Saturday 27th August, Madrid, Spain.
THE HUNT FOR ACEITUNAS NEGRAS (black olives)
Last night it was my turn to cook dinner. My impression has been that the Spanish live on a diet of pork, pork and pork, occasionally punctuated by a meal of chicken. So for something different, I decided to cook lamb, a meat that isn't nearly as widely consumed here as it is in Australia or England. In fact the lamb section at the supermarket butchery consisted of two joints of lamb, sandwiched between sprawling displays of pork, chicken, and beef. My original intention was to make a hot lamb salad, with tender strips of lamb fillet draped over a salad of spinach, mushrooms, red cabbage and red peppers. A closer look at the lamb display called for some improvisation. Of course in Australia where the sheep are big and fat, their meat yield is considerably different to countries like Spain where sheep are a different breed altogether, a skinny, droopy eared beast more resembling a goat. I bought six bony lamb chops, and spared a thought for the poor sheep that wasn't even allowed to grow comfortably plump before being sacrificed so that I could impress Maria with my culinary skills. "Lamb chops on a bed of spinach, mushrooms, red cabbage and red peppers", that sounded okay. And as an accompaniment I wanted to share with Maria a little dish that 'Wilson' and Bhu and I came up with in the mountains of Andalucia, a warm salad of chick peas, white beans, peas, sweet corn and black olives. The boys and I had devised the recipe out of desparation, sick to death of a diet of sandwiches and also frustrated from staring at all the unopened jars of legumes above the fireplace. I cut open an empty eight litre water bottle, and we mixed all the ingredients in there, spooning out small amounts at a time to heat up on Ariel's tiny gas cooker. It was a tasty combination, let down only by the tasteless black olives. I'd never bought tinned olives before, so maybe that's what they're always like. This time however, I would spice up the warm salad by adding some onion and garlic that had been fried in sesame oil, and of course by using fresh, juicy, plump, tasty black olives. Aceitunas Negras
Spain is country covered with olive tress. Casa del Sangria was completely surrounded by olive groves, and after a storm, the late afternoon sunshine would shimmer off the silvery grey-green leaves just like in that scene in Gladiator. All the way up the coast, olive trees dotted the hinterland. Every Spanish garden has at least one olive tree, along with the obligatory fig tree and grape vine. It's the law. It's a little known fact that anywhere in the country you will never be more than three metres from an olive tree. *I may or may not have invented that fact* Olives are surely one of Spain's contributions to the planet; olives, bullfights, flamenco, gorgeous dark eyed women, and long, boozy lunches followed by siestas. So what a place to satisfy my newfound hunger for olives. It was during my recent travels in Morocco that I came to learn the wonderful variety that exists within the humble olive family. In Australia, the local delicatessan would usually offer black olives, pitted black olives, green olives and stuffed green olives. (I've always thought that would be a tedious job, stuffing little chunks of red pepper into green olives. But a job is a job, I guess.) Some specialist Continental deli's might have a little more variety, but when I walked into my first souq - market- in Tangiers, I was blown away by the olives. Each stall had several varieties, black ones, green ones, purple ones, some fat and round, some slightly wrinkly, some marinated in chilli, some in lemon and garlic. There was no end to the creativity of the Moroccan olive industry. Every day, I would buy a few small bags of olives to add to a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, avocado and fruit. I was almost always able to find a new variation of olive that I hadn't tried before. And now I find myself in Madrid, Spain's colourful capital, Morocco's closest European neighbour. What exotic, exciting olives awaited me here?
Initially, it seemed I had set myself up for a disappointment. The first supermarket I tried had no fresh olives on display. I asked at the delicatessan counter, and the lady kindly guided me to the tinned food aisle. If I've never resorted to buying canned olives in Australia, I'm not about to accept it in olive rich Mediterranean Europe now, am I? I bought the rest of my grocery needs, including a bottle of cheap vodka, and a fifty cent carton of red wine. A jug of Sangria would be the perfect pre-dinner beverage.
On the long walk back to Maria's apartment- made much longer since I lost my way in the maze of narrow little backstreets, and had to end up paying a homeless guy for directions- I stopped at every little store that looked remotely like it might sell olives. Some stores I even visited more than once, as my lack of orientation saw me and my eight bags of groceries trudging down the same little street time and again. Not an olive to be had, I returned home dejected. The warm salad relied on olives, they were the key ingredient. Otherwise it was just a mish mash of bland vegetables with other bland vegetables.
When Maria returned from work, she found me weeping on the couch. "I can't find olives!" I sobbed.
"Never fear" she said, "I know this city. I'll take you where we can find some olives". I blew my nose and wiped the tears from my eyes, thanked her meekly and followed her to the elevator.
The first place we visited was a large underground supermarket in the centre of Madrid, just a few blocks from Maria's apartment. They would definitely have olives, she said. But her enquiries were met with much shaking of heads, and fingers pointing to the tinned food aisle. It was now a matter of pride for Maria, she was out to prove that Madrid, a city of four million or so, could actually provide me with a handful of olives. We scoured the streets for neighbourhood delicatessens but the shaking of heads continued. Finally, we reached a large covered fresh produce market. The smell of fish and fresh meat was overwhelming, and we could see rows of fresh fruit and vegetables across the market. All manner of fruit and vegetables were on display, except, you guessed it, olives. At the end of the row, an old man was sleepily tending his stall of what looked to be bowls of olives. My heart leapt. Maria beamed. "I told you so!" she said, and we raced towards the old man's stall. In the cabinet, he had several bowls of olives, medium sized green olives, huge fat green olives, stuffed green olives and some other varieties of green olives that I paid no attention to... because I wasn't interested in green olives. I wanted black olives! When Maria asked him where his aceitunas negras were, he shook his head sadly and pointed to a ceramic bowl half full of translucent black liquid. He had sold out! Well, of course he had. He was the only person in the entire capital city who sold black olives. But wait, I could see something floating just under the surface in his supposedly empty black olive bowl. I pointed hopefully to the small bump in the surface, and the old man shrugged and handed me a scoop. Frantically, I scooped back and forward through the water, and with each pass managed to locate at least a couple of plump black olives. By the time I was finished, we had a grand total of thirteen black olives to add to our warm salad, and we hurried back to Maria's apartment.
For Maria's response to my stupid black olive story, click here. This may be my last journal entry too, since Maria swore that if I wrote anything like "...Spain's contributions to the planet; olives, bullfights, flamenco, gorgeous dark eyed women, and long, boozy lunches followed by siestas..." that she would indeed kill me, even after I promised her I would add the bit about "gorgeous dark eyed women". Well, it's been fun, folks.