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IAN & SPAIN

WELCOME TO MY BLOG. HAVING LIVED IN SPAIN FOR OVER TWENTY YEARS I HAVE TRULY MANAGED TO IMMERSE MYSELF IN THE LOCAL CULTURE AND FEEL TOTALLY INTEGRATED. I WILL BE WRITING ABOUT MY PASSION FOR SPANISH FOOD AND DRINK AS WELL AS ITS CULTURE, PEOPLE AND PLACES OF SPECIAL INTEREST. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A COMMENT.

Finally, a decent olive oil in Mercadona!
30 May 2019

One of my favourite olive oil producers, Aceites Oro Bailén, has just started selling an extra virgin olive oil in Mercadona. The producer has reached an agreement with the supermarket chain to supply an exclusive EVOO using the Picual variety under the brand name Casa Juncal. This producer has won numerous prizes nationally and internationally and is one of the best "early olive oil" producers in the country.

 

 

Since I moved house it has been even more difficult to get to a Carrefour or a Corte Inglés to buy decent olive oil, but finally, there is a decent olive oil in my local supermarket. OK, it's not as great as their best Olive Oil - Reserva Familiar Picual, but it is miles better than the oils on sale up to now, which have been no more than mediocre or bad.

It is an early oil from the November harvest giving it a more intense fruity flavour, however, it is not overpowering and nicely balanced for anyone's palate. Its organoleptic qualities are firstly defined by aromas of green olives, fresh grass and tomatoes with latter nuances of apple and even banana coming through. It offers an interesting balance of sweet and bitter, being a complex but harmonious oil. I would highly recommend you go out and try it. It only costs €3,99 for a 500ml, which is very good value for this oil. As far as pairing is concerned, I would only use this oil raw - on bread, salads, fresh cold sauces, dips etc. 

 

 

If you are interested in knowing more about olive oil here is a series of articles I wrote explaining every aspect of this culinary wonder - the good and the bad! Click here

 

 



Like 1        Published at 10:57   Comments (2)


Do you like olive oil? ...Are you really buying Extra Virgin?
23 May 2019

 

This is the biggest questions facing the olive oil consumer. When you are in a supermarket looking at 50 different brands or at an olive mill expecting to buy the real thing, how do you know you are not being taken for a ride?

Well, there is no 100% guarantee you won’t be, for reasons I will explain, but having a better idea of what to look for will certainly increase your chances of buying the real deal: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, anything else is a waste of money.

Firstly many people ask if it is better to buy directly from the mill or the “Almazara” as we would say in Spanish. The answer will always be yes, but you must know your Almazara and know when to buy. The olive oil season starts in October and ends around January depending on the type of oil that will be harvested, high-quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil tends to be harvested between October and November. This is the best period to visit your mill as the fresher it is the better it is. Let’s not forget that olive oil is essentially a fruit juice as it is the only edible oil that has no chemical manipulation (when it is authentic!). However there are mills and there are mills. Just as there are honest people and crooked people. You are more likely to get the authentic product from a small local mill than a very large one and I highly recommend that you go along and ask them for a tour, especially during the production season. If the mill is receiving the olives and checking them before being washed that is the first step. A responsible mill producing extra virgin will not accept olives picked up from the ground, you may wonder how do they know that? Well it is very obvious as they are soft and wrinkled i.e. too ripe. These should be rejected straight away. The olives should then be separated from the leaves and twigs and then washed. If this is being done correctly you have probably found a decent mill. Next the olive will be crushed within a maximum of 24 hours (the shorter the time the better but being realistic the minimum time is 12 hours) and put in a centrifuge that separates the oil from the pulp, the water and the stone paste. Your chances with a smaller mill are better because they will more than likely sell all of their harvest every year. One needs to have in mind that Spain produces an enormous quantity of olive oil, so much so that it allows large manufacturers to store stock from one year to the next in their olive oil bank. Although there is nothing really wrong with it from a health point of view its organoleptic qualities are obviously not the same. If the harvest has been smaller from one year to next this oil will be used to boost up supply, so you are not getting the fresh olive oil that you were looking for by going to a mill directly. Word of advice, get to know your mill and taste the oil before you buy it.  If they are serious they will be really happy you have shown an interest, as most mills I have seen take pride in their work.

