11 July 2016

Sweet treats - tocino de cielo and sultanas de coco

Last month at a party we were invited to try two of Andalucía's traditional sweets. They are often made together, because one uses the whites of egg while the other uses the yolks.

Tocino de cielo literally means "fatty bacon from heaven" yet it contains no bacon, no fat and is definitely an earthly pleasure.  It is made with sugar and egg yolk, and the first written record of it is dated 1324 in Jerez de la Frontera.  The reference to tocino comes from its appearance, creamy-yellow with a brown "skin".

Jerez has always been a wine-growing region, and egg whites were used to clarify the wine in the barrel.  The leftover yolks were taken to a local convent where the nuns turned them into this heavenly custard.

Although tocino de cielo can be found all over Spain, Jerez council have applied for it to be given its own protected designation of origin.

Another way of using up the spare egg yolks was the candié, derived from the English "candy egg" (most of the sherry bodegas were British or Irish owned). A couple of yolks were beaten into a glass of sweet sherry, sometimes with sugar or cinnamon added.

During the famine years of the 20th century this was a cheap and popular way of increasing children's protein intake. Many jerezanos today have fond memories of this childhood treat.

Recipe - Tocino de Cielo

For the caramel:
150g sugar
1 cup water
Squeeze of lemon juice

Boil the ingredients in a small saucepan on a medium-low heat, stirring regularly until you have a dark amber colour. Remove from heat and set aside. 

If you don't want to make your own caramel you could use 3 tbsp golden syrup or the Spanish equivalent, miel de caña.

For the custard:
125g water
250g sugar
7 egg yolks

  1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC and put in a tray of water as a bain-marie. 
  2. Bring the sugar and water to the boil in a saucepan and leave on a low heat for 20 minutes to obtain a thick syrup. Let it cool. 
  3. Put the yolks in a bowl and mix them gently. Add the syrup little by little and stir without beating until it’s all mixed in. 
  4. Strain the mixture through a sieve to remove any unwanted lumps of egg white. 
  5. Spread the caramel over the bottom of a 10x20cm tin and pour in the egg mxture (you can also use individual silicone moulds.)  Let it rest a few minutes.
  6. Put the tin into the bain-marie and cook for 30 min or until set. 
  7. Once cool, put it in the fridge for a couple of hours. To serve, innvert it onto a plate so the caramel is at the top.
Sultanas de coco are a good way to use up the egg whites, since you presumably aren't going to be clarifying sherry with them.  Just to confuse you further, these little coconut cakes don't contain sultanas, which are pasas in Spanish.  They are of Arab origin and it is documented that Abd-ar-Rahman III, first Caliph of Córdoba in the 10th Century, offered them to his dinner guests. The Sultana was the Caliph's wife.

These tasty little cakes are popular today all over Spain, often produced and sold in convents. They are also known as coquitos or coquadas.

Recipe - Sultanas de Coco
250g grated coconut
250g icing sugar
Whites of 5 eggs
Yolks of 2 eggs, beaten
Drop of vanilla essence
  1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC. 
  2. Beat the egg-whites to stiff peaks and carefully mix in the beaten yolks (save a spoonful for glazing), vanilla essence, coconut and sugar. Leave for half an hour in the fridge. 
  3. Put the mixture into a pastry bag and squeeze into little peaks on a baking tray lined with oven paper. They should be quite small and not too high, because they cook very quickly and you don’t want them raw in the middle. 
  4. Paint them with the rest of the egg yolk mixed with a little water. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes. 

06 June 2016

Castillo de Alcalá - restoration complete!

Like most Andalusian hill-towns, Alcalá used to have a castle.  It was built by the Moors in the 12th century, at the highest point of the town with commanding views in all directions.  When the Christian king Alfonso X "El Sabio" reconquered the town in 1264, the castle was extended and remained in use for the defence of the town for many centuries.

