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.
Once upon a time, a curly-haired girl slumped in her kitchen and sighed. Her worktop resembled the aftermath of Holi; a trail of spices that she’d toasted, roasted and ground to the recipe’s precise instructions. And the result? Yet another failure. Maybe she just didn’t have what it took. Dejected, she was about to reach for the takeaway menu, when a fairy godmother appeared. Tearing the menu before the girl could use it, the fairy godmother encouraged her not to give up. “You can do it, I promise.” So the girl tried once more, this time guided by the fairy godmother’s expertise, reassurance and passion. And everything changed.
That fairy godmother was Kaushy Patel, and to say that she’s transformed the way that this curly-haired girl feels about Indian cookery would be an understatement. She’s given me a confidence that I never thought I’d have; a confidence to not only succeed in creating Indian dishes that taste good, but to also make these dishes a staple in my weekly diet. A midweek curry, after work, made from scratch? No biggie, thanks to Kaushy and the wise words eloquently woven through her debut cookbook, Prashad.
Food collaboration is a wonderful thing. Think goats’ cheese and honey. Garlic and mushrooms. Tomato and basil. Simple ingredients that work perfectly well as individual elements, when they come together they seem to undergo an alchemic process that produces flavours akin to food magic. How else could you describe that sensation of a sharp, tangy cheese cutting through a golden, saccharine honey; that heavenly combination of earthy mushrooms and pungent garlic; that sweet tomato acidity matched with a burst of aromatic peppery basil? And best of all, you don’t have to be the world’s greatest cook to achieve this alchemy. You don’t even need to know why. The ingredients do the work for you. See? Magic.
But while pairing certain flavours together is second nature to many of us, the thought of applying these principles to food and wine pairing is, well, not. Because wine is scary. Lovely, but scary. There are just too many variables to consider. Which grape varietal should you choose? How does that grape varietal vary from country to country? And what about specific regions? Vintages? Reserves? Oaked or unoaked? Should you let the wine breathe, first? (And what does that even mean?!) How do you know if it’s corked? Is cork better than screwtop? And that’s all before you’ve even begun to contemplate what bloody food you’re going to pair it with. Gahhhh.
So is it worth the hassle?
Yes. I quickly arrived at this conclusion last week at a special wine and food matching event to celebrate the launch of Leeds Food and Drink Association’s (LFDA) Grubstakers. In case you’ve not heard about it, Grubstakers are a pretty special bunch. An LFDA initiative aimed at Leeds’ food and drink lovers, a one-off £25 subscription gets you a lifetime of food and drink benefits. Yes, a lifetime. We’re talking special events, exclusive insider info, opportunities to test products and menus, and all sorts of amazing ‘money can’t buy’ foodie opportunities from the glorious Leeds indies that belong to the LFDA.
This Easter, I visited Lisbon for the first time. I was there to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of one of my best friends, so was expecting a week of willy straws, boozing before midday and a lot of giggles. I wasn’t disappointed – we bade farewell to Sian’s single life in style. But something else happened; something wonderful, strange and completely unexpected. I fell in love. Real love. The head over heels, crazy, ‘put a ring on it’ kind of love that the patron saint of hen weekends, Queen Bey herself, would probably sing about.
I fell in love with Lisbon.
It was unexpected because until Lisbon was announced as the destination for Sian’s hen do, I’d never even considered visiting. Never. It wasn’t that Ihadn’twanted to, I’d just never thought of it in the same way as other European cities. Cities like Paris, Rome and Berlin dominate the to-do lists of many travellers, presenting their virtues like incontrovertible evidence in a trial. But Lisbon? What was Lisbon offering? I knew it was Portugal’s capital, but not much more. Maybe it hadn’t shouted as loud about its must-see merits as its gobby neighbours. Or maybe I just hadn’t listened when it tried.
Whatever the reason, Lisbon’s residence in the shadows of its gargantuan European counterparts made the city’s welcome all the more special. Because where the pull of a city is often based on specific attractions: phallic wrought iron towers, symbolic walls, crumbling amphitheatres; the real joy of Lisbon was simpler than that. It was just beingin Lisbon.
It was passing yellow trams creaking up the city’s steep cobbles.
I’ll never forget my first experience of street food. It was August 2011, a time when street food in the UK meant a stomach ache from a dodgy van rather than an £8 ‘gourmet’ burger from a shopping centre. The arts sector had just taken its first series of sizeable whacks from the government, and I’d taken voluntary redundancy from my lovely arts job. But it was ok, because I was in possession of a round the world ticket with a return date of February 2012 – screw you, reality!
Our first stop was Bangkok, the start of a six-week food crawl around South East Asia. Like millions of travellers before me, I’d been enticed by beguiling accounts of Asia’s street food; of heaving streets packed with tiny tin cooking stations radiating the intoxicating aromas of dishes I couldn’t even pronounce. I was so excited and I remember that first night so clearly; walking slowly down each street in a giddy trance as I was guided by the seductive scents wafting from bubbling cauldrons and hissing woks.
