Spanish Pickled Vegetables
Chilli banderilla. Amador Toril/©ICEX
Author: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Publication Date: 08 May 2012
The first time I tried pickled garlic over a decade ago, I admit to some reticence. After all, I was new in Spain back then, and worried about putting off the few friends I had with garlic breath. But no one could have prepared me for the pleasure that morsel created in my mouth. It was crunchy, salty, spicy and delicate, with a slight hint of cloves. Imagine my delight when I discovered that it was only the tip of a Spanish pickle iceberg.
In Spain, pickled gherkins, pearl onions, garlic cloves, olives and other pickled vegetables are known as encurtidos, and they are officially defined in the Royal Spanish Dictionary by the presence and aroma of vinegar in their preparation. Whatever the vegetable, these sour, salty, sweet and crunchy pickled foods are everywhere you look. They are present in every social situation and are widely consumed as tapas, in traditional recipes, and even in some of the country’s most avant-garde cuisine. Their regional variety reflects Spain’s diverse agricultural wealth and rich local gastronomy, while their ubiquity in Spain reflects a way of life and traditions that are wonderfully shared by all. Additionally, the export success of these products has made them true symbols of what seems authentically Spanish to the rest of the world, with a particular emphasis on the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada and Australia.
Pickled all over
Of course depending on where and what you are eating, the selection of pickled vegetables can vary dramatically, or hardly at all. According to Carlota González, director of Grupo Rafael González, “The world of the pickled vegetables includes a wide range of products from distinct regions that have adapted to the cultivation of certain products according to the conditions of their area.” However, technological advances and an expanding marketplace have meant that, for some products, these regional definitions are no longer as true as they once were. Pickled vegetables such as gherkin pickles (pepinillos), pearl onions (cebollitas) and garlic cloves (ajitos) are now being produced all over Spain. But some pickled products, such as berenjenas de Almagro (eggplants), guindillas de Ibarra (chili peppers) and alcaparras de Ballobar (capers) are specialties, made from vegetables that can be cultivated and prepared only in specific geographical areas.
The pickled snacks known as banderillas and kimbos lie somewhere between these two extremes. Kimbos are typically pitted olives, especially the variety called gordal, stuffed with a gherkin pickle, although they are known by different names in different parts of Spain. The banderillas, with and endless variety of combinations, are named after a dart-like stick used in bullfighting and are also called toreras. The most unmistakable banderilla in Spain is perhaps the Gilda, which is made with a green hot pepper, olive, gherkin and anchovy. It will forever be associated with the city of San Sebastian, where it was invented in 1946 and named after the famous character brought to life by Rita Hayworth in Charles Vidor’s movie that same year. The story goes that, like the character, the banderilla was both salty and a little spicy.
Grupo Rafael González is an excellent example of this diversification. Located in the fertile region of La Rioja, this family business has specialized in making gherkin pickles and other pickled vegetables for over 50 years. While their dedication to these traditional products has remained unchanged, the company has broadened their product line to include other vegetables like carrots, beets, celery, cauliflower and sprouts. This expansion is symptomatic of the growth that this market is experiencing. González also attributes the increasing popularity of different types of pickled products to their nutritional qualities. In addition to their low fat content and other nutritional qualities, lactic-acid fermented vegetables have been proven to contain probiotic microbes that promote the growth of healthy intestinal flora and aid in digestion. As such, they are recommended for macrobiotic diets.
At the other end of the spectrum are Spanish pickled vegetables so specialized that they can be produced only in certain areas in accordance with centuries-old traditions. In addition to their strong presence in the culinary traditions of the past, these products are so respected that they are also being incorporated into the recipes of many of Spain’s most renowned chefs.
The most recognizable of these products is without a doubt Almagro eggplants, a food designated with a Protected Geographic Indication (PGI). This genetically singular species (Solanum melongena) is cultivated in the center of the province of Ciudad Real (Castile-La Mancha, center of Spain). They are characterized by their small size, thin stems and dark green fruit, which can be tinged on the outside with purple and black tones. According to a study carried out by the Polytechnic University of Valencia, these eggplants also have an extremely high concentration of polyphones—antioxidants that may help to prevent certain types of cancer, reduce signs of aging, and lower cholesterol.
