Dish of the Day: Acorn pie – a classic pudding of Extremadura
November brings a hundred parts of the pig to the pig-heavy cuisine of Extremadura in Spain. Take the slow train from Madrid at 10:18 am and, shortly after two, you’ll be on the tawny expanse of grassland beyond Cáceres, where even every electricity pylon supports a storks’ nest. Not a single house is to be seen for the next hour.
Here, acorns from the evergreen oaks feed the best pigs, and as the proverb says, A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín – “Every pig has its Martinmas.” For St Martin’s Day, November 11, is the traditional day for slaughtering the family pig.
The parts of the pig not hung up as hams are preserved as chorizo with red pimentón, or eaten bit by bit: its ears with a tomato and onion sauce; its cheeks, jeta, baked or fried; its subcutaneous fat, tocino, added in cubes to a stew; its liver mixed with fat as pâté; its blood, darkened into morcilla, encased as a black pudding in its intestines; its fat rendered into lard serves in the South, instead of butter or olive oil, to spread on breakfast toast, flavoured with pimentón or garlic.
The pig can hide in the most innocent guise: as lard in polvorones, the almondy sweetmeats with a hint of cinnamon and sometimes aniseed that are unwrapped from thin paper at Christmas time and burst into dust at one bite. Nothing could seem more Arabian in their spicy sweetness, yet no Moorish princess would have baked with pig’s fat.
Lard too can be used in acorn pie, or you can use butter. I enjoy this dry sort of tart (a little like a Bakewell tart but without the jam). But a few weeks ago, in Cáceres, I found to my alarm that sweet acorns were no longer to be found in the shops. So unless you know of a supplier (and I’d be grateful to hear of one) you must go out now, in November, and fetch them from the oaks groves of the dehesa.
You could use the acorns of Quercus robur, the English oak, called roble in Spanish, but they are quite bitter. You want acorns from the encina, the evergreen oak, Quercus ilex, with which the meseta of Spain is sprinkled. More particularly it is the subspecies surnamed rotundifolia in Latin, and called in Spanish encina dulce, sweet oak, that is to be sought. The leaves are rounder and spikier.
Preparation: overnight and an hour
Cooking: 45 minutes
12oz acorn kernels
4oz plain flour
4oz butter or lard
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
Loosen the acorn shells by boiling for a couple of minutes or baking at a low heat for 15 minutes. Shell dextrously with the help of a hammer. If the acorns need to be made less bitter, chop roughly and soak overnight, or boil, transferring the pieces, uncooled (important), from one boiling pan of water to another until the water clears. Dry in a low oven until crumbly, then grind finely.
Now, cream the butter or lard and sugar together. (Tradition specifies lard.) Beat in the eggs gently, one by one. Stir in the flour and the ground acorns. Add the lemon zest.
Cook the mixture a finger thick in a greased sandwich tin in a moderate oven (180°C) for perhaps 45 minutes, or until a knife thrust in the middle comes out clean. While still warm, sprinkle with the lemon juice. When cool, dust with icing sugar. A couple of flat English oak leaves make a very pretty stencil.
Try it out once or twice before inviting guests, for the variable effects of the acorns, eggs and oven are so great that some adjustment may well be necessary.
The Train in Spain by Christopher Howse is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)Tagged in: acorn kernels, acorn pie, Dish of the Day, nuts, Spanish dish
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