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Hot to Trot: The Renaissance of Casquería

Hot to Trot: The Renaissance of Casquería
Photo: Denis Osorio
Snubbed for decades by Madrid's middle classes, Spain correspondent Rob Train finds the Iberian answer to black pudding is making a comeback on restaurant menus.
 
When considering Spain’s gastronomic panorama, it is easy to think solely of the well-trodden paths: tapas, paella, salads drenched in olive oil…But there exists in Madrid, a less explored niche of culinary contingency. And it is in the throes of a renaissance. Casquería is the name given to the art of cutting and cooking what remains when the business of slaughtering livestock comes to its conclusion. For the adventurous, taking a bold step off the beaten track is a rewarding experience.

The origins of the art can be traced back to the Romans. Far from puritanical in matters of the stomach, the Romans considered the principal ingredients of casquería to be delicacies, and few but the wealthy could afford to indulge. In Spain, the practice is said to date back to the thirteenth century; but as supply easily outstripped demand in farming communities, those who dined on it generally came from the poorer classes.

During Franco’s reign, casquería formed an important part of the diet for many Spaniards. Once the country had returned to democracy, it became marginalised, tarred with the brush of being “poor people’s food”. It survived the stigma, however, and despite a lull in the wake of the mad cow scare, is alive and kicking in Madrid, and has evolved to cater to both the wealthy and the not-so-well-off. From top-class restaurants to supermarket shelves, casquería is widely available., even if its acceptance remains split firmly between those who exclaim, “Oh yes please!” and those who decry, “For the love of God, no!”

The principal ingredients are exactly what can be expected when the choice cuts have been removed from a cow, sheep or pig;
Hot to Trot: The Renaissance of Casquería
feet, ears, gizzards, kidneys, stomach, brains, liver, tongue, snout and testicles. Many of these are easy to locate at markets, in specialised shops which bear the same name as its stock, or in supermarkets, where their presence alongside fillet steak and sliced free-range chicken breast is as incongruous as it is a salient reminder of Spain’s culinary history.

Casquería’s true day out in the sun coincides with the annual San Isidro festival in the capital. The patron saint of Madrid is revered on the 15th of May every year, when children and adults alike attire themselves in traditional dress and take to the streets to eat, drink and dance.
 
A lengthy programme of bullfighting at the colossal Las Ventas arena is accompanied by a culinary bloodbath as restaurants specialising in casquería set up stall across the city proffering their wares. In the Embajadores barrio (neighbourhood), the aroma of casquería wafts far and wide as the Freiduriá de Embajadores, one of the more traditional and down-to-earth vendors, tempts passers-by with a sizzling buffet of open-air offal. Even the Ritz Hotel slips off its white gloves and gets stuck in with a banquet of casquería that begins on May 14th, and continues until the festival’s conclusion at the end of the month. With the corridas at Las Ventas in full flow, bull’s tail is an indubitable feature on the menu.

But it is not just during San Isidro that the capital’s clientele can get to grips with their offal. There are restaurants that dedicate a section of their menus year-round, and one of the more famous and luxurious is La Paloma in the barrio Salamanca. La Paloma’s sommelier, Fernando, explains the difference between meat and casquería by stating baldly, “A kilo of good meat will cost about sixteen Euros wholesale, while a kilo of casquería goes for around ten. But with casquería, you have to work harder; the process of cooking is more elaborate.” Amongst La Paloma’s most popular “elaborate” dishes is de-boned pig’s feet in truffle sauce. But you can also get braised cow’s gizzards and guineafowl thighs stuffed with pig’s feet and truffle. It’s not a cheap option. These dishes cost about the same – between 24 and 30 Euros for a full ration – as freshly caught sea urchin, shaved and served with quail eggs; or monkfish stuffed with spider crab, another La Paloma favourite, which Segundo Alonso, one of their six chefs, describes as “eating a piece of the ocean.”

The heritage and tradition of casquería runs deep through Spain’s national fibre, and it‘s not exclusively confined to certain restaurants and specific events. In a country where the mantra of “waste not, want not” remains powerful, every single element of an animal is incorporated into the cuisine. Morcilla, for example, is a popular dish, a staple of Madrid’s gastronomy, and available in almost every corner bar and restaurant. Consisting of fried pig’s blood, often with rice woven into the bouquet, it is similar to black pudding.

And many offshoots of casquería are a regular feature at Spanish weekend lunch tables, where the emphasis remains on family, food and ritual. It seems it’s true; in Spain at least, blood still runs thicker than water.

Address Book:
Freiduriá de Embajadores
Calle Embajadores 84. Tel: +34 915 175 933
Ritz Hotel
Plaza de la Lealtad 5. Tel: +34 917 016 767
La Paloma
Jorge Juan 39. Tel: +34 915 768 692

Further Information: Madrid City Tourism (www.esmadrid.com) and Spanish Tourist Board (www.spain.info).
1 Comments | Add a comment

COMMENTS

Heather S
Madrid
1
Thank you Mr Train, for treating this subject with objectivity. Personally, I detest most innards and all those weird bits and bobs, but after reading your article, I'm nearly tempted to give them another chance! :)

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