Category: Spanish Food

Spanish Food Idioms in Don Quixote – En todas partes cuecen habas

For fans of 17th century literature April 2016 is a seminal month, for it marks 400 years since the death of two literary giants: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Although it is commonly thought that both men died on the same day (April 23, 1616), Spain and England used different calendars at the time (Gregorian and Julian, respectively), so the two men’s deaths were actually 11 days apart. Still, the coincidence is striking.

In honor of this anniversary, today’s post looks at a Spanish food idiom that was famously used by Cervantes in his classic work, Don Quixote. This 17th century novel, considered by many in the know to be one of the greatest works of fiction of all times, follows the tragicomic quest of a nobleman steeped in knightly romances to revive chivalry in what he sees as a depraved world.

January-March 2010 091 (2)Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Literal and Figurative Meaning

En todas partes cuecen habas literally translates as “they cook beans everywhere.”*

Yet figuratively, this expression means that everyone, everywhere has problems, no matter what their circumstances. In other words, “it’s the same the world over.”

Why beans? And why habas (fava beans) in particular? In the past, and certainly in Cervantes’ lifetime, fava beans and other such legumes were a major component of poor people’s diets in Spain because they were inexpensive and easy to find. The act of cooking beans like favas thus had negative connotations, representing hardship and the daily grind.

*As translated by Edith Grossman in her contemporary English version of Don Quixote (Second Part, Chapter XIII, page 536).

In context

Today’s expression and similar variations are commonly used in the Spanish-speaking world, often by journalists and politicians in the context of corruption. Just look on Google. En todas partes cuecen habas = there is corruption everywhere.

I liked the contexts given in this article in the Spanish daily El País: “This saying comes in handy when you go abroad and see something that could happen in Spain. For example, when you see a story of corruption on TV, when someone tries to cut ahead of you in line while you’re waiting to enter a cathedral, and, of course, when someone cooks a stew with beans.”

Yet it was Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s faithful “squire,” who uttered perhaps the most famous version in a comical conversation with another squire about the ins and outs of their jobs and masters:  “en todas casas cuecen habas; y en la mía, a calderadas,” which literally translates as, “they cook beans everywhere, but in my house they do it by the potful.”

In the second part of  the expression, “in my house they do it by the potful,” Panza is of course claiming that his house has more problems than the rest.

Shakespeare, a master of universal truths, would certainly have found good use for today’s expression.

To conclude

Besides having died on nearly the same day and (purportedly) penned some of the most influential works of literature in history, Cervantes and Shakespeare share other commonalities. For example, due to gaps in their biographies, both men are infinite sources of debate and speculation. There are even theories that hold that Francis Bacon was the real author of both men’s works.

Theories aside, the genius of Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s plays is undeniable.

Such works are like an “open sesame” into the culture and language in which they were written. Just check out this list of 45 Everyday Phrases Coined by Shakespeare in the English language, and consider the Bard’s ongoing influence on popular culture.

Can we survive without knowing such cultural references? Of course. But in my perspective, life is much richer when we can recognize these connections to the past.

Shakespeare and Cervantes may be long gone, but we can rest assured that wherever we look there will always be a pot of beans on the fire.

Fiesta!

Like every Spanish city and town, Murcia has its own annual fiesta rooted in local traditions: the Bando de la Huerta. This day-long celebration pays homage to Murcia’s agrarian roots, its huerta, the cultivated lands within and surrounding the city once renowned as the huerta de Europa (the market garden of Europe).

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The Bando de la Huerta takes place every year on the Tuesday after Easter as part of the week-long Fiestas de Primavera, heralding spring’s arrival and offering an antidote to the (relatively) solemn activities of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, before. On the day of the festival, the people of Murcia descend upon the city center by the thousands, many dressed in traditional clothing. The men are known as huertanos and the women, huertanas.

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A parade brings Murcia’s past to life with period costumes and floats showing time-honored huerta activities. On one float, señoras knead and shape dough to produce Murcia’s signature round loaves. On another float, young girls dance a jota in a bin of grapes, celebrating the local wine-making tradition.

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The most anticipated floats come at the end: tractor-drawn replicas of typical huerta homes, barracas, complete with thatched roofs and loops of sausage hanging from the rafters. Along the parade route, riders toss out products from the huerta, like lemons, local sausages and even small bottles of wine.

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Sharing from the huerta is not only true of this annual parade, but remains a strong aspect of daily life in Murcia, where the idea of actually paying for local products like lemons remains preposterous to many. Although there isn’t as much huerta as there used to be, the generous landscape that has fed families for centuries continues to give. This generosity is the heart of Murcia.

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Historical traditions aside, the Bando de la Huerta is first and foremost a party. An article on this year’s Bando in the local paper described the scene perfectly: “The people of Murcia celebrate the most ‘huertano’ day of the year eating and drinking in every corner of the city.”

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Instead of fighting the crowds in packed restaurants, many locals opt to bring their own provisions to the party, for sharing, of course.

