Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The great taste of poverty

Nostalgia can have a weird effect on people. The venerable Monty Python knew this when they wrote the famous Four Yorkshiremen sketch, "We used to get up half-an-hour before we went t'bed an' all we 'ad t'eat were a cup of cold poison..." Unsurprisingly, the joys of suffering and hunger are best appreciated once they are in the distant past, once reality has been replaced by myth. "Aye, but we were 'appy!"

The pleasure of exaggerated, unreliable nostalgia can't be underestimated. Who hasn't enjoyed sitting round a table after a good meal and a few glasses of very reasonable Tempranillo,  remembering the gustatory horrors of childhood with affection? Bread and dripping for breakfast; sugar sandwiches; Shepherd's Pie for seven made from half-a-pound of economy mince; happy days indeed! Everyone's got a favourite, but I suspect that very few would dream of eating by choice the stuff they were forced to eat as a kid. The skin off lumpy, school dinner custard? Boiled-till-grey sprouts? I'll pass, thanks.

Alcútar this morning
It's the same in the Alpujarras, although perhaps more so. Here people don't need to exaggerate things so much. In the Forties and Fifties there was a very widespread famine throughout Spain, but particularly in marginal, rural areas, and you don't get much more marginal and rural than the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. There was widespread malnourishment and even some famine-related deaths during the two decades following the civil war. The victorious Franco, desperate for income, continued exporting agricultural products despite several failed harvests, indifferent to, and some would say content with the suffering of the poorest peasants. Landless agricultural workers never really formed a major part of the Caudillo's support base.

During the Second World War, and despite his overt Nazi sympathies, Franco exported fruit, nuts, wine and fertiliser in huge quantities to Britain and the US while all those products were desperately needed at home. It wasn't until the late-Fifties that nutritionally-deficient Spanish diets began to improve. Even today it's possible to see the effects of the Hungry Years. When was the last time you saw someone displaying the bandy-legged legacy of childhood Rickets? I saw a chap this morning, as I walked down from the bakery, waddling side-to-side, hobbling into the doctor's surgery. He would have been around seventy; just the right age to have suffered malnourishment as an infant.

The big difference between the fare of poverty here and in other places I know,  is that the dishes that remind people of those bad times are often some of the most delicious. Migas was originally a way of using up breadcrumbs, cooked with nothing more than olive oil, garlic and water; waste not, want not. Nowadays, made with wheat polenta, it is a speciality of many local restaurants and a staple for communal village meals during fiesta. I love it. It's as satisfying and as versatile as couscous and is accompanied by all the good local produce such as morcilla, longaniza sausage, sardines, a chopped salad, known as pipirana, deep-fried green peppers, and melon. In a future post I'll get Sole to give me a masterclass on its preparation.

Another class act from the losing side of the class war is Guiso de patatas: the most delicious thing you can make from the cheapest thing you can buy from the butcher - bones. This isn't an Alpujarran invention, although quite a few people will claim it to be. It's a soup whose recorded history can be traced back to the fifteenth century, and one of the first recipe books in European history, written by Roberto de Noia, head chef at the court of Fernando I of Naples, based in Barcelona. So, it's a Catalan invention, but tell a Castilian or an Andalusian and they'll fight you for it!

There are so many words for soups and stews in Spanish that it's easy to get confused. What is the difference between a guiso, a potaje, a puchero, a cocido, and a sopa? Precious little. I know there are plenty of people who will claim that each different incarnation of a dish consisting of meat, veg and stock has an essential feature that makes it one thing or the other, but I'm too much of a stupid foreigner to bother much about what seem to be pretty abstruse distinctions.

What is important is that these dishes are absolutely excellent. There really isn't anything I'd rather have for a winter's lunch than a bowl of something like this. I was in the butcher's shop in Cádiar o Saturday when I saw the knobbly line of vertebrae separating the ribs from the shoulder of pork in the display cabinet. "What could I do with that?" I asked. The butcher's shrug put me in my place. "There's nothing better to do with neck bones than make a guiso." Had he been a teenager, he might have added, "Duh!"

