“And don’t ever, ever call it French toast!” he said.
Our special tour guide was talking about another Lenten traditional fare in Spain called torrijos, an oval loaf with a thin crust. It is sliced, dipped in milk and egg, and then lightly pan-fried until golden brown. It is finally smothered with a clear syrup and then served. I saw a version with vino or wine.
“Here in Spain, we always eat what’s in season and what is traditionally eaten during Lent,” he continued. Jose Ma. Guerrero should know. He is a true blue Madrileno, born and raised in the city although he spent a good 25 to 30 years abroad as a hotel general manager in China, Indonesia, the Philippines and finally in Spain. I met Jose as he is married to Peachy Tanco, a friend I first met in Bali almost two years ago.
It was different seeing Spanish Lent through the eyes of a local. He gave me a list of food that is only served during the forty days of Lent: torrijos for dessert, for example. Or Sopa de Cuaresma, which is a chick pea and spinach soup.
As it was nearing Easter Sunday I was looking for this soup almost everywhere—the Mercado San Miguel had none, the touristy places had none. So I asked Jose to find me a restaurant that will serve it one last day on Easter Sunday.
There even is a “Ruta de Torrijos” or a gastronomic route for you to try torrijos in different places. In fact, Jose’s Lenten habit is to eat torrijos everyday from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday—something like a reverse abstinence, maybe?
The Spanish must have been observing Slow Food since before. They only eat what’s in season and they also have traditions of eating some food or taking a drink only during certain times of the day.
Take chocolate con churros as an example. The Spanish treat is taken (by the Spanish) only between 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Like how Romans take cappuccino only for breakfast. But because of tourists, churros is now served 24 hours, seven days a week at popular touristy places like Chocolateria San Gines, a must-try place in almost all guide books. I could not tell Jose I did pass by at 12:30 p.m. and had an order of churros . . . like a tourist.
Paella is another dish I learned more about by listening to Jose’s stories. The one, which is now my favorite, is Arroz Abanda—a seafood-flavored paella. Tales have it that fishermen boiled their “by catch” (whatever is left after removing the big fish they can sell) on the boat and in the same stock, after setting the boiled assorted seafood aside, they boiled Spanish rice which is a little like Arborio and Japanese rice. The resulting rice dish is then seasoned with saffron, and it is indeed a wonderful mix of the flavors of the sea with hardly any oil or fat that would be in a mixta (mixed meats) or a valenciana (chicken and meats). It is called “abanda” because you put the seafood on the side and eat it with the seasoned rice like a viand and rice combination.
Also during Lent, I remember learning from my mother about bacalao or codfish. We had it every Lent that I thought bacalao meant dried cod! This was the way it came to the country in days of yore. My mom would first wash the salted fish, cook it with tomatoes and it was indeed a Lenten dish I remember from my childhood. Not that we were Spanish in origin. Mama just loved to cook. And bacalao was a family Lenten tradition.
But in Spain, bacalao takes on new meaning. It is served in many ways, and the popular one is called Bacalao ala “pilpil” or with garlic and olive oil that is slowly allowed to homogenize as you cook it over a slow fire. The oil and garlic form a yellow sauce that coats each white morsel of the very fatty and tender cod. The oil mixes with the fat of the cod and the garlic just brings out that flavor you will not tire of.
The best Lenten tradition, which I think is good for all year-round is bacalao that’s lightly-breaded and fried and is called a Tajada de Bacalao. Served best at Revuelta on Calle de Latoneros, it is best taken with a caña, a 200-ml portion of beer that locals know of. Tourists always get the large portions of beer when you say “cerveza!” Caña is another term I learned from a local, that’s Jose again. It was just so funny that in our first destination, the rude waiter at El Brillante must have thought we were all tourists: we asked for caña, and out came 330-ml portions of Mahou beer (the best brand in Spain) with our Bocadillos de Calamares (freshly fried calamares on a baguette) and our chorizo and chopitos (fried baby cuttlefish). And special envoy and tour guide Jose was with us. What the . . .
This is just the Lenten stuff we ate in all of three days. It has not yet mentioned breads, croissants, empanadas and palmeras. Let’s save that for another day.
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Chit Juan is a founder and owner of ECHOStore sustainable lifestyle, ECHOmarket sustainable farms and ECHOcafe in Serendra , Podium, Centris QC mall and Davao City. She also is President of the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines and President of the Philippine Coffee Board Inc., two non-profits close to her heart. She often speaks to corporates and NGOs on sustainability, women empowerment, and coffee. You can follow her on twitter.com/chitjuan or find her on facebook:Pacita “Chit” Juan. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.