Plaza Chica: A Life Under the Arcades

It’s Sunday. Not any Sunday, but a good autumn Sunday. It’s raining outside, but wine and electric braziers warm the dinning-room, and there are lots of happy faces around the counter,  deeply engaged in cheerful conversations, everlasting discussions or love talks. Hustle and bustle, smokers jam at the door. You have to run and keep the balance with the tray, dodging a pair of tykes that are coming into, looking for their croquettes.

Say hello, smile, say goodbye, write down the orders, pull some beer and serve some drinks. Take a stew from the kitchen, a dish of olives, a salad and some desserts. Then, add one of those quarrels kitchen-waitress/waitress-kitchen that makes this job so wonderful, and you won’t be able to stand it anymore at five or six pm.

But then, everything is a bit more relaxed. You go out, smell some fresh air, stop for a while under the arcades to see the rainIMGP6689It is great to be here.

Here, in the Plaza Chica (Small Square), the small centre of our small world. More than six hundred years watching how life runs under the arcades: business and markets, trials and weddings, melon stands, theatre, carnivals, Curro Jiménez and The Holy Innocents.

The Square, setting for cinema and life, is probably the older spot in Zafra. It was the centre of the medieval town, which grew around it until the 16th  century, because economic and political power were concentrated here. The weekly market was authorised in 1380, and there are evidences of the location of the town hall since 1430.

The arcades are a natural consequence of its commercial function: three covered parts, for sheltering trades and goods from sun and rain, and a free part for the Town Hall, later the Court (It is still having the jail bars), and today, the Music School. Nowadays, the Square maintains its rectangular plan, surrounded by white buildings whose facades end in brick arches. They have assorted columns and capitals as a result of the reuse of architectonical materials from former Roman and Visigothic buildings. Some of these columns, witness of the passing of time, hold etching words that talk about past ages. In addition, we can see some intertwined arches in one of the windows. They are typical of the Gothic-Mudejar art, but very rare in Spanish architecture.

There are some signs of this commercial past. The most famous one is the Vara, an old Castilian measurement (83 cm) colengraved on a column as a reference for buying fabric. Stands were gathered by products in this old market. As an example, bakeries were located in the arc that leads to Big Square, thas is still called Arquillo del Pan (Bread Arc). The Almotacen, the guardian of the market, lived just there. And in this same corner, small as the square, a tiny baroque chapel devoted to a virgin who, because of her size is called Little Hope (La Esperancita).

The market grew as the town did during the Early Modern Period, so part of it was moved to the other square and Plaza Chica lost part of its commercial function.  However, it kept being the political and judicial centre, and became the location for some taverns and inns. They were our precedents, the ancestors of all these bars and restaurants that fill the square with life, colour and delicious food. 

IMGP6698

Escabeche: history and practice of pickling.

A Bit of History: The Origin of Escabeche

Trying to discover the history of a dish, it is very common to trace the history of its name, the etymology. In Spain, and Spanish, Mr. Corominas is the father of any etymology, so we turn to him to know where escabeche (pickling brine) is from.

This term comes from Arabic iskabej -it sounds obvious, regarding the amount of spices that dress the dish- and iskabej comes from Persian, because the dish appears on the menus of One Thousand and One Nights.

But Corominas takes it to his side. He puts a bit of Catalonian in this etymology, the pair –ch, because the usual evolution in Spanish should have been escabeje or escabel. But it doesn’t mean that the dish was born  in Sabadell, for example, as some people say, but the normalization of the term was based on Catalonian Medieval recipe books –as the Llibre del Coch, by Mestre Robert de Noia-, which were pioneers of European gastronomic writing.

Considering that language (and literature) is a reflection of life,  we can know the evolution of a concrete practice by following the evolution of a word. So, if we look back to the origing of the word escabeche, we will arrive almost at the origin of the civilization, the cradle of the Neolithic and the preserving practices that allow human being to overcome the alimentary right-here-right-now.

Pickling, as well as its cousins, marinades, is based on the use of an acidic medium (mostly vinegar) to avoid putrefaction. But, differently from marinades, food for pickling is previously cooked.

Spanish version is defined by the use of olive oil for frying this food (some people boil it, but the result is not as good as frying), and use different spices to make it tasty, mainly black pepper, bay, saffron and/or paprika.

As the Spanish culinary writer Capel says, European historic recipe books, as Alexandre Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine, give a Spanish origin to escabeche. And nothing can be more Spanish than this subsistence cuisine, that allows to take advantage of the abundance and low cost of seasonal produces, preserving them for days and eating them cold, wherever and whenever.