Typical foods include Spanish favorites like marinated olives and tortilla de patatas, as well as snacks with a huertano twist like Murcian longaniza (sausages cured with pimentón), potato chips drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and savory pastries like the empanada murciana, packed with tuna, eggs and tomato.

IMG_2006 Even Mateo is in on the fun, enjoying the rare chance to drink Fanta.

I usually bake American-style cookies for the picnic, which are much appreciated, but this year I decided to make an empanada murciana for the first time to share a taste of Murcia and its fiesta with family and friends on this blog. This nourishing savory pie pairs perfectly with ice-cold beer, and, an important consideration, keeps the effect of the beer in check.

Please see an updated recipe in this more recent post.

If you, too, choose to make an empanada murciana, in the spirit of the city, be sure to invite your friends. Cheers! ¡Salud!

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Spanish Food Idioms – Contigo, pan y cebolla

6 Ceremony in the Totana Town Hall - Rice

Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: contigo, pan y cebolla

Literal and Figurative Meaning:

“Contigo, pan y cebolla” literally means, “With you, bread and onions.” Figuratively, this is an expression of love and commitment despite hardship, a promise of fidelity come what may. The connotations are largely economic, i.e., with the most basic (and inexpensive) needs in life we can stick it out. In a larger sense, the bread and onions also represent the sweet and bitter experiences in life.

These four simple words in Spanish convey the same idea as the classic marriage vows in English, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” To use another English expression, “contigo pan y cebolla” is a promise to stick together “through thick and thin.”

The blog title – why “Bread and Onions”?

I have named this blog “Bread and Onions” for several reasons. The title of course in part pays tribute to the reason I live in Spain: my marriage to a Spaniard.

Beyond the marriage context, I also see this expression as a metaphor for the ups and downs of our daily lives. No matter where we call home, life will always have its sweet bread and its bitter onions, its experiences to savor and to overcome together with family and friends.

Here I share anecdotes and recipes, mostly from Spain, but also from the other places I have lived and traveled. These stories are my bread and my onions.

In (a personal) context:

Tying the knot in Spain

I got married in Spain in April, 2013 in a sweet little ceremony in a small town in the Region of Murcia. Neither my husband nor I wanted a big wedding, so we hardly planned at all. The idea was to sign the papers on “the big day” and then gather our friends for a party a couple of weeks later. I wasn’t expecting anything else.

I was just happy we finally had a date. When I think back to our wedding, one of the things I most remember is the seemingly interminable waiting. We handed in our marriage application in September, 2012, and I thought we would be married by Christmas, but in the end it took seven long months with almost no news before were finally approved.

Why did it take so long? There are certain questions we will never have the answer to. As we waited, I often imagined our file collecting dust somewhere deep in the bowels of the Civil Registry. I fantasized about flying to Las Vegas, and I had frequent conversations in my head with the judge in charge of our case, a conservative and curmudgeonly man on the verge of retirement with a reputation for making decisions based on his personal beliefs. “Who are you to tell me if I can or can’t get married?” I would ask defiantly. No answer.

The fact I am a foreigner added an extra layer of paperwork to the process, which would have been quicker for two Spaniards or had we married through the Church, despite the fact that Spain is a secular state. At our “first appearance” before the judge in February, my husband and I had to prove we were not marrying for convenience by filling out questionnaires about each other’s families, work, hobbies and favorite foods. I imagined the judge poring over our answers with a red pen in hand, looking for any discrepancies that would send me back to America.

Our answers must have been convincing enough, however, because we finally got the go ahead in April. By this time, my residency permit had expired and Mateo was on his way, so we needed to set a date quickly. Had we wanted to get married in the city of Murcia (where civil marriages are only performed on Fridays), we would have had to wait until October, over one year after we’d handed in our application.

Luckily we had enchufe (connections), one of the best ways to speed up the Spanish bureaucratic machine. My husband’s boss, a member of the town council in a nearby village, helped push our papers through and got us a date on the following Monday in his village’s town hall, where he himself would preside.

The event that emerged spontaneously thanks to the contributions of friends and family was touching and nearly perfect. (It would have been even better had my family and friends from the States been there, too. This was the biggest downside of not planning ahead….)

My friend Paqui called the day before the wedding to insist that I get dressed at her house, that she had the bouquet thought out and that I was not under any circumstances to go to the wedding in the same car with my husband-to-be. She also brought flower petals and rice to throw once we were man and wife. I hadn’t even thought of such details, which sounded a little silly to me at first, but in the end I appreciated the added bit of ceremony and tradition, making me feel more like a bride on the big day. We weren’t just signing any old papers after all, we were getting married! After so many months of feeling like my wedding was trapped in the papers in someone else’s hands, I needed to make the day more personal, less of a bureaucratic routine.

My husband’s boss, a natural orator, delivered a speech peppered with philosophy, humor, Kahlil Gibran poetry and cariño (affection). This was far better than a randomly assigned judge in the city going through the motions.

