Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Holy Week in Andalucia.
Nowadays, religion might not be as important a cultural and social phenomenon in the larger Spanish cities, but for the smaller towns and villages of Andalucia, the religious rites, parades and gatherings of the week previous to Easter (La Semana Santa) are definitely some of the most important activities of the year.
The street celebrations of the Passion of Christ, organized by “Brotherhoods” and religious groups known as Cuarteles, began in the 16th century and are still extremely well attended today. They combine religious devotion and popular revelry. Each individual town expresses unique characteristics of the popular religious zeal with parades of mask-wearing individuals representing figures from the Old and New Testament, enrobed and hooded penitents, companies of drumming “Jews”, “Roman” centurions, and enrobed men and women with crosses, icons, candles and incense, and townspeople in their finery watching the procession (see detailed story in Destinations).
Gastronomically, most of the traditional Lenten meatless dishes are still served both at homes and in restaurants. The observance of the meatless tradition during Lent and especially during the Holy Week is not as absolute today as it was 45 years ago when I first visited Spain; all of the dishes we experienced were flavorful and very tasty. Cooked spring vegetables, salads, lentils and pulses are the basis of the Lenten diet together with preserved or dried vegetables and fruit. Olive oil, one of the principal Andalucian products, is lavishly used. Proteins come from fish and seafood and limited servings of cheese and eggs.
Salted, dried cod (bacalao), desalted and reconstituted was served during all lunches and dinners in diverse preparations. Salt cod is an ubiquitous ingredient in all European kitchens, as the dried fish has a storage life of several years. The name is similar in almost all European languages i.e. bacalhau in Portuguese, bacalao in Spanish, bakaiļao - Basque, bacallà -Catalan, μπακαλιάρος (bakaliáros) - Greek, baccalà – Italian, bakkeljauw – Dutch etc.
During our journey, smoked pork, sausages and hams were also served on almost every of our tables -- I thought because we were considered foreign dignitaries -- but I was rather surprised to see chorizo and jamon Iberico from black-footed pigs consumed at the Brotherhood houses and the Cuarteles we visited, together with copious amounts of beer and Fino, a fortified, practically colorless, very dry sherry made in Montilla-Moriles from Palomino grapes.
As far as wines were concerned, the most notable were the above mentioned Fino – a traditional accompaniment to tapas – and another sherry, a Pedro Ximenez popularly known as PX, which is a very thick and deliciously sweet wine redolent of Mediterranean resins and sweet molasses, very dark-colored though made from white grapes.
Easter-specific almond cookies, doughnut-like sweets and sugar covered fritters were frequently offered together with a glass of PX or a shot of anise-flavored liqueur. The powdered sugar covered almond cookies are ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean and taste almost the same, whether you are in Baena (Andalucia), Sardinia, Crete or Cyprus.
When I called the fino I was sipping “Amontillado” I was corrected by the locals. I was told that Amontillado is a wine made mostly outside of Montilla-Moriles “in the style of a fino” (sic); but because their fino is made locally i.e. in Montilla-Moriles which is an area in the southern part of the Province of Córdoba, it should be called Fino and not Amontillado. Sherries, in general, are some of the world's greater wines and can be incredibly delicious and extremely food-friendly.
From all the dishes we experienced, three were really exceptional and I asked for the recipes which I’m offering below:
Chilled Gazpacho Andaluz
2 ¼ lbs. vine-ripened tomatoes (the riper the better)
½ red bell pepper
3 slices stale white bread
½ Granny Smith (green) apple, cored and cut in small dice
2 large garlic cloves
½ cup Extra Virgin olive oil
¼ cup Sherry vinegar
½ cup water
Salt and pepper
Remove the stem and cut the tomatoes in large slices (for better results, peel the tomatoes prior to cutting).
Peel the garlic cloves and chop coarsely ½ of the cucumber and the bell pepper.
Cut the crust off the bread slices, cube and put in a large bowl. Add all previous ingredients and let stand for 15 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
In a good food processor put all ingredients and add the olive oil, Sherry vinegar and water. Blend well. It must be creamy with some texture. Pour in a pitcher and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. If the mixture is too thick add some more water, if it’s too loose serve it in glasses or mugs.
When ready to serve, garnish with small dice of the balance of the cucumber and the apple or, alternatively, sprinkle on top crumbled Manchego cheese and add a small piece of very crisp bacon.
Andalucian Spinach and Chickpeas
2 cups water
10 oz baby spinach, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 or 3 large garlic cloves, minced
½ tbsp smoked Spanish paprika
½ tsp ground cumin
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained or ½ lb. dried chickpeas rechydrated overnight
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Eggs, for frying, one per serving
Crusty bread for serving
Preheat an oven to 275 degrees.
In a large oven-proof sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and cook the onion until translucent. Add the spinach and 1 cup of water and simmer until the spinach is wilted and cooked through and the liquid has nearly evaporated. Stir in the garlic, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper, and any additional oil if necessary. Sauté until the spinach has softened completely and is beginning to fall apart, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the chickpeas, the balance of the olive oil, and a cup of water or stock. Stir to combine and bring to a gentle simmer.
Cover the pan with foil or transfer the mixture to a casserole dish and place in the oven for 15 to 25 minutes, until the chickpeas have softened completely, and the liquids have thickened to a stew consistency.
When ready to serve, add a fried sunny-side-up egg on top of each portion and serve immediately.
3 ½ cups of whole milk
½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
¾ cup anise liqueur
3 oz sugar
2 ½ oz pastry flour
1 ¼ oz corn starch
1 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 egg yolks
Zest of 1 lemon
3 to 4 drops vanilla
Olive oil for frying
Flour for frying
2 eggs beaten for frying
Mixture of powdered cinnamon and sugar
Heat the milk with the cinnamon stick and lemon zest then add the 3 oz of sugar and ¼ cup of the anise liqueur; cook at low temperature. Make sure milk doesn’t boil over. After 10 minutes remove from heat and cool. Remove cinnamon stick and lemon zest.
In another pan, heat olive oil, add flour, corn starch and vanilla, and stir well. Once the mixture is warm, add milk mixture little by little over low heat stirring well until all ingredients are well mixed. Continually stir for 10 minutes.
Remove mixture from heat and whisk in egg yolks to prepare a custard.
Grease an ovenproof shallow dish with olive oil, pour in the mixture to a depth of about 1 ½ inch and cool in a refrigerator for about 2 hours.
Beat the eggs for frying.
Cut custard into squares. Coat each of the squares with flour, dip into the beaten eggs and fry them over medium heat.
Sieve over the top the powdered cinnamon and sugar mix.
When ready to serve dissolve the balance 1 cup sugar with a little water to make a syrup and add the rest of the anise liqueur.
Ignite the syrup, pour over each fried square and serve while flaming.
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