 

   

 

However most people can’t get to a mill, so how do you identify a good olive oil on the supermarket shelf? The first sign is the packaging. Firstly, avoid any large international household brand or white labels in any format of packaging, the volumes they manage are so large they can not maintain the level of quality one should be looking for and they often buy olives from different countries so they are open to being conned as well. Also many Italian brands have been tested in the United States and only 1 out of 5 samples proved to fall into the parameters of Extra Virgin chemically and taste wise many would say none of them. Unfortunately, this problem is not just in the States, but all across Europe too.

 

 

Please remember that any brand that cares the slightest about its quality of olive oil will never use plastic bottles or transparent glass (unless it is packaged in a gift box protecting it's contents). If the oil is packaged in either one of these, walk straight past it, unless the price is your only concern and taste isn’t an issue either. Transparent packaging is olive oil’s worst enemy and plastics are just sinful as it affects the taste very quickly. The light speeds up the oxidation process and I don’t just mean natural sunlight, any light will affect it. The chances are if it was extra virgin when it was packaged  by the time it’s on your kitchen table it will definitely have oxidised far more than necessary due to poor storage in deposits and may even be rancid or have no organoleptic properties worth tasting as you don't know how long it has been exposed to light. This packaging is a perfect excuse for the brands to defend poor quality products  "it must have oxidised due to poor storage conditions”. So why do they use transparent packaging? So you can see the colour.

It has been proven that people are influenced by the colour of olive oil before purchasing, so the brands want you to see the colour to persuade you. I have heard many people saying the greener it is the better it is. This is the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard and there is no truth to it in the slightest. The colour of olive oil has become a science now. It has been proven that the Americans, Indians, Japanese even the Spanish prefer the colour of the greener olive oils, psychologically they think it looks more natural and earthy. This has brought on a tide of criminals into the industry who deliberately colour their olive oil to match these demands. It is the variety of olive and the pigments it carries that determine the colour of the oil. The greener it is the more chlorophyll it has and this does not affect the taste. The more mature the olive the less chlorophyll it has, as the olive turns reddish and then black. So the only indication that the colour can give is the time it was harvested. The premium olive oils tend to be greener as they are the first olives to be harvested, but these are much more expensive as the earlier you harvest the less oil there is in the olive but the better the quality is. So many brands try to imitate this quality. It is surprisingly easy for any mill to make its oil greener than it should be; they simply leave some leaves in with the olives before crushing them. The chlorophyll from the leaves colours the oil, however, this also damages the oil eventually. So beware if the oil is too green, it is distinctively noticeable, a good friend that advises mills around the country alerted me to the problem.

 Colour is not a deciding factor when choosing olive oil, as it has no influence on the quality or flavour of the oil. I am referring to ordinary extra virgin olive oil here, not premium range olive oil, which does tend to be greener.

 That is why olive oil tasters use blue glasses so as not to be influenced by the colour of the oil when judging it. The correct packaging should be dark coloured glass or steel cans if transparent glass is used it should be packaged in an opaque box for safe keeping. Once you have the oil at home it should be kept in a dark cool place, however, it will last for say 6-8 weeks exposed to normal light (not direct sunlight) without too many problems if the olive oil is good quality. The problem is not so much how you treat it at home (although it is recommended to keep it away from the light), as a 500ml bottle won't last you that long, but more how it has been treated up to the time when you purchase it.

