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Monday, April 21, 2014

Tapas Dancing

The Rain in Spain Also Falls on the Pimentón Dept.: After writing this piece, I ordered a couple of pounds of the paprika in question. There will be some excellent experimentation in my kitchen during the next few weeks.


IT WAS ON HIS SECOND TRIP back from the Americas that Columbus carried peppers (not to mention corn and tomatoes) to his royal patrons, opening Spanish cuisine to ingredients from which it soon would become inseparable. “Like so many developments during that time, it went behind the walls of the monasteries,” says Alfonzo Blasquez, sales manager for Pata Negra, “where the monks discovered that the peppers could be added to meat as part of the preserving process. Eventually it came out from behind those walls, and every village in Spain developed its own chorizo recipe.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Authentic Spanish chorizo is a stiff pork sausage with a compelling, oily sweetness to the meat, aided by the sweet-spicy tang of garlic. The best chorizo gains most of its complexity from pimentón de La Vera, a smoked paprika grown and processed in the Tiétar river valley in western Spain. And that chorizo is now being made in Gloversville, using a very old recipe and some very new technology.

I toured the Pata Negra plant, which is in a small industrial park in that city, with general manager Ignacio Sáez de Ibarra, shortly after it opened last November. “Locating the plant in Gloversville was a matter of both geographical and financial convenience,” he told me. “It gives us access to the Northeast, and the local economic development council has been very generous and helpful.”

The meat is ground, seasoned and packed in casings in one large room, and there are four more rooms where the sausages are air-dried. “It’s a combination of artisan craftsmanship and technology,” Sáez de Ibarra explains. “In the old days you would have a building with many windows high on a mountain where the drying took place. A master chorizo maker opened and closed the windows according to his sense of what the sausages needed.

“Here we have many rows of air vents in the ceiling. Temperature, airflow and relative humidity are computer controlled, varied according to a program that replicates the way it was done on that mountaintop.”

Curing the chorizo is a five-week process. No preservatives are used, so the USDA inspectors have inspected the process and the product very carefully—and confirmed what the monks discovered 400 years ago. The stuff keeps excellently. Of course, “Air drying is not economical. But it’s the only way to make authentic chorizo.”

“Using additives would make our life easier,” adds Blasquez, “but it wouldn’t be chorizo. The recipe we’re using has been in my family for hundreds of years.” Right now, the meat comes from a farm in Indiana. “They are able to supply us with a superior, humanely raised product in the quantity we need. We use only prime cuts that are very lean.”

“But we are looking for local meat suppliers,” says Maider Alonso, the deputy general manager. I spoke with her during a more recent visit, to see the newest Pata Negra product, fuet, a white chorizo that uses no paprika. “It would be more convenient to get our meat locally, although it probably would be more expensive. But this business is about building relations, which are strongest on the local level.”

All of the chorizo ingredients come from domestic suppliers except the pimentón de La Vera, which has to be imported from Spain because there’s no other product like it. It’s believed that the monks of the Yuste Monastery in Caceres began cultivating this particular pepper, encouraged by the abdicated Spanish emperor Charles V, who went to live at that monastery.

By the middle of the 19th century, area farmers had taken to growing the peppers and turning them into the famous pimentón. Some of the fields remain inaccessible enough to require mules instead of tractors, adding to the old-fashioned aspect of the enterprise, where the pods are still picked by hand, then smoke-dried over oak for two weeks. Although the mills used to powder the peppers are electrically driven, they turn slowly enough to prevent excessive friction from spoiling the flavor.

The regular chorizo has a sunset hue, while the spicy version looks almost crimson. Slice into the meat and you see a richly marbled texture that begins oozing its flavorful oil as soon as it meets the air. It’s a little chewy, which is good: You need that time to allow your palate to enjoy the complexity that unfolds. Like so many ancient recipes, there’s an earthiness about the flavor provoked by the smoke of the pimentón. And chorizo has the protean ability to pair with items savory or sweet, making it a tapas essential.

Pata Negra’s Imperial Chorizo immediately found a home in Manhattan’s Dean & DeLuca and Fairway markets, and it’s finding its way into specialty markets across the country, with the San Francisco area among the most enthusiastic of regions. Locally, it’s carried at Mohawk Harvest in Gloversville, the Niskayuna Co-op, Roma Foods in Latham and Saratoga and Troy’s The Grocery, part of Lucas Confectionary.

“We plan to open a little retail store on the premises here in the summer,” says Alonso, “and we would like to expand into more Spanish cured meats. Every little town has its own style and they all taste good.” Blasquez holds up a package of the product and says, “Chorizo is Spain. Not France, not Italy. This is what you taste for the flavor of Spain.”

Metroland Magazine, 17 April 2014

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