Until the long holiday weekend for Palma’s patron saint (San Sebastià) Majorcan weather, at least in Palma, was at its best for me: cold mornings, beautiful sunshine from around midday to early evening and then back to low temperatures just as I was getting into a bed that would be absolutely snug five minutes after I was under the Swedish duvet.
These sunny days at the start of January are so traditional in Majorca they even have a name: las calmas de enero, or the calm days of January. It’s my favourite time of the year.
However, the Gloria storm put an end to all that. It turned cold and rainy.
This is the time of year when Spanish traditional dishes called platos de cuchara (dishes eaten with a spoon) are invariably on domestic menus — and on the blackboards of many restaurants. These platos de cuchara dishes, thick with veggies and a meaty content of some kind, also contain pulses, the three favourites being lentils, white beans or chickpeas. They are good examples of a full meal on a plate.
All Spanish cooks I know, amateurs as well as professionals, make splendid dishes of pulses and some of the amateurs (mainly housewives) make platos de cuchara that are every bit as good as — and frequently better — than those that come out of professional kitchens. And it often happens that the plato de cuchara dish served on the menú del día at a bar on the outskirts of Palma will be one of the best ever — because the cook is also a Majorcan or Spanish housewife.
Before Columbus discovered the New World, pulses in Europe were mainly dried peas, lentils, broad beans and chickpeas. But in the 16th century a wide variety of pulses started to arrive from South America. They were planted in different parts of the Spanish mainland to see how they took to acclimatisation. The pulses quickly settled in and this is one of the reasons they feature strongly in every corner of Spain: the opportunity to cultivate them was there.
The most common white beans have many names and they include alubias, judias, habichuelas, frijoles, among others. The Basque name reminds us that these beans came from the New World: indibabak — habas (broad beans) from the Indies.
One of the good things about pulses — not only in Spain but all over the world — is that they are an economical ingredient. That’s one of the reasons they are a common dish at all bars doing a menú del día at around €8.
However, pulses in the luxury class are grown in many countries, and Spain has several of them. They are elite pulses partly because of their high quality but also because of their scarcity.
Spain’s top legumes include the long white beans for Asturia’s fabada and also a black bean called alubias de Tolosa. These have a luscious silky texture and an exquisite taste. Any Spanish gourmet will tell you they are the Rolls Royce of the bean world. When we talk about alubias de Tolosa we are not referring to a botanical variety of even a specific geographical one. They are simply beans that are grown in the Guipuzcoa region and sold in the main Tolosa market. When Basques rave about alubias de Tolosa they mean the jet black kind that are very expensive. But most of us prefer to buy the black ones that turn a dark reddish colour when cooked, because they are a good deal more economical.
There are white alubias de Tolosa but it is the black or reddish kind that are used in alubias de Tolosa. The reddish ones are very special and worth buying when you can find them, but they don’t have the same cachet as the black ones which, the last time I noticed the price, were costing more than €28 a kilo. They will now be a good deal dearer.
Both kinds of Tolosa beans are easy to cook. Soak them overnight in cold water to cover and next morning rinse them and transfer them to a suitable pot and cover them with cold water, adding a freshly chopped onion and two bay leaves. Cover with the lid and put the pot on a very low heat. Leave them for just over three hours, shaking the pot vigorously from time to time and making sure the beans are always covered by at least an inch of water. Add more boiling water if necessary and keep the beans at a very gentle simmer.
If the beans aren’t lusciously soft after three and a half hours, continue to simmer them until they are ready. Finely chop 4-6 plump garlic cloves and gently sauté them in a small frying pan with a good half inch of virgen extra olive oil. When the garlic is soft but not golden, stir the contents of the frying pan, including the oil, into the beans. Add salt to taste. And that’s it. The beans are ready and what was water has turned into a thick dark silken sauce that looks and tastes superb. However, the traditional dish of alubias de Tolosa isn’t quite ready for the table.
Most cooks include chorizo, the black pudding called morcilla de cebolla, shredded cabbage and, sometimes, bite-size pieces of pork spare ribs.
Some people cook these ingredients with the beans but the real connoisseurs never do that. They do them separately so that the subtle taste of the beans isn’t tainted by the strong flavours of the morcilla and the chorizo. The idea is to retain the natural taste of the beans.
When I do this dish I follow the traditional method and cook the spare ribs and the chorizos on their own for about 45 minutes. They are made the day before and so are the beans.
Alubias de Tolosa, like all beans, are always better when cooked 24 hours in advance. On the day of the meal gently reheat the beans, the spare ribs and the chorizos in their separate saucepans. Add the morcilla de cebolla to the spare ribs 15 minutes before serving the alubias. Cook the cabbage separately in another saucepan, also 10 minutes or so before needed. When serving the dish, pile the cabbage in the centre of a shallow platter, place the spare ribs round the cabbage and the sliced morcilla and chorizos round the edge of the platter. The very hot beans are ladled into individual plates that have been well heated in the oven.