So, that's what I did, using a method cobbled together from a couple of conversations; one with the butcher, the other with a neighbour. Here's how it goes:

Guiso de patatas


1 kg (2 lb) pork neck bones, ideally with a good bit of meat attached
100ml 6 tablespoons) of olive oil
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 large red pepper, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
3 carrots, cut into 2-3cm (1") chunks
2-3 Bay leaves
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon pimentón
250ml (1 cup) white wine
250ml (1 cup) stock (I used chicken stock, you use what you like)
3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-3cm (1") chunks
1 tsp each of sugar, salt, black pepper
a few dashes of balsamic vinegar to taste

Browned bones on the left, sweating veg on the right
Just enough water to cover the bones
  1. Cut the neck bones into chunks, one vertebra per chunk. The butcher will do this for you, I'm sure. Heat the olive oil in a big, heavy-based saucepan or stockpot on a medium-high heat. Brown the meat on all sides, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. 
  2. Pour off about half the oil and add the onion and red pepper and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Then add the garlic, carrot, bay leaves, turmeric and pimentón and stir until everything is coated with oil and spices. Turn the ring to minimum and cover the pan. Leave to cook sweatily for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Return the bones to the pan, add the stock, wine and enough cold water to just cover the bones. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat to minimum, cover again and leave to simmer for 1.5 hours. Just forget about it, go and update your Facebook status and have a game of Candy Crush!
  4. After those 90 usefully-employed minutes, add the potatoes, sugar, salt and black pepper and taste the broth; see if it needs a little zip of balsamic vinegar. If so, do so.
  5. Cover again and simmer for a further 30 minutes. And that's it. If you're a refined kind of person you might like to take the bones out of the soup, pull off and return to the pan any meat that hasn't already fallen off, and then discard the bones. Personally, I don't bother. I just stick a plate in the middle of the table and pick out the inedible bits as I eat.
Serve it with nothing more than a decent bit of bread. The length of the cooking means that you extract all the flavour it's possible to get from the cheap cut of meat. It doesn't look much, but the quality is in the tasting... a bit like me!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Chocoholics Anonymous

Eat The Alpujarras has been informed that we have been short-listed for the award of the prestigious Three Orgasms status by the recently constituted UNBGC (United Nations Baked Goods Council). The basis of our application was our submission of this recipe for a moist, and entirely calorie-free recipe, one that I've been making for a year or so. Lots of people have been asking me to print out the instructions. Have you seen the price of printer ink these days? So, here it is. Print it yourself!

(Note to web regulators: some of the details in the above may not be entirely factually correct.)

Here's one I made earlier... Doh!
  • 225g (1 cup) plain flour
  • 350g (1.5 cups) white sugar
  • 85g  (6 tablespoons) 100% cocoa powder
  • 2 big eggs (What's that in cups?)
  • 250ml (1 cup) milk
  • 125ml (1/2 cup) sunflower or groundnut oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1 tsp rose water
  • 250ml (1 cup) boiling water


  1. Combine all the ingredients, except for the boiling water.  Whisk until smooth.
  2. Add the boiling water gradually, in about 4-5 stages.  Make sure the water is well combined before adding the next glug.
  3. Grease and base-line a 26cm (10"?) spring-form cake tin with greaseproof paper.
  4. Place the cake tin on a metal baking sheet and pour in the mix.  It will be VERY liquidy.
  5. Bake in the oven for 1 hour ay 170C/155C fan/330F/Gas 3.  Check that after the hour the top has stopped quivering like a jelly.  If it does, give it another 10 minutes.
  6. Remove from the oven and leave it on a cooling rack.  The top of the cake will sink; it’s meant to do that.  It should end up flat. Slip a knife around the edge to remove.
  7. You can serve it as is, or you could melt 100g of dark chocolate and then whisk in 100ml of thick cream and frost the cake with that, for an extra choccy hit.
  8. Serve with ice cream and a couple of spoonfuls of red fruit compote.
This cake may be consumed twice-daily as a part of any obese person's weight-maintenance diet.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

I can't believe it's not got butter!

Baking. I understand from sources back in the Old Country that baking has replaced football, moaning, queuing and ballroom dancing as the UK's most popular leisure activity. I've never seen an episode of The Great British Bake-off, but I believe it gets about four times the TV audience of Homeland, and features more mind games and disinformation than Carrie and colleagues at the CIA can summon. This is a worry. How can one feel safe when any BBC2-watching terrorist can make a convincing-looking suicide vest out of marzipan and royal icing? It's surely only a matter of time before Saul Berenson orders Mary Berry's extraordinary rendition to a black site in Tunisia.

Here in the Alpujarras, far removed from the subversive shenanigans of Berry, Hollywood et al, baking is a bit of a fringe activity. Most people here don't possess an oven. Home cooking is carried out on ancient equipment, like iron trivets over wood fires, butane gas burners and microwaves! Those who do own ovens are often little better off when attempting to produce a decent cake. A friend of mine recently decided to buy a new butane-fired cooker with a built-in oven. Working on a limited budget, the only model she could afford had the controllability of a garden barbecue: on, off and somewhere in the middle. The electric ovens easily available on the open market seem to be those work-top mini-ovens that have the baking capacity of a single sponge tin or a tray of 6 muffins.

