SCARS AT THE TABLE
by Hernan Barros
Food, alongside Fashion and Architecture, it is one of those aspects of daily life that can reveal a lot, not only about an individual but also about an entire generation. A mere dish contains so much information about its consumers that its recipe could reflect location, habits and even the socio-political factors in play at the time of being served.
The Spanish traditional dish known as “Las Gachas” comes from many generations before us. It has gone through several transformations. Justa Arroyo, a 95 year old lady from Castilla, had lived through those changes and tasted them through the ways she ate. Before the Spanish Civil War, that dish was part of the traditional menu. It contained flour, cloves of garlic, onions, olive oil, salt, water and old bread. But when the war came, the supplies were controlled in many regions, including hers, Castilla – La Mancha, therefore, a change in her eating habits took place. By the time of late 30’s and early 40’s there was a lot of hunger because of the market restrictions. Everything was rationed and many products were scarce. After some tweaking and due to the availability of its ingredients, “Gachas” became one of the most popular meals among the Spanish families in the countryside. Alongside “Migas”, potatoes and some soups, the consumption of “Las Gachas” became part of the traditional ritual of eating at home.
The recipe was basically, flour which was fried on oil with cloves of garlic, salt and then they added water. When Justa describes and cooks it, she goes back to the past and we can see in her anecdotes the atmosphere of the Civil War in her town. People fainting in the streets out of hunger, illegal smuggling of food, exchange of products between families and a general oppression of liberties were part of her daily life then. Justa ironically comments about the importance of bread in the diet 70 years ago and how nowadays it has been neglected. Bread was the cornerstone of Spanish diet and not the supporting act it has become, currently at the table. It meant for Spanish what tortillas are for Mexicans or Pasta for Italians. The rationing of bread during times of war affected the lives of many Spaniards and there was a black market for it. It was during that decline of bread that “Las Gachas” rose at the centre of their cuisine.
Like wounds left after battle, every war leaves its own scars to eat three times a day. Thanks to the invasion of the Mores in Spain, we can taste nowadays a whole range of products coming from pork. The local farmers during that time figure it out that the occupying forces were taking everything from their lands, except pigs. It was the one thing to hold onto and for centuries, the cooking of those precious omnivorous was the salvation of locals who tried to use every single part of them: ears, bones, intestines, blood, to name a few. The Muslims are long gone but not the habit of eating a chorizo in wine.
Franco is gone too but Justa still eats "Las Gachas" now and then. They have been criticised as unhealthy too and its lack of nutrition values are placing them in the back row of the Spanish Gastronomy, nowadays one of the most popular on the planet. As it happened with bread, "Las Gachas" had its own slow decline. Once the conditions of the food market improved and the war faded, more ingredients were available and other dishes made their own comeback. However, like energy, ideas don't die, they just transform themselves. In this case, that transformation it is a result of what moved Spain in the postwar. Gachas, in its current version, include bread, onions, green and red peppers, pork and chorizo, reflecting the trends in using vegetables and more sophisticated ingredients. Justa find "Las Gachas" in restaurants and bars but not with the same frequency of Tortillas or Croquetas, two of the most popular stars in the Iberic menu. In the times of financial crisis, the Mediterranean cuisine will be affected by it, not for better, neither for worse but as it should be. Time will be our glass to observe those changes, perhaps the “Las Gachas“ will go under another transformation, perhaps it will be world wide famous if one of the Spanish Chefs of the Molecular Gastronomy Wave decides to reinvent it and that reinterpretation would reflect not only the moment that the Spanish Culture goes through now but also its limitations. It is a timeless dish that due to its simplicity, acts as a moving canvas able to show us the surrounding turmoil of its country at the time of being served.