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Foodie Thoughts: Flavour fiesta – How I fell for Spanish cuisine…

Mercat de La Boqueria.
Mercat de La Boqueria (Filip Maljkovic/Wikimedia)

Anyone reading my previous posts on the Scrumptious Scran blog will gather that I’m a big fan of Mediterranean food, and Spanish cuisine in particular. I can trace my interest in Spanish food back to my first ‘proper’ visit to Spain in the mid-1990s. The family holiday to the Costa Brava, ten years earlier, though enjoyable didn’t involve the teenage me eating much that could be considered ‘typically’ Spanish, as I recall.

In 1994, my long-time pal David and I visited Barcelona for a few days, staying in a friend of a friend’s delightfully shabby apartment in the city’s El Raval district. This was two years after the Olympics had put Spain’s second city firmly on the map as a tourist destination. Yet the neighbourhoods – ‘barris’ in Catalan – that constitute Barcelona’s old town – Ciutat Vella – were then nowhere near as gentrified or touristy as they are today. Despite the Olympic boost they remained slightly run down, stoically clinging on to their working-class communities, and even being a wee bit gritty in places.

My abiding memories of this first visit to Barcelona are liberally peppered with the smells and tastes of Spanish food and drink. Of course, I now realise that what I was predominantly sampling was the Catalan contribution to what is a ‘national’ cuisine that is a mosaic of regional variation and speciality. David and I would spend hours in the glorious October sunshine exploring the maze-like lanes off La Rambla, or the Parisian-esque boulevards of El Eixample, stopping to sample the fiesta of food and drink available round every corner, wherever it took our fancy.

Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia (Bgag/Wikimedia)

For breakfast we would partake of the deceptively simple, yet totally delicious, pan amb tomaquet – slices of freshly-baked baguette, drizzled with grassy-flavoured olive oil and liberally rubbed with garlic and sweet tomato. Lunch, often in a workers’ cantina or neighbourhood bar, might consist of a hearty stew of white beans, butifarra sausage and subtly cooked, fantastically tender tripe. Or maybe we would sample esqueixada – a salad of onions, tomatoes, peppers, red wine vinegar and shredded, rehydrated bacalao (salt cod). And if we were partaking of the ubiquitos ‘menu del dia’ (the amazingly reasonable lunch specials) these mains would be precursed with a starter such as sopa de gamba – shrimp soup – and followed with a dessert of luxurious crema catalana. Such a feast would, of course, be accompanied with a chilled bottle of Catalan red wine, or a glass or two of cerveza negra – a dark, nutty lager.

The culinary wonder of Barcelona wasn’t merely confined to its bars and cafes, however. For me, a visit to Mercat de La Boqueria – Barcelona’s largest food market – was an utter revelation. Located half way down La Rambla, it is a cathedral to superb ingredients. Stall after stall was (and still is) piled to the rafters with the most amazing produce: gleamingly fresh arrays of fruit and vegetables; butchers selling a myriad of cuts which encompassed – quite literally – everything from nose to tail; an abundance of fish and shellfish, many of which I struggled to identify despite a background in marine biology; cheeses in all shapes, sizes and intensities, and floating forests of hanging hams; purveyors who entirely dedicated their pitch to wild mushrooms, olives and anchovies, nuts and dried fruits of all varieties, or simply sensational salt cod. And then there was the thrill of dining amongst traders and shoppers in the bustling bars adjacent to the market, sampling great tapas and chilled, dry cava.

During that visit to Barcelona, so enamoured with Spanish food had we become that upon our return to Edinburgh I remember David and I gave some serious thought to the potential of opening a tapas bar. Unfortunately, or possibly forutnately, our pipe dreams came to nothing. Yet my continuing, unwavering effusiveness for Spanish cuisine did eventually prove productive in another way. It resulted in another friend presenting me with a copy of Moro – The Cookbook.

Sam and Sam Clark – writers of the book and owners/chefs of the fantastic restaurant that shares its name – have a common passion for Spanish, North African, and Middle Eastern food. They have captured the absolute essence of what makes this cuisine so desirable and delightful, in the three volumes they have authored to date. I regularly refer to the Clarks’ recipes when entertaining. Further trips to sample, first hand, the cuisine of Barcelona – as well as Madrid and Seville – have provided me with an insight as to how spot on Moro‘s take on Spanish food actually is.

So, after having not caught up with my friend David for far too long, when he was able to join me, my other half and a mutual friend for lunch last Saturday, the temptation to cook a Spanish feast featuring my interpretations of some great Moro recipes was hard to resist. I do hope you enjoy the accompanying posts – billed as a ‘flavour fiesta’ – that detail the recipes that contributed to that particular lunch menu. These include:

  • Galician fish soup
  • Marinaded, slow cooked shoulder of lamb, with patatas bravas
  • Tarta de Santiago.