The next step is to then identify the information on the bottle. Obviously, it must say “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” and in the ingredients table only “Extra virgin olive oil” should appear and there will be no ingredients table at all as Extra Virgin Olive Oil is itself a unique ingredient. It should also state that the contents have been produced only by mechanical means. This means no refining and no chemical treatments. You may see “first press” or “first cold press” this is the same, the cold press refers to it being pressed or more commonly now centrifuged at ambient temperature, without applying heat. This may sound obvious but Alcampo/Auchan was caught to be selling “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as the sticker advertised but also stated in a box beside the ingredients that the oil had been refined and treated. This is illegal, very misleading and blatant fraud. They claimed it to be a mistake. The problem is that 65% of the olive oil market is white label brands and this is where there tend to be more irregularities. The sticker should also state what variety of olive has been used to make the oil. If it is a blend, all varieties should be stated. The harvest date should also be stated on the bottle or at least the month of harvest, unfortunately this is still rare so if you don’t see a harvest date look at the “best by” date, which should be two years after the oil was bottled to give you an indication of when it was bottled. The best find is a brand that bottles on demand, although there aren’t many.

The acidity level on the bottle is disappearing more and more, as contrary to what many people think the acidity of olive oil has nothing to do with taste when we say acidity we are not referring to acidic taste qualities but the amount of free fatty acids. Obviously the lower it is the better, the maximum allowed for Extra Virgin is 0,8%. Brands that want to make their acidity levels stand out may well put it on the bottle, anything around 0,2% or less is a very good acidity level but will not affect the taste.

Other indicators are peroxide levels, if a brand has gone to the trouble of putting these figures on the bottle it is because they generally have a quality product, however, this only means that those were the levels when tested. It doesn’t mean that they are the levels you will receive. Olive oil is a “live” oil and hence deteriorates with time. However it is a guide, the maximum peroxide level allowed for olive oil is 20 milliequivalent O2, the lower it is the less oxidised it was at the time of bottling. Good figures are around 6-8 milliequivalent O2. 

Although it is not a foolproof guarantee try to look for olive oil with a “Denominación de Origin: D.O” or in English PDO: Protected Designation of Origin. These varieties are more closely controlled by local bodies to protect quality and standards. They carry a distinctive sticker on the back of the bottle stating the designated region that is being controlled. This is one from Valencia to give you an idea, but every region has its design, similar to the wine world. It isn’t a total guarantee but it’s one step closer. Blended Oils won’t carry this sticker, which doesn’t mean they aren’t great oils. This the sticker for the region of Priego de Cordoba, the Mecca of Olive Oil in Spain:

Do not be fooled into buying expensive olive oil by silly marketing tricks. However, I would avoid olive oil that costs less than 8 euros a litre. When I say silly marketing tricks I mean things like 1 thousand-year-old olive trees or even 200-year-old olive trees. Olive trees that old produce hardly any fruit and it is no better than an olive tree which is 20 years old. The fruit is only as good as the soil and the weather that year. Age has nothing to do with it. Other funny things I’ve seen are harvesting under the moonlight, well you can imagine what I think of that! 

Another question I am asked frequently is: “is it better to buy Single Estate or Cooperative olive oil?” 

The answer is both can be excellent. What is the difference? Single estates tend to be smaller and have irrigation all year round meaning they maintain the ratio of oil to flesh in the olive year in, year out, making them more consistent and giving them higher productivity of litres per 100kgs of olives and as the estates are smaller they can be more closely controlled. However, this isn’t synonymous to excellent quality but is a good indication that you will get a decent olive oil. It is just another thing to take into consideration. Cooperatives also have irrigated lands, however, the vast majority of olive trees in Spain are what we call “secanos”, they rely on the rain. Have in mind that just Jaen, one region in Spain makes more olive oil than all of Greece on its own and Greece is the third largest producer in the world. To irrigate this land would be extremely expensive. Fortunately, olive trees do not need much water so most years it isn’t a problem. 

Finally, everyone tends to look for olive oils that have won international prizes. This is another misleading factor. Yes, many great olive oils have won prizes but very few understand how these competitions work. The vast majority only require the producer or the brand to send a maximum of 2 litres as a sample to be judged and pay an entry fee of around €150. What does this mean? It means that you can buy 2 litres of premium olive oil, bottle it under your brand, send it off, win a prize and then put the sticker on your bottle for a year. I am not saying that everyone does it, but from the people I know in the industry it is common practice. The oil presented in the competition isn’t necessarily the one that is later bottled, as there are no controlling bodies and it is all based on trust. Now if there is one industry you can’t trust, it is this one.  This is one reason why many great olive oil manufacturers in Spain don’t even bother with international competitions. I am not trying to take prestige away from any olive oil competition, of course the competitions are important and are certainly a sign of quality olive oil especially if all the other factors come into play and of course not everyone is trying to win the prize at any cost but it isn’t the be all and end all.