One can then eat the beans completely on their own, or take small mounts of the other ingredients when wanted. That way the various delicate and strong flavours can be be kept separate and enjoyed to the fullest.
Basque cook Koldo Royo, who had a Michelin star restaurant on the Paseo Marítimo for 18 years, served his alubias de Tolosa with a little dish of Basque sweet green chillis. They provide a nice contrast of textures as well as another layer of flavour. But it must be sweet chillis: hot ones would clash with the delicate flavours of the alubias.
Spanish housewives have interesting dishes based on flours mixed with water or stock and made highly flavoursome with the addition of lard or olive oil, meat and charcuterie from the pig, with additional flavour boosts from herbs and spices.
One of the best of these dishes is gachas which the usually excellent Oxford Spanish-English dictionary translates as porridge. It’s not, but it does have one thing in common with porridge: it is hearty country fare whose main function is to fill empty bellies and leave a hungry person feeling warm and satisfied.
Thanks to the inventiveness of Spanish cooks and their determination to turn the most unlikely ingredients into a flavour-packed feast, gachas makes up in texture and taste for what it lacks in elegance.
Gachas is traditionally made with harina de almortas, or vetch flour. The vetch is a legume cultivated mainly in southern Europe because it grows well in fields where there is a shortage of rain. It is highly nutritious and can be used as a thickening agent in soups and stews. Gachas can also be made with other flours, such as chickpea, wholemeal or corn. A Spanish friend, who is an excellent cook, makes a superb earthy gachas with coarse lentil meal which she grinds in a food processor. Gachas is not the kind of dish you’ll find in island restaurants (or on the mainland, for that matter) so anyone wanting to try it will have to do it at home. It’s an easy dish to make, doesn’t take long, doesn’t need much preparation and it’s delightful on cold days when we need comforting food that warms us up inside.
To make a gachas for four you will need: 250grs chickpea or wholemeal flour, 200grs unsmoked bacon, 200grs fresh belly pork (panceta de cerdo), 3 plump garlic cloves, 50mls virgen extra olive oil, a heaped tsp of sweet paprika (pimentón), ground caraway seeds (alcaravea), cloves to taste, black pepper and salt to taste and 2 litres of boiling water.
Heat the oil in a big frying pan and throw in the crushed cloves of garlic. Sauté until golden and then discard. Dice the pork belly and sauté for 30 minutes or until crisp and tender. Add the diced bacon and cook for another 10 minutes.
Take the pork and the bacon out of the frying pan and add the flour and the paprika, stirring them into the oil as quickly as possible so the paprika doesn’t burn. Add salt and pepper plus the other spices and continue to sauté gently until the flour is nicely toasted.
Start adding the boiling water little by little as if making a bechamel sauce. It is unlikely you will need the full two litres of water, so add only enough to achieve a mixture that is thick but not solid.
Cook over a low heat, stirring all the time, for about 20 minutes. After 15 minutes stir in the diced pork and the bacon. Take into account the saltiness of the bacon when adding salt at the beginning.This is the basic recipe but there are many variations. Some people add croutons, the diced bread being fried in virgen extra olive oil. When croutons are used the dish is called gachamigas.
Some cooks add diced chorizo, cured ham or little bits of black pudding (morcilla de arroz de Burgos). It is important that the flour is gently sautéed until it is well toasted, as this gives the gachas an intense and interesting flavour.
Last week, on a sunny but rather cold day, I had a most warming Italian dish with pulses — not one variety as is usual, but with four: white beans, red beans, lentils and chickpeas.
It is called ‘le vertu’ in the Abruzzo dialect and I had it at La Bottega di Michele in Calle Fábrica 17 (Tel:971-454892). Michele is from Abruzzo and he frequently makes dishes from that part of Italy for himself and his family, his friends and regular customers. He’ll make blackboard dishes for his regulars if he gets a little advance warning.
Abruzzo is in a mountainous region and it gets very cold in the winter, so the Abruzzo cookbook has plenty of recipes that act as winter warmers. There’s nothing esoteric about ‘le vertu’ and it’s a relatively simple dish to make. It calls for a sofrito of onions and a small amount of tomatoes and the four previously cooked legumes. When doing it at home I’d use jars of cooked legumes, preferably the J’ae brands from Navarra that are always available at El Corte Inglés.
Michele’s version seemed to have more lentils but the other three pulses were also very much present. The ideal way to eat this dish is to have at least two of the pulses in each spoonful so you can taste the different flavours.
As so often happens with Italian dishes of this kind, pasta is added. In the case of ‘le vertu’ it was orecchiette (little ears) which is very popular in Abruzzo and appears in many of Michele’s recipes.