Here’s how an evening out in Spain might go.
“Let’s go to the Alcazar/Rincon/Whatever bar, it’s got the best tortilla.”
“Forget it – they put onions in their tortilla.”
Me, timidly: “But… without onions it’s not tortilla, just a bunch of eggs and potatoes…”
And that’s enough to spark a heated discussion I’ve “enjoyed” at least half a dozen times in my life and which I’m sure anyone living in Spain will instantly recognize.
I call it the Great Tortilla Debate.
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If you’ve been reading me for any length of time you’ll know I was brought up in Spain and love its food so it’s probably no surprise to find me embroiled in this major controversy.
Tortilla is the quintessential Spanish tapa, the perfect all-round snack food, as ubiquitous in Spain as a burger in America.
When I was a schoolgirl we alternated among three kinds of sandwiches for our morning merienda: a horrid, hard bitter chocolate (yes, really), a stinking child-repellent cheese, and oh so sweet but only once a week, tortilla, that glorious whipped mixture of eggs, potatoes, and yes, ONIONS.
Because I am a cebollista. An onion-lover. A cebolla fan.
There, I’m out.
I’m serious about my tortilla. In a “Spanish” restaurant in Montreal one day I was thrilled to spot tortilla on the menu. Which I ordered. Which came with – peppers! Which I sent back immediately, in a flurry of disappointed Spanish. Not my finest moment.
So I learned to make it myself and these days, when I feel homesick for the Spain of my youth, out come the eggs, potatoes AND THE ONIONS.
Except for one thing: I’ve been doing it all wrong, it seems.
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When I was offered the opportunity to spend half a day cooking at BCN Kitchen in Barcelona, I not only grabbed it but strategically positioned myself at the tortilla end of the table rather than around the paella ingredients.
And I learned to make the perfect Spanish tortilla.
“You don’t cut the potatoes, you cut into them with the knife and snap the rest off with a flick of the wrist,” our chef Alvaro Brun explained patiently. Slice, snap. Slice, snap.
I also found out that you don’t pan fry potatoes but deep fry them. You caramelize the onions without sugar and don’t add salt until the end to avoid releasing water. And you add twice as many eggs as I thought. No wonder mine always came out stodgy and stiff.
Alvaro is the perfect teacher: patient, smiling, never chastising anyone for doing things a bit… wrong. A Basque by birth and a Catalan by adoption, he has worked in the kitchen since his mother first taught him to cook.
“In the Basque country men love the kitchen,” he said. “We even have cooking associations on the weekend where we get together and… cook. And talk about food.”
Well, he may not be meeting with his gastronomic brothers, but we, his students, are definitely his companions-in-arms.
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Our day began as all good cooking days should: shopping. We visited the Mercat de Santa Caterina in the Ciutat Vella, the old town. It was Barcelona’s first covered food market, modernized in 2005 but still heavy with old-fashioned quality. A stroll around with Alvaro was as much of an education as the class that would follow.
We learned that the smaller, softer tomatoes were better for the pa amb tomàquet, that typically Catalan dish in which tomato and garlic are rubbed lightly on toast and sprinkled with olive oil and salt. Simple, tasty and unputdownable.
As we walked through the market we learned…
- the difference between sweet and smoked paprika (the latter smells… smoky and so much stronger) and the importance of cooking with the seasons (tomatoes in winter taste like paper)
- the best tomato for gazpacho (that wonderful cold tomato soup) is the one known in other parts of the world as the Roma
- zucchini and eggplant should be small – the larger ones are more bitter
- you can’t squeeze the produce in the market – the seller chooses for you
- fish eyes have to be bright for the fish to be fresh and if you can see the gills, the bloodier the insides, the fresher
- the best ham in Spain is fed on acorns, bellotas (this I did know at least) but the best ham comes from pigs whose hooves are black (this I didn’t know) and the back leg (jamón) is different and more prestigious than the front leg (paletilla) – and no, you never ever keep it in the fridge
- olive oil’s first press is the clearest, most expensive, and too pungent to cook with (that’s a matter of opinion of course)
So – is your mouth watering yet?
Back at BCN Kitchen, we gather around a huge cooking island and begin prepping the food for lunch – pa amb tomàquet, gazpacho, tortilla of course, paella and crema catalana, or crème brûlée, that glorious creamy dessert whose crunchy caramel crust I learn to burn with a blowtorch.
I hope so because Alvaro has been kind enough to share his tortilla recipe with us. You can download it here.
We had fun, we learned, and best of all, we ate, bonded by convivial chopping and whisking in a way no common conversation would have done (which is why when I travel I always try to take a food tour or cooking class).
The other great tortilla controversy
But now back to the tortilla. And a bit of history.
Also known as tortilla española, or Spanish tortilla, it is a relatively new dish tracing its ancestry to the Carlist Wars, a series of 19th-century battles between two opposing royal houses. Some believe the tortilla was developed as a cheap way to feed the troops. Others say a local woman threw what she had together into a skillet when hungry soldiers came calling.
Perhaps more widely accepted is the belief that the tortilla originated in Pamplona, for example, or that there isn’t a tapas bar in Spain that doesn’t serve tortilla.
In Spain, tortilla can become a matter of national pride.
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So we’ve dealt with the onion debate and I trust the onions won.
But now we have an equally crucial Tortilla Texture Controversy, which to some aficionados is as important as the presence of onions.
It goes like this: do you like your tortilla well-cooked and firm, or do you prefer it babosa, runny?
Tempers can flare during this particular discussion and when ordering a tortilla from scratch, a picky eater will go to great lengths to explain just how his or her tortilla should be cooked. (I’m in the firm and overcooked camp, and take to the hills whenever I see a runny egg.)
In the end, the only guarantee of a perfect tortilla is… the one you make yourself.
Just remember, it’s all in the wrist: the cutting, the whipping, and eventually the flipping over onto the plate.
Get that flick wrong and your tortilla will splatter unceremoniously all over the floor. I know this for a fact.