Thirty-three years ago this month I had clocked up five years working for the BBC on a ‘rolling’ annual contract as a researcher and director when my boss decided he would offer me a permanent contract. My reaction surprised us both – I promptly handed in my resignation! The very thought of a ‘job for life’ made me feel panicked and claustrophobic. I needed ‘time out’. Having saved some money, I headed south to Andalucía in Spain, with enough funds to survive for three months and the vague idea of writing a novel.
I borrowed a house belonging to my ex-husband in a small mountain village called Gualchos, overlooking the Mediterranean. It was perfect. Old terracotta floors, lime-washed walls, two fireplaces, a simple kitchen and a basic bathroom – all I needed. A small wooden table in front of a window looking out across the village to the sea became my desk for the next three months. No laptops back then – I filled page after page with longhand (the manuscript is still in a box somewhere). Suffice to say, it never saw the light of day, but it was good practice.
To counteract the hours spent sitting writing, I went on long treks into the hills, following old shepherd paths across the rocky landscape of pale grey limestone and dark red earth covered in gorse, thistles, rock roses, wild rosemary, sage and thyme. One of my favourite walks was up to El Pico de Aguila, overlooking the Mediterranean, where I could sit and watch the sun set, whilst snacking on bread, olives and red wine. The peak had once been a battleground during the Spanish Civil War and I always had to watch out for hidden trenches, long overgrown. It seemed sad how such a beautiful place could have been so scarred by war and death and I always wondered who had fought in those trenches and what had become of them…
Because my budget was so tight, I had to live very simply. With no car, the nearest large food shop was a six kilometre walk down to the coast – and back up again with a bulging rucksack. Basic food I bought in the village, and I also bartered my stale bread for fresh eggs (See my recipe for Tortilla). Whilst I was there, I learned to speak some basic Spanish and was sometimes invited by my neighbours across the street for meals – red peppers and garlic fried till almost melting served with fried eggs – or tapas – slices of Jamon de Serrano, Manchego cheese, with the inevitable olives and glasses of local wine. Happily for me and my budget, I was able to buy wine direct from the barrel in the village store – so long as I took an empty bottle. It cost me 20p for a bottle of red.
One of the books I took with me was a small Penguin cook book called “Spanish Regional Cookery” written by the Irish artist, Anna Macmiadhachain who had spent a lot of time living and travelling in Spain. I found it was full of useful recipes for the kind of ingredients that I could buy in Gualchos.
One of those recipes has become a staple dish in my life, especially when the weather is cold and my budget is tight – perfect for the post-Christmas months of January and February. It’s called Cocido de Garbanzos – meaning “Chick Pea Stew” but for me, the crucial ingredient in it are the Spanish blood sausages, morcilla.
Similar to English Black Pudding or French boudin noir, they’re made from pig’s blood, onions and spices and they rapidly crumble and permeate the stew with a dark, intense flavour. If you can’t track down the real Spanish version, then either the French or English versions make a good substitute – though I chop them into small pieces as they don’t seem to crumble so easily. As for the chorizo, I use the spicy version – a great combination with the rich taste of the morcilla sausages.
When I went to buy the morcilla this morning from Patrick Lafon, one of the butchers in the Marché Couvert here in Albi, I asked him where they came from. He proudly announced that he made them himself from a recipe handed down to him by his father, René, who had also been a butcher. Patrick told me that after the Spanish Civil War in 1939, many Spaniards escaped from Franco’s dictatorship and crossed the Pyrenees to make a new life for themselves in France. A small community of Spanish refugees had congregated in Albi just across the river from his father’s shop. One day, a homesick refugee came to see his father and asked him if he would make morcilla sausages for the Spanish community. René agreed and the Spaniard gave him the recipe – the same recipe that Patrick is using sixty years later.
As I chopped onions and sliced morcilla sausages, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps – amongst some of those refugees – there were families of the Republican soldiers who had once fought against Franco’s troops on the peak of El Aguila.
Ingredients for 6 people, and possibly left-overs as well! Preparation time – overnight soaking plus 3-4 hours of long slow simmering.
500 gm dried chick peas – You can substitute tinned chick peas, less time but more cost
4 medium-size morcilla sausages (or boudin noir or black pudding), sliced 4cm thick.
2 large spicy chorizo sausages, sliced 4cm thick.
500 gm pork belly or ribs, cut into small chunks (optional)
3-4 onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tins chopped tomatoes
Olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak the dried chick peas overnight in a large bowl of water. Drain the chick peas and then simmer gently in a large saucepan with a margin of at least 5cm water, to allow for steaming off, for around 1.5 hrs. Test a chick pea to be sure they’re ready – it should be soft but still with some body. When they’re ready, drain off the chick peas, making sure to keep at least 1 litre of the cooking water. (NB. If you use tinned chick peas, keep the water from the tins).
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and cook the onions and garlic until soft and golden. Drain them off and tip into a large deep casserole/pan for cooking on the hob. Add the pork belly/ribs to the frying pan and seal briefly over a hot flame. Remove and add them to the casserole. Now briefly fry the morcilla and chorizo until the juices start running and add these to the casserole.
Finally add the chick peas, the litre of chick pea water (plus extra if needed) to the casserole, and put on a low heat to simmer for the next couple of hours. The morcilla will break up and the liquid will darken and thicken. After about an hour, taste and season with salt and pepper and add some red wine.
This dish can be made with the morcilla and no chorizo; and the addition of the pork is a bit of a luxury! In my opinion, it’s much better reheated the day after, and it can also be eaten cold with a salad.
When I cooked this stew in Gualchos, it would be my lunch and dinner for nearly three days running – being on my own and with no fridge/freezer, there was no option. But it kept me going when the weather was cold and the pesetas (pre-Euro) were in short supply.