One of the most interesting things about moving to a foreign country is a possibility of immersion in a completely new, and always utterly fascinating, food culture. Eating a good meal in a restaurant is one thing, getting your hands on a recipe for a local pastry and being taught how to make it – is another.
You see, when I say ‘food culture’ I don’t only mean flavours, smells and ingredients, although these make up the fundament for the more abstract understanding of the phrase. They are the material side of what really makes up a good meal. I would lie if I said that coming to Valencia was a shock to my palate – which doesn’t mean I am not thoroughly enjoying eating my way through (what I am now learning is) Spanish food. Living in Istria for almost three months prepared me for the Mediterranean cuisine at its best. Ridiculously fresh ingredients, of quality that is only possible to achieve with the unique combination of the sun and the proximity of the sea. I would even risk the statement that the expectation of the local customer in regards to the quality of the produce is very high, judging by the vegetables, fruit, seafood sections in supermarkets, cured hams proudly (if a bit creepily) sitting on its own counter, variety of cheeses, olive oils and many, many pickles says – quite loudly, I think- ‘we love to eat well’. I’ll let you in on a little secret here: countries where people love their food are best.
Was there any food I was really, really looking forward to try when in Valencia? I’d lie if I said yes. I had a very vague idea of what Spanish (Valencian?) food was – it figured in my mind under ‘tapas’, ‘paella’, ‘jamon’ and ‘olive oil’, and the list only exists because of my friend Maria, who tells stories about food in Spain in a way that makes you drool. Seeing her speak about the Spanish ham she so craves, while eating bread dipped (soaked) in olive oil (to my astonishment, as well, as I come from a butter country, and eating bread with olive oil just like that seemed as abstract, as having meat for dessert) was one of eureka moments for me: food in Spain must really be pretty awesome, if it’s missed that much!
Now, after few weeks of culinary training in Valencia (which is, by the way, taught in Spanish because why not make things more difficult), I think I can say I am a bit more acquainted with what Spanish food means. Every cooking class at Altaviana starts with a quick brief of what we’ll be cooking and what’s the story of the dish – something often omitted or neglected, even though almost always super interesting, and then the 11 of us go shopping for ingredients with Maria Jose, the cooking teacher. The greatest thing about learning to cook with her is the way she talks and cares about the produce she chooses for the class: it’s both adorable in a way, and really, really impressive at the same time. Her knowledge is vast, but for taking for everyone who wants to listen. I have been having a blast cooking recently, and living with cocineros, all a bit loco about food, does add the pinch to the already pretty curious undertaking that this project is – I don’t think anyone is hungry (both, physically and for inspiration) here.
I have been thinking about what recipe to use to introduce this new, Spanish chapter I happened to participate in. Having cooked such classics like paella, fideua, arroz al horno or pan de coca, I couldn’t decide which one of these would best suit for the first Spanish mention here. Using Easter as a bit of excuse, I decided to introduce Monas de Pascua, pretty curious-looking breads that are traditionally eaten here on Easter Monday. The story of the pastry is long, reaching as far back as 8th century, when it was brought to the Mediterranean by the Arabs. Mona is a sweet bun, substantial bun, made with yeast, milk and orange or lemon zest. The curious thing about it is that it proudly showcases a decorative hard boiled egg in the middle – a symbol of the end of Lent and its fasts.
Traditionally, eggs were not considered fasting food and hence were not eaten during Lent. They were often hard-boiled, in order to be able to preserve them for longer. Colourful eggs featured in monas de pascua indicate the end of fast and beginning of celebration. On Easter Monday, monas are offered by godparents to their godchildren, and in the past they used to have as many eggs as the age of a child was. Now, the eggs are often replaced with chocolate ones, and the pastry, too, gets replaced with much lighter sponge. Monas the Pascua are still a pretty big part of the local culinary tradition, however, and they appear in bakeries and supermarkets good few days before Easter.
MONAS DE PASCUA
for the pastry pastry (makes 10 monas)
25g fresh yeast
2tsp of vanilla sugar or 1tsp of vanilla extract
for the decoration
1 egg for the egg wash
food (or Easter egg) colouring
How to make?
1. Add butter and warm milk into a big bowl and mix well.
2. Add the yeast, and mix.
3. Add sugar and egg and stir well, until combined. Start adding flour, bit by bit, until you get something that starts looking like a dough.
4. Knead the dough with your hand (either in a bowl or on a pastry board). You should make sure that the gluten has developed properly: the dough will be smooth and elastic when that happens.
5. Put the dough back in a bowl, cover with a damp towel or clingfilm and set aside to proof, for at leats few hours (preferably overnight).
6. When the dough doubles in size, remove it from the bowl onto a pastry board and divide into two. Shape each half into a roll, and cut into 5 pieces.
7. Shape the monas. Let your imagination shine.
8. Place an egg (previously coloured and dyed) in the middle of each shaped mona.
9. Cover the buns with a cloth and set aside to rise again.
10. Brush each bun with egg white and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for about 25minutes in 180 degrees Celsius.
Happy Easter Monday!