Sunday, 20 May 2012

Las dos tortillas

My chile plants did fuck all while I was on holiday in Menorca, but that's fair enough, because I pretty much did fuck all too.

One thing I did do, however, was read five chapters of Don Quijote in the original along with a critical introduction to the text and a Spanish encyclopedia entry about Mexico which bragged about Spain introducing wheat to North America but remained silent about the myriad culinary gifts Mexico gave to Spain.

And I ate tortilla. Every fucking day.

Wait a minute, you say (or would say, if you were me twelve years ago): tortilla in the singular without an indefinite article, and in Spain?

Yes indeed, because there are two tortillas (actually even more, but for the purposes of this post...).

There is the tortilla they eat in Mexico and North America, which is a flat bread made of maize flour (or, especially in northern Mexico and the United States, wheat flour and lard), and the tortilla they eat in Spain, which is a type of omlette bulked up with potatoes.

The first time I heard my Spanish friends talk about "making tortilla", I said "I thought you didn't eat Mexican food in Spain."

They then then taught me how to make a Spanish tortilla, which takes a helluva long time because you have to slow-fry the potatoes in a pan without burning the onions. As I'll explain below, the British have not figured this out, resulting in a lack of edible Spanish tortilla in the UK.

For some reason, it took me twelve years to wonder which tortilla came first. Maybe it's because I've only recently become so obsessed with the pantheon of marvellous foods Mexico gave to the world. But whatever the reason, I started wondering while on holiday, and I did some research.

Because the Mexican tortilla dates back to prehistoric times (evidence of its production can be found in some of the most ancient archaeological sites in Mexico), the Mexican tortilla - which I will call the real tortilla - empirically came first.
Obviously the ancient Mexicans didn't call it a tortilla (the word is Spanish, meaning "little cake"), but they ate them every day. The Aztec Empire, at its peak the largest in the world, even supplied its citizens with a daily ration of tortillas.

Does this mean the Spanish didn't have their own tortilla at the same time? Probably, and there are two reasons for this.

1) When the real tortilla was invented, there were no Spanish people, at least not as we understand the term "Spanish". Before the Romans conquered what is now Spain and named it Hispania (the root of the name "España"), the place was inhabited by the Basques (who are non-Indo-European), the Iberians (who were pre-Indo European), and the Celts (who were Celts). Spain and the modern Spanish did not come into existence until after the fall of the Roman Empire.

2) Potatoes are a new world crop. Colombus himself introduced them to Europe after he discovered them in what he thought was India.

So the Spanish can not have created their modern tortilla until after 1492. I don't know how long it took them to start adding potatoes toeggs. Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, I do know that tortilla referring to the Mexican flat bread entered the English language in the late 17th century, while the first mention in English of the Spanish tortilla comes from the late-19th century (and says it has tomatoes instead of potatoes).

Of course, the Spanish could have been making omlettes without the potatoes before the conquest of Mexico. The humble omlette is an ancient Middle Eastern dish, and most of Spain was ruled by the Moors during the Middle Ages, so they could have brought it with them (along with Aristotelian philosophy and mathematics).

That's to say nothing of the fact that beating some eggs and cooking them in a pan until they form a flat fluffy mass doesn't exactly take a culinary genius.

However, there's one more thing to consider. The Spanish still have the basic, potato-less omlette. But they call it tortilla francesa (French tortilla), implying they learned it from the French, not the Moors.

Because the Spanish tortilla is the more well-known in the UK, the Brits tend to call flour tortillas "wraps", and they don't really have corn tortillas at all.

Unfortunately, this does not mean you can get decent Spanish tortilla in the UK. The reason for this is that the British, like the Americans, have no patience.

See, it takes forever to soften the potatoes in the pan, so the Brits always pull some crap like parboiling the potatoes first to speed the process up. I don't know why, but if you do this, the tortilla just doesn't end up tasting right.

This leads to the other way they fuck up tortilla: adding more ingredients.

The proper ingredients of a Spanish tortilla are:

Onion, diced (apparently optional)
Garlic, diced (definitely optional)
Olive oil
NOTHING ELSE (I don't care what Wikipedia says)

A Spanish tortilla does not have chorizo, jamón serrano, red peppers, olive tapenade, hummus, manchego cheese, or anything else aspirational, up-their-own-arse victuallers like Peckhams and Waitrose can think of.

Presumably you would be tempted to add all that other stuff because you're afraid the tortilla will be "boring" without it. Well, if you make it properly, slow-cooking the potatoes until they soften and release their starch, it won't taste boring.

I say this having eaten tortilla in Spain many times and even having cooked my own on a few occasions. So if you haven't got a couple hours to cook it right, it's best not to cook Spanish tortilla at all. And if you do cook it properly, there's no need to ruin this brilliantly and deliciously simple dish with a lot of vulgar bells and whistles.