Never mind. Baking still needs to be done. Often. Although the art of baking is something that most of my neighbours think is as esoteric as alchemy, they do like their cakes, even if they have to buy them. I make a decent amount of rolling-pin money making celebration cakes for saint's days and christenings.

One thing I have picked up from Spanish baking techniques however, is the use of olive oil as a shortening ingredient in place of butter or margarine. It's probably now very common knowledge in places where the gen. pop. has been drilled in the latest cooking techniques by wall-to-wall foodie TV, but it came as a bit of a shock to me. When I was learning the basics of home baking on Saturday afternoons in the 1970s, just before watching the TV wrestling, olive oil was something that only appeared on the rare occasion I needed wax removing from my ears.  The shortening Old Ma Blue used was Stork margarine, and nothing else!

So, what's the point of using olive oil? Don't you get weirdly-flavoured buns? Doesn't your pastry fall apart? Erm, no and no. Using olive oil in cakes makes them lighter and yet more moist. Anyone who's made a decent carrot cake will know this. Using it in pastry produces a texture that is much, much easier to work with than a butter-shortened, short crust recipe; it's much more like a hot water pastry to work with, and that's a big positive. The flavour that an extra virgin olive oil pastry gives to a savoury tart or quiche is outstanding. I've made it from a number of different recipes, but this is the one I've found works best.

It's in cakes that I think olive oil really makes its mark. You can use any kind of olive oil in your baking. A light oil is fairly taste-neutral and can be used for almost any kind of cake or bun. A strong, fruity EVOO will take a more leading role; you'll know you've used it. It gives a flavour that works perfectly in those recipes for grown-up, not-too-sweet cakes like a green olive and hazelnut cake I make occasionally. That recipe will appear here at some point, no doubt.

But what's the point of using olive oil in recipes where you don't want to taste it? Here of course it's the most traditional shortening ingredient, and it's cheap. Ordinary grade olive oil costs around a euro a litre, and even the best quality, locally-produced EVOO only costs €3,50 a litre. I dare say it's a bit pricier where most of you are. There are two other considerations though: olive oil is a healthier, less cholesterol-packed product. Cooking it doesn't turn it into a saturated trans-fat as some people believe; it's still the heart-healthy option. The other advantage is that olive oil baked goods keep longer because olive oil contains Vitamin E, which keeps things naturally fresher, for longer. The recipe I've posted below in fact tastes considerably better eaten a day or two after baking.

Andalublue's Pear Olive Oil Cake.

Many years ago a Dutch friend of mine made me an apple olive oil cake that I thought was outstanding. I've fiddled about with quantities and a couple of ingredients, and I've made this cake consistently for three years at Las Chimeneas. More people have asked me for this recipe than for any other cake or dessert I make. Here I'm using pears, but it's a like-for-like swap if you want to use apples; they work equally well.

  • 120g Moscatel raisins
  • 100ml sweet wine or sherry
  • 200g golden granulated or 100g brown sugar/100g white sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 150ml extra virgin olive oil (the fruitier the better)
  • 1tsp each of ground ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, and bicarb of soda
  • 350g plain flour
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 500g peeled and cubed pears (or apples, if you prefer)
  • 1 tbs honey

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F) normal oven/160C (320F) fan oven/gas mark 4/somewhere in the middle if you have a crap Spanish oven.
  1. Soak the raisins in the sweet wine for 20 minutes before starting.
  2. Crack the eggs into the sugar and whisk until they double in volume.
  3. Gently warm the olive oil and then gradually whisk it into the sugar and eggs.
  4. Sift together the ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, bicarb and flour and gradually fold it into the oil, eggs and sugar mixture. Add a pinch of salt, the zest of the lemon and the pears and mix well. The mixture will be very stiff when it's ready for the oven.
  5. Use a 10"/26cm greased spring-form cake tin or a silicone mould and bake in the oven for 1 hour.
  6. When a skewer comes out of the centre of the cake clean, it’s ready. Leave it for 5 mins then turn out onto a cooling rack.
  7. Heat the honey slightly and then paint it over the top of the still warm cake.

Friday, 15 November 2013


Here's where we get into audience participation. I can see you trying to shuffle down in your seat, trying to make yourself appear inconspicuous. It hasn't worked, I can still see you. (Nasty shade of hair dye, btw.)

