Spanish Culture


For fans of 17th century literature April 2016 is a seminal month, for it marks 400 years since the death of two literary giants: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Although it is commonly thought that both men died on the same day (April 23, 1616), Spain and England used different calendars at the time (Gregorian and Julian, respectively), so the two men’s deaths were actually 11 days apart. Still, the coincidence is striking.

In honor of this anniversary, today’s post looks at a Spanish food idiom that was famously used by Cervantes in his classic work, Don Quixote. This 17th century novel, considered by many in the know to be one of the greatest works of fiction of all times, follows the tragicomic quest of a nobleman steeped in knightly romances to revive chivalry in what he sees as a depraved world.

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Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Literal and Figurative Meaning

En todas partes cuecen habas literally translates as “they cook beans everywhere.”*

Yet figuratively, this expression means that everyone, everywhere has problems, no matter what their circumstances. In other words, “it’s the same the world over.”

Why beans? And why habas (fava beans) in particular? In the past, and certainly in Cervantes’ lifetime, fava beans and other such legumes were a major component of poor people’s diets in Spain because they were inexpensive and easy to find. The act of cooking beans like favas thus had negative connotations, representing hardship and the daily grind.

*As translated by Edith Grossman in her contemporary English version of Don Quixote (Second Part, Chapter XIII, page 536).

In context

Today’s expression and similar variations are commonly used in the Spanish-speaking world, often by journalists and politicians in the context of corruption. Just look on Google. En todas partes cuecen habas = there is corruption everywhere.

I liked the contexts given in this article in the Spanish daily El País: “This saying comes in handy when you go abroad and see something that could happen in Spain. For example, when you see a story of corruption on TV, when someone tries to cut ahead of you in line while you’re waiting to enter a cathedral, and, of course, when someone cooks a stew with beans.”

Yet it was Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s faithful “squire,” who uttered perhaps the most famous version in a comical conversation with another squire about the ins and outs of their jobs and masters:  “en todas casas cuecen habas; y en la mía, a calderadas,” which literally translates as, “they cook beans everywhere, but in my house they do it by the potful.”

In the second part of  the expression, “in my house they do it by the potful,” Panza is of course claiming that his house has more problems than the rest.

Shakespeare, a master of universal truths, would certainly have found good use for today’s expression.

To conclude

Besides having died on nearly the same day and (purportedly) penned some of the most influential works of literature in history, Cervantes and Shakespeare share other commonalities. For example, due to gaps in their biographies, both men are infinite sources of debate and speculation. There are even theories that hold that Francis Bacon was the real author of both men’s works.

Theories aside, the genius of Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s plays is undeniable.

Such works are like an “open sesame” into the culture and language in which they were written. Just check out this list of 45 Everyday Phrases Coined by Shakespeare in the English language, and consider the Bard’s ongoing influence on popular culture.

Can we survive without knowing such cultural references? Of course. But in my perspective, life is much richer when we can recognize these connections to the past.

Shakespeare and Cervantes may be long gone, but we can rest assured that wherever we look there will always be a pot of beans on the fire.

Like every Spanish city and town, Murcia has its own annual fiesta rooted in local traditions: the Bando de la Huerta. This day-long celebration pays homage to Murcia’s agrarian roots, its huerta, the cultivated lands within and surrounding the city once renowned as the huerta de Europa (the market garden of Europe).

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The Bando de la Huerta takes place every year on the Tuesday after Easter as part of the week-long Fiestas de Primavera, heralding spring’s arrival and offering a popular antidote to the (relatively) solemn activities of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, before. On the day of the festival, the people of Murcia descend upon the city center by the thousands, most dressed in traditional clothing. The men are known as huertanos and the women huertanas.

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The centerpiece of the fiesta is a parade that brings Murcia’s past to life with period costumes and floats demonstrating time-honored huerta activities. On one float, ladies knead and shape dough, which they place in a working, dome-shaped adobe oven to produce Murcia’s signature round loaves. On another float, young girls dance a jota in a bin of grapes, celebrating the local wine-making tradition.

