The brain’s a funny old thing.
Absolute catnip to your shuffling zombie of course, though these days the ponderous, twitching gait is now no longer the undead’s sole locomotion of choice. Today’s voguish cadavers have a turn of speed which would shame an athlete. For what it’s worth, I’m in the Romero camp.
But the brain- It has a whole box of tricks, too: it can convince the critically ill they’ve met a divine presence, tell you that 3am dodgy doner is a splendid idea, or gull a board of directors into appointing David Moyes.
One of its favourite quirks is allowing the olfactory bulb to whisper sweet nothings to your amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which plants associations deep in our core.
Which is why a smell can suddenly- instantly- whisk us away to a remote time and place, fix us at a point through sensory input. Ask Marcel Proust.
Take me for example (if you must, comes the response unbidden…). I’m a shade over six feet, a father and possessing slightly more heft than I’d like. But the smell of hot olive oil, or specifically of meat or fish hitting hot olive oil, and the years fall away and I’m seven years old again. I’m in the doorway of my Abuelita’s kitchen. Valladolid, Castilla y Leon, north-western Spain. She’s in her red-scarlet, really- housecoat, which covers the eternal widow’s weeds, as she starts to cook lunch for ten. Or was it 12? 14? Either way, she has just returned from the local butcher and fishmonger and grocer and baker; batons of still-warm bread stand proud of the bag on the chair; two bottles of tinto, and another of clear lemonade in one of those stoppered bottles you so rarely see these days, sit to the left. A plate of beaten egg, another of seasoned flour, for coating the flattened-out chicken breasts and the hake cutlets that await the peppery oil.
She’s been out early, of course, and the routine never varies.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My grandmother was a formidable woman. In the sense the French use the word. Always immaculately turned out in black lace, always scrupulously made up and coiffed and never without her gold. Physically imposing somehow, despite not being tall. And I was a seven-year-old scrawn, so no doubt impressions were heightened. She always gave off this sternness, this impression that life had not been easy somehow, that successes had been hard-won. That she had faced life full on, and stared it down, and remained unbroken. Undaunted. Indomitable. A kind of ‘¡No pasarán!’ of the spirit, long after the War had finished.
And they had; it can’t have been easy having a child out of wedlock in Spain in the 1920s, and no-one makes a vital commodity out of shame quite as well as a society dominated by the sensibilities of the Roman Catholic church. That meant she rarely left the house during the child’s short life. A family portrait painted some years later has him there, frozen in perpetual infancy, among the seven siblings he never met.
No doubt, this didn’t endear her to her in-laws; although she soon married Félix and they went on to have another seven children, the blight of Civil War by the birth of their third had split the country and turned families against themselves. (My grandfather’s family had never thought she was good enough for their youngest son: although her family had itself been financially prosperous, her father was seen as too pushy, too ‘working class’, too much the ‘self made man’ for his daughter to marry their Félix. He had been the youngest of eight and the blue-eyed boy, or whatever the equivalent is among Castilians of Jewish descent.)
Come the War, she was firmly on the side of the ‘Red’ faction, a rift that was perhaps never quite reconciled in her mind, certainly not for decades. The family she had married into supported Franco’s Nationalists (and Valladolid was something of a hotbed of military support for the General) and were unwavering in their support. Several of her brothers-in-law were Catholic priests who for years after would visit to attempt to persuade her and the children- my mother among them- that Rome was the only true church and was waiting for their return- and perhaps they were there the night their family set Abuelita’s Protestant church on fire, leaving only its shell. (Unknown to them, she managed to salvage the pulpit Bible and the Communion set, which she hid in the family home). When the building had been gutted it was rebuilt as quarters for Franco-supporting Italian troops. That kind of insult, that kind of spite, leaves its mark on a person. No wonder the wounds still ached decades later.
(That church, in her home village of Cigales, would later be restored and re-consecrated. The occasion? The wedding of her daughter to my father. 28th December 1967. Sometimes life rights itself.)
