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Wood smoke and garlic

When I smell wood smoke and garlic I am instantly transported back to a small Andalusian village in the hills above the town of San Pedro de Alcántara in southern Spain, where on summer nights 25 years ago, we would eat solomillo, pork fillet doused in olive oil, garlic and parsley and cooked over a wood fire. So simple, yet so delicious.

Andalusia is where I learned to love garlic, use olive oil indiscriminately and gorge on olives. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil and table olives, and in spring the olive groves look particularly spectacular when the almond trees, which are often planted among them, burst into bloom.

I have lots of anecdotes, stories and happy memories of the three years we spent living, travelling, cooking and eating in Spain, which would probably bore you to death, so I’ll just give you one or two of our favourite recipes.

In tapas bars and trendy restaurants everywhere in Spain you’ll find gambas pil pil – prawns fried quickly in almost smoking hot oil, flavoured with dried chilli, paprika and, of course, loads of garlic, usually served in small earthenware dishes with chunks of bread to mop up the juices. They are normally medium-sized prawns, but I like to show off and use big ones.

Next comes that memory-stirring solomillo. We were served one pork fillet each, but they were tiny in comparison to the ones you buy here, and must have come from very small pigs. A Maltese fillet will easily serve three people and you can barbecue it whole, but as it can go from undercooked to overdone in the blink of an eye, I prefer to slice it thickly and cook it quickly.

Be generous with the oil and garlic and baste and turn the slices often. Serve them with patatas bravas, or ‘bold’ potatoes, which are usually fried in oil and topped with a spicy tomato sauce, but you may find, as I do, it’s more convenient to roast them and serve the sauce separately.

One of my favourite ‘company’ dishes is arroz con pollo, or chicken with rice. You can double the ingredients to feed a crowd, or halve them for just two. It looks after itself in the oven, doesn’t mind waiting for you and your guests to finish your drinks, and it only needs a salad and some bread to go with it.

Although a mouthwatering selection of cakes, tarts, pastries and other confections are served throughout the day in cafés, coffee shops and bars accompanied by a café con leche or a glass of wine, fresh fruit generally ends a meal, but flan, or crème caramel is a favourite family pudding, as is leche frita, literally fried milk.

The port city of Málaga is famous for its sweet, raisiny Málaga wine, which is lovely to sip after dinner on a warm summer evening, but I’m never quite sure why a wine with the highest alcohol content should be considered a ladies’ drink. Maybe it’s because we can hold our liquor better than our menfolk!

A word of caution – unless you don’t mind being socially unacceptable for a couple of days, it’s not terribly advisable to serve garlicky gambas and solomillo at the same meal.

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