Then came the vows, and the time to say, “I do,” which I first said in English, and then had to repeat in Spanish (Si, acepto) in order for the words to be legally binding. This technicality I didn’t mind.

Si, acepto!

Bring on the bread and onions!

 

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Macedonia de frutas – Soupy fruit salad, a toddler favorite in Spain

A quick note on the name change: This blog will no longer be called “go with curiosity,” but “Bread & Onions” instead, a more food-centric title. This new name comes from the Spanish food idiom, “contigo pan y cebolla,” “with you, bread and onions.” Briefly, this idiom conveys the same idea as the classic marriage vows “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” More to come in my next blog post!

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An introduction to Feeding Mateo: This is the first post in an ongoing series that will chronicle my experiences feeding a baby and toddler in Spain. I in no way pretend to speak for all Spanish babies. For one, I live in a provincial city, Murcia, which is quite different from living in a cosmopolitan capital like Barcelona or Madrid. Furthermore, Mateo’s diet includes a heavy dose of my own food memories and nostalgia.

This is therefore my personal toddler feeding adventure in progress, rooted in a few essential ingredients: my Spanish husband’s traditions and family recipes; food ideas exchanged with other moms and dads I know on both sides of the pond; and my own “foodprints,”i.e., the flavors and food experiences I have collected in all the places I have lived and traveled.

I also hope to hear ideas from readers who have either been there and done that or who also have a hungry toddler on their hands.

Let’s dig in!

Fruit First – Preparing food as a mother begins

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Since I had Mateo, cooking is no longer the optional hobby it used to be. Before, I would often spend a full day (when I felt like it) preparing an elaborate new recipe that would provide me with leftovers for the rest of the week. Now, however, I must cook a wider variety on a more regular basis.

I do not say this begrudgingly, as I obviously love to cook, but my relationship to cooking has certainly changed. Now I cannot wait for the muse to light the burners. Furthermore, I feel pressure to offer Mateo new flavors and textures to expand his palate beyond the typical toddler favorites (pasta, hot dogs, rice, anything sweet).

At 28 months, Mateo loves to eat, although he is not one of those toddlers who will eat just about anything. In fact, he is going through a so-called picky phase. To give an example, he loves paella, although he has begun to suspiciously eye each spoonful for any stray bits of meat. If he finds one, despite my efforts to cut it into rice-sized pieces, he spits it out, saying disparagingly, “carne” (the Spanish word for meat). The only meat he will eat that is not chopped up into tiny pieces is jamón serrano, Spanish cured ham. Perhaps he’s destined to be a vegetarian, with an exception for Spanish jamón. In the meantime, however, I keep trying.

One thing he never turns up his nose at is fruit. I often wonder if this is because the first “real” food he tried at five months old was a spoonful of fresh-squeezed orange juice, per his pediatrician’s recommendation.

For the next several months of his life he got fruit every day for his merienda, his afternoon snack, in the form of papilla de frutas – a thick smoothie of blended fresh fruits like bananas, apples and pears, all with a squeeze of orange juice.

The transition to pieces of fruit was seamless. Mateo happily devoured soft bits of ripe bananas and juicy melons and pears. He spent much of his first apricot season with a bright orange ring around his mouth (my husband is an apricot breeder and we get the most delicious apricots I’ve ever eaten, a topic which deserves its own post).

One of Mateo’s favorite ways to eat fruit these days is in a macedonia de frutas, a fruit salad. As he eats, we talk about the different fruits, colors and textures (“crunchy,” he often says to me when taking a bite of apple). When all the fruit is gone, he slurps up the juice from the bowl.

At least I know with fruit I can never go wrong, perhaps thanks to that first sweet, juicy spoonful.

Macedonia de frutas – Fruit salad

The name of this diverse medley of fruits in Spanish (macedonia) is an allusion to the ancient kingdom of the same name under Alexander the Great’s (356-323 B.C.) rule. This vast empire stretched from the Mediterranean to India, encompassing many different cultures, races and creeds.

While Alexander’s empire may not have been a harmonious blend, in the macedonia de frutas, all fruits are welcome. So my “recipe” here is just one example of the infinite possible combinations, depending on what your family’s favorites are and what’s in season. Bananas, pineapples, kiwis, berries, melons, you get the idea. Quality canned fruits make a nice addition as well.

The version below is inspired by my friend Paz, whom I met in birthing classes at our local health clinic when we were both pregnant. Just about every time we get our kids together for an afternoon snack, Paz makes a delicious macedonia de frutas. The other week, her salad included high quality canned peaches from Murcia and a bit of the syrup (Paz is from the Murcian town of Cieza in the main peach producing area in Spain). I (and Mateo, too, of course) liked the added sweetness of the canned fruit, making for a special treat.

Serves 2, although the recipe can easily be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc.

1 apple

1 pear

2-3 quality canned peach halves and 1 teaspoon of the syrup, or more to taste

4 strawberries (Strawberries are in season in Spain, although these are definitely not the sweet little berries I remember from my youth.)