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The most anticipated floats come at the end: tractor-drawn, open-air replicas of the typical homes of the huerta, barracas, complete with thatched roofs and loops of sausage hanging from the rafters. All along the parade route, riders toss out products from the huerta, like lemons, the aforementioned sausages and even small bottles of wine.

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Sharing from the huerta is not only true of this annual parade, but remains a strong aspect of daily life in Murcia, where the idea of actually paying for local products like lemons is unthinkable to many locals. Despite the fact there isn’t nearly as much huerta as there used to be, the generous landscape that has fed families for centuries continues to give. This generosity is the heart of Murcia.

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Historical traditions aside, the Bando de la Huerta is first and foremost a party. An article on this year’s Bando in the local paper described the scene perfectly: “The people of Murcia celebrate the most ‘huertano’ day of the year eating and drinking in every corner of the city.”

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Instead of fighting the crowds in packed restaurants, many locals opt to bring their own provisions to the party. Since the streets are closed off to traffic, any place is good for a picnic.

We have set up shop with friends and family in the same spot for the last several years, so other friends know where to find us if they want to stop by for a beer and bite to eat. The sharing principal of the huerta extends to the partying, as well.

Typical foods at our potluck-style picnic include general Spanish favorites like marinated olives and tortilla de patatas as well as snacks with a huertano twist like Murcian longaniza (sausages cured with pimentón), potato chips drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and savory pastries like the empanada murciana, packed with tuna, eggs and tomato.

IMG_2006 Even Mateo is in on the fun, enjoying the rare chance to drink Fanta.

I usually bake American-style cookies for the picnic, which are much appreciated, but this year I decided to make an empanada murciana for the first time to share a taste of Murcia and its fiesta with family and friends on this blog. This nourishing savory pie pairs perfectly with ice-cold beer, and, an important consideration, keeps the effect of the beer in check. Spanish fiestas take stamina.

If you, too, choose to make an empanada murciana, in the spirit of the city, be sure to invite your friends. Cheers! ¡Salud!

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Empanada murciana

In her cookbook The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden writes, “Empanadas, large savory pies, are a symbol of Galicia, while empanadillas, small turnovers, are a specialty of the Balearic Islands and Valencia.” To which I ask, “Hey, what about Murcia?” Both empanadas and empanadillas are specialties here, too! Murcia often gets left out like this.

Yet the empanadas and empanadillas in Murcia are some of the best I have had anywhere, and they are among the foods I crave when I have been away for any length of time. The main ingredient that sets the empanada murciana apart from similar pastries in Spain is the sweet pimentón in the dough, lending it a more intriguing flavor and a deep golden hue. The traditional filling has just three simple ingredients that are pantry staples in Spain: eggs, olive oil-packed tuna and tomate frito, a sweet and jammy tomato sauce.

These are the basic building blocks, yet every empanada murciana is slightly different, depending on the cook’s preferences. The dough can be made with or without a leavening agent, and the proportions and textures of each ingredient in the filling vary. Some like their tomato sauce chunky, while others like it smooth. In some cases, the sauce oozes out, and in others, there is just enough tomato to hold the other ingredients together. My favorite empanada murciana has flaky shortcrust pastry and a balanced blend of fillings.

This is a recipe for the most basic, traditional version of the empanada murciana. Feel free to adapt the filling to your tastes. Some people add roasted red peppers and even peas to the mix, for example. I like to keep it simple.

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Make ahead: The tomate frito (recipe follows) and two hard-boiled eggs can be prepared up to several days in advance. The dough needs to rest for one hour before it can be rolled out.

