Saturday, 11 February 2012


There is Cocido. And then there is Cocido Madrileňo. Your ordinary Andalusian Cocido is a starter rather than a main course: a greyish soup of hambone stock and chickpeas, in which if you are lucky you will find floating a sliver of the bacon-fat the Spanish call tocino, a mouthful of chicken on the bone and maybe a little chunk of slightly indeterminate flesh. Cocido as a starter is nourishing and egalitarian. One of those peasant dishes where a lot of carbohydrate is eked out with not much visible protein – though the beans themselves are 25% protein and the marrowbone stock supplies a useful DNA underlay. Cocido Madrileno, on the other hand, is a main course, a meal even – a traditional lunchtime dish in Spain’s bustling capital city. I ate it first at a celebrated Madrid taberna, La Bola, where it is the mast-head dish. Lunch is the main meal in Spain, which explains the need for siesta afterwards, observed as faithfully in winter as in summer. (It is said that so long as a husband sits at the head of his own family table for Sunday lunch, with whom he lunches or siestas on the other days of the week may be considered his own affair – cocido in the Madrid style is excellent stamina food for long-distance lovers.)

La Bola has its own way of serving up cocido, bringing it to table in individual clay tankards – pucheros - tall, pint-sized pot-bellied, brown jars in which the meat, beans, vegetables, chick-peas and stock are cooked for six hours (or so it is claimed) on trays in a slow oven. The pucheros come with a handle, so that first the stock – the caldo - can be poured into a bowl and drunk as a soup, usually with the addition of some boiled rice or the light-weight pasta the Spanish call fideos. Then a fresh plate is presented and the main body of the cocido decanted onto it, with all its rich and varied aromas. Whereupon the Madrileňo businessman takes a strong sip of the red Rioja wine poured and set before him, and steps off alone on his fortifying food-safari.

Cocido served up in individual pucheros is for upmarket restaurants with a point to make. Until the gas or electric cooker came – less than 30 years ago in most Spanish households - home-made cocido – cocido casero – was universally prepared in a cauldron hung over the open fire, just as Velazquez or Goya might have painted it centuries earlier. Into the simmering mess of chick peas went whatever the house-hold had to spare: salt meat, fresh meat and sausage (preferably smoked), meatbones, tocino, salt fat and pig’s trotters to add richness to the stock and maybe a boiling fowl for its flavour (always preferred to a roasting chicken). In the last hour potatoes were dropped in to soak up the stock and add bulk; a cabbage added colour, texture – and a bit of redeeming roughage too.

When Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down, modern archaeology reveals that many of the surprised inhabitants would have been tucking into a chick-pea supper at the time. Chick peas were playing a central role in the Mediterranean diet long before tomatoes or pasta arrived. You can boil them, roast them, grind them into flour, coat them in honey and eat them as sweets, and while they are still green, eat them raw. You can mould them into falafel or ferment them to produce an alcoholic drink much like sake. Cooked and ground with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic they become hummous. Their likeness to little male testicles may have prompted their adoption by the Ashkenazi as a festive dish for the birth of a baby son. India is the world’s great producer of the legume the French call poix chiche, the Spanish garbanzos and the poly-lingual Indians chana or harbharaa or kadale kardu. Chick peas are delicious when bought cooked and bottled. But the only way to preserve the true sense of risk when cooking them, is to buy them dried, soak them in water overnight, and disbelieve anyone who says they can be fully cooked in under three to six hours.

In Spain the supermarkets sell cocido preparado – the preparation pack for a cocido – the basic ingredients of raw meat, sausage, fat and bone, pre-selected and shrink-wrapped for the busy housewife. True members of the cocido aficion – the authentic dedicatees of the soup that is also a stew that is also a soup – will visit their local butcher and negotiate cheap cuts. The results will taste much the same either way. A nation which in earlier centuries lost not just one but a total of six fully-equipped armadas, with all their cannon and cooking-pots, in the vain attempt to hang onto empire, is not nowadays going to play foodie games with a national dish.

Followers of contemporary art recognize the difference between works of art inviting detached contemplation – typically paintings and sculptures – and works of art such as installations and contextual works, in which the individual becomes perceptually immersed. From cooking to final consumption cocido is an immersive process. Furthermore – to borrow another phrase from the art critic’s lexicon – it is ‘context-sensitive’. That is to say, the character of the cocido both influences and is influenced by the surroundings in which it is consumed. To prove the point, my friend Joanna and I cooked a gargantuan cocido madrileňo, tied the lid firmly to the pot, drove 60 miles through the Subbetica hills south of cordoba to where our friends Matthew and Miranda have a gorgeous house high up amongst olive groves. There, on a January day under glittering Andalusian sunlight, we untied the string, lifted off the lid, and lo! – our workaday urban soup-cum-stew had been transformed, by the magic of fresh air and friendship, into a rustic feast.

© Nicholas Tresilian, 2012