Nowadays, with all our fridges, microwaves, thermomixes  and so on, preserving is just an anecdote, although it doesn’t take taste from one of the more versatile and typical dishes of our cuisine.

 

A Bit of Practice: Cooking and Eating Escabeche

For a good escabeche you just need whatsoever, a good oil, vinegar and spices. Whatsoever can be meat, fish or vegetables, but always fried in a good olive oil. Here in Extremadura you can find escabeche made of vegetables (courgettes, beans, string beans, eggplants…), game meat, chicken, rabbit, sardines or river fishes.

Regarding to vinegar, any wine vinegar is appropriated for an escabeche made of game meat or fish, because a more aromatic one takes the chief role. On the contrary, vegetables and chicken ask for a good Sherry Vinegar.

About spices, they change according to cooks’ mood and preferences: there are as many escabeches as cooks. But if you have any doubt, you always can look up for a recipe on the Internet, where you can find plenty of them.

There are also some tricks for eating. First of all, you should use a spoon: the sour juice is part of the dish. Second, but not less important, let it rest for a day before eating. And finally, to make it perfect, you should eat it cold, a hot summer night, in La Tertulia.

 

SOME SUGGESTIONS

Escabeches are a classic dish of la Tertulia summer menu. Defined by frying in batter and by the mix of vinegar and bay with toast garlic and saffron plus some orange slices, the result is a dish where technique is an excuse for enjoying a soft mix of aroma and taste. This summer we suggest escabeche made of courgettes from El Raposo or Sardines  in pickling brine.

And for drinking, a cold beer, because the bitternes of beer make the taste of pickling strong.

 

Children’s menu

Lots of children usually come to La Tertulia. Children who come with their parents, parents who come with their children, parents which were children some years ago and which also came with their parents then. That’s life and those children of today are the farm team for the future.

For this reason, we have think about creating a children’s menu in some occasions, but we ruled out that idea because we don’t find it very fair. You are, say, pigging out in a wedding: prawns, lobsters, ham, steaks with foie (not Pâté!), etc. You go to see how your kids are doing at the children’s table and you find them eating a sad chicken breast with pre-made croquettes and chips; or maybe, they are directly called a strike, sit on your lap, and don’t let you eat a single prawn. In conclusion, finding a no-discriminatory children’s menu is a really difficult task.

By the way, since we have a cub at home, we pay more attention to children’s modus operandi and to their relationship with food. As well as in adulthood, you can find whatsoever: from Olive Monsters to Ketchup Addicts; that little girl who doesn’t like anything but gobble a dish of curry rice with vegetables and chicken liver (Wide-eyed mother: Curry rice with whaaaattttt?????); that other baby who passes by baby food because he prefers the stew that we have as appetizer; or those big children who cry for their croquettes or their Cocido Extremeño (chickpea stew) from the stepdoor.

Children are genetically disposed to enjoy true food, the taste of vegetables, meat, fruits and fish, but we tend to mask flavours adding sugar, food colouring or other additives from the very first moment, and after that, we complain bitterly because this child doesn’t like anything.

It is for that reason that we defend other way of eating here, in La Tertulia. Even if it were eating with their fingers, but enjoying good food: first quality produces, as natural as possible, and with a real taste.

After 25 years watching children eating and growing up, we suggest:

–          Croquettes. The star on our menu. Homemade, creamy, delicious. Success is guaranteed with ham croquettes, as well as spinach and prawn croquettes will convince all those veggie-sceptic.

–          Chickpea stew. A traditional recipe. Just chickpea and meat, no vegs for quarrelling about.

–          Cod for fish. It can be with scrambled eggs and shoestring potatoes (Bacalao Dorado) or in a sauce made of tomatoes and peppers.

–          Eggs with anything. Fried eggs with ratatouille, or chorizo, or chips and slices of smoked beef ham.

–          Meat. Grilled siroline never disappoints. They can have it accompanied of a sauce made of blue cheese, mushrooms (boletus edulis) or pâté. Another good option is pork cheeks, a tender meat that you can feel melting in your mouth, served in a soft sauce. Or Moussaka, our version of the Greek aubergine pie, with mince, white sauce and grated cheese.

And for those brave children who dare to whatever, any of our salads, artichokes, Homemade pâtéTrying is the key.

esteban-murillo-ninos-comiendo-melon-y-uvas

Esteban Murillo: Niños comiendo melón y uvas