Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Everything but the Squeal - Adventures in Galicia

Until recently I had never heard of Galicia. However, last year I saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle which reported on the Albariño wines that come from the Rias Baixas area within that region ("rias" refers to the flooded river valleys which form estuaries along the coast). I tried a number of those wines and found I really enjoyed them. Per the Chron article, "Albariño grapes make neat, distinctive wines that smell and taste like a remix of other, more popular grapes. It has some of the citrusy, grassy flavors of Sauvignon Blanc, flashes of the richer peach and pineapple flavors of Viognier, and the delicate, minerally character of Riesling." For any interested in learning more about Albariño wines there is a very good website.

Galicia is in the northwest corner of Spain on the northern border of Portugal.

There are some beautiful areas within the region - much more is available from the Galician tourist board web site.

While strolling through the aisles at Borders over the Christmas holiday I came across a new book by an author named John Barlow entitled "Everything But the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain." Upon picking it up - thinking perhaps Nancy might like it! - I found it was described as described as "a year-long travelogue, in which the author attempts to sample every part of the pig, whilst visiting as many parts as possible of the territory of Galicia in northwest Spain." Pork+Galicia? What was not to like (although I did wait until after Christmas to buy it for myself!).

I have now been though just the first chapter of the book but it has already exceeded my expectations. I also found a review of the book in the New York Times, which includes links to both the full first chapter of the book and a great set of photos taken by John Barlow in Galicia. The only thing which I found a bit disconcerting was that NYT review stated: "In the last couple of years the pile of books about pork — let’s call the genre Pig Lit — has grown tall enough that it’s threatening to topple over and hurt someone." I realized I had read them all!

Let me just provide a couple of extracts from that first chapter which whetted my appetite (vegetarians should stop here):

Excerpt re “Caldo” and “Grelos”

Nearby a couple of men in baggy pullovers are deep into a pot of caldo, Galician broth made with pork bones, pork fat, a little meat, potatoes, chickpeas, and grelos. The word grelos, as is only right and proper for a native Galician plant, is a bit of a mystery, a little imprecise, with no straightforward translation into English. My dictionary says "turnip tops," but grelos are not turnip tops, exactly; some people say "turnip greens," which comes closer to the truth, while others say "bitter cabbage" or "Galician greens," which is just making names up for the fun of it. Everyone agrees that none of these translations is quite right, yet without doubt they are all perfect renderings of a very Galician word.

The broth sits on the table between the men, in a pot big enough for bathing a baby. It's a watery light brown soup with bits of the dark green grelos floating on top. It doesn't look very appetizing. It looks, indeed, like what might run from an overflowing drain after a downpour. Yet it tastes tremendous. And it sums up the tastes of Galician cooking, a sort of edible shorthand: the solid, meaty backtaste of bone stock; the rich but not overpowering notes of pork fat and skin; the lumps of potatoes that, if they are local, are relatively waxy and on the sweet side; the fragments of dark green grelos, bitter to the taste, without which caldo is just savory swill.


Excerpt re “Cocido”

Cocido means "cooked." Like the name, it is simplicity itself. Take a pot the size of an immersion tank, add a few bucketfuls of water, toss in a sackful of potatoes, three or four yards of chorizo sausage, a bucket of chickpeas, plus several animals (chunked). Boil the whole thing up and let it simmer until next week. Then, around Thursday, you add your grelos.

In fact, cocido is a selection of slow-cooked, pot-boiled meats. Everything that was in the pot is served: whole chorizo sausages, potatoes, chickpeas, grelos, a slab of veal (for variety), plus a great deal of pig. The man attraction is lacón, the shoulder (foreleg) ham, but then there's belly, hock (ankle), snout, cheek, armpit . . . any piggy oddments that were to hand. A carnivore's Cockaigne on a plate. Traditionally, these would be all the parts of the animal that were preserved in salt when the pig was slaughtered during the onset of winter, and which could be used in stews throughout the winter, when there was nothing much else to eat.

To say cocido is unsophisticated is to miss the point. The combination of all the slow-slow cooking, the meat nudging up against bones and skin, the gradually dissolving pork fat, the paprika seeping out from the chorizo, and all of this ballasted by the potatoes and sharpened by the bitter grelos—reduced to stringy softness and oozing those meaty juices from the pot—makes cocido as satisfying an eating experience as it is possible to imagine. If you don't love it, you're insane.

Cocido - photo by John Barlow

I can hardly wait to read more and am now searching for a local restaurant specializing in Spanish cuisine!

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