Special equipment: parchment paper and an 11- by 15-inch cake pan

For the tomate frito:

In Spain we can buy good canned tomate frito, which makes assembly quick and easy.  My favorite brand is the Murcia-made Sandoval. I have not tried this recipe with jarred tomato sauces in the US. I have used canned whole tomatoes here because I like to control the size of the chunks, but you can also use diced or crushed tomatoes, as well. If you have good fresh tomatoes, by all means use them. You can make the tomate frito up to several days in advance and store it in the refrigerator. It also freezes well.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 28-ounce cans of whole peeled tomatoes, drained and with any bits of skin and the core ends removed (about 4 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced)

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste

Combine the olive oil, tomatoes and one tablespoon of sugar (plus 1 teaspoon of salt if using fresh tomatoes) in a deep saucepan (I use a Dutch oven – this sauce likes to spatter). Stir while you heat the sauce over medium heat until it bubbles.

Leave the pan uncovered and reduce the heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer for 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the sauce does not stick and burn. If you have used canned whole tomatoes, break them up with the spoon as you go. The final sauce should be reduced, jammy and sweet. Add more sugar and salt to taste.

Allow to cool and use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to several days or in the freezer for up to several months. Makes about 1 1/2 cups. I use this amount for my empanada.

For the dough:

Empanada dough is relatively easy to make, based on a simple ratio: equal parts olive oil and white wine, a bit of salt and pimentón, and as much flour as you need for the dough to come together (“lo que admita,” as my friend Inma says, “as much as it takes”). The empanada murciana has two traditional shapes: rectangular and circular. My first attempt turned out somewhere between a rectangle and an oval, which wasn’t noticeable once we cut it up. Nevertheless, the aesthetics need some work. You can also make empanadillas, small pies, with the same dough and filling, which will be tackled in another post.

3/4 cup olive oil

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (Spanish paprika)

About 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 egg for brushing on the dough before baking

Whisk together the olive oil, wine, salt and pimentón together in a large bowl until the seasonings have dissolved. Add the 2 1/2 cups of flour and mix well with a wooden spoon or your hands, being careful not to overmix. The dough should hold together easily and be smooth to the touch. If it seems too sticky, add more flour as needed a tablespoon at a time. Allow the dough to rest at room temperature for at least one hour in a bowl covered with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap.

For the filling:

1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained

1-2 hard-boiled eggs, diced to your liking

tomate frito to taste (I used 1 1/2 cups)

There are different approaches to making the filling. You can either mix all the ingredients together in a bowl first or place each ingredient separately onto the dough. I take the first route for a more homogeneous texture, which is more to my two-year-old son’s liking. Big chunks of anything tend to get spit out. I break up the tuna, mix it with the tomate frito and then stir in small bits of egg.

Assembly and baking:

Line an 11- by 15-inch cake pan with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350ºF. Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other, then roll out the larger piece of on a clean surface until it is 1/4 inch thick. The base should be nearly as large as your pan. You shouldn’t need to use flour as this is an oily dough that doesn’t tend to stick. Carefully transfer the dough by rolling it up onto your rolling pin and then unrolling it into the parchment-lined pan. Alternately, you can roll out the dough directly on the parchment paper on the counter and then transfer both carefully to the pan. Cover the base with the filling, leaving about a one-inch border.

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Roll out the second portion of dough to the same thickness, so that it is big enough to cover the filling. Transfer the dough using your rolling pin as above and carefully unroll it over the base. Fold the bottom edges of the dough over the top and crimp together. Pierce the top of the dough in various places with a fork to allow steam to escape.

Brush the surface of the dough with beaten egg, then bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

Cut into squares before serving hot or at room temperature with an ice-cold lager.

Yield: Serves a crowd.

 

Thinking back, what does Easter evoke for you? For me it is baked ham and hot cross buns. It is also egg coloring kits, with their flimsy wires for dipping and the dyes that smelled of vinegar. It is a new dress and a brunch buffet with my Nana in the bright atrium of an Orlando hotel. It is roasted lamb carved under the warm red light of heat lamps and served with clover green jelly.

And I couldn’t leave out the Easter Bunny, who would hide my colored eggs around the house and leave me baskets filled with treats. There were pastel pink and yellow marshmallow Peeps, Reese’s peanut butter-filled eggs and a big milk chocolate bunny, which I usually ate ears first. After collecting the obvious prizes, I would weed through the tangled plastic strips of Easter grass in the basket to make sure not one jelly bean had been left behind.

