Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Last week I went to Valencia. Like much of the rest of Spain, it smells of dogshit and weed, and its tiny shops selling irons and handbags are covered in graffiti and always closed. There's a lot of fuss made about paella obviously, but for the visiting greedy bastard its charms are limited. I suspect its popularity really lies in its origin as a communal outdoors dad's-building-a-big-fire activity, and that it isn't really a restaurant dish. It's ok, looks pretty, tastes quite distinctive, but is never going to blow you away. If you were starving then a big plateful of paella would be delightful. If you're in Spain for a few days and you want to eat interesting things then I wouldn't waste a meal on it. Also, because it's quite cheap, lots of substandard places trade on it. Rice and shellfish lying around on a shallow metal plate all day? Served at room temperature? You'll have plenty of time to ponder the wisdom of this as you dehydrate in the Rusty Water Wing of the Ospedale.
In a tapas bar just off Plaza Tossal on a calle called something like Bolseria (which I think translates as 'The Baggery', which sounds like it could be an area of Leicester), I did get to eat some very exciting and delicious things. Tongue (lamb's I think), which was soft and sweet and dense; brain fritters, which reminded me of soft roes, tasted slightly of iron; padron peppers, one in ten of which is fiercely sharply hot; and fabada. Or favada - it seems to vary randomly. Fabada is my new favourite thing. It's a stew of chorizo, morcilla (spanish black pudding), beans, pork and saffron, and is the most beguilingly delicious thing I have eaten in months. It's the regional dish of Asturias. Asturias is a region of northwest spain which approximates Wales. Mining, steel mills, radical politics, and quaint old seaside towns. Lots of spaniards go there for their holidays apparently. Anyway, I'm sure a true son or daughter of Asturias would guffaw at the idea of lisping Valencian milquetoasts serving fabada, and it's true that it's certainly a dish more suited to the appetite of a coalminer than a purveyor of rattan desk tidies, but I'm pretty sure that what I ate was close to what it should be.
A quick run through the ingredients then. Chorizo is as universal as parmesan nowadays, but what we are familiar with here are the very firm salami-like rings you can buy for £2 or £3 each at a supermarket deli counter. It's true - they are delicious, and they are a magic ingredient which adds interest to relatively plain fare. I think we overuse them (I'm looking at you, Jim Smith), and in a loose soupy stew like this their tightly clenched texture is wrong. You want looser, softer 'cooking' chorizo. If you were in Spain there'd be all sorts of finer distinctions to be made - here, you'll be lucky to find even one sort. They come in links about 3" long. You can buy them sealed in packs of about ten or twelve and they're perfectly good (as are the Italian sausages in the red white and green packet you'll often find next to them - use them in casseroles). Morcilla may be something of a problem. The only one I've so far found here was really too hard - cured to British chorizo consistency - and again this is wrong. I honestly think you'd be better off using British black pudding. Something quite spicy and fairly loose. Not those placemat-textured ones ringed in plastic. When you fry it, it should souffle and crumble a little. Beans next. In Spain they use a huge sort of white bean called Judion. You can buy these bottled here, but they are ridiculously expensive. You might be lucky enough to find them dried, but more likely you'll give up and use butter beans. And lastly pork. You need really fatty pork. I think an ideal combination would be ham hock and pork belly. Hock for gelatin and deep savour plus big shreds of meat, belly for creamy sweet fat. It needs to be good quality pork, because that's where the base flavour will come from, and you can't fake it. Also, cheap pork tends not to have enough subcutaneous fat.
And to cook it? Well, you put it all in a pot. More or less. If you've got a whole pork hock then you're going to cut deep slashes all over it, blanch that from cold twice to clean it up (ie put it in cold water, bring up to the boil, drain, repeat, drain, then simmer), a whole head of garlic cut in half latitudinally, a little paprika to taste (you can add more later) along with the chorizo and belly. There's a persistent myth that beans won't soften in salty water. I'm pretty sure that as long as you don't add loads of extra salt, then what little there is in the sausages and meats won't be a problem, unless of course you've got really salty ham (the blanching should've helped a little). I reckon soak your beans in fresh water overnight then just stick them in the pot. Do you think generations of Asturians cooked their beans in a separate pot? No. Am I going to do lots of experimental comparative bean boiling on your behalf to resolve this issue? No. I did it and it worked fine.
After 2 or 3 hours when your hock's cooked, fish it out and pull it apart. Keep anything that looks good. Keep some skin chopped fine for extra sticky goodness. Taste the stock. If it's too salty, dilute it until it's good. Add a pinch of saffron if you're feeling rich. Take out the chorizo and belly and cut into chunks. Put all the bits back in a big pan and cover well with stock. Fry off slices of morcilla in a frying pan, then add to the stew being careful not to break them up. Keep it at a low burble for half an hour, an hour, however long you like really. You can't hurt it now. You're done. Notice that this stew doesn't have chunks of carrot and leek bobbing around in it, nor does it commence with frying onions or garlic. It contains meat and beans.
If the above sounds like too much trouble, you could simmer a whole chorizo ring and 300g or 400g of pork belly for an hour or so, add the beans and fried black pudding, maybe bump it up with a stock cube. It is truly delicious. The liquid is thinner than flour-thickened or reduced stews, but has a clear penetrating meatiness, along with a hint of something dark and atavistic from the morcilla. Pork fat cleaves like evil tofu, and the seasoning headed up by the paprika gives the whole thing a unified direction. Make a big pot and eat it every day until you're sick of it.
Hooray for delicious stew. Stop laughing at the back there, Pablo.