The only competition that is truly controlled and requires a controlled sample from a minimum 18000-litre batch is the annual olive oil competition carried out by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. As competitions go in terms of quality, experienced judges, batch control and sample controls, this is the Oscars of Olive Oil, hands down.

The winner can only attach the prize sticker to the batch tested and the Ministry of Agriculture controls the bottles manufactured. Only the best olive oil wins this competition so if you can find a winner of this prize or even an olive oil that has received a mention you know you are onto a winner. No other competition in the world comes close in terms of quality control and strictness.

So once you’ve taken all this into consideration, you’ve filtered out the rubbish and finally selected what you believe to be the real thing, your next step is to taste it. The chances are you will have to taste various olive oils until you find the one you like and before you really understand whether it is a great oil or a mediocre oil. Olive oil tasting isn’t that complex, but it does come down to experience. One of the quickest ways to benchmark and create safe parameters is to buy a Ministry of Agriculture Winning Sample which will carry a sticker like one of these. The first shown below is the old design. I’m showing it because some oils show this sticker from the year they won the prize on their packaging, maybe from a  couple of years before....however even though the oil in the bottle wasn’t the winning oil the for the season in question, it is a good guarantee that the producer is responsible and trustworthy and is definitely a safe bet.   

                       

 

 

 

This season's ‘Intense fruity green' winner was Bravoleum by Hacienda El Palo. However past winners such as  ‘Venta Del Barón – Hojiblanca y Picudo’  or  ‘Oro de Bailen Picual Reserva Familiar’  are also great oils and great benchmarks, as well as being more readily available in supermarkets. Then, all you need to do is compare them in smell and taste to your standard supermarket extra virgin olive oil, the one you can buy for 4€ a litre in a plastic bottle. I needn’t say more. From this point on you will automatically know what to look for in terms of fruitiness and flavour. If you would like to know more about olive oil tasting please read my other post.

 

Enjoy!

 

 



Like 1        Published at 13:11   Comments (1)


Something Sweet?
14 May 2019

 

Crema Catalana or 'Catalan cream' was originally consumed in Catalonia and it is without a doubt this region's most typical dessert. With time it spread throughout Spain and is now a standard on most restaurant menus. However, it is not exactly a Crème Brûlée for those who are unfamiliar with it. 

It Catalunya it is a tradition to prepare this dessert on March 19, when Saint Joseph is commemorated, which also happens to be the last day of Lent. Over this period, orthodox Christians would have been following a strict diet so this tasty creamy dessert would have been a well-earned reward for such sacrifice. Saint Joseph's day is also the Spanish equivalent of Father's day. So if your Dad has a sweet tooth you might want to make him some for next Father's Day.

However, if we go back in time to its beginning, it can be traced back to Jewish food. The Hebrews were very appreciative of the many and great combinations of milk and eggs. We have some references for Crema Catalana in medieval archives, as "illet cuita" (cooked milk). Apparently, it didn't always have the caramel coating.

Today, Crema Catalana is without doubt one of the most famous examples of Catalan desserts and is recognised both nationally and internationally thanks to its simple preparation, originality and taste. Within Spain, the town of Sant Bartomeu del Grau celebrates a Crema Catalana cooking competition on the 4th of March, which forms part of the town's Craft and Commercial fair.

It's a simple recipe with common ingredients, however, its difficulty lies in the sugar that coats it, which is heated on a steel plate or with a cooking blowtorch until it melts leaving a crunchy layer. Originally this was done with a heated rod or a branding iron, however, it is now much more common for this process to be done using a gas burner.

  

The most similar dessert is Crème Brûlée, and they are often confused. The main difference is that crema catalana is made from milk and is then thickened with corn starch and egg, and the French dessert made with thick cream and eggs and cooked in the oven in a water bath, and it has a texture more similar to flan. If you want to watch your calorie intake, you can use skimmed cream, however, it does not produce quite the same results as it does with whole milk.

