Sunday, July 12, 2009

Café Con Leche

Spain has always had an interest in milk, even if, until recently, you couldn’t find a cold glass of it anywhere.
The old milk was a definite bluish colour and came in a 1.5l glass bottle with a short and narrow neck and a metal cramp, like a coke bottle. This stuff could sit in the sun for weeks without losing its taste and often did. The blue colour came, apocryphally, from the formaldehyde that kept the mixture quiet. It didn’t taste good, which probably explains why breakfast cereal came late to Spain.
Pour that stuff over your Frosties – the milk would eat ‘em up before you could….
Later UHT milks from different companies, now in the tetrabrik box, became acceptable for coffees and so on. An English tea-bag, smuggled out in the carry-on luggage by someone coming-to-stay, would be pretty badly shaken by being diluted by this stuff, but you can get used to anything. Nowadays, we even have sippin’ milk in the supermarkets. Tastes pretty good, too.
While milk has never been considered a serious drink (despite the best efforts of some of the producers to tell us different in the usual kids adverts), it has certainly spawned a whole slew of versions. We have milk with vitamins, milk with calcium, skimmed milk, partially skimmed milk, milk with royal jelly, milk with acidophilus (a handy bacteria apparently found in drool), milks with Omega three, phosphorus, folic b and fibre, specially flavoured chocolate, vanilla and strawberry milks, rice milk and soya veggy milk. All competing for your attention on the shelf. How many times have you brought home the ‘wrong’ one? Bertha, what the hell’s this stuff?
The hardest one of the entire lot to find on the shelf of the supermarket seems to be ‘full bog-standard milk’. It’s like ordering Vanilla in an Italian ice cream shop.
In point of fact, I doubt any of those UHT milks (with additives or indeed subtractatives) ever loitered under a cow. Certainly Mrs Rambeau’s pet calf, Petit Suisse, refused point blank to drink one particular brand, the Valencian-produced ‘Leche Ram’, a sort of ‘can’t believe it’s not milk’ product. I see it’s since gone pear-shaped. Perhaps the calf knew something.
At the same time, yoghurt has done just fine. I think I first tried yoghurts here in Spain as a child. The Danone people (a company from Barcelona), were putting out their early flavours by the time I first arrived here in 1966 (they actually started in 1919, selling the stuff in farmacias) and apart from the plain one (add jam and sugar), there was at least a strawberry one going strong. A strapping young fellow called Danon, after whom the product was named, died the other day at the impressive age of 102, so the stuff can’t be all that bad for you.
Forget dithering between the strawberry and the banana varieties: in these modern times, there are an untold number of flavours clogging up the nation’s cold-shelves, with anything that grew on a tree or a stalk being processed into a yoghurt cup. You can now even get ‘Greek yoghurt’ (thicker than the usual stuff). Currently in three flavours and sales, by all accounts, growing through the roof.
Spain is not, with this notable exception, very kind to Greece, preferring for some odd reason to pretend that it doesn’t exist (try and find a Greek restaurant, a pair of crapcatchers or a decent bottle of ouzo).
Together with yoghurt, another milk-based little number on the shelves is guajada, rennet made from sheep’s milk. It comes in a little stone pot. With a squirt of honey, it’s pretty good in an ‘ummm, this tastes healthy’ sort of way.

Ice Cream

Spain triumphs with its ice creams. The main area for ‘artesanal’ ices is the interior of Alicante and Valencia provinces, notably Jijona (also famous for its nougat). Across the country, heladerías dot the main streets and offer dozens of alternative flavours. They (thank goodness) are all licensed, so you can always put a shot of whisky on top of your tart. In fact, tarta al guisgüi is one of the best and most august of Spain’s postres, together with the traditional old block of hard ice-cream with two or three flavours (vanilla, strawberry and chocolate) that you make a sticky sandwich out of. In regular Spanish bars across the nation, there is usually a deep freeze full of cornets and lollies together with one of those large cardboard signs on the wall above advertising the different flavours, shapes and styles of ice cream, available or not.
In the milky dessert range, we find the crema catalana (a custardy thing with a crunchy topping of burnt sugar), arroz con leche (an oversweet rice pudding), the natilla (another custardy thing) and the ubiquitous flan, the crème caramel. Then, there’s leche frita, or ‘fried milk’ – it comes in caramel covered chewy lumps – to try as well.
The cheeses available in the past used to either be that dreadful Dutch bola – a large red ball of tasteless dry queso, or a thin slice of cream cheese in silver foil from those fine people at (I hope appropriately called) The Laughing Cow, or the remarkably good Manchego, made from a mixture of milks from goat, cow and sheep. No doubt in the old days topped up with a drop of formaldehyde. More recently, we can add blue cheese, processed slices of industrial pseudo-queso, babybelle and cheddar, plus a few shy home-made Spanish cheeses from the north (Idiazabal for example) edging onto the shelves.
The butter used to come in a sturdy round can from Morocco. Probably started out as camel’s milk. You needed a tin-opener to gain entry. Which explains why we still mainly use margarines for our pieces of toast.
Before the fridge came along, and those fat blue bottles of Puleva were still being used for arcane cooking reasons, Spaniards would often put condensed milk (which I think came from Holland) in their coffee. They still do, and as a ‘bonbón’, one of over a hundred different types of café you can order from the bar, your ‘black n’ white’ coffee will give you a pretty good kick-start in the morning.


mike the trike said...

Growing up in Canda as a boy we always put condensed milk in coffee and a favourite brand was called Carnation. When margarine became popular in the fifties it came in a plastic bag and coloured white. In the middle of the bag was a yellow spot. Pressing on this spot released a colouring and after several minutes of squashing and manipulating the bag the margarine took on the colour of butter. Later firms started adding colour to the margarine so it looked just like butter and it came in a tub. People still had ice boxes and a man would come along our street with a horse and wagon selling blocks of ice. The ice was stored in sawdust in a building so it never melted during the summer. The ice came off the nearby lake which froze during the winter and would be about three feet thick. The blocks were about eighteen inches square.

Lenox said...

My American father in law tolñd me that the butter manufacturers (lobby) wouldn't allow the margerine makers to put yellow colouring in their product until sometime in the sixties.

mike the trike said...

Yes there were different restrictions in Canada and it depended on the province where the margarine was sold. Also there were rules on how yellow the margarine should be. In the province of Quebec in June 2008 it was finally made law that margarine could be sold coloured yellow by the manufacturer. Those Frenchmen really know how long to keep a battle going!