Autumn has become by far my favourite time of year for Andalucia, taking over from the former balmy days of spring. With climate change upon us, much has changed and the rains are now concentrated in the first months of the year. So, spend time in southern Spain from September to November, and even, yes, December, and you’re almost guaranteed glorious sunny days infused with sparkling light and brilliant night skies. And along with that comes an array of wonderful produce…
Last of the summer’s soft fruits are those figs! Sweet, luscious things with dark purple skin and juicy scarlet flesh inside. No comparison with the imported beasts we get in the UK, generally from Turkey and picked when unripe so as not to turn into jam en route. The problem is they never really ripen in our cool-ish climate. Whereas Andalucian higos, having soaked up the September sun to perfection, need to be eaten within a few days.
This bowl is filled with the delicious fruit from a neighbour’s vegetable plot – there are so many trees around my area that many of these lovelies end up rotting on the ground. Early ones in June / July have green skins and are called brevas – tasty but lacking that honeyed punch.
Said to exist in 750 varieties, the fig originated in the Middle East before transiting through North Africa to Spain and other Mediterranean countries – Italy even has a couple of varieties that ripen as late as December. One strange fact is that they aren’t in fact classed as a fruit – but rather the seeds and flowers that have ‘grown inwards’ to become the nectarlike pulp we love.
Andalucians transform the autumnal glut into pan de higo, a kind of fig-cake made of compressed dried figs, sesame seeds and chopped almonds – I included a recipe for this in my book, Andaluz. And the bags of higos de Malaga that you pick up at any shop are actually a superfood – dried figs are excellent sources of minerals like calcium, copper, potassium, manganese, iron, selenium and zinc.
And then there’s that superlative autumnal fruit, the quince. Sunny yellow, it hangs from roadside trees in abundance inviting picking. This tart fruit is only ever eaten cooked, whether baked, pickled, poached or transformed into ubiquitous membrillo, aka quince paste, a perfect companion to salty Manchego cheese.
Again its origins are in the Middle East – from Turkey to Afghanistan and Georgia, and it was already known in Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece. Allegedly the UK saw quince for the first time in the 13th century – at the Tower of London no less!
It’s not a particularly nutritious fruit as much of the flesh is water. The white flesh becomes red after slow-simmering with sugar, to become quince jam / paste. Of course the Andalucians often throw in a splash of sherry. More sober in spirit, the Moroccans use it in lamb tagine as the tart, grainy fruit complements their often fatty lamb.
Of course come autumn dozens of houses and windows are festooned in strings of glossy red peppers – all the better to make paprika and, eventually, chorizo! I love seeing those shiny, scarlet vegetables slowly wrinkle in the sun until eventually not a drop of moisture is left.
Depending on the type of red pepper (or capsicum) and whether the seeds are removed, the ground vegetable becomes a sweet, mild paprika, a hotter one or a smoky one. Confusingly they’re all known as pimenton. Extremadura is the cradle of pimenton; in La Vera they dry the peppers over wood fires to obtain the classic, smoky paprika, perfect for chorizo or paella.
Table grapes too come into their element in September / October – with huge clusters suspended from vines in gardens and patios. A local trick to protect them from pecking birds is to surround the bunch with paper – looking to me distinctly like one of Margaret Attwood’s Handmaidens. But it’s worth the effort as these grapes are sweetness and light – something that was known about 6000 years or so ago when their cultivation began.
Again, the Near to Middle East saw their origins – in Armenia, Georgia and Persia – from where they travelled to Europe with the Phoenicians and, eventually, across the Atlantic with the Spanish and Portuguese.
But back to 21st century Andalucia – homegrown grapes may produce table varieties, but the vineyards of Malaga, Montilla (where the first harvest takes place at the end of August), Jerez and Cadiz are where you’ll see the fruition (pun intended) of some glorious wines, sherries included!
And let’s not talk about the olives… another autumnal fruit par excellence (another day, another blog or see an older post here ).
And for tons more background information on the region’s food, check out my book Andaluz – A Food Journey through Southern Spain. Order it in the US at Interlink or in the UK at Network Books and at many online booksellers.