Andalusian food gives good reason to cheer `ole!'

October 03, 1999|By ROB KASPER

The English translation on the menu said "ox tail." The Spanish version read "rabos de toro."

My Spanish vocabulary is small. But I was pretty sure what "toro" meant. That mound of brown meat sitting on my plate at Restaurante Tio Pepe was bull.

Sure enough, when Jose Garcia Marin, proprietor of the Red Horse Restaurant in Cordoba, Spain, told me the tale of the tail, there was little doubt what I was eating.

Garcia visited Baltimore recently as part of a weeklong celebration of the food of the Andalusian region in southwestern Spain. Tio Pepe -- known for dishes cooked by chef Emiliano Sanz, a native of Segovia in central Spain -- played host to Garcia. The Baltimore restaurant served about 20 authentic Andalusian dishes, including "rabos de toro."

I not only sampled some of the food, but I got a short lesson in its history. As I ate, Garcia explained in Spanish the origins of the dishes. Miguel A. Sanz, Tio Pepe president, provided the translation.

Garcia said that, according to custom, whoever dispatched the bull was allowed to keep the tail and other less marketable cuts of meat. Over the years, cooks in Andalusia have come up with creative ways to cook toro's tail. I was eating one of them.

I had never knowingly eaten bull before. It was surprisingly tender and flavorful.

"It is similar to osso buco," said Sanz, referring to braised veal shanks. The tail was sauteed in olive oil. Then it was stewed in a covered pan along with Montilla-Moriles, the region's sherry-like wine, for six to seven hours.

The bull-tail recipe is not very old, Garcia said. Unlike most of the other dishes from the region, it is a mere 200 years old. Most Andalusian recipes go back several centuries, he said. They reflect the influence of Moorish, Jewish and Christian people, who, at various times in history, lived in the region.

Garcia pointed to the gazpacho on our table. The cold, white soup was made with raisins and almonds, two ingredients commonly used by the Moors, he said. The soup, clean and refreshing, tasted like it could be served in a modern, health-food restaurant.

When the leg of lamb with honey sauce was served, Garcia said it showed the influence of Sephardic Jews who once lived in Spain. Lamb is served in many regions of Spain, he said, but the honey sauce, particular to Jewish cooks, is found only in Andalusia.

Artichoke dishes were probably developed by Christians, many of whom were winemakers, Garcia said. Artichoke plantings were used as boundary markers in vineyards.

Olive trees prosper in Andalusia, Garcia said, noting that his restaurant is frequented by Baldomero Moreno, who owns Pompeian Inc., the East Baltimore olive oil plant. And while Andalusian cooks are liberal with olive oil, some refuse to use whole olives in their dishes, he said.

According to a superstition in the region, eating olives brings bad luck. It didn't make sense, Garcia acknowledged, but, as a restaurateur, he couldn't argue with tradition.

One of the most memorable dishes I ate was the eggplant. A slice of eggplant was soaked in water, dried, cooked in olive oil and served with raisins, pine nuts and a shot of the region's sugary wine. I polished it off in no time.

It was eggplant as a dessert. It also went well with that meat dish, tail of whatever.

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