1-2 oranges

Wash and then cut up all the fruits, except for the oranges, into uniform bite-sized pieces. I tend to peel the apples and pears, but this is not a necessary step. Sometimes I add in bits of orange sections with the membranes removed, too.

Squeeze enough orange juice into the salad until it nearly covers the fruits, removing any seeds of course. Mix in a teaspoon or more of the syrup from the canned peaches if you would like some added sweetness.

Allow the salad to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes so that the flavors can begin to meld. If you would like to serve the salad cold, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

For guests, it is best to serve this salad on the same day, although I often happily polish of the leftovers on the second day, depending on the fruits (the apples, pears and peaches hold up better than the strawberries and bananas, for example).

Spanish Food Idioms – Nacer con un pan debajo del brazo

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Hello world! I have decided to start back after so much time away with a Spanish food idiom that encapsulates the last few years of my life in which many big, good things have happened, making me feel truly lucky.

Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: nacer con un pan debajo del brazo

I have often heard it said in Spain that “un bebé nace con un pan debajo del brazo” – “a baby is born with a loaf of bread under his arm.” In this day and age, the figurative bread in this expression represents the feelings of good fortune and happiness typically associated with the birth of a new child.

Yet the bread here also has financial connotations, as we can find in certain expressions in English. Another Spanish bread idiom, “Ganarse el pan,” “to earn one’s bread,” means to make a living, as a “breadwinner” does in the English-speaking world. Indeed, today’s idiom is thought to have originated in times when a new child  meant a new source of income or household labor in the family.

In context:

In case you hadn’t guessed yet, I have selected today’s expression because it has special meaning my personal life. Yes, the biggest, luckiest thing that has happened to me since I last wrote has been the birth of my son, Mateo. He was born on Halloween in 2013. Seeing and holding him for the first time, I more fully understood the meaning of the “pan debajo del brazo,” “the bread under the arm,” of a newborn baby.

 

IMG_2244This is one of the first pictures we took of Mateo in the hospital, over two years ago now!

 

Soon after Mateo was born, several friends said to me, often with a wink and a nudge, “A ver si viene con un pan debajo del brazo,” “Let’s see if he has come with bread under his arm.”

These friends were wishing our family well in all realms, yet I got the sense that they were especially wishing us financial luck. Perhaps this would be the year for us to win the Christmas lottery, for example, or, more realistically, for my husband to get a better contract.

For the past several years, you see, we had been living under a cloud of contract-to-contract uncertainty. But the year Mateo was born my husband got a prestigious five-year research position (in Spain, mind you, where good contracts are hard to come by these days). This is just one of the many ways in which we have been lucky since Mateo came into our lives. Read More

Doggy Bags… in Spain?!?

Asking for a doggy bag in European restaurants has long been a faux pas for savvy American travelers not wanting to appear, well, too American. I don’t remember where exactly I learned that doggy bags were frowned upon on this side of the Atlantic, but it certainly wasn’t through requesting one myself. I had somehow already been convinced of the potentially mortifying consequences by the time I arrived in France for my junior year abroad. Self-conscious and 19, I avoided anything that might result in being snubbed to an even greater extent by the French waiters. When my parents came to visit, I recall making it known that they were not, under any circumstances, to ask for their leftovers to go.

I am happy to say I no longer care so much about what foreign waiters think of me, and waiters in Spain tend to be less intimidating in any case, but I still have yet to ask for a doggy bag in Europe. It’s just not part of the culture of eating out, at least in France and Spain.

This may be changing, however, if a recent ad on Spanish TV is any indication. In the ad, sponsored by San Miguel non-alcoholic beer, LA Lakers player Pau Gasol casually asks his waiter, “¿Me lo puedes poner para llevar?” (Can I get it to go?). The server, not the least bit perturbed, promptly delivers Gasol’s leftovers in a handy container labeled with the campaign slogan, “No lo tiro,” literally meaning, “I don’t throw it way,”  akin to the “Too good to waste” slogan of a similar campaign in the UK. Gasol’s novel action spreads like wildfire on social networks in Spain, a hopeful projection of the campaign’s results. But will the doggy bag really catch on so easily here?

(Check out the ad. This link will send you to YouTube.)

As you can see, the ad is not just for doggy bags, but is part of a larger campaign promoting responsible consumption in general (of food, alcohol, energy, etc.). This idea of responsible consumption has implications for both the individual – eating less for one’s health (obesity is an increasing problem in Spain) – and for the greater society – there is an alarming quantity of food wasted in developed nations, Spain included.

Not a crumb left behind

I am a regular doggy bag user in the US, which is often the result of restraint, knowing I can get two meals out of one. In Spain, however, knowing I won’t be taking any leftovers home, I approach eating out with a feast mentality.

Manolo has taught me a Spanish expression for this approach – “antes reventar que sobre,” which literally translates as, it’s better to eat until you burst than have anything leftover. Tellingly, this is known as the “ley del pobre,” or the poor man’s law, meaning the eat-everything-now mindset is actually rooted in times of anxiety-producing hunger, which have been sadly common throughout much of  Spain’s history. Seizing the last crumb makes sense if you don’t know when the next opportunity to eat will be.