Here in Spain, my childhood Easter feels lifetimes away. There are no egg hunts or Easter grass or chocolates with peanut butter centers. The Easter Bunny is a curiosity at best.

So what will my son Mateo’s Easter memories be? At two and a half, he is at an age where lasting memories are beginning to take shape. Here are some of the sights, sounds and flavors forming his early Easter impressions in Murcia.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in Murcia

Semana Santa in Murcia is a festive and colorful time of year that is magical for children. The Semana Santa processions are the heart of the magic. I know this in part through my friends who remember the awe they felt and want their own children to experience the same. I have also seen the amazement in Mateo’s eyes as the processions pass by, with their trademark drum beats that he has been practicing on his toy drum ever since Good Friday (parrúm, parrúm, parrúm púm púm).

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Nazarenos in the Good Friday procession

Instead of the Easter Bunny, the main protagonists of the season here are the nazarenos (Nazarenes). While historically speaking, Nazarene was a term used to refer to Jesus and early Christians, in a modern context in Spain, nazarenos are Semana Santa procession participants.

They are also the subject of seasonal arts and crafts for kids, such as the “nazarenos” Mateo brought home from nursery school:

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Mateo alternately calls the nazarenosReyes,” the kings who bring children gifts on January 6, and “marcianos” (aliens). To him, the nazarenos are larger than life.

Local pride

Semana Santa processions take place throughout Spain, all to commemorate the final days of Jesus’ life and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. The nazarenos are also known as penitentes (penitents), marching to atone for their sins.

Yet, despite the evident religious themes of sorrow and guilt, most of the processions (in Murcia at least) are lively social events that pack streets with multiple generations out to see and be seen, to soak in the nostalgia and to pass it on to the children.

The processions in Murcia have several features that distinguish them from other processions in Spain, including the rhythm of drum beats and the fact that all of the pasos (floats) are still carried by man power alone (in other parts of Spain, at least some muscle power has been replaced by wheels and a chassis).

Another highlight of the Murcia processions is the large number of floats made by Francisco Salzillo, a native of the city and one of the most famous sculptors of religious themes in the 18th century. The expressions on the faces of his sculptures are searing. It is impossible not to be impressed.

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The pictures here are from the procession on the morning of Good Friday, one of the most popular processions for families. This procession is often referred to simply as “los Salzillos,” for it contains some of the artist’s most famous works, such as The Fall above and the Last Supper below, which weighs a whopping 1,301 kg (over 2,800 pounds)! Those who carry the floats (currently all men) are known as estantes, which in other contexts, fittingly, means “shelf.”

The Last Supper is carried by 28 estantes (who must shoulder roughly 100 pounds a piece) along a route that lasts about five hours. They of course rest from time to time, propping the float on special staffs, and each float has extra estantes who rotate in and out of carrying duty. Nevertheless, the route is exhausting. Talk about penance! The same men carry the same floats year after year, in many cases like their fathers and grandfathers before them.

From our front row seats we could see the fine details of Salzillo’s sculptures as well as the excruciating looks on the faces of the float bearers, adding to the emotion of the event.

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From a child’s point of view, however, the most appealing distinguishing feature of the Easter processions in Murcia is candy. Murcia is the only place in Spain where the nazarenos hand out copious (some say excessive) amounts of candy to onlookers, particularly to children.

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These are not fat nazarenos – instead the bulges you see are filled with candy and other gifts and treats.

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Mateo receiving candy from a young nazareno

Several theories exist as to the origins of the centuries-old tradition of candy in the processions in Murcia. One is that these offerings started as a gesture of repentance. Many nazarenos march with their faces covered, so the idea is that they could anonymously offer goods to anyone they had harmed. Today, however, they are most likely to give the treats hidden in their tunics to family, friends and children.

