Spain's culinary masterpiece: egg and chips
These days almost every great TV moment exists somewhere on YouTube. But I can’t find any trace of this one, so it's possible I have imagined it. Way back in the early 1980s I remember watching Bernard Levin on a programme called Enthusiasms, which celebrated the finer things in life (here's the accompanying book). One of his guests was the former prime minister, Edward Heath. In my recollection, Levin was rhapsodising about Beethoven's Fidelio, then turned to Heath—also a music aficionado—and asked what in life had particularly enthused him. His reply has stayed with me: “There is a lot to be said for egg and chips."
I don't know of anywhere so enthusiastic about the egg and potato combination as Spain. In a country where meat has often been in short supply, eggs have been a mainstay of the diet for hundreds of years. When Velázquez painted his Old Woman Cooking Eggs in 1618, the potato had recently arrived in Spain from the Americas courtesy of the conquistadors, who had been introduced to it in its native Peru. They have been happily married in Spanish cookery ever since.
There isn’t really such a thing as Spanish cuisine. Instead there is a range of regional cocinas which together provide some of Europe’s most interesting and delicious food. But if there is one universal dish, it must be the tortilla española, the Spanish potato omelette. Almost every bar serves it, almost everyone has a view on how best to cook it, and even the country's most sophisticated chefs toil over deconstructed versions of it. Madrid's two-Michelin-starred Coque offers hydrolyzed tortilla with a bottle of beer. The legendary chef Ferran Adrià touts a recipe involving a packet of crisps.
Photo: Casa Dani
Since 2018, a national competition has sought to identify the country's most perfect tortilla. The current holder is Madrid’s Casa Dani, a modest bar within the Mercado de la Paz that offers sumptuous, gooey wedges of potato, egg and caramelised onion at €3.50 a slice. (The addition of onion can be controversial, although personally I’m a passionate concebollista.) Casa Dani’s tortilla, in common with the country’s finest, is made in the manner of Betanzos, the town in Galicia where omelettes are served runny in the middle. And that, for the amateur, is the bit that is so hard to get right.
Search online for recipes for tortilla española and you'll find plenty. The ingredients are straightforward: potatoes, eggs, onion, olive oil (although Casa Dani uses sunflower oil), salt. It's the method that is all important, and I don't claim to have completely cracked it. But here's what I've learnt from lengthy trial and error.
Allow for more oil and time than you could possibly imagine. When I've seen Spanish people cooking it, the potatoes and onions swim in olive oil. That will be drained off and reused later. (My friend Pláci eventually turns it into soap with homegrown rosemary and lemon, pictured.)
Sweat the finely sliced onions gently for a long time—up to an hour—until they are soft, brown and sweet. Also take your time with the potatoes—cook them slowly on a medium heat, and whatever you do, don't allow them to go brown or crisp. I don't think there's any shame in briefly par boiling them first, but others will probably disagree. And, perhaps most crucially if you are going to achieve gooeyness, mix the beaten eggs with the cooked potatoes and onions before you start to cook the omelette, don't just add them to the hot pan. After you've cooked it for a few minutes comes the moment you've got to flip it. Loosen the edges of the omelette, and place a plate or a flat pan lid on top. Then quickly and confidently overturn the frying pan while holding the plate or lid in your other hand. Not easy. Then slide the tortilla back into the pan to cook the other side.
Recently we sat at the counter and watched a station chef at Barcelona’s Cal Pep turning out tortilla after tortilla (or truita as it's confusingly called in Catalonia)—all perfectly round and plump, like aircraft wheels. There's something about the small, heavy pan he used, and the expert way he worried it with a spatula that suggests however hard you try, tortilla will always be something that's better in a bar.
I'm more confident about Spain's other great egg and potato dish: huevos rotos, broken eggs, also called huevos estrellados, smashed eggs. As far as I know there isn't yet a national competition for Spain's finest huevos rotos, so here's my suggestion for a top three.
El Landó, Madrid
It's the signature dish at this classic establishment beloved of politicians and celebrities. Home fried chips topped with eggs lightly fried in olive oil and slices of jamón ibérico. Simple perfection. (Try also Casa Lucio, run by the same family.)
Mesón La Troya, Trujillo
Within sight of the equestrian statue of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro in Trujillo's picturesque Plaza Mayor, La Troya serves portions so large you probably won't need breakfast the next morning. The only addition is that the huevos rotos are sprinkled with smokey pimentón, also brought back from America by the conquistadors.
Toro, El Puerto de Santa Maria
This is the house café of Osborne's sherry bodega, famous for its black bull logo. The huevos rotos here are served with top notch ibérico ham from the company's 5J drying cellars in Jabugo, and smoked chorizo sausages known as jabuguitos. You could pair with a glass of fino sherry.
Do try this at home. Sautée the potatoes in olive oil, and when they are all but ready throw in the chunks of chorizo. Stir them around for a couple of minutes until the potatoes take on the orange colour of the chorizo and the edges are knocked off the potatoes. Then switch off the heat and break the eggs over the top, allowing them to cook for a couple of minutes untouched. Finally, mix everything lightly together—the eggs should be broken, not scrambled—and garnish with slices of ibérico ham. I'm prepared to say that this is the world's finest breakfast. In Spain, as in life, there is a lot to be said for egg and chips.