You can't tell the story of Spanish food without talking about the Moors—Arabs and Berbers from North Africa who ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth through the 15th centuries. Today, there are hundreds of Spanish words that begin with al- or ar-, signals of Arabic origins. One is arrope, a word that comes from the Arabic rubb (syrup), indicating the food's luxurious sweetness as well as its lineage. Fresh-pressed fruit juice is boiled until it's concentrated; then it's used as a base in which to stew and preserve fruit. In the farming town of L'Alcúdia, 22 miles southwest of the coastal city of Valencia, Andrés Vallés and his family make their arrope—or arrop i tallaetes (syrup with pieces of fruit) in the Valencian dialect—with muscat grape must, which comprises the fruit's juice, skins, and seeds. Eight liters of this pulpy liquid are cooked down and strained to make three liters of arrope base. In this blackish-purple, velvety syrup, thick enough to coat a spoon, they simmer chunks of pumpkin, though elsewhere in Spain quinces, plums, and other fruits are used, and the syrup might be made from figs or water and honey. "Arrope is something that everyone's grandmother made," says Vallés, who with three of his brothers now runs Paiarrop, the food company their father founded in 1987. Back when sugar was not widely available or in periods of austerity—such as during the Spanish Civil War—was an accessible sweetener, used in desserts and savory dishes or spread on bread. Vallés's father, Amalio, 75, remembers a vendor pulling a mule bearing two large pitchers through town; one contained just the syrup, while the other was filled with the syrup-cooked fruit. Emerging from their homes with empty jars, his customers specified their preferred ratio. Arrope is no longer widely produced, and that's a shame. With its almost licorice sweetness balanced by tart notes and punctuated by succulent slices of pumpkin, Paiarrop's version is sophisticated and versatile—an ideal condiment for creamy goats' or sheep's milk cheeses, a decadent ice cream topping, and a terrific glaze for roast poultry and meats. An 8.4-ounce jar costs $9.95; contact La Tienda: 800-710-4304; www.latienda.com.
This article was first published in Saveur in Issue #132