The other theory is particular to the estantes, the float bearers, who need fuel to complete their grueling task. Although food was generally prohibited in the processions, the Church allowed these men to eat, so they stuffed their tunics with provisions for themselves and their friends, including foods like fresh fava beans, hard-cooked eggs and monas de pascua, traditional Easter pastries I wrote about several years back. All of these foods are still popular with nazarenos today.

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A mona with a quail egg on top

This was Mateo’s third year attending a Semana Santa procession but his first year actually eating the treats. Needless to say, he loved it. In his mind, nazareno equals drums and candy.

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Hands full

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A nazareno-shaped lollipop

Which of my Easter traditions will I share with Mateo? The Easter Bunny has yet to make it to our house, and I’m not sure if he will as long as we are living in Spain. It’s not as though Mateo needs more candy.

And little by little, my own traditions are evolving. Now that I have lived in Murcia for over seven years, it just isn’t Easter to me without at least one Semana Santa procession, as long as it includes a good dose of sugar, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asking for a doggy bag in European restaurants has long been a faux pas for savvy American travelers not wanting to appear, well, too American. I don’t remember where exactly I learned that doggy bags were frowned upon on this side of the Atlantic, but it certainly wasn’t through requesting one myself. I had somehow already been convinced of the potentially mortifying consequences by the time I arrived in France for my junior year abroad. Self-conscious and 19, I avoided anything that might result in being snubbed to an even greater extent by the French waiters. When my parents came to visit, I recall making it known that they were not, under any circumstances, to ask for their leftovers to go.

I am happy to say I no longer care so much about what foreign waiters think of me, and waiters in Spain tend to be less intimidating in any case, but I still have yet to ask for a doggy bag in Europe. It’s just not part of the culture of eating out, at least in France and Spain.

This may be changing, however, if a recent ad on Spanish TV is any indication. In the ad, sponsored by San Miguel non-alcoholic beer, LA Lakers player Pau Gasol casually asks his waiter, “¿Me lo puedes poner para llevar?” (Can I get it to go?). The server, not the least bit perturbed, promptly delivers Gasol’s leftovers in a handy container labeled with the campaign slogan, “No lo tiro,” literally meaning, “I don’t throw it way,”  akin to the “Too good to waste” slogan of a similar campaign in the UK. Gasol’s novel action spreads like wildfire on social networks in Spain, a hopeful projection of the campaign’s results. But will the doggy bag really catch on so easily here?

(Check out the ad. This link will send you to YouTube.)

As you can see, the ad is not just for doggy bags, but is part of a larger campaign promoting responsible consumption in general (of food, alcohol, energy, etc.). This idea of responsible consumption has implications for both the individual – eating less for one’s health (obesity is an increasing problem in Spain) – and for the greater society – there is an alarming quantity of food wasted in developed nations, Spain included.

Not a crumb left behind

I am a regular doggy bag user in the US, which is often the result of restraint, knowing I can get two meals out of one. In Spain, however, knowing I won’t be taking any leftovers home, I approach eating out with a feast mentality.

Manolo has taught me a Spanish expression for this approach – “antes reventar que sobre,” which literally translates as, it’s better to eat until you burst than have anything leftover. Tellingly, this is known as the “ley del pobre,” or the poor man’s law, meaning the eat-everything-now mindset is actually rooted in times of anxiety-producing hunger, which have been sadly common throughout much of  Spain’s history. Seizing the last crumb makes sense if you don’t know when the next opportunity to eat will be.

Fortunately, such acute hunger no longer prevails in Spain (although poverty is on the rise in the current crisis). Nevertheless, the so-called poor man’s law still holds sway when a group of friends gets together for a meal.

This exuberance is part of what makes eating out in Spain fun, and also what makes it difficult to imagine the doggy bag ever becoming an institution here, at least in terms of holding back. And in any case, the US offers proof that the doggy bag in itself is not a remedy for overeating.

