Regionality is a foodie buzz word. Yet increasingly dishes in vogue transcend their locality. Take the dosa, fermented lentil and rice crepe of South India. Such is its popularity you’ll now find it across the whole of the Sub-continent and in many a street food spot in the UK (though I notice it is absent from the revamped Bundobust menu). Well, I always, felt I wasn’t getting the full masala dosa experience there with their mini-version. I like mine to be huge crispy, stuffed scrolls.
Which brings us, by a roundabout route, to the previous insularity of Spanish regional cuisines. Tapas and Pintxos may be Iberian cousins but Andalucian and Basque culture and food stem from separate bedrocks. I recall an Eighties Spanish road trip when in some Castilian cantina I ordered a Manzanilla. Expecting a chilled glass of saline dry sherry from Sanlucar de Barrameida in the south, I was rewarded with a glass of chamomile (‘little apple’) tea. That confusion wouldn’t happen nowadays. Ditto on a Seville wine list you might easily find a Galician Albarino alongside sherries and local drops.
All corners of Spain retain distinctive cuisines of their own alongside the tourist staples of paella and sangria, but some very specific dishes named for their place of origin are also now ubiquitous in markets and on bar counters.
Take Berenjenas Almagro, pickled aubergine speciality from the sleepy La Mancha town of Almagro. Think a less complicated cousin of the Sicilian Caponata. Tastier maybe. I’d like to say I first came across the dish, which is eaten cold, in situ or even in Bilbao or Seville but it was in Paul Richardson’s revelatory 2007 culinary travelogue, A Late Dinner: Discovering The Food of Spain. More recently I found a workable recipe on Page 202 of Rick Stein’s Spain, spin-off from one of his more informed BBC series. Home prepared, though, it never tastes as good as in Spain.
Perched in the south of the vast meseta that is the Castilian heartland, Don Quixote country, Almagro (pronounced alˈmayɾo) is made for telly. Notably its Plaza Mayor and 16th century theatre, both products of the wealth generated by mercury mining, though it is the lacemaking introduced by Flemish families in that period that is the major legacy today. Oh and for hundreds of years before and after a particular aubergine recipe has been a constant.
Of Indian origin, the aubergine arrived in Spain via the Berbers. You see the name adapt to its new territories – the Persian badingan to the Arab badinjan to the Spanish berenjena, eventually to the French aubergine. Along the way it conquered a bad press, which had it responsible for piles, cancer, leprosy, poisoning and insanity. Indeed, the Italian name, melanzane, comes from the Latin mala insana or ‘mad apple’.
Still it became a fundamental part of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Not always as the ample purple specimen that dominates our shelves. Often it was white or green striped and the size of an egg, hence its American name, the eggplant.
It’s this variant that the folk of Almagro took to their hearts and their pickling vats. If you attempt to recreate it at home seek out Thai aubergines or at a pinch the mini dark varieties in Asian stores. It’s hard to find any canned Berenjenas Almagro in the UK.
Rick Stein’s Pickled Aubergine Almagro Style
1.25kg small aubergines
3 large roasted red peppers
500ml red wine vinegar
120ml olive oil
3tbsp caster sugar
½tsp crushed dried red chilli flakes
2tsp pimentón dulce
25g garlic cloves crushed
2tsp freshly ground cumin seeds
½tsp dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a pan of well salted water to the boil. Make a small slit lengthwise in each aubergine down to within 1cm of the stalk. Drop them into the water for five minutes or until just tender, yet crunchy. Drain, leave to cool.
Meanwhile split open the red peppers, discard the stalks and seeds and cut the flesh into 5mm wide strips. Push a couple of strips into each aubergine slit and then pack them tightly into two sterilised one-litre Kilner jars.
In a pan mix the remaining ingredients with 300ml water, 1tbsp salt and ½tsp pepper. Bring to the boil, pour over the aubergines, so they are completely covered, put on the lid and refrigerate. They are ready to eat within 24 hours and will keep for up to three weeks.
From Rick Stein’s Spain (BBC Books, hb £25)
PAUL RICHARDSON, GREAT SPANISH EXPLORER
If there’s one book in English that captures the sheer ‘Duende’ of Spanish regional food it is A Late Dinner, companion piece to the earlier Our Lady of the Sewers, Richardson’s quest for the old, dark Spain. Both are highly recommended. The author has lived in Spain since 1990, latterly, self-sufficiently with his husband on a remote Extremaduran farm. How he came there is the central theme of a recent When In Spain Podcast.
He has shared many discoveries about his adopted country. A pickled aubergine is not too humble to acknowledge. For A Late Dinner after encountering Maria del Carmen Sanchez Serrano, a berenjerena or ‘one who occupies herself with aubergine’ since she was eight year old, he visits the family pickling works, born out of extreme hardship following the Civil War. The key elements are the aubergines the size of a small fist grown in the richer soils of nearby Aldea del Rey and getting the boiling time exactly right before curing.
“I said goodbye before she stomped off to load up the van; tomorrow she had a delivery. We shook hands. Her arms were stained orange with pimentón – the permanent tan of the aubergine maker. ‘Berenjerenos, berenjerenos, that’s what we are. And it’s too late to be anything else,’ she said with a smile of resignation, tiredness and satisfaction.”
For tourism information on Amalgro and the Ciudad Real region visit this link.