Introduction: On Carmen, Pork Blood, and Polla Jokes
Understanding the Spanish gastronomy of today and how it continues to influence the American gastronomy of tomorrow
Manoloour faithful friend and barkeep at this dive-bar for cooksspeaks in his cigarette smoke-laden Spanish baritone and fixes me with a glare that dares me to disagree:
“Nunca has probado una morcilla como esta, Americano.”
Sadly, I realize he’s rightwhich is really all he wanted to hear anyways.
“You have never tasted a morcilla like this one, American.”
These are some fiercely partisan culinary fightin’ wordsthe type spoken in bars all around Madrid over cañas of beer and, in this instance, a ración of cured blood sausage from Jaén called morcilla achorizada. This morcilla, unlike other blood sausages from around the world, is a mixture of chorizo masa mixed with pig’s blood, cooked potato, rice, onions, and spices. The stuffed morcilla is then smoked and dry cured.
And it is utterly delicious; sabroso in a way that makes me angry you can’t find anything like this where I live because it’s almost impossible to find this morcilla achorizada outside of Spain and definitely not in the United States.
“Thanks for rubbing it in, cabrón” I manage with a sarcastic smile while stabbing the last slice with a toothpick. The truth is that this is easily one of the best embutidos I have ever tried and it makes me considerwith the manic obsession of a heroin junkie getting helter-skelter for another hit how I could possibly bring some of these wrinkled, black delights back home to California without causing an international incident at the US customs checkpoint.
In Granada is a small, inconspicuous alleyway that houses one of the best flamenco clubs in Spain. You would never know itthe only advertisement is a dimly-lit, sun-washed wall with black lettering and a scraggly, hastily-painted arrow pointing you deeper into the abyss. To make matters worse, this club is only open at nightwhich was when I found myself late one summer evening staring into this great unknown:
It says: “Eshavira Club.”
Standing there in the moonlightconfronted by the deafening stillness of this portal leading to God-knows-whereI realized that at times like these there are two types of people in the world:
There are those who look down that alley and, acknowledging their lack of the requisite testicular fortitude, quickly sprint away with their tail between their legs; and then there thosespurned on by a chemical courage borne of the local inebriant of choicewho follow that arrow onwards to their destiny.
With a few hesitant steps made easier by said inebriant, I joined the latter group.
Much, much laterminutes or hours or days had passedI emerged from that passage to a bright new day in southern Spain. I was generally unscathed as I stumbled into the light be-speckled in crooked sunglasses, but something was different about this world around me; this Andalusian culturewith its veneer of Moorish influence everywhere you look finally made so much beautiful sense.
What did I find in the depths of that alley, you ask?
I found a confluence of culturesa place lost in time yet wholly comfortable in the present; a consortium for flamenco and the people who cling to the practice of an ever-evolving art; a place where old and older is not afraid to mingle with the new, the modern, and even the tragically hip.
I found an ancient wooden door; a bouncer with a one-word name; a bar that serves beer or sangria y nada mas; and a universe centered upon a dusty, worn stage manned by men and women who stomp, clap, and sing the spirit of Gitano pain and pride.
I found a small piece of the Andalusian soul.
It’s a good day to die, little piggies.
Here, 45 minutes away from the nearest city, herds of Ibérico pigs roam tree-to-tree searching for acorns to eat. They do their best to avoid the butchers in blue coverallsknives in hand stalking the herd to cull three members for our matanza, the wintertime ritual pig slaughter/alcohol-and-pork-fueled party with deep roots in Spanish antiquity.
The Ibérico pigs are anything but prettythey are closely related to wild boarsbut they possess a unique manner in which they store large quantities of their fat intramuscularly. It is this characteristic, plus the resulting flavor of that fat from the acorns my delicious little friends gorge themselves on during the montanerathe acorn-feeding months prior to slaughterthat makes their meat so coveted and expensive.
At The Rocamador, a gorgeous converted monastery and four-star-hotel situated in the countryside of rugged Extremadura, the Tristancho family has been conducting matanzas for their guestsoften comprised of chefs and the social elite of Madridfor years. These guests are taken out to the farm, participate in a slaughtering ritual dating back to the earliest Iberian settlers, and then reap the rewards of their labor through porcine-and-alcohol-laden payment.
So it is here that I found myself with the opportunity any line cook would dream of; learning about Spanish pork butchery and charcuterie in the heart of Ibérico country; and mixing a local specialty sausage with a gaggle of Extremeñan mothers and grandmothers when my education and hazing concurrently began:
“Jeffrey” (pronounced “Yeh-free” here in the heart of Extremadura), “¿Como está tu chorizo?”
Translated: “Jeffrey, how is your sausage?” (Chorizo was the type of sausage that I was stuffing into a casing using hand-motions you could only describe as masturbatoryso, yes, the double entendre was very much intentional)
“Jeeeeefrey, ¿Qué chiquito es, no?