The taste of crema catalana is so distinctive that it has been used as the basis of many other products in Spain. You can find crema catalana ice cream as well as a nougat-like sweet which is called 'torró'. The flavour has also been copied in several liquors and liqueurs across the country.

If you ever happen to go to Barcelona be sure to try crema catalana, it will be served in most restaurants. But if you can't wait to get to Spain, you could always have a go at making this Spanish dessert at home by following this simple recipe:

1. Bring the milk to the boil with the cinnamon stick and lemon peel.
2. Beat the egg yolk with the sugar in a bowl.
3. Dissolve the cornflour in the milk and add the egg mixture.
4. Cook slowly over low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until the mixture comes to the boil. Remove from the heat immediately.
5. Pour into bowls or individual earthenware dishes and refrigerate.
6. Before serving, sprinkle with sugar and place under a hot grill as close as possible until caramelised, unless you happen to have a blow torch or a branding iron lying around!

Variations:
You can use wheat flour or any other kind of starch, and add it to the egg yolk mixture.
The crema catalana can be eaten without the sugar crust. If this is the case, place a piece of brown paper over the top to prevent a skin forming.
The crema can be eaten with biscuits or carquinyolis (a type of Catalan biscotti).

Eggs - 8 yolks

Milk - 1 l.

Cinnamon - 1 stick

Lemon - 1 piece of lemon peel

Sugar - 200 g.

Cornflour - 40 g.

 

Enjoy!



Like 1        Published at 09:42   Comments (0)


My Wine Recommendation Nº 12 - For under €10
09 May 2019

Today I would like to share with you Spain's most sold white wine and it isn't the cheapest either! However, as far as white wines go it is very good value for money, coming in at €3,75. The wine I am talking about is Barbadillo Castillo de San Diego. Barbadillo is one of the great wine producers of Andalucia and is located in Cadiz, San Lucar de Barrameda. It does, however, have vineyards in other areas of Spain but the grapes used for this wine are entirely from their home region. I say home region, as this family-owned wine cellar is over 200 years old and is an institution in Andalucia, especially for its Manzanilla wine "Solear" which is the most consumed wine during the Feria de Abril in Sevilla. This is mainly because it is the main ingredient of their favourite cocktail "Rebujito". Barbadillo also boasts Spain's most prized wine cellar named "La Catedral" - the cathedral, which if you ever get the opportunity to visit is a must. But if you don't here is a link to a virtual tour.

 

Anyway, back to "Castillo San Diego".  This wine is an icon for the winery and a benchmark wine at a national level.   It is floral, fruity, harmonious and light, making it an ideal wine for the summer months and especially good with fish, seafood and rice dishes.

According to the winery’s history books, the name of “Vino Blanco del Castillo”  (white wine from the castle) dates back to 1883, however it wasn’t until 1975 that the wine was bottled commercially by vintage.  It soon became Andalusia´s top white wine and is currently considered to be one of the most important and best-selling white wines in Spain. Having won many international prizes and being recognised by an entire, you can't go wrong. It is available in Mercadona and most other supermarkets.

https://tienda.mercadona.es/product/66672



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Spanish Cured Ham- What you need to know.
01 May 2019

 

Apart from extra virgin olive oil another of my favourites from the Spanish culinary world is cured ham, in particular, Iberian Acorn Ham (Jamon de Bellota Iberica). Which is very different from Serrano Ham or the Italian Prosciutto and is unique to Spain. It is an absolute delicacy and one of the most moreish foods you will encounter! 