Unfortunately most of it was blown up in 1811 by French soldiers during the Guerra de Independencia (Napoleonic Wars).  This, along with the slaughter of the townspeople, was in revenge for an ambush of French troops by some Alcalá guerrillas the previous year.  All that remained was the keep (known as la torre de homenaje in Spanish).

The keep was declared a site of historical interest in 1984, but remained basically a pile of rubble until restoration work began in 2005, using European Union funds and administered by the Diputación de Cádiz.  Work continued in four stages until it was finally completed earlier this year. Although based on the original layout, there was too little of the structure left to restore to its former state, so modern features have been incorporated.

The grand opening took place last weekend, coinciding with Alcalá playing host to the Feria de Ecosistemas y Bosques de Cádiz, with guided tours and theatrical dramatisations for children and adults.

The castle building won't be left open to the public on a daily basis, although you can walk round it and enjoy the views.  Anyone interested in a guided tour should contact the town hall (tel. 956 42 81 48 or send a message via their Facebook page

For some great photos of  the castle and this weekend's activities see Pedro Martin's blog Alcalá a través de mi objecto.

26 August 2015

La Vuelta 2015

After last year's failed attempt to put Alcalá on the international cycling map, Stage 4 of this year's "Vuelta", Spain's equivalent of the Tour de France, passed through the town yesterday on its 210 km route from Estepona to Vejer de la Frontera.  The stage winner was Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, of the Movistar team.  Here are some photos taken by myself and various Facebook friends.

Photo by Pedro Martin Sánchez

Photo by Alicia Gómez Soto

Photo by Julia Mansilla Cordero

Photo by Esperanza Venegas Benítez

Photo by José Diego de la Rosa Pérez

20 June 2015

The Authentic Flavours of Alcalá

The Restaurant Formerly Known as La Parada re-opened last week as "La Auténtica" - the Real Thing.  It is being managed by an enthusiastic young team of local people, including the former chef from the restaurant at the Botanical Gardens.  The decor (apart from the red awning outside) has been completely refreshed, the kitchen is brand-new and there is a very reasonably priced menu using ingredients from the region where possible.

Address: Paseo de la Playa 28, Alcalá de los Gazules
Tel:  (+34) 695 83 45 65
Facebook:  www.facebook.com/restaurantelaautentica

Opening hours:  
Tuesdays to Fridays 8 am- 4 pm, 7 pm till late.
Saturdays and Sundays 9 am - 4 pm, 7 pm till late.
Closed on Mondays.

Sample menu items

Most items are available either in small portions (tapas) for around €3, or large platefuls to share (between €8 and €12).

Atún rojo - Atlantic bluefin tuna, caught off the Costa de la Luz
Carrilladas - braised pork cheeks, tender and delicious.
Chicharrones - deep-fried chunks of pork with crispy skin attached.
Chuletitas de cordero - tiny tasty lamb chops
Croquetas - home-made croquettes, various fillings - a speciality of the house
Entrecot de ternera - entrecôte steak
Gulas al ajillo con pimientos del piquillo - mock elvers (baby eels) in garlic with piquillo peppers 
Lomo de bacalao - fillet of cod
Medallones de solomillo al PX - rounds of pork tenderloin in sherry sauce. 
Pollo a la mostaza verde - chicken with a green mustard sauce. 
Queso "emborrao" - tangy locally-produced goat's cheese, matured in an olive oil marinade. 
Revuelta de berenjena al queso fundido - scrambled eggs with aubergine (eggplant), topped with melted cheese.

There is also a range of products from the Iberian pig (cerdo ibérico), the ultimate free-range meat as they graze freely amongst the oak trees on the dehesas.  Some of the cuts don't translate into English but this gives a rough idea:

Lagarto ibérico - strips of fillet from between the ribs
Presa ibérica - the best cut, from the shoulder
Secreto ibérico - a fillet cut from between the shoulder and the loin
Solomillo ibérico - tenderloin
Chorizo ibérico - Spain's best known sausage, flavoured with paprika
Jamón ibérico de bellota - air-dried ham, succulent and tasty, from pigs fed on acorns.

