There are too many arrogant young cooks in town who don’t know all that much about cooking but who are nevertheless hell-bent on improving Majorcan cuisine. That is bad enough. What is worse, much worse, is that I keep running into them.
They are the worst kind of smart alecs because instead of doing something positive, such as inventing a really interesting dish based on local products (which is what cooks did hundreds of years ago) they take a perfectly good classic Majorcan recipe and mess about with it until it is completely destroyed. They then sit back and say they have modernised the dish.
There’s nothing wrong with making simple modifications to traditional dishes but cooks must never throw away the characteristics that made these recipes into regional classics.
About 15 years ago Joan Abrines, one of today’s best Majorcan cooks who is also a teacher at a cookery school, at his Can Carrossa restaurant in Lloseta did a little change in a pamboli that was most successful.
Instead of rubbing the bread with ripe raw ramellet tomatoes, he cut them in two and roasted them in the oven. The hot ramellet flesh soaked into the bread more easily than ever and its warmth brought out the taste of the virgen extra olive oil that was then drizzled over the surface. It was a most successful improvement of an old favourite.
Joan did something else that was different and which I had never come across before: he topped the pamboli slices with snippets of arenques salados that had been filleted and were completely free of skin and little bones.
The arenque salado, like salt cod, is one of those products that has survived without changes of any kind. They come complete with head, scales and innards that are heavily salted before being neatly packed and pressed into round wooden boxes.
Although they are on sale as arenques salados, Spanish for salted herrings, they are big sardines. Sardines and herrings are from the same Clupeidae family but they have different scientific names: the herring is Clupea harengus and the sardine is Sardina pilchardus.
In English, the sardine word is used for a young fish and when it becomes an adult we call it a pilchard. There are other biggish members of the same family that are passed off as sardines, including the alacha, whose scientific name is Sardinella aurita.
You’ll find arenques salados at the Mercat d’Olivar and El Corte Inglés as well as in some neighbourhood grocery stores. Some supermarkets have them in packs of three but those in the boxes are much better.
But it doesn’t matter that the arenques salados are really big sardines — by any other name they would be just as delicious.
Arenques salados were very much associated with poverty in the old days: they were extremely cheap and everyone could afford them. A single sardine with a slice of Majorcan brown bread (pa pagès) and a couple of glasses of red wine constituted hearty mid-morning snack or even a light lunch.
If the bread was a good one, rubbed with ramellet tomato and drizzled with olive oil, and the wine was from the Ferrer bodega in Binissalem, then the meal was as fit for a prince as it was for a pauper.
The traditional way of eating an arenque salado is to fry or grill it, put it on a slice of Majorcan brown bread and eat it with the fingers. It’s a messy snack, but really quite scrummy, although rather salty.
The arenques salados go into a highly concentrated brine, as they are, straight from the sea, complete with scales and innards. So when fried, the pong can be rather strong. But the taste is superb.
These arenques salados are at their best in recipes that call for anchovies: pizza toppings, salads, pasta dishes, sauces and bruschettas, among others. But before you use them in this way you must clean them.
I prefer to do this by soaking them in plenty of cold water or 24 hours. Some of the salt leaches out by the usual osmosis process and the water resuscitates the flesh and brings it back to something like its former fresh-like state.
After the long steep in water, cut off the heads and tails with scissors, slit the belly, and gently scrape out the innards with a small spoon.
Rub off the scales in a bowl of cold water (you’ll be amazed at how many there are) and use the point of a small knife to ease out the spinal bone and cut the arenque down the middle.
You now have two nice fillets, which you wash carefully under running water, rubbing off any little bits of skin and extracting any small lateral bones. Taste a small piece and if it is too salty soak them in cold water for as long as it takes to get them to your liking. But don’t let them become completely saltless. As with bacalao (salt cod) there should be a subtle salty taste in the background.
When desalted to your taste, dry them on plenty of paper towels, pack them into a wide-necked jar and cover them with olive oil. They will keep like that for months — but they are so delicious they won’t last that long.
It’s in this state the arenques are added to a pamboli’s roasted ramellet topping such as Joan Abrines makes, as well as for pasta dishes, pizzas, salads and a wide variety of other dishes.
This is the most delicious way I know of preparing arenques salados. They are a great substitute for anchovies (and so much cheaper) but they are also splendid in their own right. They’re very Mediterranean and a good pantry standby.
The arenques prepared as above but without being put into olive oil, are also superb when done as a Danish sweet and sour pickle. The Danes use real salted herring for this dish but the following recipe works perfectly well with fillets of arenques salados.
For sweet and sour arenques salados you will need: 24 desalted arenque fillets (that is, 12 arenques), 250grs granulated sugar, 150mls vinegar (wine or cider, the latter being less aggressive), 12 black peppercorns, teaspoon mix of whole cloves and caraway seeds (alcaravea), a sprinkling of hot chilli flakes, 2 or 3 large white onions (sliced), 8 bay leaves.
Put the sugar, vinegar, peppercorns and other spices into a small stainless steel saucepan and simmer for four minutes. Leave it to cool down to room temperature. Layer the arenque fillets in a wide-necked glass jar with the sliced onions and bay leaves in between. Pour in the cold marinade and leave jar in the fridge for at least a week.
Herrings done like this are an essential part of the Danish smørrebrød but they also work nicely with European style hors d’oeuvres. They are also excellent when eaten on their own as a starter with brown bread and butter.
You can use the arenques in another Danish recipe. Make a bechamel sauce with two tablespoons each of butter and flour. When the sauce is smooth and fully cooked, add one tablespoon of vinegar, a teaspoon of prepared mustard, plus salt and pepper to taste. Leave aside until cold.
Cut into small pieces four or five fillets of arenques, three boiled potatoes, one or two pickled beetroots, two big gherkins, one Granny Smith apple and about eight heaped tablespoons of leftover roasted or boiled beef or pork.
Stir everything into the sauce and correct seasoning, if necessary. Serve on a flat rectangular or oval plate garnished with slices or quarters of hard-boiled eggs and shredded lettuce.
Sout cream salad
You can also turn the arenque fillets into a sour cream salad. Put 250grs of sour cream in a bowl, add three tablespoons of snipped chives and about 50grs of chopped white onion.
Season the mixture with lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce to taste, plus prepared mustard, sugar, cayenne and freshly ground black pepper. Cut arenque fillets into smallish pieces, stir them into the mixture and leave it in the fridge for 12 hours. Before serving, sprinkle with snipped fresh dillweed (eneldo fresco).
With a jar of prepared horseradish you can make another very simple kind of cream salad. Add some prepared horseradish to 300grs of cream — the amount will depend on how hot the horseradish is and how hot you want the salad to be. Start with a little and continue until it tastes right for you.
Season with sugar and salt (bearing in mind the saltiness of the arenques) and lemon juice to taste. Stir in pieces of arenques and leave it in the fridge for about 12 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with finely chopped parsley.