But there was a problem. Me. Striking at the most inopportune of times, my awkward veggie syndrome meant I was all but excluded from street food fun times. I wandered from street to street, visiting cart after cart only to be met with endless varieties of meat and fish. It became my nemesis throughout Asia and I persisted, learning the phrase for “do you have anything vegetarian” in Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai and Malaysian, but my efforts were continually met with stares of confusion. I finally gave up, taking my exploration indoors where I tasted some of the most fantastic dishes of my entire life. But still, my Asian street food flame flickered. ONE day, veggie Asian street food joy would be mine.
I’m stood on the summit of Silver How in the Lake District. It’s early March, still technically Winter, and I’m learning the hard way that my woolly beret and favourite patterned mac are not appropriate fellwalking gear. The wind’s icy tail whips my exposed neck, I can’t feel my hands, and the clouds have gathered into a threatening grey blanket, suffocating the surrounding peaks and advancing in my direction.
A lion cub locks eyes with yours, inspecting you with an intense curiosity as the last of the day’s embers fizzle out. It’s just you and him. You try to move but can’t, paralysed by a mixture of fear and fascination. Mosquitoes whine; birds sing; and the warm wind flicks specks of sand into both of your eyes. But still, neither of you breaks the stare. You can’t. You won’t.
CREDIT: Hannes Lochner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year SOUTH AFRICA Curiosity and the cat JOINT RUNNER-UP: Animal Portraits
“Your girlfriend’s a veggie? Unlucky, mate… How do you manage that? Does she make you eat veggie food too? Or do you have to eat separately? AND WHAT ABOUT BACON?!”
SIGH. Forget the prospect of being force-fed tofu and lectured on animal cruelty; this is what you should fear about dating a vegetarian. Because apparently it’s not love, respect and trust that a successful relationship rests on; it’s the compatibility of a couple’s attitude to eating meat.
But I’ve got a secret to share, and it’s a big one. Dating a vegetarian is not hard. Seriously. Sure, we don’t want to eat dead animals, but most of us really don’t care if our partners do. And honestly, that’s all there is to it. I’ve been in a carnivore-veggie relationship for nearly six years now, and we ‘manage’ just fine. Neither of us has tried to convert the other, meat and vegetables coexist peacefully in the same fridge, and, shock horror, we even share meals together. Mine just don’t include meat. And bacon? Well, what about bacon? He eats it, I don’t. It’s not rocket science, people.
Mum and Dad had taken us to Greece for our summer holiday. It was August, sometime in the late 90s, and it was bloody HOT. Energy zapped and tummies rumbling, we piled into the hotel’s air-conditioned buffet restaurant to escape the sear of the midday sun. Lunch was served on help-yourself silver platters, the contents of which incited inevitable grumbles from some.
“How the hell do you pronounce that, Clive? And WHAT is that?!” yelled the lady in front of me, picking at her peeling left shoulder and wrinkling her crimson nose.
“I don’t know June, looks a bit iffy to me. ‘Ere, just have some chips – safer than this foreign muck”.
They piled their plates high and sloped off, leaving me to assess the situation. There were the remains of the usual suspects – pasta, pizza and the few paltry chips left after Clive and June’s obliteration, but there was also a pie. There was something about this pie. Maybe it was the strange name, maybe it was the fact that nobody had touched it, but I had to try this pie. I served myself a slice, hurried back to our table, and took a bite. And that was it. A crisp, flaky wrapper of filo encased a filling so sensational that my mouth instantly waters every time I think about it. Salty feta on the brink of melting was entwined with irony spinach, imbued with the distinctive tang of fresh dill. Simple, but utterly magical; I’d never tasted anything like it and 20 years later, Spanakopita remains one of my favourite ever meals.
It’s that time of year again, where blogs, facebook newsfeeds and twitter timelines are awash with pledges of new year’s resolutions. If you’ve made some and you keep them, good for you, but resolutions aren’t really for me. I’m rubbish at keeping them and just don’t really believe in them – they’re usually too contrived and too abstemious, akin to ‘soundbites from a government manifesto’ as Phil Kirby rather wonderfully put in his latest post for The Culture Vulture. Brilliant.
So rather than punish myself by making (and inevitably, breaking) arbitrary resolutions of denial and abstinence, I’m going to keep my goals for 2014 simple, picking up where I left off in 2013 in my attempts to get fitter and eat healthier. Spurred on by not collapsing during my second ever 10km run last year, I’ve lost my mind and signed up to the Liverpool Half Marathon (yikes), and I’m also thinking (note the non-committal ‘thinking’) about a Coast to Coast cycle.
That’s the fitness side covered, in theory, but healthier eating is trickier. Although I’ve never been a fast food fiend, I’m addicted to the three almighty Cs: cheese, chocolate and carbs. ALL the carbs. Cut one out and my life, and the lives of those around me, becomes unbearable. Seriously, it’s just not worth it. So instead of denying myself, I’m looking at the little tweaks I can make to my diet without compromising on taste, starting with reducing my reliance on cooking with olive oil. This might not sound like much, but for me it will be a big change. I graduated from the ‘Jamie Oliver School of Olive Oil Use’, going through at least a bottle every fortnight. When I first considered using alternatives, I almost dismissed it straight away. Cooking without olive oil? Pah! How would I roast, fry, grill or bake? My salads would be naked, my potatoes dry and unloved. I couldn’t possibly do without it.