There is a lot written about food evoking childhood and other happy memories. I smile quietly to myself at the mention of a sugar sandwich or jelly and ice cream. Less pleasant feelings surface when confronted with over-cooked Brussels sprouts or boiled mutton and white sauce. Often we associate places with particular foods too. I can’t go into central Dublin without being hit with a particular memory from my teenage years. It was a dire, cold wet night. We had been into town to see a movie. I had just enough cash left to afford a bag of chips. The rest of the lads jumped a bus. I chose to trip around to Middle Abbey Street for bag fo chips. I scoffed it waiting, on Burg Quay, for the last bus. I was cold. I was wet and the crunchy chips were over-salted. I didn’t care. They were delicious. At the bottom of the bag, the fluffy potato was soaked in acrid vinegar that made me cough. I was in heaven on a cold, wet, Dublin night. Every time I cross O’Connell Bridge, that memory comes back to me.
Fast forward by forty five years or so, and in September, you find me cycling in the Picos de Europa mountain range, on the northern coast of Spain. The Picos feature in the iconic Vuelta de Espana bike race. One of the most difficult climbs is the Lagos de Covadonga, a brutal sixteen kilometre climb of over 1,000m. We were in the region for a week of cycling. My objective for the week was to cycle up this beast. I won’t bore you with talk of sweat pouring out of my beard, burning eyes or screaming legs. I will tell you that I learned a lot about myself as I struggled through. The spin down was amazing, with time to appreciate the truly stunning views over one of Europe’s most beautiful mountain ranges.
At the base of the mountain, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. Our first course was a Spanish Sausage, Pork and Bean Stew. Was it the best meal I have ever eaten? No. But was it packed with flavour and made with local, traditional ingredients? – Yes. So, before we flew out to Dublin from Santander, I made it my business to buy a selection of local chorizo. I got the rest of the ingredients at home so I could try to rekindle memories and recreate the true joy and life affirming pleasure of cresting the Lagos de Covadonga.
- 500 gms of dried butterbeans
- 200 gms of pork belly
- 500 gms of various uncooked chorizo sausage
- 800 gms of tinned tomatoes
- 3 onions
- 2 cloves of good garlic
- 2 glasses of punchy red wine
- 500ml of chicken stock
- 12 or so small vine tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
- Salt and pepper to season
The first thing to be done is to reconstitute the beans by soaking overnight and then boiling in plenty of water for ten minutes. Get this out of the way and the rest is pretty much a construction rather than anything demanding any particular skill.
Chop the onions up nice and small. Do likewise with the garlic. Then slice up some of the sausage into small pieces.
Add the sausage to a casserole and cook until they give up plenty of nice fat. Add the onions and garlic to the casserole and sweat them over a low heat until translucent. Cut the rest of the sausages into nice chunky sized pieces. Skin and cut the pork belly into similar sized pieces. When the onions are translucent, add the sausages, pork belly, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, stock, wine, paprika and beans.
Bring this to a gentle boil and skim off any scum and excess fat that rises to the surface. There should be plenty of fat. Don’t take all of it as it is packed with flavour too. Place the casserole in a medium hot oven (180ºC) for an hour and a half. After an hour, place a separate tray with the vine tomatoes into the oven. Let these break down and add them to the casserole just before serving.
When we got down from Covadonga, we had burned about three thousand calories (according to my Garmin). We were hungry and elated at having conquered this awesome mountain. We devoured the stew with delicious sourdough rolls. I served it with a close substitute. Cooking and eating the stew gave me time to reflect on that Covadonga cycle. I struggled for a good part of it (after about six kilometres of relentless climbing, it ramps to over 15% for more than a kilometre). I wanted to give up. I wanted to turn back. I knew neither were an option. The lunch on the day was a celebration of our achievement. This stew is a celebration of the memories of that day. Long will they stay with me.