Too much thrown away

Expanding waistlines, however, are just one front of the nolotiro campaign, whose principal aim is waste rather than weight reduction. Even though it may seem contradictory to the eat-it-all mentality described above, food waste is in fact a growing problem in Spain as in the rest of the developed world. A recent EU study found that up to 50% of edible food is wasted along the supply chain in member nations, consuming both comestible and financial resources that are sorely needed elsewhere. (According to a Natural Resources Defense Council Report published in August 2012, the figure is 40% in the US.)

The amount that gets left on consumers’ plates in restaurants is a small yet not insignificant fraction of the total food wasted in Europe (much more restaurant waste in Spain is the result of oversupply – perhaps driven by the feast mentality…). On this front, the doggy bag, because it is novel, may work here, at least as an attention-grabbing symbol, raising awareness about the issue of food waste in general.

It certainly has caught this doggy bag veteran’s attention. As I result, I realize that I can make more of an effort to reduce food waste at home, by not buying too much food, for instance, and by eating or freezing what I have bought before it goes bad. I don’t know that I’ll be asking for a doggy bag in Spain any time soon, however. I have come to enjoy a good feast every now and then, down to the last crumb.

Additional Information:

In January 2012, the European Parliament set the goal of halving food waste by 2025, and 2014 has been declared the “European year against food waste.”

For now, the official nolotiro doggy bags are only available in participating restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona.

For information on the US front, check out Wasted Food, the website of Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.

Why frugal cooking now feels imperative in Spain.

Migas

At a market showcasing culinary traditions in Murcia, a man tends to a pan of migas, a filling dish made with flour, salt, olive oil and garlic, judiciously flavored with bits of fresh sausage and chorizo (more or less, depending on the budget). Such frugal meals born of necessity survive in part because of nostalgia, and also because they make economic sense.

Back home in the States, one hears very little good news coming out of Spain, soccer victories notwithstanding. On my most recent trip to Florida, I was often asked if I had noticed the effects of the economic crisis in Spain. Sort of, I would reply, but the quality of life remained. I thought of the countless times I had been with friends in Murcia walking through downtown past bustling restaurants and bars, so packed that patrons spilled out onto plazas, filling the streets with spirited conversation. “Crisis?” someone would inevitably ask rhetorically. “¿Qué crisis?”, “What crisis?”

But upon my return to Spain in August, I have to say that I can really feel the impact now. Until recently, I personally hadn’t noticed so many specific manifestations. Yet I am beginning to sense more shadows creeping into the good life, cast by growing dark clouds of uncertainty and insecurity.

Now, people in my immediate circle are losing jobs, the stores where they work are closing, they have been forced to go to court to demand late payments from their employers who are months behind. Last week, a friend’s home in a modest neighborhood was broken into. The thieves took everything in gold they could find, worth precious little compared to the sentimental value of the objects.

Just about everyone, it seems (minus those soccer stars, perhaps), has similar stories to tell about someone they know. I hear it in the news, in conversations in markets and on the bus. Spain is a talkative place, and I sometimes wonder whether all these words and stories told again and again might actually be contributing to the dark cloud. And here I am, telling the story.

The truth is that the feelings matter and carry real weight once they are heard and spoken. And as of yet, there is no clear silver lining. I have heard and even said time and time again, “We’ll see what happens…,” as if we are all waiting.

This is not to say you won’t find the bars packed on a Friday or Saturday night. But the uncertain climate permits fewer nights on the town.

These circumstances make me particularly appreciate the frugal ingenuity of traditional Spanish home cooking. The fact that Spain is no stranger to hard times* is reflected in the seemingly endless variety of nourishing and inexpensive dishes made from stretching out the ingredients at hand.

Cooking frugally feels like one way to defy the current crisis. There will be no cloud at my table, but rather a reminder that Spain can indeed pull through.

See some of my past examples of frugal traditional cuisine in Murcia:

Guiso de Trigo – Wheat Berry Stew

Olla Gitana – Gypsy Stew

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew (as with the migas in the photo at the top of the post, the amount of meat added to the beans can be adapted to one’s budget.)

Morcilla de Verano – Eggplant Caviar

And stay tuned for my next post about a thrifty yet rich local dessert.