 

 

Fresh meat has been preserved throughout history and the pig has always played a particularly important role in this practice. This is partly because of its high reproductive capacity, and also due to the varying uses that can be made of its meat and the ease of storing and processing it. The great Mediterranean tradition for cured hams and cold meat products is believed to have originated with the Romans and Greeks as reflected in names such as "longaniza" (cured pork sausage) and "salchicha" (sausage) that come from the Roman lucanica and salsicius. The Mediterranean Diet is more than simply a sum of particular ingredients or recipes and makes better sense when associated with the climate, geography, customs and lifestyles in Mediterranean areas. Iberian Bellota Ham plays a key role in this kind of diet. Not only is it tasty and succulent, but it also has specific properties that make it a unique food product and thus stands out from the other cured hams available throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

 

 

 

 

Iberian Bellota Ham is a low-calorie food, which is rich in vitamins and contains 50% more protein than fresh meat. A particularly surprising fact! Due to the natural and traditional curing process, Iberian acorn ham is a pure and aseptic food and the meat is free from any kind of manipulation. Iberian acorn ham is not just a food product, but also a delicacy with numerous other qualities. As well as being a pleasure for the palate, it also offers great health benefits.  Iberian ham is full of antioxidants and is high in vitamin E. It is especially beneficial when eaten with tomatoes. Iberian bellota ham contains excellent quality fat, with increased levels of oleic acid (over 50%), as found in olive oil. This facilitates the production of HDL ("good cholesterol") in the body, while reducing LDL ("bad cholesterol"). So when you start to combine extra virgin olive oil, Bellota Ham and other ingredients you can see suddenly how the Spanish diet is in particular so healthy, take a look at my post on “Pan Catalana”, so simple yet so healthy! For these reasons moderate consumption of the product helps to maintain cholesterol levels and prevent cardiovascular diseases as with extra virgin olive oil.

 

It provides a generous dosage of B group vitamins, especially B1 and B2. Just 100 grams of Iberian acorn ham provides 24% of the recommended daily allowance of this vitamin. It is also rich in iron, magnesium, zinc and calcium and above all phosphorus, providing 30% of the recommended daily allowance. 

 

 

 

It is a recommended food for hypo-calorific diets as 50 grams of our Iberian Bellota Ham has only 150 calories. So is Iberian Bellota ham the same as Jamon de Pata Negra( black hoof ham)? And how does it differ to Serrano Ham? This term “Pata Negra” refers exclusively to races of pigs with black hoofs and does not necessarily refer to Iberian pigs or those of a specific quality as commonly thought. In fact, there are Iberian pigs with different colourings. Serrano ham comes from a white pig which is fed mainly on fodder and is cured for a period of between 7 and 16 months. Gastronomically, serrano jamón is considered inferior to Iberian ham and is dried in a cold dry climate in the hills or mountains.

 

And Jabugo Ham? Where does this come in? Well, it is a high-quality Iberian Ham which comes from the mountainous region of Huelva. Jabugo is the best known of the mountainous villages. The name comes from the town not the type of ham. Many think cured ham should be salty, and normally find it dry but really if it is fresh and well made it should be juicy and not salty. With regard to the firmness, the ham should be cured to an optimum point, though never too much (this point will vary depending on the part of the ham being cured). One of the differences between a serrano ham and an Iberian ham is the fluidity of the fat. An Iberian ham should always be moister than a serrano and a lot shinier.  It is common to see white dots in Iberian hams that may look like imperfections in the product. However, these dots are produced by the crystallisation of the thyroxine, an amino acid derivative of the proteins that experts consider a sure mark of quality and indicative of a long and unhurried maturing process and a sign of the pig having exercised well while in the pasture, as all pigs raised for Iberian acorn ham are free range and feed on acorns.

 

 

 

 

The main parts of a cured ham are the maza, the contramaza and the babilla. The maza is the part with the most meat and is the richest and most succulent. The babilla has less jamón as it is confined by the femur and coxal bone. This part is less succulent than the maza so it is recommendable to start cutting here if the cured ham is going to be consumed over a period of time. The part known as the jarrete and the caña are usually diced into cubes of cured ham as the meat has a firmer texture and a different taste. Ham must always be eaten at room temperature in order to enjoy all of its sensual nuances. If the ham has been cut and stored in the refrigerator or comes sliced in a packet, take it out of the refrigerator an hour before eating, to allow it to reach the correct temperature. 

 

 

I highly recommend it, as it is a delicacy you will find hard to live without once tasted!

 



Like 0        Published at 14:45   Comments (1)


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