Fortunately, such acute hunger no longer prevails in Spain (although poverty is on the rise in the current crisis). Nevertheless, the so-called poor man’s law still holds sway when a group of friends gets together for a meal.

This exuberance is part of what makes eating out in Spain fun, and also what makes it difficult to imagine the doggy bag ever becoming an institution here, at least in terms of holding back. And in any case, the US offers proof that the doggy bag in itself is not a remedy for overeating.

Too much thrown away

Expanding waistlines, however, are just one front of the nolotiro campaign, whose principal aim is waste rather than weight reduction. Even though it may seem contradictory to the eat-it-all mentality described above, food waste is in fact a growing problem in Spain as in the rest of the developed world. A recent EU study found that up to 50% of edible food is wasted along the supply chain in member nations, consuming both comestible and financial resources that are sorely needed elsewhere. (According to a Natural Resources Defense Council Report published in August 2012, the figure is 40% in the US.)

The amount that gets left on consumers’ plates in restaurants is a small yet not insignificant fraction of the total food wasted in Europe (much more restaurant waste in Spain is the result of oversupply – perhaps driven by the feast mentality…). On this front, the doggy bag, because it is novel, may work here, at least as an attention-grabbing symbol, raising awareness about the issue of food waste in general.

It certainly has caught this doggy bag veteran’s attention. As I result, I realize that I can make more of an effort to reduce food waste at home, by not buying too much food, for instance, and by eating or freezing what I have bought before it goes bad. I don’t know that I’ll be asking for a doggy bag in Spain any time soon, however. I have come to enjoy a good feast every now and then, down to the last crumb.

Additional Information:

In January 2012, the European Parliament set the goal of halving food waste by 2025, and 2014 has been declared the “European year against food waste.”

For now, the official nolotiro doggy bags are only available in participating restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona.

For information on the US front, check out Wasted Food, the website of Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.

A Quince Summer

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Summer tends to linger well into the fall in Murcia, and this year has been no different.  The Segura River valley where the city is located heats up like a sauna in July and August and does not easily yield to cooler temperatures come September. Weeks after the fall equinox, highs in Murcia remained stubbornly in the 90s. Once again, it has been a veranico del membrillo – a quince summer.

This expression, a version bearing the Murcianized diminutive ico (in other parts of Spain, the saying is  veranillo del membrillo), is the equivalent of an Indian Summer, when unseasonably high temperatures assert themselves in early autumn, just when ripened quinces are beginning to appear in the markets.

Up until several years ago, I admittedly would not have known a quince had I seen one. This curious fruit was certainly not a Florida childhood staple, although it would not have been out of place on my grandmother’s New England table. In my mind, the quince evokes Colonial America and sensible Yankee desserts, preserves and ciders. Its roots, however, extend much further back. In fact, many botanists believe Adam and Eve’s Forbidden Fruit may have actually been a quince.

Even if it was one day a sinful temptation, the quince nonetheless fell out of favor, at least in the US. Its irregular shape and hard and astringent flesh that must be cooked to be eaten made it an outcast in a grab-and-go world.

Yet these are the precise qualities that have contributed to a quince renaissance in recent years. The humble quince has become a lovable poster child for champions of slow food and opponents of perfectly round fruits without character.

In Spain, quince has remained relatively common over the years. Here, it is typically cooked down with sugar to make concentrated blocks of dulce de membrillo, quince paste. Slices of the sweet jelly are the perfect foil to salty and tangy sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.

Quince became an important crop in Murcia in the Middle Ages under Arab rule, and centuries later contributed to the growth of the still significant canning industry in the city. Even though quince production has declined here over the last several decades (largely coinciding with the fateful construction boom), the fruit has not lost its power to conjure up hot fall days in the expression, el veranico del membrillo.

Little by little, the seasons are indeed shifting. Murcia’s imposing summer has finally begun to give way, allowing crisper air to seep into the night, which the sun labors to chase away with dwindling strength. Yet if experience proves me right, the heat will return at least one more, prolonging the quince summer.

Summer’s last stand calls for quince paste. Cooking down quinces into concentrated and sweet dulce de membrillo is a means to preserve the taste of warmer days for the inevitable winter to come.

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Dulce de Membrillo – Quince Paste

The basic steps of this recipe are relatively straightforward – peel and core the quinces either before or after cooking; boil until tender; puree the peeled and cored fruit; mix with sugar and cook over low heat until concentrated; then pour into a mold and cool. But, as I learned through trial and error, timing can significantly influence the results.

Most recipes I came across in local Murcian cookbooks had a lot of gaps, presumably to be filled in with experience. For example, El Libro de la Gastronomía de Murcia suggests cooking the pureed fruit and sugar for 15 minutes, which was enough to make a tasty quince sauce (akin to apple sauce) but not enough to make a concentrated paste. I kept cooking and stirring for 30 minutes more and achieved satisfactory, and sliceable, results.

