Wednesday, April 06, 2005

cordoba - go for the salmorejo, stay for the ajo blanco

ajo blanco

last summer i spent 4 weeks at spanish school in sevilla. it was a great time; blanca was doing work experience at ferran adria's second restaurant - el bulli in hacienda benazuza. i was able to regress for the month, forget london and working life. the first day, i arrived at school certain of my bohemian credentials - extended vacation, shorts everyday, i didn't have my duffle coat because it was too hot ...

i quickly realised that the school had an ongoing exchange program with many european schools and that the majority of my colleagues were 19 year old philosophers and dreamers. despite being only 29, i was soon revealed to be the oldest in the school. matters got worse during the open sessions where we would talk about ourselves in spanish. my demographic facts were drastically at odds with my bead wearing colleagues ...

- not only had i contemplated a job, but i'd actually gone out and got one
- i had in fact held onto that job for 8 years
- i owned an apartment in london (i didn't mention the mortgage)
- i was married
- i supported franco (this isn't the whole truth, but to the eyes of a student, i think this is how i seemed)

i was given up as a lost cause when, one day, i had to make a presentation on spanish life. i came to the part where i would talk about food ... my professor, a born and bred sevillana, sat forward eagerly waiting to hear of my love for their food. she was, shall we say, disappointed when i contrasted it to the rest of spain; i confidently stated that andalucia was the worst and that the restaurants were over priced and unexciting. if you have been to the south, you may feel that this is unjustified, but there are elements of truth ...

- the best food in the south of spain is to be found in homes, not in restaurants.
- the best food outside of the home is the tapa. for variety, use of local produce and ingenuity they are unsurpassed. the southern style of "comer de pie" (eating on foot) is the real reason that there are not many "classical" restaurants.
- and, if i'm honest, after 4 weeks in sevilla, it is true that we were a little bored with just good tapas and were thirsting for some other food*.

ever since our gastro experiences in sevilla, we have been eager to take any opportunity to search out the great food of the south. with this in mind we took a daytrip from guadix to cordoba to have lunch with one of blanca's cousins; antonio-luis. this is a 400km roundtrip and may seem a little extreme, but cordoba is the renowned home of salmorejo (thick tomatoe soup) with which i had fallen in love with last year in sevilla. the city is a world heritage site with a beautiful mosque / cathedral (mezquita) and jewish neighbourhood (la juderia). we went to the incredible bodegas campos restaurant. this is one of the best restaurants i've been to in spain.

in writing this blog, i am using as reference "gazpachos, sopas y ajos blancos" (enrique mapelli lopez), my spanish isn't perfect, but i think this means "gazpachos, soups and ajos blancos". i am conscious of the fact that i am reading a spanish book to write an english blog as i sit on a train in tokyo, but hey, i won't let the details get me down.

three soups, based around the gazpacho concept, form the trinity of cold andalucian soups. they share the same core ingredients; bread crumbs, garlic, olive oil, water and salt. if anyone gets the chance, read the chapter that breaks down each ingredient, it is the closest thing to culinary poetry that i have ever read (mostly because i don't understand a lot of it). i will attempt to summarise.

each ingredient brings its own specific attributes to the soup. their history in combination goes back as far as the roman legions and columbus who all carried similar provisions. white bread for sweetness, thickening, energy and digestibility. garlic for flavour and medicinal properties (i.e. working as an antiseptic). olive oil for flavour, texture and health benefits. water as these soups serve the purpose to rehydrate and refresh from the hot andalucian sun. salt to bring out the flavour, replace lost body salt and build the appetite for the next course.

typical gazpacho andaluz contains:
- 100g bread crumbs
- 4 teeth of garlic
- 2dl olive oil
- 2dl vinegar
- salt
- 100g cucumber
- 100g green pepper
- 250g tomatoes
- some cumin
- 1l to 1.5l of cold water
in a mortar mash the bread, garlic, cumin, salt and olive oil and leave to absorb for 30 minutes. add the remaining ingredients and water to taste. for garnishing use 100g cucumber, 100g green pepper, 100g tomatoes and 100g crudités all chopped. this recipe is somewhat vague, but, in spain there is a saying; there are as many gazpachos as there are gazpacheros. i'm not going to be too anal about the details here.

