Recently someone asked me for restaurant recommendations in Andalucía, where I lived for three months in 2009. I had to admit that I had very few, mainly because why, in a land that entertains standing up, not sitting down, at a bar, not a table, would you choose to sit at a distance from all the action, paying for food when you could eat for free or, at least, for very little and have a lot more fun? Going out for tapas, as far as I am concerned, is one of the most civilised and joyous ways to spend an evening on the planet. And by tapas I don’t mean the UK version of them, where six or so olives (I’m looking at you Bar Pepito) costs about £2; I mean the Granadina way where for every tiny little caña of beer or copa of vino, you get a small piece of tortilla de patatas, a croqueta or a slice of bread with olive oil and Manchego for nothing.
In three months in Granada I ate in a restaurant about three times and it was rarely as much fun as standing in Bar Castañeda, crammed together with the rest of the city and yet never feeling crowded, standing up but never feeling tired, snatching mouthfuls of food across the bar and earfuls of conversation above the noise. I was in my proverbial element; a little bit of me always dies in a British bar, where the focus is so much more on drinking too much and not well, where the older you are the less fun it is and where the food on offer is either foil-wrapped or sit-down posh.
Yes, I know, and I’m grateful to know, that it’s changing but so far in Britain the only place that I’ve found that has the slightest sniff of proper Spanish style and fun is Bar Tozino. And it’s a) not that easy to get to from north London and b) only open three nights per week. So, sometimes you just have to make Spain, or at least a version of Spain, come to you. This week, at Stella’s wine club, we were tasting Spanish wine and I can safely say that preparing and serving tapas for ten people, to go with wines from my favourite region (I’m sensing a theme here…), was one of the most fun nights I’ve had since I left the Albayzín.
I am not a wine snob because I can’t afford to be but I am very particular about which countries’ wines I drink. Spanish wine, you may not be surprised to know, is my favourite, closely followed by wines from other places I’ve lived (the Loire and Alsace). After that (!) I’m not that fussy, though I draw the line at anything that combines the words ‘cheap’ and ‘New World’. My main reason for loving Spanish wine is that if, like me, you generally buy your wine from one or two places (the supermarket or The Wine Society), the most consistent quality and value seems to come from Iberia. Friends have laughed at me and then, ha, tried it and discovered that I’m right. Buy a bottle of French wine in the supermarket and you may live to regret it. Whereas most £5 tempranillos, often from Navarra like this one, have yet to fail me.
The point of Stella’s wine club though, is to try wines that you might not usually come across or be able to afford on your own: one made with an unusual grape like Mencía, an aged white Rioja that is too expensive for everyday life or a wine that you’d never dare to order since it is unpronounceable (the list of everything we tried and links to where they’re sold, if available, is below). For me, the joy of matching food to such easy-going wines is that as long as you aim for the tapa-inspired, the salty and, to finish off, the fragrant and sweet, you will find serendipity. I made pan con tomate, paprika-roasted almendras (from a Moro recipe), tortillas, chorizo with oloroso inspired by this, some very simply dressed Little Gem lettuce hearts and a Moroccan orange and almond cake. An array of Manchego and membrillo, some salami from Santander called fuet and some anchovies filled any gaps. There weren’t many.
If I could eat and drink like this every day I would be happier than happy. But, since I can’t, I shall just squeeze in some pan con tomate for breakfast, some almendras with a glass of Txomin Etkaniz, my favourite white, and some chorizo with the Cellar Cal Pla Priorat. Life can sometimes be completely and utterly perfect.
The recipes for the almonds and the tortilla con patates follow; may I just say, since it’s still February, that I made both of these with, ahem, store-cupboard ingredients…
Roasted paprika almonds (adapted from Moro)
Makes enough for 10 people as a tapa
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp Spanish pimentón (I use this one)
400g blanched almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 150°C/130°C/gas mark 2.