My grandfather, of course, was much more the congenial sort: playing dominoes on a table outside his bars, beret and omnipresent tinted glasses on, a glass of wine and rumped pack of cigarettes and ashtray in front of him. Always playing for money, of course. Always the heart and soul, always a very affectionate presence: the kind of man who would stumble in at 2am and wake everyone to tell them how much he had missed them and how very much he loved them. I always recall him in a fug of cigarettes and tinto, hugging and performing that trick all father have in their repertoire- the playful scratch of stubble on their child’s cheeks. He poured me my first glass of red wine, topping it up with lemonade (vino con gas) when I was seven. These of course are the kind of things that mean you’re adored by your children and grandchildren, and feted by your friends, but less so by your wife.
He was a talented business man; specifically, he had an eye for a bargain and for what would sell. The business grew. They built it together; what started with my grandmother having a reputation as someone who would help the needy, or being the person you’d ask to make the most of a humble rabbit you’d caught, became a group of businesses in Valladolid. By the year my mother married and left Spain, there were four of them, all offering food and wine and coffee. It’s shocking by contemporary standards that there was thought little amiss when my mother stopped attending school to cook in the family kitchens, preparing tapas and raciónes for her father’s customers. She was ten.
I will get to the point soon, honestly.
For all that she was an imposing, often stern woman, I knew she loved me, the grandson she saw only every couple of years. She would pinch my cheeks and beam ‘¡que guapo!‘ (with the poetic license afforded to relatives) or be physically affectionate, even though we shared little common language. For another, she fed me well. That’s always stayed with me I suppose; I simply can’t understand people who show no real knowledge of, or enthusiasm for, food. Food is love and love is food.
And in my family, since I was a lad, the one thing that has symbolised home and comfort and warmth and all that is good, is the humble croqueta.
This is the recipe my Abuelita taught my mother, and the one my mother taught me. I don’t claim any superiority for this recipe over that of, say Nieves Barragán Mohacho or José Pizarro, who uses lots of extra virgin olive oil to give his croquetas a deeper, richer colour inside.This is about as humble as home cooking gets- indeed, it’s a supreme way to use up your leftover meat and fish and about as adaptable as these things get.
Start by melting 100g of butter (unsalted is best) and stirring in 100g of plain flour to make a basic roux.
You’ll need to cook this out very thoroughly. Stir like a…giant stirring thing. Do not be tempted to cut any corners here or the result will be a disaster. About ten minutes over a lowish heat should do it.
Then add 1 litre of milk- whole is best. Do this gradually, building up your béchamel. Stir incessantly. This is very much hands-on cooking, and demands constant attention, but is wholly worth it. Trust me.
At this stage you’d add your headline ingredient. If it’s jamón, you’ll want to go easier on the salt later. We used cooked prawns and raw chicken (though pre-cooked would be fine), diced very small.
Stir, stir, stir. Keep cooking the mixture until it leaves the side of the pan when you stir, which could take up to 20 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper- for the prawn batch we added some smoked parika (pimentón de La Vera, sweet or hot is up to you- the croqueta is a wonderfully personal thing). The chicken was spiked with the leaves from a few stalks of fresh tarragon.
Once your mixture is cooked out, get it off the heat and allow it to cool a little. Spreading it onto a plate and covering it snugly with cling film will prevent a skin forming on the surface. Refrigerate, overnight if you fancy, but for at least four hours.
When you are ready to assemble your croquetas, prepare your assembly line as your oil heats: a plate each of plain flour, of beaten egg and of breadcrumbs. This is where it gets messy. Hand-form the ‘dough’ into shapes (tapas bars often favour the spherical, but at home we always go for the more cylindrical) and roll in the flour, then the egg and finally the breadcrumbs. The oil is ready when it’s at 180C or when breadcrumbs quickly sizzle to the surface.
Your croquetas are already cooked, so it’s a matter of heating through- 2 or 3 minutes til they are a beguiling brown should be fine. Crisp on the outside, melting inside. Eat them straight away or let them cool a little. Perfect. Pour yourself a cold glass of anything and enjoy the fruits of your labours.
And that’s all there is to it, really.
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.