Sliced gammon (Lacón in Spanish). | wikipedia


For as long as I can remember, gammon has been a popular British choice for celebration meals, including all birthdays and especially for those extra special culinary treats at Easter and Christmas.
But in Spain you won’t come across it very often unless you go to Galicia or eat at Galician restaurants — a good solution because there are several on the island and they are all worth visiting.

Gammon translates as lacón, but I hardly ever saw it in Palma supermarkets and never at stalls in the main Mercat d’Olivar. Anyone in Mallorca familiar with Galician food who wanted to try a traditional delight such as lacón con grelos had to go to Galician restaurants or be lucky enough to know a Gallego whose family or friends sent food parcels from Galicia.

On the other hand, not so long ago we were able to buy grelos, a veggie that’s almost completely unknown in other parts of Spain. It’s a common enough green veg, it simply isn’t used — except as fodder for cattle and other farm animals.

Grelos is the green tops of turnips, so it’s found where farmers grow turnips, and that means it abounds in those northern parts where root veggies such as turnips are popular. So you’ll find grelos galore in England, Wales, Scotland, the north of France, the Scandinavian and central European countries, the north of Italy and other places.

As soon as the turnip harvest is in, however, all over Europe the tops are set aside and kept in the barn or sold on as cattle fodder — but not in Galicia or in Italy’s Abruzzo where it gets very cold in the winter months.

But the celebrity cooks, especially those with TV programmes, are always on the lookout for ‘new’ ingredients and their suppliers pitch in with anything they can find out there. The celeb cooks’ suppliers have recently been offering them turnip tops as their newest trick and some of them are now doing dishes using the tops instead of the better known greens such as spinach. But the suppliers have yet to get the supermarkets interested in turnip tops. No one I know has ever seen them at the any of the bigger outlets.

The usual scenario in this field is that once the celeb cooks have an unusual fruit or veggie on their show, their interest quickly trickles down to the general public and the ‘new’ ingredient takes off. But that hasn’t happened this time.

That doesn’t come as a surprise because turnip tops can be very much an acquired taste: they are definitely not as delicate and delightful as spinach. And many people don’t even want to know about spinach. I can give you a very good idea of how turnip tops taste and the kind of texture they have: they are like kale, only more so. Much more so. But don’t let me turn you off kale, because handled correctly it can be extremely good.

The celeb cooks’ interest in kale seeped down to the supermarket public even in Mallorca: I’ve seen it in El Corte Inglés and Mercadona. It’s been a well known green veggie in Scotland since way back and it’s on sale in every supermarket.

My niece Lilian sometimes does it as a side veggie using recipes that work well with spinach. One of her favourite ways with kale is done Italian style: the chopped raw leaves are stir-fried in olive oil with slivers of fried garlic.

An oven dish with fish and turnip tops.

That’s a method Italian cooks use with all members of the cabbage family and when the kale is very fresh and crisp and sliced thinly, the result is so memorable it can be served on its own as a starter that’s sure get the conversation flowing. Her other impressive way of doing kale is one I’ve never had. The leaves are torn into pieces, scattered into a deepish dish, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Maldon salt flakes before being popped into a very hot oven. She serves kale like that with roast beef or chicken and the kale is so crinkly and crunchy you have to eat it with your fingers. You can also have it with preprandial drinks instead of potato crisps.

Kale, turnip tops and other green leafy veggies are great when combined in soups and stews with pasta, potatoes, pulses, pumpkin, parsnips, carrots and other root vegetables. Try them in Spanish style potajes kept simple by using only two other ingredients that are in season and, therefore, at their best.

Linguine with shredded turnip tops.

Kale, turnip tops and other green leaves fit nicely into all kinds of very plain pasta dishes. The fresh leaves are shredded as thinly as possible and stir-fried in a wok over a high heat for a short time.
When the long or short pasta is ready, it is transferred to a warm bowl and generously drizzled with virgen extra olive oil. The stir-fried green leaves are tossed with the pasta until both ingredients are well mixed. When pasta and leaves are on the plate, drizzle to taste with extra olive oil.
Grated parmesan to taste can also be sprinkled over the dish.

If you can’t find lacón to serve with creamed kale, grelos or spinach, you have two solutions. In El Corte Inglés you’ll find pickled pork knuckles that are lovely when simmered until tender and served with mashed potatoes and your favourite veggies. The other solution is to make your own gammon. This is easily done. Get the butcher to tie up a rolled piece of pork shoulder or a nice cut from the leg.
Make a brine by dissolving 30 grs of salt for each litre of water and stir in the fresh or dried herbs of your choice. Submerge the pork in the brine and leave it for two or three days, by which time it will have become gammon and is ready for cooking. Put the piece of pork into a saucepan, cover it with cold water and bring to the boil. Taste it, and if it’s too salty repeat with fresh water and then simmer for an hour or until the gammon is tender. Serve it in a simple Galician way by boiling some good potatoes and carrots with the gammon half an hour before it is ready for serving. Slice the gammon a littles less than 1 cm thick — or thicker or thinner depending on personal taste. Finish off the presentation by serving some shredded kale (or turnip tops if you can get them) sautéed with garlic in the Italian way described above.

This dish looks pretty on the plate: you have the pinkish slices of gammon, the white of the boiled potatoes, the orangey Van Gogh hue of the carrots and the dark shiny green of the sautéed kale or carrot tops.

Some Scots people I know like to serve sliced gammon with creamy mashed potatoes and fresh peas from the pod when they have just come into season and are very tender and seductively sweet. That is also worth trying with some good frozen peas. A good piece of pork belly is also worth recommended for pickling in brine and can be cooked with pulses such as lentils, chickpeas or any of the white or brown beans. If you can’t find any real Galician lacón and you don’t fancy making your own gammon, there’s a third solution — book a table at your nearest Galician restaurant and order their lacón dishes and those that come with grelos. I’ve tried every Galician restaurant in Mallorca and I’ve never had a disappointing meal.