Friday, July 03, 2015

Spanish Ham, and a recipe for Meat Omelet (1851.)

Today, as promised, I follow-on from yesterday’s post and give you another section from Gatherings from Spain, (1851) by Richard Ford. The piece is clearly in praise of the pig – the Spanish variety, that is:

Bacon throughout the length and breadth of the Peninsula is more honoured than this, or than any one or all the fathers of the church of Rome; the hunger after the flesh of the pig is equalled only by the thirst for the contents of what is put afterwards into his skin; and with reason, for the pork of Spain has always been, and is, unequalled in flavour; the bacon is fat and flavoured, the sausages delicious, and the hams transcendantly superlative, to use the very expression of Diodorus Siculus, a man of great taste, learning, and judgment. Of all the things of Spain, no one need feeling ashamed to plead guilty to a predilection and preference to the pig. A few particulars may be therefore pardoned.
In Spain pigs are more numerous even than asses, since they pervade the provinces. As those of Estremadura, the Hampshire of the Peninsula, are the most esteemed, they alone will be now noticed. That province, although so little visited by Spaniards or strangers, is full of interest to the antiquarian and naturalist; and many are the rides at different periods which we have made through its tangled ilex groves, and over its depopulated and aromatic wastes. A granary under Roman and Moor, its very existence seems to be all but forgotten by the Madrid government, who have abandoned it to feræ naturæ, to wandering sheep, locusts, and swine. The entomology of Estremadura is endless, and perfectly uninvestigated—de minimis non curat Hispanus; but the heavens and earth teem with the minute creation; there nature is most busy and prolific, where man is most idle and unproductive; and in these lonely wastes, where no human voice disturbs the silence, the balmy air resounds with the buzzing hum of multitudinous insects, which career about on their business of love or food without settlements or kitchens, rejoicing in the fine weather which is the joy of their tiny souls, and short-lived pleasant existence. Sheep, pigs, locusts, and doves are the only living things which the traveller will see for hours and hours. Now and then a man occurs, just to prove how rare his species is here. Vast districts of this unreclaimed province are covered with woods of oak, beech, and chesnut; but these park-like scenes have no charms for native eyes; blind to the picturesque, they only are thinking of the number of pigs which can be fattened on the mast and acorns, which are sweeter and larger than those of our oaks. The acorns are still called bellota, the Arabic bollotbelot being the Scriptural term for the tree and the gland, which, with water, formed the original diet of the aboriginal Iberian, as well as of his pig; when dry, the acorns were ground, say the classical authors, into bread, and, when fresh, they were served up as the second course. And in our time ladies of high rank at Madrid constantly ate them at the opera and elsewhere; they were the presents sent by Sancho Panza's wife to the Duchess, and formed the text on which Don Quixote preached so eloquently to the goatherds, on the joys and innocence of the golden age and pastoral happiness, in which they constituted the foundation of the kitchen. The pigs during the greater part of the year are left to support nature as they can, and in gauntness resemble those greyhound-looking animals which pass for porkers in France. When the acorns are ripe and fall from the trees, the greedy animals are turned out in legions from the villages, which more correctly may be termed coalitions of pigsties. They return from the woods at night, of their own accord, and without a swine's general. On entering the hamlet, all set off at a full gallop, like a legion possessed with devils, in a handicap for home, into which each single pig turns, never making a mistake. We have more than once been caught in one of these pig-deluges, and nearly carried away horse and all, as befell Don Quixote, when really swept away by the "far-spread and grunting drove." In his own home each truant is welcomed like a prodigal son or a domestic father. These pigs are the pets of the peasants; they are alcalde of the town, to the lover of delicious hams; each jamon averages about 12 lb.; they are sold at the rate of 7 ½  reales, about 18d., for the libra carnicera, which weighs 32 of our ounces. The duties in England are now very trifling; we have for many years had an annual supply of these delicacies, through the favour of a kind friend at the Puerto. The fat of these jamones, whence our word ham and gammon, when they are boiled, looks like melted topazes, and the flavour defies language, although we have dined on one this very day, in order to secure accuracy and undeniable prose, like Lope de Vega, who, according to his biographer, Dr. Montalvan, never could write poetry unless inspired by a rasher; "Toda es cosa vil," said he, "á donde falta un pernil" (in which word we recognize the precise perna whereby Horace was restored) :—

Therefore all writing is a sham,
Where there is wanting Spanish ham.

Those of Gallicia and Catalonia are also celebrated, but are not to be compared for a moment with those of Montanches, which are fit to set before an emperor. Their only rivals are the sweet hams of the Alpujarras, which are made at Trevelez, a pig-hamlet situated under the snowy mountains on the opposite side of Granada, to which also we have made a pilgrimage. They are called dulces or sweet, because scarcely any salt is used in the curing; the ham is placed in a weak pickle for eight days, and is then hung up in the snow; it can only be done at this place, where the exact temperature necessary is certain.

… So much space has been filled with these meritorious bacons and hams, that we must be brief with our remaining bill of fare. For a pisto or meat omelette take eggs, which are to be got almost everywhere; see that they are fresh by being pellucid; beat these huevos trasparentes well up; chop up onions and whatever savoury herbs you have with you; add small slices of any meat out of your hamper, cold turkey, ham, &c.; beat it all up together and fry it quickly. Most Spaniards have a peculiar knack in making these tortillas, revueltas de huevos, which to fastidious stomachs are, as in most parts of the Continent, a sure resource to fall back upon. The Guisado, or stew, like the olla, can only be really done in a Spanish pipkin, and of those which we import, the Andalucian ones draw flavour out the best. This dish is always well done by every cook in every venta, barring that they are apt to put in bad oil, and too much garlic, pepper, and saffron. Superintend it, therefore, yourself, and take hare, partridge, rabbit, chicken, or whatever you may have foraged on the road; it is capital also with pheasant, as we proved only yesterday; cut it up, save the blood, the liver, and the giblets; do not wash the pieces, but dry them in a cloth; fry them with onions in a teacup of oil till browned; take an olla, put in these bits with the oil, equal portions of wine and water, but stock is better than water; claret answers well, Valdepeñas better; add a bit of bacon, onions, garlic, salt, pepper, pimientos, a bunch of thyme or herbs; let it simmer, carefully skimming it; half an hour before serving add the giblets; when done, which can be tested by feeling with a fork, serve hot. The stew should be constantly stirred with a wooden spoon, and grease, the ruin of all cookery, carefully skimmed off as it rises to the surface. When made with proper care and with a good salad, it forms a supper for a cardinal, or for Santiago himself. 

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