Nick and I grabbed ourselves a little break in Andalucia last week. We stayed in Gaucín - a pueblo blanco perched improbably on the side of a deep valley - forty five minutes drive up winding mountain roads in a rather reluctant Ford Fiesta. From the roof terrace of our casita, you could have sailed a paper aeroplane all the way to the Rif mountains in Morocco. Before bed, we inhaled the herb scented air and let our gaze sweep out across the night sky to enjoy the expanse of space in the valley. A vast pool of treacle dark air, studded with stars, inviting our eyes to swim across. Africa twinkled back, thrillingly close.
As we were staying in a fairly rural town, nobody spoke English. This suits us fine, as Nick can get by and I'm learning. However, in the south people are too relaxed to bother finishing a word properly - so some interpretation of any sentence is always needed. 'Buenas dias!' becomes 'Buen dia' and so on, leading to some confusion if the understanding of a word relies on hearing the ultimate syllable. No matter, we crashed through any number of social interactions, misconjugating and laughing with the locals in a very satisfying way.
On our journey to the casita, we had stopped at a large El Campo for provisions, but neglected to buy anything to fry our breakfast eggs in. We had olive oil for our delicious tomates negros, but no lard or duck fat. I despatched Nick to the local shop to see what he could find and he returned looking delighted with himself. In his hand was a tub of locally produced Manteca (lard), I popped the lid off and inside was creamy, acorn fed, piggy goodness.
Nick told me that the shop keeper had questioned his desire to buy the manteca several times before accepting his cash. He couldn't believe that somebody English and below the age of sixty would prefer to cook in old fashioned pig fat over the more modern vegetable fats now coating the palates of Spain. Across Spain people have absorbed the message that the pig fat they have prized and eaten for generations is now forbidden, a cause of heart disease and weight gain. Shops are filled with bottles of heat expelled vegetable oil and tubs of margarine. In a country where butter is still a novelty - it's a real shame to see them giving away their culinary heritage so easily.
Thankfully, there were still plates of delicious jamon de bellota to be eaten in the bars - slick and soft with warm fat, sweet and salty in equal measure.
In the carniceria we found morcilla (blood sausage) made entirely without grain. I questioned the butcher about the ingredients a couple of times, in case he had neglected to mention the breadcrumbs, flour or suspicious looking powders that are often added into spanish sausage. It was simply, inherently gluten free - the way they make it up here in the mountains; blood, onion, garlic, salt and cinnamon. Each morning, we sliced off a little more and fried it up to eat with our eggs, peppers and tomatoes. It was unbelievably delicious - tender, savoury, delicately spiced and richly sustaining.
One evening I found I had a hankering for something like pudding. Dessert in spain relies on dairy or wheat - both off the menu for me. So I bought some paella rice and fashioned a rice pudding for myself using almond milk, a little sugar and a vanilla rooibos teabag. It was ok, but lacking something. Definitely not the creamy pudding I was after. A little head scratching and a rootle in the fridge produced the manteca - creamy for sure, but maybe a little too porky for a rice pudding? I scooped some in anyway, in a moment of culinary recklessness and it was completely delicious! I dare you to try it for yourself.
Arroz Dulce con Manteca
Per person quantities
1 handful of pudding rice
about 250ml rice or almond milk
heaped tsp good quality lard or duck fat
a vanilla rooibos teabag - or some vanilla extract
small pinch sea salt
Pop everything in a heavy bottomed pan and bring to the boil.
Take out the teabag and give it a squeeze. Cover the pan and turn the heat as low as it will go.
Cook the rice, stirring occasionally until it is completely tender and has become risotto consistency. Add more milk if needed, or turn up the heat a little to drive off moisture.
Serve in small bowls sprinkled with a little ground cinnamon.