Professor of Ibérico and the Mighty Garbanzo

Don Harris | August 2016

The many lasting friendships I have made in Spain over the past twenty years are one of the most satisfying results of my many journeys traveling the highways and byways of Spain looking for artisan products for La Tienda.

One of the most fascinating men I have met is Antonio Gázquez Ortiz, a true renaissance man. We first encountered him near Cáceres over ten years ago when we were trying to learn as much as possible about the famous Ibérico pigs and their amazing pork and ham. We sought him: a professor at the University of Extremadura, who is a world renowned expert on these rare animals.

Dr Gázquez's roots are in the soil of Extremadura. It is there that he has devoted his life to unraveling and expounding upon the myth of the Iberian pig - which has roamed the Iberian Peninsula from the time of the cavemen. Holding the chair of Histology (the study of animal tissues) at the University of Extremadura in Cáceres, he has approached these legendary animals in terms of pure scientific analysis, and has inspired many of his students to continue the search for greater understanding of this unique animal.

By email we made contact with Dr. Gázquez and received an enthusiastic reply in which he suggested that we meet at a venta, or café, on the outskirts of Cáceres. After a sip of bellota acorn liqueur, in honor of the famous sweet acorns of the area, we set out in two vehicles to explore a nearby ranch where Ibérico pigs were being raised. In one car, my sons soon became lost in animated conversation with Antonio about animal husbandry (he is ever the teacher).

After all of us rejoined we walked out into the countryside to meet a herd of Ibérico pigs wallowing in a waterhole. We had never encountered pigs so relaxed, inquisitive and happy! 

Once we returned to town it was time for the traditional Spanish midday meal. I would not call it a lunch; I would call it a feast. The Spanish know how to "break bread together." As we left the watering hole, the pigs glanced at us with only passing interest, their feast would come in the autumn when the surrounding acres of cork oaks would provide them with an abundance of bellotas.

At the dinner table Antonio, the professor, was transformed into Antonio, the gastronome, as he presided over a sumptuous feast. Before us were local cheeses, fresh shellfish, wines and plates of paper-thin sliced Jamón Ibérico which were glistening due to the warmth of the room - its monounsaturated fat turns to liquid at 70º F - truly extraordinary! Always the teacher, this time Antonio was in the role of the gourmet. In a genuine and unassuming way, he was acquainting us with the fine art of enjoying the fruits of the earth.

Antonio Gázquez is a man for all seasons. A genuine enthusiast, he enjoys being equally an author, a gourmet, a scientist and a historian. Most of all, he loves to teach. He has written many scholarly articles and books, some of which are the definitive texts in his field. I found one of his books to be particularly engaging: it was about the medieval cuisine of Christians, Jews and Moors.

I was greatly impressed with the knowledge and grace of this family man with several children whom he has raised to be productive people in their own right. We have maintained our friendship over the past decade or so, and just the other day he sent me the following description he wrote of a garbanzo or chickpea fair in his home region:

“Between 7 and 14 August 2016 is the garbanzo fair in Valencia del Ventoso, a small town near Badajoz. 2016 it has been declared the “International year of Pulses” by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), so it is a momentous year for the festival.

In this competition, groups compete to create the finest example of traditional garbanzo meals typical of the area. Constituting the Jury members of the Extremadura Brotherhood of Gastronomy, Academy of Gastronomy in Extremadura, the Association of Cooks Extremeños and Merida Hotel School, among others.

The illustrious garbanzo has been the staple of many cultures throughout the centuries. It was already known in the Neolithic period and had its origin in the lands of Anatolia, current day Turkey, and from there spread throughout the Mediterranean basin.

For the Babylonians and Egyptians garbanzo beans were a basic vegetable in their diet, from there it spread westward to Carthage and the lands of North Africa, and to the Iberian lands of Spain.

At the same time, this legume was cultivated by the Phoenicians, in the region of Byblos, and later by the classical Greeks who boiled garbanzos in milk and then sprinkled with cheese. In the marketplace it was roasted for a snack. But possibly the most important culinary formula was cooked and seasoned with garum (a fish sauce) accompanied with boiled egg or made into a kind of stew cooked and seasoned with garum, wine and pepper. In the Middle Ages garbanzo beans were still a very common legume among the people, even called "meat of the poor." Millers turned the chickpeas into flour, porridge and cakes made with herbs.

Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries an important part of the kitchen of Hispanic Jewish and Arabs was hummus, such as you enjoy today. During these centuries garbanzos were not only a part of the diet of the common people, but also were served in the university and church soup kitchens, as well as convents and inns and taverns. Garbanzos gradually become a major legume in Spanish cuisine, which was exported to America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Planted preferably in California and Mexico, the importance of garbanzos spread across international borders.

One of the dishes par excellence is based upon a stew or potaje. The stew has its origins in a Jewish Spanish dish, Adafina, which was prepared Friday night to be consumed on Saturday the Sabbat. It is a slow and deliberate preparation, which involved legumes (garbanzos) vegetables and meats (chicken and game birds, beef and sheep). Such a dish was adapted by the Christian community by adding pork fat, and transforms it into the "ollo podrido."

Over time potato and sausages were added, and in the nineteenth century the emergence of regional cuisines diversified the dish into the many styles we know today. But to return to the sixteenth century, the original dish of the period was called “ollo podrido” and, possibly a little earlier, potaje. 

One of the first definitions of “cocido” found in the Treasury of the Spanish Language, defines it as "which is very large and contains in itself several things, such as sheep, cow, chickens, capons, sausages, pork feet, garlic, onions, etc." You can say that the cocido is a compendium of vegetables, legumes and meat, which should never be without bacon, hence the saying "no cocido without bacon or sermon without Augustine." But the real meaning of a cocido is shown in a poem: "ollo podrido with sprouts from Murcia, turnips from Alvelloz, beans from Tarragona, spices from Portugal, meat from Ronda, chorizos from Extremadura, chickens from Enero, and quail from Italy." Thus, a stew is a luxury of Spanish cuisine and in this particular case the day we participated as jurors in Valencia del Ventoso, a pleasure for the mouth and belly.” 

I surely did not expect to learn from Antonio about the history and enjoyment of the humble garbanzo bean, or that there was a garbanzo feria! But he loves to teach – sharing his unbounded enthusiasm for knowledge and life. Initially I was looking for some information about pigs, but that was just the entryway to an enriching friendship with a scholar, veterinary scientist, gourmet cook, amateur artist and, most of all, a loving family man of integrity.

Tu amigo,