Meatballs always taste better when they are flavoured with fresh herbs. | R.D.


The way Palma’s shoppers descended on inner city supermarkets last week and proceeded to strip shelves of every available edible was unbelievable — even though it was happening right in front of my eyes.

The coronavirus was an unknown quantity but even so this was never going to be the Great Plague that could kill thousands in the space of a few days.

In Spain last year some 3,800 people died from ordinary flu. At one point last week the entire worldwide death toll from Covid-19 (as the coronavirus disease became known) was 3,300.

No one went into a panic over those 3,800 deaths in a seasonal outbreak of flu. But fear of the coronavirus sent thousands of people rushing to supermarkets as if stocking up for Armageddon. But there was never any danger of supermarkets running short of provisions.

This wasn’t a Europe-wide lorry drivers’ strike which could have caused supply problems for supermarkets. The virus was never going to make even a tiny dent in the delivery system, yet so many people went rushing out to buy everything edible they could get their hands on.

And also inedibles, especially toilet paper: there was one newspaper picture of a man struggling out of a supermarket with eight huge packets of toilet paper. It was a two years’ supply for the average household.

In a letter published in El País, Spain’s top selling daily newspaper, a male resident in Madrid wrote that he got up early to go to the supermarket and returned home with four one-kilo bags of lentils, and four of white beans, four five-litre garrafas of oil, four dozen eggs, eight French loaves, three cases of six one-litre bottles of milk, seven packets of rice and five of macaroni, six bags of frozen cod, four whole chickens, three rabbits, 24 yoghurts, 12 kilos of tomatoes and 32 bananas. He intended going back in the afternoon for anything else he might need. “Just in case,” he added. And that was for his wife and himself.

At a supermarket near me I was seeing trolleys piled high with similar products plus two or three packs of toilet paper. At Mercadona there is always a plentiful supply of dried fruits such as peanuts and sunflower seeds, but by the end of the day everything had gone except for a few packets of pistachios and walnuts.

I did a recce on several supermarkets between my home and the office and there was always such a big run on minced meat and sausages that by mid-day there was nothing left. One couple’s trolley included six one-kilo trays of minced meat, six large trays of sausages, six trays of stewing meat and 10 large trays of pork lomo. They are going to have a nice long supply of frozen meat.

I wasn’t at all surprised to see the minced meat and sausages disappear so quickly because with schools being closed from Monday more children will be eating at home for the next two weeks — and perhaps longer. Most youngsters adore sausages and Spanish housewives can do marvellous meatballs with minced meat. Is there anyone who doesn’t like meatballs bursting with herby or spicy flavours?

Thrifty Spanish housewives, and those who have difficulty making ends meet towards the end of the month, have always turned to minced meat as an economical way of producing nourishing and filling meals for the family: it’s all about getting the most out of small amounts of meat.

One of the unusual aspects of economical minced meat dishes is that they appeal to people in all walks of life: a wealthy aristocratic landowner enjoys a plate of meatballs and creamy mashed potatoes at his stately home as much as a truck driver at a motorway caff. The landowner’s meatballs were probably made with minced grouse or pheasant, but the basic idea was the same: his cook was using up trimmings, thereby making small quantities of meat go a long way.

Minced meat is extremely versatile in that it can be turned into dishes suitable for spring or summer eating as well as comforting meals for autumn and winter days. Beef, pork and other meats that are minced and then turned into balls, patties, rissoles or burgers are found in all of the world’s major cuisines.

Even the great Auguste Escoffier, the father of modern French haute cuisine, has a recipe for burger steak, but he called it ‘bifteck à la russe’, or Russian beef steak. And being Escoffier, one of history’s greatest chefs, he minced the best cuts of steak, added eggs, chopped shallots, pepper and nutmeg before flouring the little burgers and sautéing them in clarified butter. Each one was served with a topping of chopped onion browned in butter.

No one knows when humans first started to mince meat and form it into balls or patties, but there is documentary proof that the early Romans were using recipes calling for minced meat. Apicius, who was collecting recipes of the Roman aristocracy more than 2,000 years ago, has several for minced meat.

In these recipes the minced meat is first mixed with pepper and herbs such as lovage and oregano. Then beaten eggs are added and a salty liquid called liquamen, made from the entrails of small fish. His recipes include meatballs made from peacock, pheasant, rabbit, chicken or suckling pig.