I have since researched different cooking methods and have come across wildly varying simmer times, from 8 minutes to several hours. I am still experimenting to find the version I like best. In any case, far worse things could happen than to end up with a delicious quince sauce.

I encourage you to visit Janet Mendel’s recent blog post on quinces for her complete and easy-to-follow recipe for dulce de membrillo. Mendel uses several techniques I am eager to try, such as adding some of the quince poaching liquid to the fruit puree and lining the mold with plastic wrap for easy removal. Mendel’s post also includes a lovely story about quince paste in Spain and a savory quince recipe with lamb inspired by several Mediterranean dishes.

To determine the amount of sugar you need, measure or weigh the cooked and pureed fruit and add the same quantity of sugar. I used three quinces, which was enough to fill a 5.5 x 4.5 x 1.5 inch aluminum container.

Quince

Sugar

Cut the quinces in half and place them in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer until the flesh is tender and easily pierced with a fork, after about 30-45 minutes. Completely drain and, once the quinces are cool enough to touch, peel and core them.

Puree the fruit, then weigh or measure it and mix it with an equal amount of sugar in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until the puree is reduced nearly by half, stirring frequently so it does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Pour into a rectangular mold and cool. Properly concentrated quince paste will keep in the refrigerator for up to several months. Serve thinly sliced with an assertive cheese such sheep’s milk Manchego.

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Spanish Food Idioms – Dar la vuelta a la tortilla

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Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: dar(le) la vuelta a la tortilla

The phrase literally translates as, “flip the tortilla,” referring to the swift and committed action it takes to turn a Spanish potato omelet over in the pan. Yet figuratively, to dar la vuelta a la tortilla is the equivalent of turning the tables or the tide, i.e. reversing a situation, often in favor of the underdog. It can also mean to completely change your opinion, as in do an about-face. I have found that this expression is more commonly used in writing than in daily speech, and it often appears in sociopolitical contexts.

In Context

I first encountered this idiom in a pamphlet on a message board at the University of Murcia. ¿Quién da la vuelta a la tortilla? it asked in bold letters, “Who will flip the tortilla?” Intrigued, I read the subheading, “Men, women and gender roles in the collections of three regional museums.” This was not some cooking event as I had first imagined. Instead, the workshop aimed to provoke critical thinking about gender in society through art, with the ultimate goal of turning the tide. Dar la vuelta a la tortilla, explained the pamphlet, meant, “something needs to change.”

By this time, I had been living in Spain for nearly two years and had made more than one potato tortilla (with varying degrees of success). I had never heard the idiomatic expression before, but immediately got it, as would anyone who has attempted to flip a still partially goopy Spanish omelet. This risky endeavor demands decisiveness and speed, not to mention confidence in your equipment (a truly non-stick pan and a plate large enough to cover and flip). You cannot let your opponent (the omelet) feel your fear, or it’s all over (i.e. runny eggs all over the hot burner).

Looking for other idiomatic uses of this expression, I came across a strong and unambiguous example: the politically charged song Que La Tortilla Se Vuelva (Let the Tables Be Turned), released in 1968 by the Chilean folk group Quilapayún, champions of the working class and indigenous Latin American communities. This particular song was dedicated to the Spanish Civil War and rooted in the worldwide chorus of demands for greater social equality in the 1960s. The idiom comes in the last angry stanza of the song (the profanity may shock, but makes the meaning of the expression “clearer than water,” as they say in Spanish).

Cuando querrá el dios del cielo
que la tortilla se vuelva,
que los pobres coman pan
y los ricos mierda, mierda.

When it is the will of the god of heaven / may the tables be turned / may the poor eat bread /and the rich shit, shit.

In this song, we see force this idiom can have in political contexts.

Yet sometimes the idiom comes full circle, returning to a culinary context in which it is both literal and figurative at once. I found an example of such word play in a blog post in the Spanish daily El País entitled, ¿Cómo dar la vuelta a la tortilla? (How can we flip the tortilla?/How can we turn the tables?) by José Carlos Capel, the paper’s culinary critic. Capel certainly knows a thing or two about tortillas, having penned two entire books on the subject, Homenaje a la tortilla de patatas and El Gran libro de la tortilla de patatas.

The article does not so much address the technicalities of flipping as it does the quality (or perceived lack thereof) of tortillas throughout Spain. “Why are the majority of tortillas found in Spanish bars so bad?” laments Capel. Ultimately, the author calls for a tortilla revolution of sorts. The exact form the tortilla takes doesn’t matter (thick or thin, with or without onions, with oil-poached potatoes or crisp fried potatoes, etc.) – just make it good!

Dar la vuelta a la tortilla – It begins at home!

To fully understand this idiom, I suggest making a tortilla of your own if you haven’t already. A lot has been written about how to make a good one, and for many Spaniards, the ideal version is the one they grew up with. The truth is there are many delicious ways to make a tortilla, and it takes experimenting to find your preference. All recipes of course have one thing in common – the decisive flip.