Unlike other raw pickled vegetables, the eggplants are cooked, fermented and then seasoned. The classic berenjenas aliñadas (seasoned eggplants) are dressed with the recipe of sunflower oil, wine vinegar, locally-grown purple garlic (PGI Ajo Morado de Las Pedroñeras), cumin, rock salt and paprika (Protected Designation of Origin,PDO Pimentón de la Vera). The berenjenas embuchadas (stuffed eggplants) are stuffed with a red pepper and skewered with a stick of locally grown wild fennel. Their texture varies, ranging from chewier leaves on the outside, to the smooth and yielding flesh of the eggplant itself. Although the flavor is characterized by the aroma of vinegar and cumin, the taste is delicate and unlike anything else you’ve ever tried.
Heading north, about 965 km (600 mi), pickled Ibarra chili peppers are also being lauded for their culinary applications. The true Ibarra peppers are only cultivated in specific areas in the northern province of Guipúzcoa (Basque Country). The characteristics of these peppers include their thin skins, meaty flesh, greenish-yellow hues, and soft flavor. But for most people the greatest distinction of all is that, unlike peppers from other areas, the Ibarras are not spicy.
According to José Antonio Urrozola of Ibarraco Langostinoak, this distinction comes from the area’s microclimate of mild temperatures, sparse sun and plenty of humidity. Iñaki Labaien of Agiña Piperrak S.L. also attributes the difference to the area’s soft soils and the fact that there’s not much difference between nighttime and daytime temperatures. Both producers stress that vegetables are typically planted, harvested, sorted and pickled by hand using traditional recipes that have been used in people’s homes for centuries.
Pedro Subijana, of famed Akelarre Restaurant, often uses Ibarra green peppers on his menu, and values them both for what they signify on a traditional level and because they “have a perfect texture, an exact touch of vinegar, and aren’t spicy.” He stresses that, “We use them in endless preparations...they adapt perfectly to haute cuisine. We’ve used them in a number of formats, including spherification, caramelization, and injected and stuffed.”
Despite being geographically unique products, both Almagro eggplants and Ibarra green peppers have been esteemed throughout Spain for generations. In the case of the pickled capers and caper berries of Ballobar, this unique and traditional product from the Monegros Desert in Huesca (Aragón, northeast Spain) is just starting to regain its former renown.
In general, Spanish capers are an extremely well-known product in the rest of the world and are exported with great success. Indigenous to the Mediterranean and arid areas of the Iberian Peninsula, capers (alcaparras) and caper berries (alcaparrones) have been harvested for food here for centuries. Historically, capers have been produced in large quantities in the south, in Almería, parts of Córdoba (Andalusia) and Murcia. They are also a very important agricultural and gastronomic product in the Balearic Islands, where they are called tàperes.
Within this larger context, Ballobar capers, a Slow Food flagship food, are unique for a number of reasons. These wild plants are adapted to the extreme heat of the Monegros Desert, where it takes around 6,000 buds to constitute only 1 kg (2.2 lb) of capers. The extreme conditions have led to the near disappearance of this product for several years, but thanks to the efforts of local people like Miguel Ángel Salas, this traditional pickled vegetable is making a comeback. British company Brindisa, which imports these and other Spanish foods, describes them as less bitter than typical capers and with a more tender skin. A stronger endorsement comes from Chef Josean Martínez Alija, of the world-famous Guggenheim Restaurant in Bilbao. Among other things, he appreciates the purity of their flavor: “This caper has an intense and pleasant taste, a slightly crunchy texture and a special perfumed aroma. The quality and method of their preparation makes them special and their flavor doesn’t saturate dishes, but, rather, presents a balance with an aroma that I haven’t experienced with other (capers).”
Pairing Two of Spain’s Great Traditions
While there can be no doubt about the wisdom of combining pickled vegetables with a traditional aperitif of beer or vermouth, pairing them with wine can be a little trickier. The acidity found in most wines can often clash with the vinegared notes of pickled vegetables. However, there are certain properties found in the aged fortified wines (sherries) of Jerez that makes them ideal for pairing with the sour, salty and even sweet flavors of pickled vegetables. In Andalusia, where these famed wines are made, there is a long-standing tradition of just that. Just ask José García of the Taberna La Manzanilla, a Cádiz institution since 1942: “The aging of wines like Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso in wood casks gives them the body and dryness needed to stand up to the strong flavors of vinegar.” Additionally, this type of aging and the vinegar and salt of the pickled vegetables cause the palate to produce more saliva, which also helps to maximize flavors and aromas.
Spanish pickled vegetables are not only holding their traditional ground, but are also prospering at new levels in export and modern gastronomic applications. In the end it comes down to the fact that Spaniards themselves relish these traditional foods that are so interwoven with the country’s cultural and social traditions. Since my first bite of pickled garlic years ago, I can absolutely see why!
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.