The Town of Ronda in Andalusia, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
“The image of Spain is the image of Andalusia,” wrote British writer Jan Morris, and it’s true, for non-Spaniards, Andalusia’s traditions of bullfighting, gazpacho, gypsy flamenco guitars and chilled fino sherry form a powerful iconic representation of Spain. But there’s more to Andalusia than mythology.
By far the largest of Spain’s seventeen autonomous communities, Andalusia stretches all the way across the south from the Atlantic at Cadiz past the Straits of Gibraltar to the Mediterranean at Almeria. This is the old Arab territory of al-Andaluz, heartland of the brilliant Moorish civilization that dominated Spain for nearly 700 years and left its mark on Andalusia’s landscape, on its people, and, naturally enough, on its food.
You have only to hear an old Spanish adage, produced whenever anyone describes the country’s cuisine, to understand this: The north of Spain stews, they say, the center roasts, and the south fries. Stewing and roasting are pretty much countrywide these days, but no one would dispute the enduring primacy of Andalusian cooks at the frypots. You’ll find them all over the region, in country villages as well as city freiduras or fry-shops, selling crisply fried fish, squid, potato chips, and the like. Nowhere in the world, possibly, is fried food handled with the skill and distinction that Andalusians bring to it—and that, historians say, is a tribute to the Arabs who perfected the technique and the medium—extra-virgin olive oil—in al-Andaluz.
If the olive groves of Andalusia go back well before the Arab conquest (olive oil was already a major export in Roman times), it was Arabs nonetheless who put a permanent stamp on Andalusian olives and oil. We know that from the language—aceite, aceitunas, almazara, meaning oil, olives, the olive mill—all come directly from Arabic. Jaen, one of Andalusia’s eight major provinces, is today the leading olive oil producer in the world—5% of the entire world production comes from just this one province.
Andalusia’s climate is similar to North Africa’s with balmy winters and often searingly hot, dry summers. Not surprisingly, another of Andalusia’s great culinary contributions is sopa frìa, cold soup, best known perhaps in the form of gazpacho, that deliciously refreshing combination of stale bread, olive oil, chilled tomatoes, peppers, and thirst-quenching vinegar, served straight from the refrigerator at just the moment when the mid-day sun beats most mercilessly. But gazpacho is just one, and the most recent, of a whole host of similar Andalusian cold soups, from Malaga’s sumptuous ajo blanco made with crushed almonds and garlic to Cordoba’s substantial salmorejo, a creamy gazpacho that’s almost thick enough to eat with a fork. And then there’s porra antequerana, an even thicker gazpacho from the town of Antequera just north of Malaga. Like salmorejo, it’s served with diced hard-boiled eggs and serrano ham and is often substantial enough for lunch. (There’s even a hot gazpacho, made with red peppers, garlic, and the juice of bitter oranges, from the far western province of Huelva.)
Each of Andalusia’s provinces has a specialty, often with a discernible gout de terroir stemming from the fact that in a territory so large there are different climates and constantly varying terroirs—from the flatlands at the delta of the Guadalquivir southwest of Sevilla, historic home of bone-dry sherries and manzanillas, to the heights of Trevélez in the Alpujarras south of Granada and Jabugo in the Aracena mountains of Huelva, where crisp, dry air creates an optimum environment for the curing of the finest hams.
As Andalucia’s best-known wine, sherry (jerez in Spanish) deserves special attention. But if you simply ask for a glass of sherry, or even of jerez, you’ll be greeted with a blank stare because sherry actually comes in many guises. Fino, for instance, is probably closest to what Americans think of as sherry, a dry, often bone-dry, crisp, pale-colored wine that may be served as an apéritif with roasted almonds. Fino’s close cousin, manzanilla, lighter and drier than fino is also lower in alcohol than other sherries; aficionados discern a saltiness in the wine that comes from its birthplace in Sanlucar de Barrameda, where the Atlantic’s briney breezes wash over the vineyards. There are other wines from the Region as well, including Pedro Ximenes, or PX, a thick, syrupy dessert wine with a distinctive taste of raisins.
Iconic Dishes and Ingredients of Andalusia
Pescaito frito: tiny crisply fried fish from Cadiz, often served in a paper cone to consume on the beach front.
Orteguillas from Cadiz: fried sea anemones, sweet as oysters, briny as shrimp, a peculiar sea creature from the mouth of the Guadalquivir.
Langostinos de Sanlucar: Big, sweet, briny prawns (shrimp) from the mouth of the Guadalquivir, served grilled or salt-baked
Escabeche de sardinas from Almeria: vinegar-infused roasted sardines.
Sardinas and salmonetes: fresh sardines and small red mullet, best served hot from a grill set over the embers of an olive-wood fire.
Caldo de perro: A fish stew from Cádiz, typically flavored with the juice of bitter (Seville) oranges
Caracoles en salsa: Snails cooked in a minty, piquant tomato sauce.
Jamón de bellota, jamón de pata negra: Jamón de pata negra refers to the black hoof (pata negra) of these prized hams which is always left attached to the ham as an indication of its quality; produced in Huelva province from the meat of black Iberian pigs, this is unquestionably the finest ham in the world. Bellota refers to the acorns (bellotas) on which the pigs feed for the last months of their lives.
Cazuela de Arroz and Cazuela de Fideos: from Malaga, rice and pasta casseroles pan-roasted with saffron, fish and shellfish.
Caldereta de Chivo: from Malaga, lamb or kid baked in cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns.
Puchero: the Andaluz version of Spanish cocido, with lots of vegetables, including pumpkin, zucchini, and green beans
Migas de Matanza: from Cordoba, couscous-like breadcrumbs cooked with pork innards and spices during the annual pig slaughter.
Alcachofas y Patatas a la Cordobesa: Artichoke and potato stew with saffron and garlic, from Cordoba.
Pato a la Sevillana: Braised duck with oranges, green olives, and spices, from Seville.
Pipirrana from Jaen: Chopped salad or relish with tomatoes, cucumber, onions, peppers, flavored with cumin and vinegar.
Alboronia from Jaen: Medley of vegetables, eggplant, onions, garlic, peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes (a sort of Andalucian ratatouille).
Datiles: Fresh dates from Almeria
Almendras de Marcona: Marcona almonds from the south-eastern coast of Andalucia, prized for their sweet flavor and crisp texture.
Olive Oil: Olive oil is a fruit oil obtained from the olive (Olea europaea) a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin. Spain is the world’s number one producer of olive oil. Pressed from about 260 different cultivars, the oil is prized by chefs and epicureans around the globe. Andalusia accounts for about 80% of Spain’s olive oil production.
Sherry Vinegar: Sherry vinegar (Vinagre de Jerez) is produced in the Jerez region of Cadiz known as the "sherry triangle". The same Palomino Fino grapes used to produce the finest sherries go into the making of Spanish sherry vinegar. To be called vinagre de Jerez, by law the Sherry vinegar must undergo ageing in American oak for a minimum of six months, can only be aged within the "sherry triangle" and must have a minimum of 7 degrees acidity.