Check out these two recipes from excellent sources for Spanish cuisine:

Now on to all the other tortillas out there in need of flipping!

Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread Pudding

Pan de Calatrava

This simple dessert, a hybrid of bread pudding and flan, combines the wisdom and thrift of centuries of cooks. As I stir together sugar, milk and eggs and pour them over day-old bread, I think about all the hands that have done the same in the past. In these movements, as clever as they are common, practical ingredients are transformed into a dish that not only nourishes but also gives pleasure. A slice of pan de calatrava is optimism, a reminder that even with little, good can be made.

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I discovered the joys of pan de calatrava in a restaurant shortly after I had arrived in Murcia, where it is considered a local tradition. After a few bites of the silky, cinnamon-infused custard, I would never forget what the words pan de calatrava meant, at least on modern menus.

From then on, I have ordered the dessert every time I get the chance. I only recently decided it was time to learn to make it myself. But before I get to that point, a historical diversion….Throughout my brief personal history with pan de calatrava, I have also been intrigued. Why was this bread from Calatrava typical in Murcia, I wondered? And where was this Calatrava in the first place?

Starting with these questions, I did some preliminary research. My first conclusion is that one resource leads to another, and that the exact origins of the dish will likely remain a mystery. Nonetheless, some aspects of the pan de calatrava story have come into focus, forming a loosely spun narrative in my mind. I am not sure how or even if the dots connect, but here is what I have found so far.

The fact that pan de calatrava can also be found today in parts of Castilla La Mancha, just to the north of Murcia, was the first trail I followed (virtually-speaking). This led me to the historic Calatrava itself, once a strategic settlement along the often-shifting border between Christian and Muslim lands in medieval Spain. Here, in the 12th century, the Order of Calatrava was founded, a military limb of the Cistercian Order that remained active well into the 15th century. The name Calatrava itself, however, has been traced even further back, to the Arabic Qal’lat Rabah, meaning “fortress of Rabah.” This referred to the 8th century nobleman who once held sway here.

Even though I find it hard to imagine warring knights savoring pan de calatrava, it takes no effort to picture a similar dessert on medieval monastery and convent tables, where priests, monks and nuns were not known to abstain from good food. To give an example, based on evidence from 15th century monastery account books from Toledo, Clifford Wright observes in A Mediterranean Feast, “When and if the poor ate meat at the monastery, it was always boiled and tough meat, while the friars enjoyed veal and partridges and chickens stuffed with eggs, saffron, cinnamon, and sugar.”

In that list, we have several ingredients often found in medieval Spanish monastery cooking, three of which – eggs, cinnamon and sugar – very easily could have been transformed by some religious order – and perhaps even the Cistercians of Calatrava, too – into a dessert resembling the pan de calatrava. This would have been a variation on other flan-like puddings in history. Flans, both savory and sweet, have been documented in the Mediterranean as early as Roman times and were also found in Moorish traditions. All of these influences have undoubtedly contributed to the pan de calatrava.

Another mystery is how this dessert “from Calatrava” ended up in Murcia, although the process could have easily involved the convents and monasteries, which have spread many recipes throughout Spain. Murcia, like Calatrava, was long hotly contested territory on the frontier between Catholic and Muslim lands. Not coincidentally, a sanctuary in the northwest corner of Murcia became an important Christian pilgrimage site, where members of different religious orders have often shared tables over the years.

Images of all these people and places from the past now flicker through my mind as I stir milk and eggs together for pan de calatrava. Knowing more about the evocative title certainly flavors the dish. Nonetheless, I am particularly thankful for all the anonymous hands that have continued to repeat this practical and giving bit of history, blending traditions along the way.

Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread

Recipes for pan de calatrava range from the simple – coat the bottom of the loaf pan with a store-bought caramel syrup for flan, mix the rest of the ingredients together and pour them on top and bake – to the slightly more complex – make your own caramel, infuse the milk and assemble the ingredients in layers.

I am going with the slightly more complex version here, because I think it is a few notches better, although the other is good in a pinch. The main inconvenience is that you have to use (i.e. wash) several different pots and pans in the process. (One thing many of those cooks in the past had more of, in addition to time, was hands in the kitchen.) Once it comes out of the oven, pan de calatrava must be chilled for at least several hours and up to a day before serving, which provides plenty of cleanup time.

Serves 6-8

For the caramel: Adapted from Claudia Roden’s flan recipe in The Food of Spain

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

For the rest:

4 1/4 cups milk (1 liter)

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick (If you don’t have one on hand, add a dash of cinnamon to the milk instead.)

1 strip lemon peel (about the size of your thumb)

Day-old bread (something like a baguette), crust removed and cut into 1-inch cubes (enough to form a compact layer in the pan you are using – I used about 3 packed cups)

6 eggs

Baking dishes and pans needed:

1 9-by-5-inch glass or metal loaf pan (This is the most traditional shape in Murcia, but if you do not have a loaf pan, any shape will work as long as it can hold 2 quarts. And the wider the base, the more bread you’ll need.)

