As strange as it may sound my Spanish mother in law has never been to school. Between the Civil War and the fact she had to cook for her father and his gang of agricultural labourers from the age of eight everyday in the countryside it meant she missed out on an education.This fact didn’t prevent her from bringing up three heathy,happy and intelligent childen one of whom is a univeristy professor.Ana Maria can cook or prepare well over a hundred Spanish/Murcian/Valencian recipes. OK, most people can cook loads of recipes, So that in itself is no big deal. It is the fact that she does not own a recipe book and cooks everything from memory. This is quite a feat if you think she knows about ten types of rice dishes from Murcian rice(with rabbit) to Paella Marisco or Vegetable rice(artichokes,broad beans etc), forty types of stews including Potaje de garbanzos(chickpea with spinach stew), Potaje de calabaza (pumpkin stew), Lentejas(spanish lentil stew) Migas and much more.
Besides knowing all these recipes she knows how to prepare all kinds of fish,shellfish and other seafood like cuttlefish,calamares etc. Not to mention boquerones en vinagre(anchovies in vinegar),sardinas en escabeche(Marinated Sardines) or anchoas en aceite(anchovies in olive oil).Even eels! As well as the preparation of olives.
Visiting the in laws in their “pueblo” is a foodie experience in itself because their everyday life revolves round getting the ingredients in for the next sumptious meal.The ingredients can be from hunting,gathering,purchasing or straight swapping with neighbours.Be it wild mushrooms,snails or campion bladder from the countryside or free range chickens or rabbits from a neighbour’s farm they are always keeping the larder full.
Not only does my mother in law know how to cook “a ojo” (meaning literally by eye) she also annually prepares kilos and kilos of canned tomatoes and peaches…peeling them,blanching them in a huge drum and then jar filling..Jam is also made from seasonal fruit. All these are a semi industrial process that used to be very common all over rural Spain(especially in the south) but these customs are dying out with the passing of my in laws’ generation. Then, there are almonds and walnuts to be shelled and stored, Their house has always been a veritable “cottage industry” unit where labour intensive sorting,peeling and cleaning of product needed manual labour and that being whoever is at home at the time, young or old. My wife her brothers,myself and all my kids and nephews have all at some time peeled thousands of pear tomatoes,shelled almonds with measured taps with a hammer or sorted campion bladder.
Fetching the live rabbit or chicken for the paella or Murcian rice is a job I have often done and not one I particularly enjoy. They get sold to you in a sack and I always feel a little guilty handing them over to my in laws who unceremonially wring their necks.It’s life’s cycle in rural Spain. Animals on the whole live an outdoor healthy life and when their time comes it comes. There’s no remorse or guilt….it’s practical and in these rural areas only a few decades ago people actually died of hunger. For people who lived in those times that is not easily forgotten.
You can see it in the older generation’s attitude. They revere good food and the family.Everthing has its role in life. My mother in law’s role is to oversee all these food activities and ensure her family is fed and brought up well. A remarkable woman who has all the recipes and processes noted down but only in her head.
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