I need an intrepid assistant, or several. Here's the problem: 6 kilos of cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes are the number one cash crop of this area, and chiriz, as they get called, are the main variety produced. Since the start of la crisis in 2008, lots of people have returned to the villages of the Alpujarras from the cities, having lost jobs, had homes repossessed, and/or split with spouses due to the stress of money troubles. Many of these people return to the family home and find that the plots of land that their ancestors cleared, that their grandparents depended on and that their parents let fall into disuse are now their only potential source of income. The number of tomato fields around Alcútar and Bérchules has just about trebled over the past three years.

Rotting on the vine - photo taken today!
Now, these are good toms. Most are not organic, but the amount of pesticides and fertilisers that they get sprayed with is quite low; high altitude and clean air help keep the creepy crawlies down. Don't forget, they're planting these vines at the same altitude (1,300m/4,300ft)+ as the top of Ben Nevis! The problem for the farmers is one of basic economics: over the course of the growing season supply rises to outstrip demand. When they first start cropping in June they may get as much as €2,00 a kilo from the wholesaler. (These wholesalers call themselves 'cooperatives', but they're anything but cooperative, in fact dictatorial would be a better word, and they're all privately owned).

By the time autumn comes around prices will have fallen to unprofitable lows of around ¢20 a kilo. At those sort of prices there is absolutely no point in picking them; the labour, transport and packing cost more than that. Incidentally, what kind of price are you paying for cherry tomatoes in the supermarket? Did you know that the farmer in Spain is actually receiving on average less than a Euro per kilo?  I looked on a price comparison website and found that Tesco's Value line cherries sell at £3.20 a kilo, or €3,82. Here they are literally giving them away. I am a fortunate recipient of the salad the world forgot.

Ketchup, relish, jam and frozen... and still they aren't finished
One of my neighbours deposited a 12-kilo crate of the little sweeties on my doorstep on Tuesday. Since then I've made pasta sauce; tomato relish; tomato jam; and spicy ketchup. Yesterday I frozen two batches of them naked; not me, them. Today I'm going to bottle some more in brine. I'm not sure what they will taste like when I use them, but this article I found online seems to sing their praises. I'm also going to dry some in a very low oven for a few hours, then preserve them in oil.

After all this effort, I've still got 6kg left. I guess I could have made bigger quantities of everything, but then what to do with it all. I sell a bit of produce to guests at Las Chimeneas, but frankly, who in their right mind would want to buy preserved tomatoes and carry them all the way home after their holiday? These are excellent toms, but you'd hardly claim that there is something uniquely exceptional about them.

This is where you come in. What trick have I missed? What would you do with six spare kilos of sweet, cherry tomatoes?

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Putting hair on chests

This is exactly the time of year, yes even here, when you need something warming inside you, something big and hearty. A fireman would do, but in the absence of that, this.  

I posted my recipe for Sopa de Lentejas a couple of years ago on Facebook, and I've had some good feedback about it.

I had intended to post the recipe for the rabbit and apricot tagine that I've got plopping away on the stove as I write.  I'm going to be serving it to the Alcútar-Barnsley contingent in about an hour, but I changed my mind about writing it up. Get used to that, btw.  It's quite a summery dish and it's also the first time I've tagined a babbit, so I'll leave that for another post, once I've seen how it turns out. 

The recipe below is what Alpujarrans eat when the wind descends from the high sierra and there's a hint of winter in the air. It's like that here today. The temperature has dropped about ten degrees and there's rain on the way this evening; some people are predicting snow at the weekend! After the record-breaking warmth we've enjoyed so far this November, we can't complain.

Sopa de Lentejas, or just Lentejas, as they say here, is a classic Spanish dish that everyone swears is best cooked by their Mamá. If you don't have a Spanish mamá handy, cook it yourself.


