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Las Estaciones

In Presentation, Production on October 26, 2011 at 9:55 am

Rubber lip grunt for dinner. With wedges. For the wedges I take two or three Patatas de Sanlucar – a huge and delicious potato that is ideal for frying but that also does very well in the oven – and slice them into chunky sections. I coat them in a little olive oil and a good bit of salt. Sometimes I add a spice, such as smoked paprika or ras-el-hanout, but not this time. These potatoes pack plenty of flavour and I don’t want to obscure it.

So that’s the wedges. Once they’re in the oven I start on the sauce. It’s got capers in it. And I saute up some broad beans with garlic and tiny bits of Spanish ham – a local classic to which I add a little fresh mint. This is going to be great!

We’ve been for a long walk over some hilly, coastal terrain and the season has changed, so I have weather on my mind as I cook. Going into a second year here one is made aware of the changing light as it comes round a second time; with deep satisfaction I am observing weathers I have seen before – the cooling of the air as I walk through town every day to the bus stop, the blinding sunlit facades against a backdrop of black cloud in windy, mixed skies and the odd drop of what will soon become downpour. It’s Autumn again, as it was when I got here and, almost wilfully, fell in love with the place.

Seasons; my route through town, the Batallo de Salado, is probably the best place in Tarifa to observe them, because in Spain the new season can usually be found at the side of the road in neat little stacks or buckets or laid out on a trestle. In this country almost every month brings something new to eat and the kerb is where you get it. Back in February it was the erizos del mar with their brittle spines, ozone interiors and delicious gonads.

Late Spring and Summer brought a swathe of delicacies. Some are still a mystery to me; a plant that looked like sea asparagus that I will have to catch next year for example, and a tiny apple-like fruit with African origins whose name I can’t remember. Then there was the early Summer snail season. An adventurous eater, I had never tried snail so in Granada one day we sat down in a bar that specialises in them. The French, to their credit, smother these things in garlic and parsley once they’ve removed them from the shell for you, where they will often replace them for presentation purposes.

To the Spanish caracole enthusiast, however, this is cowardice. We had a bowl of the things plopped in front of us – steamed in their shells and untroubled by condiment, sauce or seasoning. Regular readers will know by now that there was no way in hell K would be eating any of these, so it was down to me. I took my toothpick and stabbed it into the available part of the snail, then gently pulled it from its shell. It was surprisingly long when finally freed and held up on the pick, mud grey and wobbling. I ate it. I’d like to produce a surprising comparison here for you (it tasted like duck in orange sauce! Or banana!! Or cornflakes!!!) but I can’t. It tasted like snail.

Another Summer special – the higo chumbo. Little pyramids of peeled prickly pears – a poor cousin to the Kiwi fruit. Poor because to savour the deliciously sweet flesh one must put up with the rather crunchy seeds. I like them and look forward to them next year. Now that Autumn has arrived, however, the little roadside stacks are taller. It is chirimoya season.

From a distance they look like artichokes on steroids. Larger and heavier looking. In fact their patterned exteriors are due to the regular ridges that cover their otherwise intact skin. Known as custard apples elsewhere, they are the all-things-to-all-men of the fruit world. Creamy and soft when ripe, the flavour has been variously reported as resembling banana, strawberry, pineapple, coconut or mango. They might have just said “difficult to pin down, but nice”.

Time in its seasonal, cyclic form was evident on our coastal walk as we squeezed past growing calves and their nervous mothers, under rumbling skies broken here and there by late year sunlight. We have this world to ourselves again as the human season, the tourist tsunami, has receded. We can watch as rain moves in over Tangier. We can observe the effects of the long, dessicating summer on the still parched ground and the reptile scaling on rocks that have been cracking in the heat.

The heat has faded a little now but not in this kitchen, where the beans are bubbling away, the wedges are nearly ready and I have a pan of oil on the go for frying. In another first for us we’ll be tucking into something we found today in the market, that we haven’t seen before and that is native to the area and in season – borriquete. While it sits in a bowl of batter I finish off my sauce, adding gherkins and parsley and a little lemon juice. Borriquete, we finally establish after a considerable internet trawl, is also known as rubber lip grunt. It’s a kind of sea bream, so I might just as well have begun my story with “Bream for dinner…”, I suppose, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.

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  1. Delicious prose. I’m glad you didn’t have bream for dinner.

  2. Nice article about the foods in the area of Spain.
    A good read.
    Cheers,
    John D. Wilson

  3. Mmmm – you just made me so hungry! I always miss summer food when the season is over…glad we’ll be back there soon

    • Yes, I don´t think there are any other major seasonal foods round here till the sea urchins come back in February. Still plenty of good cooking though, to see us through the winter :)

  4. I love the connection between the changing of seasons and how we change our diet to include the fresh produce.

    • So do I! The Spanish have a deep sense of seasonal eating. What is a resurgent trend in some other places is something that never really went away here.

  5. Nice ode to eating Spanish style! Your seasonal foods are wonderful, and plentiful, I think. Here in Moldova (where I now live) the seasonal eating in the summer and fall is fabulous, but the winter offers cabbage and beets mostly, and by the time it is spring the potatoes and carrots are soft. Fortunately there is some imported produce to cheer up the scene. And the wine is good, which helps too ;)

    I may consider moving to Spain in a couple of years. Then there’s the south of France, and Italy. Choices, choices!

  6. Noticed you missed the word “rain” in this line: odd drop of what will soon become downpour

    Obviously, you can delete this comment

  7. I’d still have had to read the entire post even if you’d started with “Bream for dinner…” Not that I mind, of course.

  8. Bon appetit! loved your article. The seasonality of food is such a treat. I hate it when you can buy asparagus all year long – they’re for spring/early summer!!

  9. Honestly, the concept of seasonal foods is pretty foreign to me, but I’d love to learn first hand when I go to Spain.

    • Spend any time in Spain, particularly rural Spain, and you will learn about it. They delight in it here. This is a country that has mushroom festivals, snail festivals, ham festivals and on and on and on…

  10. I’ve never had bream. How does it taste?

  11. Yummy!
    That sounds so much better than the meal we had here in Gruissan, France! Disappointing :( Can not wait to start cooking again for our family!

  12. I am hungry just reading this!! I really want to see a photo of Patatas de Sanlucar…

    What was your favorite and would recommend for a first timer to try out of all the ones mentioned?

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