and fruit, vegetables and breads on the other an invasion even more insidious than the ubiquitous golden arches and fried chicken establishments.

But to start with the good. Even in March there is a wealth of really fresh local food. Oranges, Lemons and Grapefruit abound so freshly squeezed juice every morning and Homemade Lemonade to wash down those interesting afternoon lunches.

Local products are freely available and at their ripest and freshest in the local markets. Pedreguer Market on a Sunday is buzzing. Yes there are lots of clothes stalls but the highlight, and the first that you come to are dedicated to food. The freshest of herbs and a wide range of salad leaves, Aubergines in many shapes and colours, onions ranging from big juicy sweet Spanish to pungent garlic flavoured Spring onions and several varieties of garlic itself. Inevitably a huge stock of Oranges was on display though the scrumping activities of the local clan meant that they were not on the shopping list.

The real stars of the show, though, were the Tomatoes. Several varieties were on offer, traditional round reds, Beef, Plum, Cherry and some really interesting multi coloured ones. Inspired by this bounty I rapidly devised several days meals and with an investment of around €5 I took several kilos back to the house.

Chopped Spring Onion – the garlicky one was sweated down with chopped local celery in a little Olive Oil whilst around 3 kilos of tomatoes were quartered and added to the pan. Simmered gently for a round 40 minutes and then seasoned and liquidised they surrendered a couple of litres of tomato sauce.

The first outing for the sauce was as an accompaniment to Pasta. An onion was diced and sweated before diced Chorizo, again from the market, joined in. Fresh tomato sauce was added and finally the cooked Pasta before serving with a fresh green salad and a tomato salad of six varieties with a little seasoning and a drizzle of Olive Oil.

The following day the sauce was resurrected as the basis for Ratatouille with purple and pink-striped Aubergines and some Courgettes, Onions and Celery. To provide the carbohydrates I taught Arran my 14 year old step-nephew to make bread and we served fresh rolls as an accompaniment.

Bread surfaced again the next day along with the tomato sauce. Rolls were made and, once risen, were rolled out really thin to make a Pizza base. The sauce provided the topping and individuals added their own choice of Mushrooms, Onions, Tomatoes, Herbs, Seasoning, Cheeses (either local or generically Spanish) and meats for 5 totally different Pizzas, again served with a (largely) Rocket salad and wine from the Jalon Valley.

Amazingly we were in the only area of Spain to have rain – though snow fell on some of the higher ground- so it was as well that Denia had an indoor market to continue the foodie adventure.

Valenciana produce was again well to the fore but some stalls offered Galician and Catalan alternatives. But before we could shop there was the matter of breakfast.

Café Solo may not be Espresso but it runs it a damn close second and accompanied by a fresh Bocadillo and a few Churros (open sandwich and deep fried choux pastry dredged in icing sugar) we were ready.

The influx of people from across Europe was highlighted in the market. A German butcher, a Dutch patisserie, and another German, this time baking, all had stalls. The local butchers specialised in Rabbit alongside the Beef, Pork, Lamb and Chicken and a huge range of charcuterie was available.

Fruit stalls, more exotic than at Pedreguer, but still fresh and cheap, jostled for space with the bread and meats and at the rear were three fishmongers. I have to say that I despair at the Spanish approach to fishing. Along with the shrimp, crab and prawns were beautiful John Dory, Monkfish and Sea Bream but they were all tiny. I thought that the EU protected fish stocks but here they were ripped forth before their time, unformed. I wrestled with my conscience as the fish looked wonderful and just ready for a really good stew or soup – and I still had some tomato sauce – but in the end I left them.

The only baby fish that I consumed came later in the day. Tapas for lunch saw us settled in a restaurant surely modelled on Yo! Sushi. You selected from a range and the bill was based on the number and size of the cocktail sticks used to hold the tasty morsels together. Amongst others I had a fresh Ham and Pepper Bruschetta (there must be a Spanish word) with a chilled poached Quail Egg and an amazing dish with elvers on top. Elvers are a real luxury, and living just a few miles from the Severn one that I should have tried earlier – if only they were not all exported to Spain!!

From there it all went downhill but that will be a separate rant.