*For an excellent, in-depth analysis of contemporary Spanish history, I highly recommend Ghosts of Spain by British journalist Giles Tremlett.

I would love to hear your reflections and observations.

Introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms Series:

Inspired by the “Edible Idioms” in French series on Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog Chocolate & Zucchini, I have decided to start the New Year with a new a series on food idioms in Spanish. My focus will be on food idioms used in Spain, where I live and where I have been learning the Spanish language. I would love to hear others’ experiences with food idioms in Spain and in different Spanish-speaking countries, as well.

I find idioms in general fascinating, especially as a learner of a foreign language. In my experience, beginning to understand the colloquial expressions of a place is an essential part of feeling more integrated in the culture. Grasping the figurative meaning of the words in an idiomatic expression is like sharing a wink with the speaker – you are on the inside.

I find culinary idioms particularly fascinating (surprise, surprise), and see these expressions as a means to more deeply understand the history, culture and emotions connected with different foods in Spain.

There is of course another leap to take between understanding idioms to actually using them correctly, and the process can lead to some funny mistakes. This series will thus be a (potentially treacherous) adventure into the figurative realm of the Spanish language through idioms involving food.

Let’s dig in!

Today’s expression: con las manos en la masa

Con las manos en la masa

The phrase literally translates as, “with your hands in the dough.” If you catch someone con las manos en la masa, it is similar to catching them “red-handed,” or, to use the culinary equivalent, “with their hands in the cookie jar.” In all cases, someone has been caught in the act of doing something, usually bad to a greater or lesser extent, at least in the context.

“Imagine a baker we surprise at work. Could he deny he was making bread?” asks Alberto Buitrago, professor of Spanish at the University of Salamanca, in his Diccionario de dichos y frases hechas (2009). The proof, as they say, is in the pudding (once you get started, it’s hard to stop…).

As is the case with the equivalent English expressions, con las manos en la masa is often used in the context of crime. For example: “El ladrón fue pillado con las manos en la masa.” “The robber was caught red-handed.”

However, the expression has come full circle and is also frequently used in culinary contexts in Spain, in which it is both literal and figurative at once (though your hands may be literally covered in dough, the figurative connotation that you are up to something is always present). I think of all the times Manolo has surprised me in the act of making yet another batch of buttery cookies, a guilty pleasure, con las manos en la masa.

In an Internet search for different uses of this expression, I came across a popular cooking show called Con las manos en la masa that ran on Spanish Public Television (TVE) between 1984 and 1991 and is considered a forerunner of the genre in Spain.

When I mentioned this cooking series to friends In Spain, several for whom the 1980s were formative years spontaneously started singing the eponymous title song, a rousing ode to traditional Spanish food performed in duet:

 

The woman’s opening line sounds like a confession, largely due to our expression of the day: “Siempre que vuelves a casa / me pillas en la cocina / embadurnada de harina / con las manos en la masa.” “When you return home / you always catch me in the kitchen / covered in flour / con las manos en la masa.” We get the sense that she’s up to something other than just making an ordinary loaf of bread.

This hunch is confirmed in the man’s response, which tells us the woman has been experimenting with nontraditional cuisine, which is a tad unsavory in the context: “Honey, I don’t want refined dishes, I’m coming from work, I don’t feel like Chinese duck. How about some gazpacho, with cucumber and garlic….” It turns out she’s been taking classes at…gasp!… the Cordon Bleu.

This exchange might sound questionable through a feminist perspective, but ultimately, the mood is lighthearted and that craving for tradition speaks to both men and women, which for me comes through in the joined voices of the chorus, an impassioned list of favorite traditional Spanish dishes: “Papas con arroz, bonito con tomate, cochifrito, caldereta, migas con chocolate, cebolleta en vinagreta, morteruelo, lacon con grelos, bacalao al pil-pil y un poquito perejil….” No fancy dishes for us!

All of these references belong to the connotations of the expression con las manos en la masa in Spain today. I am beginning to feel more complicit already.

