During its long hot summers, Andalusia refreshes itself daily with a cold soup that has become world famous. With many local variatons, gazpacho is almost a complete meal by itself.
We are in the sixties, somewhere to the south of Seville at the beginning of summer. The harvesters have not stopped since daybreak. Very soon it will be lunchtime. In the shade of a tree, a woman is pounding garlic cloves in an earthenware mortar. Adding a crumb of stale bread that she has soaked in water, then olive oil and salt, she forms a very nourishing paste. She has also brought some very ripe tomatoes. Squeezing them out inot the mortar, she keeps stirring the mixture and then adds vinegar. Kept cool by evaporation through the unglazed wall of an earthen pot called bucaro, water is then poured. Gazpacho is ready. The tapping of the pestle in the mortar has given the men an appetite. Each of the has his own spoon. Gathered around the large bowl, they follow an ancient ritual whereby they approach after each other and then "step back" at the moment of eating.
Which type of food could be healthier, due to the high energy value of it's components, more refreshing and easier to absorb in extreme temperature conditions? Such good sense is not included in any other dish. It is the result of many centuries of culinary culture which was handed down almost in its original form.
The whole story begins with the Roman legions carrying bread bread, garlic, salt, olive oil and vinegar along the roads of the Empire, with each soldier making his own mixture to taste. Pure symbols of Mediterranean culture which, a few centuries and a couple of civilisations later, will be supplemented by an innovation coming from the West. Tradition has it that, before leaving on his first voyage, Christopher Columbus loaded up with barrels of this old mixture which had fed so many peoples. With the addition of the tomato from the Andes, what will later be called gazpacho, will gain an international reputation.
However, for all the fame of red gazpacho, we should not forget that local variations abound. Remembering that the base is always bread, garlic, oil, vinegar and salt, let us try to classify them by colour; red, white and green. Red gazpacho, the one which is just called gazpacho, is basically a cold and uncooked vegetable soup. In its most concentrated form it is the Cordob salmorego, a very thick creamy soup with no water init, which just adds tomato to the base. In Cordoba itself, it is served with hard boiled eggs, quartered or chopped and strips of ham. In the rest of province, it might be garnished with chopped almonds, cumin crushed with mint, or with orange segments. The salmorejo is also on of the components of a very nice tapa, the pan de pueblo (country bread) an uncooked dish combining tomato, salt cod, garlic and parley. The best known red gazpacho is the more liquid Sevillian type, which to a certain point reflects the general formula. The original mixture is supplemented here with large quantities of tomaato and smaller proportions of cucumber and green pepper. It is served garnished with green pepper, hard boiled egg, fried bread, onion, tomato and cucumber, everything being finely chopped.
White gazpacho is typical of the south and east of Andalusia. This is Malaga's famous ajo blanco (white garlic) which, according to some people, dates back to Moorish times and which according to others is a peasant dish adapted for city tastes in the nineteenth century. It consists of pounding peeled almonds with cooking salt before crushing the basic elements into the mixture and then adding water to get the smoothness of a soup. Outside Malaga, which gazpacho can be made with pine seeds. At the beginning of summer, the strong flavour of garlic is sweetened with cubes or little balls of melon or apple and in September, with grapes.
Finally, less know but by no means less attractive is the green gazpacho from the Huelva region and the Sierra Morena where flavour is given by chopped herbs and green vegetables. In the first group, coriander, mint and parsley and basil can be combined or alone, while lettuce, green pepper and endive bring freshness and texture.
These countless regional variations result from the extreme simplicyt of a dish which nevertheless has a secret; subtlety of proportions. To give enough flavour but not too much, it is necessary to taste it frequently. Quantities indicated in a recipe cannot take into account the ripeness of the tomatoes, the specific strength of the garlic and much less the personal tastes of the guests.
You will probably eat these cold soups as a first course, just as they have been served for about thirty years in the restaurants and private homes of the large cities in Andalusia. But it is interesting to know that it is still customary in village homes to have gazpacho after the first course, and before dessert. In this manner a usual summer lunch could be,: chick pea stew, gazpacho and melon. Another delicious way to serve it would be with pescaito frito (fried fish).
Gazpacho should be drunk slightly chilled, but not iced. As its purpose is to quench thirst as well as nutritious, there should no need to supplement it with a drink. What is more, the need for a drink would probably mean an excess of salt or vinegar. Unless you really want to savour it with a glass of dry sherry.
This article was first published in the Andalucia Costa del Sol Magazine.