This week, I returned from my second trip to the glorious province of Málaga, in Andalucía. With its flavours still flamenco-dancing (sorry…) on my taste buds, I present to you the food of Andalucía – veggie style.
If you’re a veggie eating out in Andalucía, you can be sure of three things. Menus will read like a homage to dead animals, waiters and waitresses will react to your vegetarian requests with confusion, and many of the so-called ‘veggie options’ they suggest will be inexplicably adorned with a tuna garnish. A haven for meat eaters, sure. But veggies? Not so much.
It was OK, though. I was prepared for this. Before my first visit to Andalucía last October, I got my mitts on The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden. If you’ve got a penchant for Spanish cuisine, you need this book in your life. A gastronomical encyclopaedia that leaves no Spanish culinary stone unturned, Roden’s introduction to Andalucía primed me for the meat lover’s paradise I was about to enter. The beautiful, wild sierras which were to form the backdrop for much of our first trip last October? Pig country. And not any old pigs, either. The sierras are the playground of Pata Negra pigs; revered Spanish creatures that feast on sweet acorns in Andalucia’s oak woods before they land on plates as the world-famous jamón ibérico. Friends of ham, you’re very welcome here. As well as Andalucía’s gourmet pigs, Roden also writes fondly of local delicacies such as rabo de toro (oxtail stew) and cordero a la miel (lamb stew with honey), and of extraordinary varieties of seafood and fish thanks to Andalucía’s vast coastline where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean.
Clearly, my relationship with Andalucía was going to take some work. Yet Roden’s words also gave me hope. She promised incredible local mountain cheeses made with the milk of Malagan goats; gazpachos and ajo blanjos created by the peasants of Andalucía’s past, and the best olive oil in the world. Meat may be a big deal, but there were veggie spoils to be had – I just needed to find them.
Armed with Roden’s words, a basic grasp of Spanish and a thick skin, I’ve enjoyed two amazing trips to Andalucía’s province of Málaga in the last year without relying on the customary bread basket served with every meal. Yes, Spaniards think you’re strange; yes, you’re likely to find floating carcasses in your meals on occasion, and yes, you do have to explain that vegetarians don’t eat ham. But trust me, veggies; the rewards are more than worth it:
Roden’s revelation that Andalucía was the birthplace of tapas gave me butterflies. To me, tapas is THE way to eat food. Why choose one dish when you can choose six? But the real tapas of Andalucía is nothing like the tapas I thought I knew. It’s better. In small villages, like Villanueva del Trabuco where we stayed, tapas is served as an accompaniment to a drink; an aperitif before you order your six small dishes (or raciónes as they’re known in Andalucía). There’s no menu. Often, you don’t even pay for it. It just arrives with your drink like a wonderful surprise gift, festooned with spoons and forks for each of your party to help themselves. Order another drink? More tapas will come. Genius.
Inevitably, much of what arrives is of the meaty persuasion, but that’s nothing that a bit of Spanish can’t sort. “¿Tiene algo vegetariano – sin carne y pescado?” That confused expression would flash across our sever’s face, but then they’d smile, nod and return with my meat-free treasure. Tapas was mine. Andalucía is not a place to shy away from carbs as invariably, vegetarian tapas is potato-based, but it’s good. Oh so good. Favourites included the ubiquitous tortilla de patatas and, even simpler, potatoes drizzled with olive oil, red onion and olives. ¡Me gusta tapas!
Berenjenas con miel
How did I live for 27 years without these beauties in my life? Another regional speciality, berenjenas con miel represent simple cooking at its most regal. We’re talking wafer-thin slices of local aubergines coated in a light batter, fried and served with a side of dark, viscous cane honey. Nothing more. Alone, the aubergines are sensational; the crisp batter encasing a moist, melt-in-the-mouth aubergine with just a hint of salt. You smack your lips and smile, sipping an ice-cold Cruzcampo and savouring the view of the sierras that surround you. You don’t actually need the honey, do you? But it’s there, so you give it a try. It only takes one bite. Fireworks! Fanfares! Applause! (You get my point…) The combination of sweet and savoury is nothing short of a celebration; a celebration of simplicity, of quality ingredients, of the joy of damn good food. Worth the plane fare alone.
Spain’s most famous cold soup is another Andalusian treasure. Roden reveals that it originated as an opportunistic meal made by peasants labouring in Seville’s vegetable gardens. Today, its presence on the menus of even the more swanky restaurants of Puerto Banus and the Puerto de Málaga may be far removed from its humble origins, but the premise remains the same. It’s about making the most of the Spanish larder; in this case, its glorious sun-kissed tomatoes. Completely unlike the anaemic salad tomatoes that languish on British supermarket shelves, these tomatoes are the real deal – gargantuan, pillar-box red beasts piled on market stalls that groan under their weight. They’re blitzed into a silky liquid, along with long green peppers, garlic and locally-baked white bread. A dash of sherry or wine vinegar provides the acidity. A drizzle of Andalucia’s finest extra virgin olive oil provides the fruity seasoning. A garnish tray of finely cubed green peppers, tomatoes, onions and white bread provides the finishing touches. Served ice-cold with a glass of Albariño and a view of the Med, this gazpacho was perfection. Spanish summer in a bowl.
Andalucía may proudly pledge allegiance to the meaty gods, but there’s one veggie-friendly dish that’s a mainstay on every menu. Queso. This, my friends, is basically a huge plate of cheese. Magnificent, cured local goat’s cheese. There’s no ceremony here; the cheese is given the space to speak for itself. A golden hue of yellow with a hard rind; the cheese has been cured which results in a rich, earthy flavour reminiscent of truffles and Spain’s wild setas. The cheese is either served alone, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, or sprinkled with raisins. Perfection.
Croquetas de espinacas
If you see these on a menu in Andalucía, order them. While croquetas are a common ‘tapa’ in the province of Málaga, they’re usually stuffed with meat. Not these ones. A rare veggie gem, I only came across them twice during my first visit to Andalucía – in Ronda’s Taberna Casa Volapie and Málaga’s La Cosmopolita – and they’ve haunted me ever since. When they first arrived, they didn’t really do it for me. Small balls smothered in golden breadcrumbs, glistening after a stint in the deep-fat fryer. But then you take a bite. Inside is a filling so sensational, you’ll immediately want to order another portion. Shredded spinach cavorts with a creamy béchamel; peppered with hints of nutmeg, pine nuts and onion. These flavours will hit you in waves, undulating throughout your mouth with every bite until you’ve reached such a state of food euphoria that you don’t feel like you’re at the table anymore. You don’t even feel like you’re on this Earth. Because food that tastes this good can’t have been made by mere human hands, right? Seek out these croquetas and DEVOUR them. Save me one, though?
So there you have it. Some people will tell you that Spain is not veggie friendly, some will throw you their best pitying look, and others will just laugh at you. But ignore them all. Spain is veggie friendly, you just need to know what you’re looking for. Swot up on your Spanish phrases, get yourself a copy of Roden’s bible and book yourself a flight. It’s the right thing to do, I promise.