ESCALIVADA | a vegetable braise
Eating out of doors in Catalonia is a commonplace in the delightful sense of an age-old habit. Every peasant took a carpet-covered picnic basket with him to the fields, his lunch protected from the heat and dust in the same way as his cart was lined with finely woven straw matting and rich oriental carpeting.
The country is so wild and so exposed that on any expedition inland one leaves behind the thought of finding an inn and gets into the way of taking along a wire grill, some little fishes, vegetables, oil, salt and a porró of wine and a loaf of bread.
This is a very pleasant way of spending the heat of the day. Even in the most deserted landscapes one often finds on sighting the ideally situated oak or cork tree, beside a narrow stream confined by boulders, that the position is already occupied. In the mountains Llanos de Urgell we suddenly confronted a cassocked priest sitting on a stone beside the ashes of a recently made fire. On our approach, he rose and with a ceremonious gesture indicated that the shady place which had been his was now freely ours. It is difficult to forget a courtesy extended in a stony desert punctuated with cistus and sages, the silence broken only by the wing flash of golden orioles, hoopoes, swallows, dragonflies.
2 long green (mild) peppers
2 long red (moderately hot) peppers
4 large tomatoes
4 large Spanish onions
Make a fire of dried maquis and, when it dies down, sprinkle it with the herbs and put the vegetables directly on the glowing embers. Turn them about from time to time until all the skins are black. The tomatoes cook the quickest, the peppers and aubergines take 20 minutes, and the onions take an hour.
Take them off the fire, remove the charred skins, and wash your hands in the stream. Cut them up into strips, put them straight onto slabs of bread. Sprinkle with olive oil, chopped garlic and salt.
Escalivada means a braise in its original sense, that is, cooking on glowing embers. This is prehistoric cooking before the invention of earthenware. It refers to the method, not to the vegetables, because the method dates back at least 8000 years (first earthenware pots in Europe) and probably to the beginning of fire; while the vegetables employed here are of recent introduction. (The onion is said to have been introduced from Egypt by Alexander the Great around 330 BC; the aubergine was a gift from the Arabs in early mediaeval times; the tomato arrived in the 16th century, on the heels of the conquest of Mexico, and so did the peppers, coming from both America and India.)
Before these vegetables appeared on the scene, there were bulbs and roots that may have served. Learning from the Elder Pliny (Book XXI under Bulbs) that the bulbs of the sea squill, Urginea maritima and the tuber-like root clusters of asphodel were cooked in this way in Roman times, I made an experiment with a bulb of the sea quill, which outwardly resembles a giant onion in form. The taste was extraordinarily bitter and explains why the roasted bulb was pounded with figs in Pliny’s time.
Excerpted from Honey From a Weed by Patience Gray. Copyright 2001, Prospect Books.
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