In a country like Spain, where summer temperatures can be over 30C for weeks on end (which is what is happening now), trying to keep cool can become a full-time struggle.
I know a few people who actually adore the heat and would love to live permanently in temperatures at over 30C.
But few of us manage to feel anything less than very hot during a Majorcan summer — except, perhaps, when we are in an air-conditioned room. That is why one of the more pleasant ways of spending our summer days and nights is downing cool drinks and eating food that was recently taken from the fridge.
Keeping cool during the hot summer weather was even more of a problem in the past when electricity and refrigeration didn’t exist. But in those days Spanish cooks had ingenious ways of producing cold drinks and foods.
It’s a scientific fact that cold drinks and soups don’t actually cool us down, but there is no doubt they help to make the over-powering heat a little more bearable. The true importance of cold drinks and soups is they are an extremely palatable way of taking on board extra liquids to replace those lost through perspiration.
Everyone perspires, so it is absolutely imperative to drink plenty of liquid during hot weather. Plain water at room temperature would do the job nicely, but the palate prefers cold tangy soups and tingling drinks: they refresh us while perking up our physical system and giving us nourishment of various kinds.
In Majorca there’s no end of drinks at hand — without counting the commercial fizzy ones. At the supermarket of El Corte Inglés in Jaime III, the choice gazpachos and healthy fruit juices is enormous.
Among them is a Spanish cold drink almost all visitors and most residents miss out on. It is called horchata and although it’s also available at bars and cafes, I don’t know a single non-Spanish person who drinks it on a regular basis. But many Spaniards drink it every day during the summer.
A Majorcan friend says one of the pleasures of summer is getting up after a sweaty siesta and going straight to the fridge for an ice-cold horchata. Horchata is a drink (and sometimes a sorbet) made from chufas, a word that is both Spanish and English, although chufas are sometimes called earth almonds in England. Other English names are earthnut, tiger nut, pig nut and rush nut.
The chufa is a tuber of the plant Cyperus esculentus, which grows in warm climates. It is native to Mediterranean countries and Portugal. It figures prominently in the diet of the Philippines and Egypt. It is related to Cyperus papyrus, from which the ancient Egyptians made a early form of paper.
Although chufas have been eaten throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years, it is in Spain where they are most widely grown and consumed, especially in the form of horchata. They are mainly associated with Valencia and Alicante and most of them are grown in 16 Valencian villages, the principal one being Alborada, considered to be the birthplace of horchata.
Chufas are about the size of a shelled hazelnut, with a light brown skin and white flesh. There are two types, called llargueta and armela in the Valencian language. The llargueta is long in shape and the armela is round.
When chufas are harvested they are cleaned of earth and little bits of hair, washed, and then left to dry for three months. During this time their humidity is reduced from 50 to 11 per cent and they become sweeter.
Chufas can be bought at the dried fruit stalls of the Mercat d’Olivar and it is easy to turn them into horchata at home. For 250grs of chufas you will need 750mls of still mineral water (not tap water) and about 100grs of icing sugar, or to taste.
The chufas are washed in several waters and left to soak for at least 12 hours, preferably 24. Give them a quick rinse and reduce them to a paste in a blender or a food processor.
Stir this paste into the 750mls of water and let it stand for a couple of hours. Strain the liquid through a very fine sieve and stir in the icing sugar until it is completely dissolved. Strain again and refrigerate until it is very cold.
That is the basic Valencian recipe and, some people say, the only one. But, as often happens, you come across variations. In Alicante, for instance, they like to add a bit of cinnamon stick and lemon rind to the finished mixture.
An authentic horchata can be more than a drink: some people add extra icing sugar, freeze it, and turn it into a sorbet or an ice cream. But that makes it far too sweet for me, so I prefer the above quantity of icing sugar even for a sorbet. In the end, however, it depends on personal taste.
Most Spaniards think horchata is made exclusively with chufas, but it can be done with the seeds of melon, watermelon and pumpkin. The word horchata comes from the Latin aqua hordeata (barley water) because the ancient Romans made a drink with toasted barley. They turned it into a cooler by adding snow from the upper slopes of the Alps.
In Majorca, where almonds are plentiful, you will often see bars announcing horchata made with almonds. It is also very good but it is different from an horchata made with chufas — and it is worth trying when you come across it.
Some bars and ice cream shops in Palma do horchata, both the drink and the sorbet, but very often they don’t make it themselves — and they aren’t so good.
The Bar Bosch in the centre of Palma does a very good horchata and the best place for an horchata sorbet is Can Joan de s’Aigo in Calle Barón de Santa María de Sepulchre, off the Avda Jaime III at El Corte Inglés.
One traditionally eats an ensaimada or a cuarto with an horchata sorbet. The cuarto is an extremely light sponge for which Majorca is famous.
You will also come across plastic bottles and cartons of horchata at the supermarket, but I have always found them far too sweet and somewhat lacking in flavour.
Two other Spanish coolers, this time based on milk, are also available at many Palma bars. They are leche preparada and leche merengada, all-time favourites with children and adults.
Leche merengada is easily prepared at home. Bring a litre of milk (leche fresca from Mercadona) almost to the boil, take it off the heat, sweeten to taste and add cinnamon stick and lemon rind to taste. It is best when the cinnamon and lemon flavours are very much to the fore. But don’t add too much sugar.
When the milk has cooled, strain it into a jug and refrigerate until it is very cold. Serve it in a wide glass and dust the surface with ground cinnamon to taste.
Leche merengada involves egg yolks and whites and is much more complicated, so try it at a bar. It can also be semi-frozen and eaten like a sorbet.