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LIFE IN SPAIN

Life in Spain: There’s so much more to Spanish cuisine than paella (such as wild boar!)

Heath Savage moved from the Sydney suburbs to rural Galicia where she discovered there is so much more to Spanish food than paella.

Life in Spain: There's so much more to Spanish cuisine than paella (such as wild boar!)
Photo by Kevin Jackson on Unsplash

Moving to a new country opens up experiences of new and exciting gastronomic traditions. I think that food defines a country as much as its art, language and music: think of Italy, and pasta springs immediately to mind, think of Britain, and a Sunday Roast materializes in your head, think of Australia, and, we have absorbed the gastronomic traditions of at least twenty countries, but many people would say: “meat pies!” Pies have achieved the status of a pseudo-religious icon in Australia. You name it, and we’ll shove it in a pastry case with gravy.

Think of Spain, and those not in-the-know will immediately wax lyrical about paella, pronouncing it painfully. And that gets up my nose!  The cocina of my adopted land, Galicia, is so very different from the cocina of the south. We have versions of paella, sure, but there is so much more to food here in the north.

It doesn’t resemble the food of my peripatetic youth. I have lived, respectively, in the UK, Australia, the USA and Belgium, and I have always lapped up all the national, regional and local dishes that I could find. It was not a surprise to anyone who knew me well that I became a chef and restaurateur, with a degree in History and English by way of a detour around my true vocation!

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Friends hate to cook for friends who are chefs. They feel that they are under pressure to perform and compete a bit. But I appreciate anything that is set in front of me, simply because I haven’t had to cook it myself!

I insist on only four things when I eat: that the food is seasonal, local, fresh and well-prepared. No fuss. No bearded hipsters hunching over my dinner with tweezers, balancing micro-herbs on the tucker. When I eat, I don’t want to be subjected to gastro-porn, and I don’t want a simple dish to be “deconstructed” all over a slate tile, splashed with some kind of weird tasteless, unnecessary foam, or buried in chocolate “soil.”

What a joy it is, here in my new home, to sit down in a café and eat food that has not travelled great distances to reach my plate, nor been “revived” in order to make some fatuous, ironic culinary point.

Last week, a French friend dropped over with a few kilos of fresh jabali meat (wild boar). Her freezer, and that of her hunter neighbour, was over-flowing with the stuff. The last time I ate wild boar was in 1984, in rural Poland, but that is another story, and you will have to buy the book if you want to hear it!

It was a thrill to receive such a treat, so I invited my friend, her Workaway volunteer from the USA, and two local pals, to Sunday lunch. I treated the meat with all due respect. The animal who donated it had lived a free life in the nearby woods, rootling around as nature intended, before ending up in my pot.

I slow-cooked it for four hours in Mencia wine, with a few bay leaves, some thyme and rosemary from my garden, a tablespoon of the ubiquitous pimiento dulce, and a whole fat bulb of locally-grown garlic. It was pretty special. Served up with seasonal greens and some roasted spuds from the field up the road, it pleased the crowd. I resisted the urge to hunch over it with some tweezers and micro-herbs. But I did tear up hunks of warm bread from one of our two excellent village bakeries, and chuck it in a basket, so we could suck up the sauce.

For breakfast the next morning I ate eggs, fried in a little olive oil (hard to find Galician olive oil, but it’s great stuff and worth hunting it down) flavoured with some butter. My neighbour’s chickens gave me the eggs. These local girls peck around their small garden, safe from the foxes, but free as…well, free as birds. They enjoy life here, as much as I. Like them, I am fenced in a bit, but happy to peck around my patch, eating what I can find.


Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Do I miss the eclectic variety of food that I enjoyed in Australia? Sometimes. That’s when I rake through my recipes and jump the fence.  I’ll use some local beef to make a Rendang, maybe flash some pulpo in a pan with cumin and lemon, or fire up the barbi with some castana wood, split and flatten a fat chicken and go Portuguese with the pili-pili.

As we become more conscious of how we are treating our world, seasonal, local eating habits will have to become a feature of life again. It’s neither logical nor reasonable to expect to eat decent strawberries in December. The childish delight that I experience every time I pick and eat an apple from one of my own trees will never get old. A bag of windfall pears from my neighbour’s trees can produce a tarte tatin, sweet pear and almond bread, or a fruit compote to eat with yoghurt made from the milk of local goats.

I don’t look back to my recent years in Sydney through a pink fuzzy nostalgia filter, when “lunch” was dashing out of my office to buy an over-priced sandwich and a coffee, then dashing back to eat between meetings. Now lunch takes two hours, at least. Not counting the nap-time after. I don’t long for my dinner to be delivered to my door by taxi, sweaty, limp and tepid, in a plastic box, because I am too exhausted after a two-hour commute home to cook.

The joy of bagging an armful of greens or a string of chorizo from the village market is a pretty special feeling, and I think my relationship with food has changed; food’s not something to show off with or to “experience”. Sometimes, some people don’t have enough of it, nor do they have the luxury of choices.

I am close to my food; where it is raised, where it is grown, so I naturally care more about it. I care that the cows in the field who give me my milk are well fed, and happy. I care that my bacon hasn’t travelled a thousand miles by road, stressed and terrified, in a filthy truck before it is slaughtered.

I care that my jabali had a chance to run through the woods doing its thing before I ate it. I care that my chicken, and her eggs, had fresh air, decent food, and a life worth living. I also waste far less.  

I appreciate food so much more because I see the hard work that goes into producing it. That makes me grateful, which I don’t think I was before. I took food for granted. I’m grateful to eat the exceptional produce that Galicia is justly famous for, and  I’m very grateful that I live in Galicia.

 
Heath's recipe for Wild Boar “Panton Style”

Ingredients:

1 large heavy iron pan

1 1 litre saucepan (for reducing the wine)

1 3-5 litre casserole dish with a well-fitting lid

2-3 kilos of boar meat – shoulder is best for slow-cooking

1 bottle Mencia (or any decent Spanish red)

2 Tbsps good olive oil

1 whole bulb garlic

1 large sprig fresh thyme

1 sprig rosemary

Diced “Holy Trinity”

1 onion

1 stick celery

1 carrot

1 litre good beef stock

Tbsp plain flour

Large knob of good butter

Salt and pepper

1 tbsp pimiento dulce

1 tsp pimiento picante

1 smoked chorizo sausage cut into very small pieces

2 bay leaves

 Method:

Cut the meat into fairly large chunks and toss in seasoned flour.

Reduce the wine in a pan by boiling for ten minutes, to cook off the alcohol.

Peel and grate the garlic. Sweat the “Holy Trinity” in the casserole dish in half of the olive oil until just soft. Add the chorizo, garlic and the butter. Add the sweet and picante pimiento, give it a stir to release the flavours. Turn off the heat. Set aside.

In the large heavy flat pan, brown the floured meat until a good crust has formed on all sides. Lift out. De-glaze the pan with the wine, turn off and pour this into the casserole dish with the sweated vegetables and garlic. Then add the hot stock. Bring to the boil, then turn off. Add the meat and torn bay leaves.

Put the casserole into a pre-heated oven (hot for twenty minutes, then turn it right down to a very low setting)

Cook for four hours. Check it periodically. If it needs thickening, add a little roux made with flour, butter and some of the hot stock, or just mix some cornflour with a little water and stir it in.

I serve this with roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes, and a red or white cabbage ragout flavoured with caraway seeds, topped with lots of sour cream. You will want a robust red wine to drink with this. I like Mencia, of course, but if you are feeling very flash, a bottle of (Italian) Barolo is superb with this.

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

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Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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