When it comes time to prepare lunch for myself on a busy week day, I often fall back on the same recipes – curried lentils, leftover curried lentils or some form of omelet. Although I have many cookbooks I love, I tend to end up in a rut. So I’ve set myself a goal – I’d like to begin to push my cooking boundaries – to mix up my routine and make variety the norm, not just on the plate, but in my imagination as well.

I owe this declaration to Basque chef Karlos Arguiñano. I have been watching his popular and entertaining televised cooking show Karlos Arguiñano en tu cocina (in your kitchen) for months now, and each show is like a mini revelation. “Mmmm, looks delicious,” is typically my first thought, followed by, “Hey, I could do that.” But until now, I had yet to prepare one of his recipes.

Note: This rest of this post is intended to introduce Arguiñano to those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, as I was until I moved to Spain.

Arguiñano is one of Spain’s most beloved chefs thanks in no small part to his program. He has been cooking professionally for over 40 years and teaching Spain how to cook on TV for over 20 years. His followers range from young to old, including stay-at-home moms looking for new recipes, working parents with little time to cook and young adults living on their own for the first time.

In his program, he is genuine, informal and approachable. He can be downright goofy, often rattling off bad jokes (sometimes of questionable taste) followed by a hearty laugh, and I can’t help but laugh along, even as I groan. He also tends to break out in song, as one might in the shower assuming no one could hear. It can really feel like Karlos Arguiñano is in my kitchen. I only wish I could ask him to turn off the background music, which sounds a bit like a soundtrack for a clown show and can get rather grating.

In spite of the joking around, Arguiñano is serious about food and his mission. His philosophy is clear: Cooking and enjoying good food at home is key to a healthy and happy society. And eating well is within everyone’s reach, both in terms of skill level and budget.

The recipes on Arguiñano’s program include traditional Spanish dishes, many of them Basque (tradition will never go out of style here), as well as dishes of his own creation, displaying his depth of culinary knowledge. All recipes involve uncomplicated preparation based on fresh ingredients readily available in Spanish markets.

Praised by famous peers

Spain’s most celebrated chefs have expressed admiration for Arguiñano’s work. “He is the best chef in history,” proclaimed Juan Mari Arzak at San Sebastián Gastronomika 2010. “No one else in the world has taught the art of cooking so well at all levels.”

At the same event, Ferran Adrià declared, “Karlos is the umbilical cord. He is a great chef and a great communicator on a social level. Without his labor, the world of haute cuisine would not have made it into homes [in Spain].” (Read the full article in Spanish here.)

Whether you are a Michelin-starred chef or a novice, it is hard not to like Arguiñano.

A typical episode

On a recent 45-minute program, Arguiñano’s impromptu conversation touched on world politics, the environment, buying local, cooking with the family and nutritional tips and healthy eating.

“Trust your purveyors,” he advised, your butcher, fishmonger and vegetable merchant. “Buy what they say is fresh and good now.” He urged viewers of all ages to use fewer plastic bags, proclaiming carritos, canvas shopping carts on wheels typically associated with Spanish grandmothers, as “intelligent and modern.”

In each episode, Arguiñano explains each step along the way, the how and the why; “simple” and “easy” are the most common words in his instructions. He is methodical and precise in his actions and rigorously tidy. Each used dish goes directly into the sink, and each scrap quickly disappears into the nifty trash bin built into the counter. He shares professional chef “tricks,” taking mystery out of the cooking process.

Arguiñano clearly delights in the preparation of each dish, and in the results. He almost always has a smile on his face and often announces with glee, “¡Que bueno está! This is going to make your loved ones happy.”

Time to cook

After months of encouragement and inspiration from Arguiñano’s show, I decided it was time to head into the kitchen to try out some of the recipes that had made my mouth water as I watched. Cooking with Arguiñano would be a great way to expand my culinary horizons and to climb out of my weekday rut.

Additional Links: If you understand Spanish, check out the many Arguiñano cooking show videos available on YouTube. And this 2007 interview with late-night talk show host Andreu Buenafuente.

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