Touring the South

This video features a visit made by the ICEX Young Chef’s Culinary Scholarship participants to Andalusia. The following text by Miles captures some of his impressions from that trip.

Traditional pig slaughter and out-of-the-barrel sherry tastings; the South lived up to its rugged reputation. A five-hour drive south and the landscape started to become noticeably drier, while the plateaus changed into the rolling, rocky hills of Extremadura. This area, which is covered in Spanish oak trees, is the breeding grounds for the famous Iberian pig. These ‘farm lands’ have one necessary law, permitting farmers to slaughter their own animals.

This was shockingly and informatively demonstrated for the group when we visited the family farm of the owner of Hotel Rocamador, the place where we were staying. The large kitchen was busy with activity; his mother was making traditional pastries, using lard they had rendered, while other family members were tying up dried-out pig casings and getting ready for the day’s sausage-making. There was cured meat hanging from the ceiling and the smell of smoke from the open fireplace drifted through the air.

The group was taken through the kitchen and outside to the patio . The familiar sounds of rooting pigs came from just over the fence. Spread around the gravel floor of the patio were tables with string, a box of knives, a wheel-barrel and three men in blue jumpsuits. The scene reminded me of a gangster movie where someone was getting “whacked”. The men, who were the village butchers, were each holding a different apparatus specially designed for pig catching.

Although I have seen many animals slaughtered on farms before, this experience was very different.
The pig was tied to the table so that it couldn’t move or thrash when killed. The hunter of the family used a knife to stab down through the neck. The pig struggled for a minute, while the still-beating heart pumped out the blood used to make the famous morcilla into a bowl . Once cleaned of hair, the animal was butchered right away and all its meat was processed. A few special cuts were saved, including the tenderloin, the loin, and a special part of the shoulder called the secreto, but the rest was cut up for curing and all the fat was rendered. Using the whole animal like this shows respect for its bounty. Finally, homemade pastries and coffee provided the perfect ending to this educational day!

The pork secreto is saved along with other choice cuts.

After the relaxing experience in the rugged country, the trip continued on to the city of Seville. This tropical, southern city is filled with history, religion, and tradition. First, a demonstration on table olives, a product with more work under the skin than it appears. The complicated cooking and preserving techniques required to take the fruit from the olive tree, which is bitter and horribly inedible, and turn it into something extremely addictive, is no simple task. Although there are many ways to use table olives, the best and most simple is to enjoy them as a snack with an afternoon beer.

Later, we explored the city’s core, passing through cobblestone alleyways and admiring the architecture, with its many Islamic and Roman influences. This revealed a city with a rich and complicated past. Once a trading metropolis, this city is credited with the invention of Spanish tapas. As a result, Seville is filled with thousands of small bars filling the streets with people. We were led on small tapas tour and enjoyed trying a few traditional dishes, including: Croquetas de bacalao  (cod croquettes), Calamares en su tinta (squid braised in its ink), Judías (beans) and chorizo (sausage), among others.

The following morning we were up early and off to the Escuela de Hosteleria de Sevilla for a demonstration led by Julio Fernández, one of the city’s one-Michelin star chefs and co-owner of Abantal Restaurant. My personal highlights of the tasting demonstration: the fried baby shrimp and a chilled tomato soup with salt-dried tuna, sieved egg, and of course, olive oil.

Fried baby shrimp prepared by Chef Julio Fernández.

The next day we were back on the bus, headed to the so-called sherry triangle, an area that provides one of Spain’s strongest identities and a subject that I knew very little about. In Jeréz we attended a private tasting hosted by the Sherry Export Board – a lesson that proved to be both informative and tasty. This is a truly unique wine that is under appreciated! The varieties range from the very dry Fino, to the extremely sweet Pedro Ximénez, thereby demonstrating the great adaptability of these wines for both pairing and cooking.

The night finished with a raw Flamenco demonstration in an old tavern located down an alley. Surprise washed over our faces as the first dancer started slamming her feet onto the wooden stage. When I think of Flamenco, the stereotype in my mind has always been that of an elegant couple dancing in flailing costumes. Although the latter part of that is true, it was nothing like I had expected. Five chairs were lined up at the back of the stage. Two were occupied by an older, rugged singer, and his skinny guitar player. The other 3 held costumed dancers. All were clapping in a seemingly mismatched sort of rhythm. The dancers took their turns; energetically taking over the center stage and flinging their hair, arms, and feet to the rhythm.

The late night left a morning cloudiness on my brain. Like sheep, we were shuffled back on the bus and off to another tasting. But the morning fog was swiftly lifted by the smell of sherry vinegar. We passed through the musty aging rooms filled with old sherry barrels, to the tasting room. With every wine production there are always ‘mistakes’, and from these mishaps a new product was created. The
vinegar was good, even though drinking it straight isn’t the most pleasant thing. Recipes were already cooking in my mind.

The next stop was a visit to the biggest sherry bodega in the region: Williams and Humbert, where we started with a long walk through the thousands of barrels that were aging the wines. Seeing so many barrels stacked in pyramid formation showed the solera system perfectly. This was followed by a couple of out-of-the-barrel tastings – something that is always interesting regardless of whether of not the wine is ready.

This was an interesting trip that showcased a completely different culture and region – once again highlighting Spain’s diversity!

Text: Miles Pundsack-Poe, participant in 2012 ICEX Young Chefs Culinary Scholarship in Spain.

Photos: Miles Pundasack-Poe, ICEX.

Restaurants: Echaurren (Ezcaray, La Rioja), from March 14 – June 14 and Nerua (Bilbao), from June 14 – September 14.



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