Translated: “It’s a little small, right?”
(More double entendre, more laughter)
“Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeefrey, y es blando también. ¿Le quieres dar un masaje?
Translated: “And it’s limp too. Do you want me to give it a massage?”
(Now they are ROFL-ing.)
Apparently, this too was a tradition: the gentle teasing of any extranjero in the group’s midst (the FNG or Fucking New Guy, as someone like Anthony Bourdain would have appropriately described me in that moment). All the better that I was an American cooka gringo, a guiri, a white-boyinitiated just enough in the language of the kitchen to understand what I was being asked to do and that I was definitely the butt of an inside joke.
“Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeefrey: Ahora tu chorizo es perfecto.”
“Es muy grande
¿eres el orgullo de tu madre, no?”
Translated: “Your chorizo is perfect; it is very big. You must be your mother’s pride, no?”
A Spanish version of a “Yo Momma” joke? I laughed toowho wouldn’t? But retaliation was in order in the name of pride and my Momma:
“Cuidado con este chorizo extranjero, Señora. ¿Creo que es demasiado grande para ti, no?
Translated: “Be careful with this foreigner’s chorizo, ma’am. I think it’s a little big for you to handle, right?”
Score one for the extranjero.
So it was for weeks with mi familia Extremeñawe ate, we drank, we took the lives of Ibérico pigs in the name of deliciousness and necessity, we connected with an age-old tradition of making charcutería just like these mothers and grandmothers did with their mothers and grandmothers, and they gave their hijo extranjerotheir foreign sona load of crap and an education in comida casera for which I am eternally grateful.
And all was right and delicious in the heart of Extremadura.
The Spain that I know
This is my Spaina Spain of transcendent memories centered on the food and culture of a people I have come to adopt as my own.
These memories are the staccato sounds of the flamenco bailaora’s footfalls, the multi-colored sights of pintxo platters laid out on bars in San Sebastian, and the unmistakable smells of charcutería that smoky aroma of cured pork mixed with pimentón that permeates much of Spanish cuisine, culture, history, and a national obsession and regional pride for various shapes, sizes, and flavors.
But while Spain stands porky cheek-to-jowl with other great cured meat-producing nations like Italy and France, the charcuterie traditions of Spain are perhaps the least-understood of this trifecta due to an almost infinite degree of regional variances and a miniscule degree of exportation, least of all to the United States. For example, importation of Spanish charcutería into the United States is limited to the handful of producers that can pass strenuous regulations set forth by the US Department of Agriculture andeven thenonly a fraction of the products available in the Spanish market actually trickle through to American shores.
These restrictionscoupled with a general misunderstanding of Spanish gastronomy that lumped it under the general heading of “Hispanic cooking” in the 70s and 80s alongside the cuisines of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and much of Central and South America mean that a niche product such as traditional charcutería is just now coming into popularity.
This also means that you likely have never tasted the sheer eye-rolling deliciousness that is morcilla achorizada, fuet, or sobrassadaa birthright for any Spaniard but something that, for extranjeros like you or me, is something we just have to place at the top of our bucket list.
Fortunately for us, however, Spanish cuisine is thriving. And that popularity comes thanks to a number of events over the past few decades: the globalization of world cuisines thatfinallyincludes classic Spanish culinary traditions (thanks in large part to people like Penelope Casas and Chef José Andrés who introduced Americans to much of traditional Spanish gastronomy); the foodie culture that permeates our collective consciousness via the internet, food shows, blogs, and other mediums; and the resurgence of artisan foods like charcuterie into the American culinary lexicon that has only recently hit its stride in the past several years.
What was old is new again
That last piece of the puzzleour return to artisan cuisine (meaning food that is hand-crafted, small-scale, made with an eye to quality and detail, and definitely not anything resembling a Domino’s pizza)has really been the catalyst for the rebirth of charcuterie traditions that are now so popular in restaurants and other operations across The United States.
As Chef Thomas Keller perfectly discusses in the foreword of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s book Charcuterie, these products have been all around us in decades-past, but mainly in the form of commercially-manufactured goods such as supermarket bolognas, hot dogs, and other meats of dubious origin. Today’s chef and butcher- driven charcuterie programsby contrastare sourcing specific animals from specific farms, often breaking down the animals in-house, and seeking to vertically-integrate the process from “farm to table” in the name of producing the highest-quality product possibleas opposed to cutting corners in search of the profit-making potential that the charcuterie-in-question has to offer.
Producers like Armandino Batali, Alan Benton, and Paul Bertoli; chefs like April Bloomfield, Jamie Bissonette, Chris Cosentino, and Brian Polcyn; and a multitude of others throughout the supply chain of farmer to consumer have pushed American gastronomy forward by helping us find our way back to the butchery and charcuterie traditions of our forefathers; traditions that were misplaced during the fast-paced, commercially-driven food culture of the past decades.