La Auténtica's wine list includes a young red (joven), a mature red (crianza) and a Chardonnay from the Bodega Entrechuelos, near Jerez de la Frontera; three Riojas (two red and one white) from Bodega Patrocinio; a Ribera del Duero from Cinema Wines; a crisp white Verdejo, and a rosé Lambrusco.  Prices range from €8.00 to €11.00 per bottle, €2.00-€2.50 per glass..

The restaurant offers a couple of set meals for two -  croquettes, pork chops and a bottle of white wine for €16.90, or house salad, pork tenderloin and a bottle of red for €18.

Desserts (€3.50-.€4.00) include a creme caramel with figs and Pedro Jiménez (sweet sherry), chocolate pudding, and a cheesecake with quince jelly.

26 May 2015

All change - municipal elections 2015

Municipal elections took place all across Spain last Sunday and, after four years of what can most kindly be described as an almost total absence of government, Alcalá has a new mayor and a new team in charge of running the town.  The unholy alliance between right and left, the Partido Popular (PP) and the Izquierda Unida (IU), has been consigned to history and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) took ten of the 13 seats available, their biggest majority since 1983, leaving the PP with two and the IU with just one.  The turnout was almost 70%, more than double the average for a local election in the UK.

The new alcalde, 35-year-old Javier Pizarro Ruiz, is not new to the Ayuntamiento, having been a councillor in the previous administration.  He was born and bred in Alcalá, and is related to half the town.  He trained in environmental, countryside and forest management but politics is in his blood.  His father is Luis Pizarro, a leading figure in the parliament of the Junta de Andalucia for many years.  He picked a team of candidates from all walks of life - teachers, environmental managers, administrators, waiters, stay-at-home mothers - all with strong local ties (and big families).  There was never any doubt that PSOE would regain office this time round.

The campaign was relentless.  Pizarro had generated a steady stream of criticism of the coalition on Facebook and in the PSOE bulletin Actualidad Socialista ever since they took office in 2011.  This became torrential in the weeks before the election, when every household received a four-page full-colour leaflet showing all the projects that were started in the previous PSOE term but left languishing by the "Derecha Unida":  the old people's home, the cemetery, the museum, the recycling point ...   They held public meetings, canvassed from door to door, distributed a forest's-worth of paper and used social media to the full. A car with a loudspeaker on the roof circled the town every day telling us what we needed to know in order to cast our votes wisely.   On the last day they were allowed to campaign, they organised a cavalcade of about 40 cars plastered with posters and drove round the town blasting their horns (personally I found that totally over the top, but then I am English and not accustomed to such vulgarity!)

The other parties' efforts were barely visible in comparison, though it is noteworthy that the IU was the only group that didn't resort to mudslinging in their manifesto, but actually concentrated on ways to improve the town and the lives of its people.  It was the only one to commit to making Alcalá an eviction-free zone, for example, and pronounce that food banks should not be necessary in a civilised society. In contrast, the PP promised a revival of folk-dancing classes, giving everything a fresh coat of paint, and a contest for the prettiest patio.

So what now for Javier Pizarro and his young team?  They have made a lot of promises which they now have to keep.  They will surely find a massive debt in the town's finances, as the PP/IU have been spending money like water over the last few months painting everything white and building fancy footpaths that don't go anywhere.  They have to rebuild bridges with the bodies that fund local projects, e.g. the Junta de Andalucía and the Diputación de Cádiz.  They must ignore the mud that will inevitably be slung at them, not squander their energy blaming the past administration for everything, and concentrate on the future.  Above all they must avoid becoming complacent, and never forget who they are accountable to.

The new team have the ability and the commitment to make things happen, and I wish them well.  Just lay off the car-horn cavalcades guys, leave that for the football fans.