The Italians, Greeks and Arabs make delicious meatballs and those of Spanish regional cooking are among the best in the world. Indian meatballs are bursting with the flavour of curry spices and the Chinese and other Orientals serve them with very light textures and subtle herby flavours.

Despite the Roman penchant for peacock meatballs and Escoffier’s burger with the best cuts of beef steak, minced meat dishes are mainly fare for the poor in which the cheaper cuts of meat can be made tender as well as stretched out, when necessary, with the addition of breadcrumbs, cornmeal, polenta and other starchy fillers.

Dishes based on minced meat fit nicely into just about every cuisine because they can be served with rice, pasta, potatoes, polenta, cous-cous, root veggies of all kinds or, when the cupboard was barer than Old Mother Hubbard’s, on their own with slabs of country bread to mop up the last drop of sauce.

The meatballs of Spanish regional cooking are mainly done in a succulent sauce, either on their own or with the addition of potatoes and root vegetables. Spanish cooks use mainly a mixture of beef and pork for their meatballs but that isn’t the whole story by any means.

In places where feathered game is plentiful there are recipes for albóndigas made from pheasant or partridge, usually the older ones which would have been too tough for roasting. Venison albóndigas are popular in the north and they make a rich flavoursome meal.

There is no excuse for making meatballs that are anything less than extremely tasty and the cook who doesn’t get them packed with flavour is being downright careless and not very interested in his work.

The herbs, spices and other condiments that go into minced meat recipes depend on which part of the world they come from. Those from the Arab countries are more likely to include warm spices such as cumin, cloves and cinnamon, whereas the Italians favour sage and basil as well as other herbs associated with Italian cooking.

Parsley and garlic, as well as liberal amounts of paprika, are used in Spanish cooking and in Majorca and other Mediterranean areas you come across oregano being added, sometimes with guile but also with great gusto. I prefer the latter, especially when fresh oregano is available.

Meatballs always taste better when they are flavoured with fresh herbs and if you don’t grow your own you will find a selection at the bigger supermarkets. El Corte Inglés have the biggest and best selection of potted herbs I know of. They cost around €1.75.

When adding condiments to the meatball mix there is plenty of room for improvisation and experiment.

Try some of the herbs you may not associate with meat: fennel leaf, tarragon and dillweed add subtle essences that are worth considering. Freshly ground cumin or coriander seeds give a warm spicy touch and a special tang which your family or guests will find intriguing.

The major fault the majority of cooks commit when making meatballs is to under-flavour them. Most of us are so wary about adding too much of a particular herb or spice that we end up going to the other extreme — by putting in far too little.

We are inclined to forget that the flavour of the herbs and spices dissipates somewhat as the meatballs cook. So it’s essential that the original minced meat gets well spiked with flavourings.

This is easily done: make a tiny ball with some of the meat mixture and poach it in stock for three minutes. If it isn’t as tasty as you’d like it to be add more herbs, spices or other condiments until you get the flavour to your liking.

Spanish cooks are inclined to use a half and half mixture of beef and pork for meatballs and I once did the same. But one day a few years ago I realised the cooks at a well known Palma restaurant were making the best meatballs I’d ever tasted and I analysed what they were doing to get them tasting so good.

The first thing I noticed was that they were using pure minced beef which gave the finished meatball a superb texture. I then saw that the meatballs, which came in a thick and very smooth tomato sauce, were extremely light, soft and juicy.

They weren’t at all compact, which is most unusual. Most cooks, even some of the pros, are too heavy handed when shaping meatballs and they come out dense and heavy. So how did this restaurant achieve these meatballs that were so soft, light and juicy?

They formed the meatballs without trying to make them completely spherical which meant they were somewhat misshapen, neither round or oblong. Now came the most important part. Instead of dropping the meatballs into simmering stock or the tomato sauce in which they would be served, the cooks sautéed them very gently so they were still a little pink inside.

The meatballs were plated, covered with some of the sauce and served with lovely chips. They looked as if they had been done in the tomato sauce. But they were cooked exactly as described and that was what made them the best meatballs I have ever had — except when I copied them at home and got the exact same results.

The meatballs are served with a tinge of pinkness, slightly underdone, which is why they must be made with pure beef.