Which brings us to why I wrote this book.
My journey of a thousand meat-curing miles began with a single obsession that we, in the American public, have yet to fully be exposed to: the wide array of cured meats available in Spain.
Sure, our collective charcuterie IQ has increased over the past ten or so years:
We are generally acquainted with popular cured meats like mortadella and pepperoni. Hell, we even know various forms of prosciutto, kielbasa, and saucisson. But chorizos? Morcillas? Butifarras? No tenemos ni puta idea, amigos.
Spanish-style charcuterie is tremendously underrepresented, misunderstood, or largely unheard of in our country¬ as any ex-pat Spaniard who has futilely searched the United States for a taste of home knows. Due in large part to stifling restrictions on the importation of cured meats and a mostly-American misunderstanding of Spanish cuisine over the last few decades (case in point: no self-respecting Spanish abuela I know makes “chicken with green olives,” even though many American cookbooks call this dish “Spanish Chicken”), charcutería is simply is not represented in the global melting pot that American gastronomy has become.
That is why I embarked on a culinary odyssey that has spanned a decade: To introduce regional and national charcutería specialties that permeate the hearts and souls of the Spanish peopleand to provide a roadmap for producing and utilizing these recipes in case you don’t feel like braving a trans-Atlantic flight or US smuggling ordinances for your own slice of Extremadura, País Vasco, or Castilla-La Mancha.
That journey eventually brought me to the opportunity of a lifetime when I was accepted as 1of only 2 American cooks in the world selected for the ICEX scholarship a culinary scholarship sponsored by the Spanish government that allowed me to cook in the kitchens and countryside of Spain and allowed me the chance to make charcutería elbow-to-elbow with the maestros (or, more often than not, the maestras) of this craft.
Throughout this book, I will share parts of that journey in learning and practicing the art of charcutería and la cocina Españolaincluding introducing the cast of characters that have helped me on my way to understanding why the cuisine and ulture of Spain is so unique and deserving of being celebrated on the world stage.
To begin, we will discuss the history of chorizos, jamones, and other forms of charcutería as they evolved through the ritual pig slaughters known as matanzas, finishing up with the modern age of industrialized charcuterie and the restrictions we face here in the United States.
From there, I will introduce you to something you have likely never seen before: Spanish pork butchery, which differs significantly from the methods utilized here in the United States. Specifically, we will look at the cerdo Ibéricothe famously black Ibérico pigs making our way through the matanza ritual and Spanish-specific butchery cuts for a pig including cuts like the secreto, pluma, presa, aguja, and others. While I hope that you have the opportunity to seek out these cuts on your own, this information will also serve our purposes later on as we discuss the different parts required for different types of charcutería.
Next, we continue with the basics of charcutería, including the various steps for making fresh, semi-cured, dry-cured, and whole muscle charcuterie. We will also cover equipment and ingredient options that will help you get the job done, as well as the best ways for weighing, measuring, buying and practicing as you start curing your own meat.
Then we will get to el alma of the bookthe recipes and techniques that I learned from my time cooking, traveling, and learning with the chefs, sabias, and matanceros of Spain.
The recipes are broken up according to the major technique that you will learn and incorporate in each chapter. For many of these preparations, I will also include some favorite ways to utilize the charcutería of that chapter for making delicious and traditional dishesmany of these recipes come straight from the talented people that I have come to call mi familia over the years.
We start with the most basic of preparations: The salmuera (brine) and the salazón (salt cure), two of the oldest and simplest preservation techniques that yield some of the best-known charcutería recipes.
Moving onwards, we get into adobosthis is a technique utilizing a marinade as the primary means of preservation.
Next we will discuss escabeche techniquethis is essentially a method for hot pickling that follows a specific proportion of ingredients. The hot, pickled protein, fish, or vegetable is then stored for a period of time to ripen and mature in its liquid.
Conservas y confits introduces recipes for preserving different meats, vegetables, and seafood in the style of the famous Spanish canning industry; in Spain, some canned goods are considered a luxury item and even cost more than the identical foods in their fresh form.
Then we hit the largest section of the book: Embutidos, the various sausages and other stuffed meats found throughout Spain. This section includes sections on fresh, cooked, semi-cured, and dry-cured charcuterie as well as accompanying recipes for utilizing each style of sausage in different traditional and modern preparations.
Next, we will discuss a personal favoritethe production of pates and terrines a subject that has gotten very popular in the past several years with terrine boards of different sizes and shapes appearing on restaurant menus across the country.
Lastly, we finish up with some traditional sauces and garnishes typically served with charcutería followed by a short chapter of traditional desserts and licores that incorporate charcuterie recipes and techniques.