the second time that i went to spain was in the summer of 1999, i went to visit blanca in her beloved guadix (andalucia). this is without a doubt one of the most special places in the world - yes, it is barren, hot and dry, but during the winter and the night time it is a vision - snowy peaks, rivers, cool evenings with the voices of the local villages wafting over in the night air to you ...
i arrived into granada airport via connection from madrid. it was an uneventful flight, particularly for my bag as it didn't seem to make the flight ... after the usual bustle of activity and confusion that i believe greets every flight in spain, i made it through the doors to see blanca. we kissed and she whispered that her parents had come to collect me. she also mentioned something that hadn't been all that important previously; they didn't actually speak english. we walked through the arrivals to meet her parents - we all kissed and after an awkward moment blancs's mum suggested we go to the airport cafe.
now, i'm no big fan of airport food at the best of times but, whether it is on account of the food in spain or the service, i do enjoy airport cafes in spain. i think this is because the food in andalucia seems almost singularly suited to airports; the concept of tapas is often served as a bite to eat just prior to running and eventually missing your flight on account of the extra meat and flour that you have digested. we went to the cafe and it was proposed that i should have a croqueta. upon being asked whether i had ever had one i replied no, assuming that this was the safest answer - if it was the country's delicacy i would have passed the first test with flying colours by not turning it down and if it was too dangerous for uninitiated irish stomachs i was sure i wouldn't be forced to eat the ungodly thing.
the croqueta arrived;
well in fact it arrived with its whole family on a saucer. fairly unmemorable things, they looked like deep fried fish fingers without the edge. i tasted the first one; prepared for the worst. it was then that it hit me - the sweetest tasting, most incredible piece of deep fried flour that i'd ever had in my life. from that point i was hooked on spanish life. that chicken and ham joy came to symbolise the south of spain to me - not always something pretty, but something that you need to taste to really understand.
the most typical croquettes are chicken and ham ...
ingredients: 3 tbs butter, 5 tbs olive oil, 3/4 cup flour, 1 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup chicken broth, salt, ground pepper, nutmeg, 1 cup finely chopped boiled chicken breast, 1/2 cup finely minced cured ham, flour for dusting, 2 eggs (lightly beaten), bread crumbs and oil for frying.
i still can't make good croquetas, i think that it is my fear of the ingredients and my frugal use of olive oil (not as cheap as spain). you basically make a bechemel sauce; heat the butter and olive oil until the butter melts. add the flour and cook 3 minutes, constantly stirring. gradually add the milk and the broth, salt (balance this with the ham), pepper and nutmeg and cook over a medium flame until the sauce is thickened ~ it is the process of heating that binds the ingredients. add the chicken and ham and cook a further 10 minutes until boiling. cool and refrigerate until cold. to make, flour the worksurface and dip a tablespoon sized amount in egg prior to breading. fry in about 1" of oil (if you dare). turn until golden. thanks to penelope casas for this great description of the recipe ~ the foods & wines of spain.
for those of you liguistically inclined, a recipe in spanish and a delightful picture of spain's olympic synchronised swimming croqueta team: http://www.euroresidentes.com/Recetas/croquetas.htm
in the intervening years, i have traveled a good bit of the south and central spain in search of the perfect croqueta. i think that i found it last summer in bar espana (c/san fernando) in sevilla. don't take the fact that the best croquetas come from sevilla as an indication of the rest of the place; the blasted tapas seem to be the best thing about the city. here are the characteristics of the croqueta that i've fallen for:
- golden brown; if it is a call between burnt brown or pale yellow, i'll take the burnt anytime
- crispy; the outside should be a shell, like the outside of an egg
- liquidy and hot inside; the innards should ooze out once the shell is cracked ensuring that you eat it fast
if you're ever passing through an airport in spain, look out for me, i'll be around the croqueta bar ...