1 9-by-13-inch baking dish for the water bath for baking

1 small heavy saucepan for the caramel

1 medium heavy saucepan for heating the milk

To prepare the caramel:

Have the loaf pan handy so you can pour in the caramel as soon as it is ready.

Heat the water and 1/2 cup sugar together in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns amber in color, like maple syrup. Allowing the amber to deepen too much can result in a bitter caramel. Very quickly pour the hot caramel (before it hardens) into the loaf pan and immediately tilt to coat the bottom of the pan and partway up the sides, too.

To prepare the rest:

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

Combine the milk, remaining sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon peel in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has melted and the milk rolls to a boil. Remove from heat, fish out the cinnamon stick and lemon peel and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 4 cups of water, which you will need for baking.

Place cubed bread in the pan on top of the caramel, making a compact layer. (I have seen recipes that skip this step, instructing instead to stir the bread in with the milk and eggs, which in a way makes sense, as the bread will rise to the top when you pour in the custard. I like packing in the bread first, however, as this helps me know how much bread to use.)

Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl, then gradually beat in the cooled milk. Pour over bread in the pan. (Like I said before, the bread will rise to the top here, forming what will be the base when you later invert the pan.)

Set the loaf pan into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour in the hot water until it comes halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is set and the top layer is golden (a knife inserted comes out clean). Remove the loaf pan from the water bath and allow to cool for 1 hour at room temperature before placing in the refrigerator to chill thoroughly before serving (ideally at least 3 hours and up to a day ahead).

To serve, run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen the custard. Place a serving dish (deep enough to catch the caramel) over the top of the loaf pan and with a swift movement turn upside down. Carefully lift off the pan. If the custard does not fall onto the plate, gently encourage it with a knife. And, of course, pour any remaining caramel over the top.

Many restaurants in Murcia serve slices of pan de calatrava garnished with whirls of whipped cream from a can, but I prefer it plain and simple, allowing history to speak for itself.

Crisis Cooking: Frugal Recipes from Murcia

Why frugal cooking now feels imperative in Spain.

Migas

At a market showcasing culinary traditions in Murcia, a man tends to a pan of migas, a filling dish made with flour, salt, olive oil and garlic, judiciously flavored with bits of fresh sausage and chorizo (more or less, depending on the budget). Such frugal meals born of necessity survive in part because of nostalgia, and also because they make economic sense.

Back home in the States, one hears very little good news coming out of Spain, soccer victories notwithstanding. On my most recent trip to Florida, I was often asked if I had noticed the effects of the economic crisis in Spain. Sort of, I would reply, but the quality of life remained. I thought of the countless times I had been with friends in Murcia walking through downtown past bustling restaurants and bars, so packed that patrons spilled out onto plazas, filling the streets with spirited conversation. “Crisis?” someone would inevitably ask rhetorically. “¿Qué crisis?”, “What crisis?”

But upon my return to Spain in August, I have to say that I can really feel the impact now. Until recently, I personally hadn’t noticed so many specific manifestations. Yet I am beginning to sense more shadows creeping into the good life, cast by growing dark clouds of uncertainty and insecurity.

Now, people in my immediate circle are losing jobs, the stores where they work are closing, they have been forced to go to court to demand late payments from their employers who are months behind. Last week, a friend’s home in a modest neighborhood was broken into. The thieves took everything in gold they could find, worth precious little compared to the sentimental value of the objects.

Just about everyone, it seems (minus those soccer stars, perhaps), has similar stories to tell about someone they know. I hear it in the news, in conversations in markets and on the bus. Spain is a talkative place, and I sometimes wonder whether all these words and stories told again and again might actually be contributing to the dark cloud. And here I am, telling the story.

The truth is that the feelings matter and carry real weight once they are heard and spoken. And as of yet, there is no clear silver lining. I have heard and even said time and time again, “We’ll see what happens…,” as if we are all waiting.

This is not to say you won’t find the bars packed on a Friday or Saturday night. But the uncertain climate permits fewer nights on the town.

These circumstances make me particularly appreciate the frugal ingenuity of traditional Spanish home cooking. The fact that Spain is no stranger to hard times* is reflected in the seemingly endless variety of nourishing and inexpensive dishes made from stretching out the ingredients at hand.

Cooking frugally feels like one way to defy the current crisis. There will be no cloud at my table, but rather a reminder that Spain can indeed pull through.

See some of my past examples of frugal traditional cuisine in Murcia:

Guiso de Trigo – Wheat Berry Stew

Olla Gitana – Gypsy Stew

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew (as with the migas in the photo at the top of the post, the amount of meat added to the beans can be adapted to one’s budget.)

Morcilla de Verano – Eggplant Caviar

And stay tuned for my next post about a thrifty yet rich local dessert.

*For an excellent, in-depth analysis of contemporary Spanish history, I highly recommend Ghosts of Spain by British journalist Giles Tremlett.

I would love to hear your reflections and observations.