2. Put the almonds on a baking tray covered in baking parchment and roast until golden brown (about 30 minutes but keep checking them so they don’t go too dark).
3. Whilst the almonds are roasting, grind the sea salt to a fine powder and mix it in a large bowl with the olive oil and paprika.
4. When the almonds are brown, remove from the oven (don’t impatiently shove the baking sheet into the sink just yet) and tip the nuts into the mixing bowl. Stir until covered with the oil-salt-paprika mixture then tip back onto the lined baking sheet and return to the oven for a few minutes.
5. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before serving.
Tortilla de patates aka as the best store-cupboard recipe ever (adapted from Moro and many a lesson in Spain)
(You will need a decent frying-pan for this, ideally one about 4-5cm deep, 20-24cm wide with straight sides. But don’t worry if yours isn’t quite right; mine is 24cm wide, with slanty sides and about 3cm deep and I managed, twice.)
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
700g firm waxy potatoes
sunflower oil, enough to cover the potatoes and a little extra for frying
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
NB The thing to remember about a tortilla is that it is not a Spanish omelette, or any sort of omelette i.e. it is not eggs with filling but the reverse: it is filling with eggs to hold it together. If you think of it like that it won’t be odd to see that there seem to be tons more potatoes than eggs. And please don’t skip the potato cooking or add them cold to the eggs; they start to cook the eggs before they get into the pan and it’s key.
1. Peel the potatoes, cut them in half lengthways and then cut them crossways into thin slices (you should end up with D-shapes). Put the slices into a big bowl of cold water and leave for a few minutes (to rinse some of the starch off). Then put them in a colander and leave to drain.
2. When the potatoes have dried off a little (hurry up the process if you want by tipping them into a clean tea towel and patting them), tip them into a high-sided saucepan and cover with sunflower oil (the oil should just cover them and not come further than halfway up the sides of the pan). Heat gently and cook very slowly until a fork goes into a slice easily. Don’t cook too quickly or the slices will colour and you don’t want that.
3. When the potatoes are nearly done beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl with a pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper.
4. Once the potatoes are cooked remove from the oil either with a slotted spoon or by draining them through a colander or sieve (you can keep the oil for something else). Then tip them into the eggs and stir once or twice to mix (it will be quite a heavy mixture).
5. Put a spoonful of oil into a frying pan over a high heat and as the oil heats up tip the pan to coat its base and sides. As soon as the oil starts to smoke a little tip out any excess oil then tip the tortilla mixture into the pan and shake the pan to help the mixture to settle evenly.
6. Lower the heat and cook the tortilla for about 3-5 minutes until it is brown underneath.
7. Now the complicated bit. Once the tortilla is brown on the underside place a plate over the frying pan (use oven gloves, if you need your hands for anything else…) then turn the pan over so that the tortilla is now on the plate, cooked side up.
8. Put the now-empty frying pan back on the heat, add a little more oil and again, leave it on a high heat until it smokes, coat the sides of the pan then tip out the excess.
9. Slide the tortilla back into the frying pan, making sure you tuck in all the bits that have slid out onto the plate, lower the heat and cook the underneath until it is also golden brown. This should take about 3-5 minutes.
10. Once cooked on the underneath, slide the tortilla out onto a clean plate, leave to cool and then slice into wedges before serving.
Wine Club wines
Sanchez Romate Fino Perdido, £7.50 The Wine Society
Txomin Etkaniz, Txakoli, 2011, available here and here
Valdesil Montenovo Godello, £7.50, The Wine Society
Pazo Señorans Albariño, 2011, £11.95 The Wine Society
Cellar Cal Pla, Priorat 2007, £13, Theatre of Wine
Bodega Mengoba, Brezo, Mencia, Bierzo, 2010, Theatre of Wine
La Rioja Alta, The Society’s Exhibition Rioja Reserva, 2006, £12.50, The Wine Society
Senorio de Sarria, Moscatel, Navarra, 2010, Theatre of Wine, £12.60