Cooking and eating these dishes certainly took me back to balmly days in Spain, as well as an excellent meal I once thoroughly enjoyed at Moro.

chicory/ Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall/ kidneys/ Moro/ offal/ recipe/ sherry/ Spanish/ venison

An offal-ly nice adventure – riñones al jerez (kidneys with sherry) with braised chicory

A glass of tasty sherry.
A nice glass of Amontillado.

Inspired by a recent Guardian article by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on both the sustainability, and fantastic flavours, associated with cooking offal, I decided to post about my own recent foray into using these cheap and versatile ingredients. Now I know offal isn’t for everyone – my other half included – but as Hugh astutely points out, “If we kill an animal for meat, surely it’s respectful to make the most of every scrap?”

Last weekend, with my offal-loathing other half out of town, I decided to swing by Edinburgh’s Farmers’ Market on the hunt for some under-used ingredients with which to cook. I was immediately drawn to some tasty looking venison kidneys on the stall of Fletcher’s of Auchtermuchty. Obviously, venison is a great sustainable, free range product and deer offal – such as the kidneys I plumbed for – has a deserved reputation for great flavour.

Having purchased the main offal ingredient for my supper, the next task was to decide what to pair this with. This was a straightforward choice. As I’ve previously mentioned, I am a big fan of Spanish food. My liking of Spanish cuisine has been significantly inspired by the cooking of London’s Moro restaurant, and their first cook book contains a simple yet delicious recipe for “Riñones al Jerez” – kidneys with sherry, to me and you.

Thankfully, gone are the days when – for many people – the word ‘sherry’ conjured up a mental picture of a dusty bottle of the sickly-sweet ‘cream’ variety, that only left the drinks cabinet at Christmas to provide a tipple for Great Aunt Agnes. For a useful beginner’s guide to how great and versatile sherry can be, check out Andrew Sinclair’s blog in The Guardian. For this recipe go for a dark, dry Oloroso, or slightly lighter, amber Amontillado, but in either case make sure the sherry is good quality.

Kidneys with sherry is a dish that is packed with big, bold, rich flavours and therefore needs an accompaniment that can hold its own and provide a nice counterpoint in terms of taste. A vegetable that really fits this bill is chicory. Though approaching the end of its growing season in April, it’s still possible to get decent specimens of this bitter-flavoured leafy veg, and it’s great braised in butter (which adds a nutty tone), a squeeze of lemon juice, and splash of apple juice (which together provide an accent of sweet and sour). The bitterness of the chicory will lessen and take on the flavour of the other ingredients during the course of a slow braise.

So, whether it be kidneys (or indeed any other offal), chicory, or sherry, why not give more common ingredients a day off and try something just a bit different?

Riñones al jerez (kidneys with sherry)
(thanks to Moro – the cookbook for this recipe)


  • 4-6 lambs or venison kidneys
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil 
  • ½ large Spanish onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 125ml dry oloroso/amontillado sherry
  • A sprinkling of sweet smoked Spanish paprika
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Preparation and cooking

Cover of "Moro: The Cookbook".
  1. The kidneys should come with the outer layer of fat removed. Remove any remaining external membrane, slice each kidney in half lengthways, and use a pair of scissors to snip away as much as the white gristle as possible. Then slice each kidney into bite-sized pieces (half or thirds depending on the size of each kidney.
  2. Heat the olive oil over a low to medium heat and fry the onion, stirring continually, until golden.
  3. Turn up the heat, add the garlic, and fry for 30 seconds.
  4. Add the kidneys and fry on all sides until sealed (but be careful not to let the garlic burn, or it will make the dish bitter).
  5. Season with salt and pepper and then add the sherry, reducing the heat immediately.
  6. Simmer for a minute or two to drive off the alcohol, but do not overcook – it is important that the kidneys are ever so slightly pink, tender and juicy in the middle when served.
  7. Check the seasoning and serve immediately with the braised chicory and some crusty fresh bread , to mop up the sauce.

Braised chicory


  • A good knob of unsalted butter (about 25g)
  • 2 chicory heads, cut in half along the length
  • Juice of half a lemon, combined with the same amount of water
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) of apple juice
  • A couple of sprigs of time
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation and cooking

  1. Melt the butter in a wide pan – with a lid – on a medium heat.
  2. When the foaming of the butter subsides, place the chicory in the pan with the cut side to the pan bottom.
  3. Season with salt and pepper and add the thyme and bay leaves.
  4. Cook for a few minutes then check to see if the underside of the chicory has started to turn golden.
  5. Add the lemon juice, water and apple juice, and place the lid on the pan, cooking for a further 15-20 minutes.
  6. Turn the chicory (carefully, as it will have softened) and finish cooking for a further couple of minutes, to ensure it had fully softened, without going mushy, then serve.
Chicory being sauted.
Chicory, about to be finished.

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