  • A couple of slices of bacon, chopped.
  • 400g uncooked chorizo (not the kind you get in slices, the whole sausage)
  • 500g brown or Puy lentils
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 red pepper, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp pimentón (or ordinary paprika if you can't get it)
  • 1 tblsp tomato purée
  • 3 large tomatoes, skin and seeds removed, chopped
  • (1 tin of chopped tomatoes can replace the above two ingredients)
  • Water
  • Salt and pepper, pinch or sugar and a slug of balsamic vinegar
  • A handful of chopped fresh parsley, if you have it
  1. Fry the bacon in a large pan with a little olive oil for 2 minutes, no more. Add the whole chorizo, lentils, carrots, garlic, pepper, and thyme and then add water until it's about 2cm (1 inch) above the lentils. Bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to minimum and simmer for 30 mins. Meanwhile fry the onion gently in plenty of olive oil until it starts to turn golden brown. Turn the onion out onto kitchen paper and leave for a couple of minutes to allow most of the oil to drain off. 
  2. After the 30 minutes, remove the whole chorizo from the lentils and chop into thin(ish) slices and return to the pan. Add the tomatoes, tomato purée, pimentón and the fried onions and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. You might need to add some more water, it depends on whether you want more of a soup or a stew consistency. Taste and add salt and pepper and possibly a pinch of sugar and a glug of balsamic or sherry vinegar. Cook for another couple of minutes.
  3. Serve in a bowl, sprinkled with parsley and with some good country bread. 
Oh, now look at that! Just as I've finished writing I can hear the patter of rain on the leaves of the fig tree below the dining room window. I'd better give the tagine an extra half teaspoon of dried chillies!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

What is an Alpujarra? And why would you want to eat it?

¡Adió Amigo!

I've been meaning to do this for a while, and so, with the end of my working year approaching, now seems the right time to get onto my backside and start blogging.

Those arriving early to this blog will know who I am, so let's skip the biog and answer a couple of fundamental questions.

What is an Alpujarra?

It's a foothill, specifically a foothill of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalusia, in the bottom right-hand corner of Spain. It's usually referred to in the plural, as in Las Alpujarras. Why? Because there are many of the blighters. The Alpujarras refers to the hills and valleys on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada that straddle two of Andalusia's eight provinces: Granada in the west, and Almería to the east.

The Alpujarra granadina is the better known part because it boasts the more dramatic landscape, is more populous and better lends itself to tourism and agriculture; the two mainstays of the local economy. The Alpujarra almeriense somewhat hides its light under a bushel, usually one of grapes, if they were ever to be measured in bushels. It's a little lower in altitude, drier and less showy, but none the worse for all that.

The area's really a long, thin strip of territory a hundred kilometres wide and no more than twenty deep, following the course of two rivers: the Río Guadalfeo, rising above the village of Bérchules (where I live) and emptying into the Rules reservoir just south of Granada; and the Río Andarax, which spurts out of the mountainside above another village, Laujar and heads due east, skirting the desert of Tabernas and dribbling (usually) into the Med just outside Almería city.

Why would you want to eat the Alpujarras?

Well, you get peckish, don't you?

Apart from bordering one of the remaining true wildernesses left in western Europe, the Alpujarras is a seething, flourishing, fenceless allotment of produce. You could almost plant a kidney stone in the Alpujarras, and four months later harvest a paté. Almost anything that can withstand the extremes of the climate will grow in profusion, whether lovingly tended or neglected; believe me, I've tried both methods!

As some of you may know, I earn a crust working in the kitchen and dining room of a boutique hotel in the area, and I bloody love it!  The best thing is working with all these amazing fresh products, strictly according to season, and turning them into meals that our visitors tell us they enjoy so much. I do a bit of the cooking, mostly preparing desserts, jams and preserves, but the real star of the kitchen is my colleague, the legend that is Sole, more from and about her later.

So, I exhort you to Eat The Alpujarras!  I mean to use this space to share recipes, ideas, observations and stories about the food I, friends, colleagues and neighbours make and share; the ingredients we acquire from the land; and the people and places that produce it all.

This isn't intended to be some academic record of the culinary history of the area however; many of the recipes will be my own and would make my Alpujarran-born compadres blench. Some will be hybrids of traditional and imported ethnic ideas, what we've started to call Moorish Fusion cuisine; that's the kind of food we prepare at Las Chimeneas, strongly influenced and mentored by our friends from the Moro restaurant in London. And then, of course, there will be the classic local dishes that make up the Alpujarras' food heritage. That tradition is about robust, no-nonsense country food that could be described as being to Spanish cuisine what Provençale cooking is to French: soups, stews, salads, cured meats and air-dried hams and vegetables, loads of pulses, blossom honeys, fresh and wild herbs and fruits straight off the branch.

So, that's what this is all about, and that's what I'm going to try to do as regularly as my natural indolence allows. This is going to be a blog about food in the Alpujarras, of the Alpujarras and from the Alpujarras...

... and booze! Please don't forget the booze. There'll be quite a bit about that too, cirrhosis permitting.

So, this is my personal food blog, coming to you live from the teeming metropolis of Alcútar, twin city of the megalopolis that is Bérchules (Pop: 643). Please feel free to chip in with comments and insults, that's what a firewall's for after all!