salmorejo is made all over spain, but heralds from cordoba. a typical recipe contains:
- 10 red tomatoes
- 1 slice of bread
- 4 teeth of garlic
- 0.5l olive oil
- 1 egg yolk
- salt
- 0.25l of water
mix all in the blender and serve with an egg in quaters and some olive oil drizzled on top. you could also serve this with ham or orange slices on top.

ajo blanco (white garlic) most likely originates in malaga.
- 200g almonds
- 4 teeth of garlic
- 2 slices of bread
- 0.5dl of olive oil
- 0.5kg of ice
- salt and pepper
scald the almonds in hot water to get rid of the skin. grind all the ingredients together. pass through a colander and add water to thin. for garnish, 20 pealed grapes and 20 balls of melon. cordoba has a reputation for serving with apple slices. the ajo blanco in cordoba had shrimp ... this was the best that i've ever had!

* i don't want to give anyone the impression that there is no good food in sevilla or andalucia. in fact, 90% of the fun is in finding the great places. for anyone visiting sevilla i recommend bar eslava it saved us more than once!


Tony said...

Ha! So you're not the only one who gets tired of the same old food in southern Spain. I too occasionally shock people by saying that, actually, there is a lot more variety in American cuisine than is available eating out in Cordoba; and that even Spanish cuisine can grow old. No matter how much you love ham, croquettes, cheese, revueltos or flamenquines, at some point it's nice to have something else--preferrably not fried.

Now, if you step up and go to nice restaurants like Bodegas Campos, Pepe de la Juderia or El Churrasco, then you're in another league.

Love your description of gazpacho, salmorejo and ajo blanco. Can't get enough of that! 

Posted by Tony Reed

steve said...

Hello Tony. Don't get me wrong. The food in the South of Spain is fantastic. It just takes a little time to work out where to go. Typically, it is not always the guidebook "recommended" places, but the more offbeat restaurants / bars / houses. It is less accessible, but the romance is often in the chase... 

Posted by steve

Anonymous said...

I am not an aging 29 year old student. I am rather a 59 year old computer geek who is tired of technology, fond of great food and have recently been learning spanish. I recently backpacked through Spain, my first visit, walking the El Camino and visiting major sites. As a Classical History Major and Anthropology Major I had to see the antiquities, the modernities (the Guggenheim for instance) the culture and the art. However, as a former chef and enjoying good food, as much as I loved Spain, their cuisine reminded me of England - Chips with everything. Be that as it may, I loved the tapas, the best was in Leon, The Caldo Gallego I ate in Pedrafita, after a 25 km walk in zero temperatures must be the best meal I have ever had. But two places stand out, I arrived in Cordoba off the train and immediately felt a deja vu and a love for this warm friendly city, a little later the same day I tried for the first time a salmorejo with huge chunks of bread washed down by a superb sangria. I spent early mornings in the mezquita (individuals are free from 8.30 to 10.00) sometimes just sitting and listening to the gregorian chant of the high mass. Again deja vu set in, the mezquita is one of the great buildings of antiquity and a holy place no matter what your belief. After experiencing soccer night in Sevilla after they won the UEFA Cup I must envy anybody who spent a month in that wonderful city. But the best meals I had were in Granada, I stayed in a private home that was a mix of 19th Century Filipino emigres and mid 1970's Argentino refugees. Superb Soups and a seafood paella without the rice, somewhat resembling a french boullebaise. I left Spain with 5 gastronomic experiences that will not be forgotten. The wholesome peregrino menus of Galicia, Salmorejo, Granada home cooking, Tapas and being as sick as a dog after eating over rich so called gourmet cooking in a high class restuarant in Bilboa.
I have already made a number of Salmorejos for my pals, served with home made bread and tinto verano and I am now waiting for colder weather to feed tham a Caldo Gallego.


Posted by Greg

Anonymous said...

Salmorejo has to be one of my favorite offerings of Spanish cuisine. Can't get enough. Tinto de verano... mmmm! I spent the summer of 2005 studying in Granada and I came to love it there. It's one of my favorite places on earth, mostly because of the Alhambra. Just thought I'd share. 

Posted by Kevin in Ohio

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