Anyone For Rat and Eel Paella? The Spanish Foods Invented In Times Of Scarcity
Some of Spain’s most cherished foods have origins in times of scarcity, and some surprising original ingredients.
Valencian people are fond of telling outsiders about what Paella can and can’t contain. It’s not actually that complicated — Paella is a lunch-time dish which gets its name from the pan used to cook it. It contains chicken, rabbit, lima beans, flat green beans and a few things to give it flavour, along with — naturally — the rice, and sometimes snails. One can also make the seafood version, which has become the defining version outside Spain. But make it with anything more exotic — or mix the seafood and meat versions together — and some people get seriously riled.
In 2016 Jamie Oliver — already infamous for colonising West Africa’s jollof rice with vine-ripened tomatoes, lemons and parsley — caused national headlineswith his offensive ‘twist’ on paella, to which he introduced chorizo and threw together in a casserole dish. He received death threats. Gordon Ramsay similarly angered the Spanish media with his soupy ‘paella’ with chilli. This dish seemed to confuse Spain — a generally spice-averse country — with Mexico. Scandals like these, as well as the atrocities committed in tourist restaurants across Spain, lead Valencians to robustly defend their traditional dish from outside interference by those who’ve never tasted the real thing.
But paella is an old dish and hasn’t always been made the way it is now, even in Valencia’s most traditional restaurants. The first paellas, cooked in Albufera — the marshy rice-growing area south of Valencia — contained some surprising ingredients. ‘The peasants would cook the rice in a frying pan and accompany it with whatever they could find. This would normally be water rats and eels,’ explains respected Valencian chef Rafael Vidal in an interview with El País. ‘These were more like rabbits than the modern sewer rats found in cities,’ he adds. Valencia’s most treasured novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez also describes this early version of paella in his book Cañas y Barro, about peasant life in Albufera at the turn of the 20th century. Nowadays one could search far and wide in Valencia and never find a paella old-fashioned enough to contain water rat.
If they could’ve, the peasants of Albufera probably would have put chicken and rabbit in their paella instead of rat and eel. The fact that they didn’t reflects how the availability of food in Spain hasn’t always been as wide and varied as it is now. There was a time in Spain, as there was in all countries, when people had to take advantage of everything they could find, and not just stick to the tastiest produce and nicest cuts of meat. While the consumption of rat in Valencia hasn’t survived, many dishes from scarcer times in Spain have survived and are still enjoyed.
Casquería, offal, though it may not be found at tourist restaurants on the Costa del Sol, plays a big part in traditional Spanish cuisine. Tripe, kidneys, liver, trotters, brains, blood and bull’s testicles; all are readily used in regional dishes across Spain. In the minds of Spanish people with more old-fashioned tastes, dishes made from these parts are cherished as deeply Spanish.
Gallinejas are a Madrid speciality with almost mythical notoriety. They’re made of suckling lamb intestines deep-fried in their own tallow. Their name comes from the Spanish word for chicken (gallina), however, as they were originally made from chicken intestines rather than lamb. The most famous gallinejas restaurant is Embajadores 84 in Madrid, where they’ve been served in the restaurant’s sparse surroundings for the last 65 years.
Gallinejas came into being through scarcity. In the times of famine brought on by Spain’s Wars of Independence (the same war and ensuing turmoil which drove Francisco de Goya insane) a slaughterhouse in Puerta de Toledo began offering innards to those who came begging for something to eat. They were a surprising success. Soon the government granted licenses and women began frying and selling gallinejas in working-class neighbourhoods. The restaurant on Embajadores came out of a fortune made in those neighbourhoods. Today, Gallinejas are one of the most castizo (pure) foods one can find in Madrid and are traditional on the day of San Isidro, a special day in Madrid. But they are extremely untrendy, and as the years go by they become less and less popular.
From Madrid, we journey east, to the mountains of Aragon. Historically in rural Spain, nothing was ever left to waste if it could be helped. It was from this convention that Chiretas sprang. Once the most palatable parts of the sheep were reserved, people had to decide what to do with the tripe, neck, liver, heart and lungs. What they did was mince this up together, mix it with rice, pancetta, cured ham, parsley, garlic and cinnamon, and then cook it inside a sheep’s intestine.
In 2002, Aragones people began a Chireta festival, and a few years later set the world record for the largest ever Chireta, which weighed in at 220kg. I expect it’ll be a while before anyone has the guts to try breaking that one.
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