It might forever remain a mystery whether it was the jamón iberico or the gazpacho that began my love affair with Spanish cuisine. Both cornerstones showcase the mastery of simple ingredients. Jamón iberico comes from curing meat over time until it reaches such a state that it melts in your mouth and sings right down to your soul. Gazpacho is a cold, refreshing summer blend of ripe garden vegetables that reminds you why we miss this heat so much in the cooler months. Right now the most accessible of the two is gazpacho, which I have somewhat mastered in my own kitchen, collecting the perfect ingredients and simply blending and chilling before serving.
To me, Spanish food is the most minimalist of the great food cultures of the world, and yet the dishes explode into great allegories of flavor and passion--indicative of the people it came from. One of the best gazpachos I have had in my life was during a school festival, poured out of a tupperware pitcher into a caña glass taken from the bar across the street. I was literally taken by the hand by a coworker who insisted that I try the best gazpacho in Huelva. I obliged and agreed with her appraisal of this gorgeous coral blend of fresh, ripe tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, fine olive oil, and other ingredients specific to the chef.
In my experience, it is truly whether you love what you are cooking or not that makes it taste good. If you spend time smelling and squeezing and checking the color of your produce before purchase, then it will probably yield a finer product because you know your ingredients are going to sing. Using fine olive oil that speaks to a spectrum of flavors that really speak to you is another necessity. The regional nuances of Spanish olive oil do truly affect the taste of a gazpacho from Badajoz to Sevilla to Barcelona to Madrid to Huelva and etcetera. There are oils that are sweeter, some with a pinch in the back of your throat, some with a heavy spice, some with a floral base, and all of them to me are very beautiful. The best I've had are made with Arbequina olives, the tiny green buttery olives
that make a great snack as well as an olive oil that never disappoints.
I went to a Fería de Aceite de Oliva in Huelva, just happened upon it one day, and that is where I was able to sample the wealth of oils from all over Andalucía (the greatest producer of olive oil), and it made me truly appreciate olive oil on its own. As a result, I detest flavored oils with a passion--why infuse olive oil with garlic or rosemary and ruin an entire bottle of beautiful golden mirth? Please pair those flavors with great frequency, but do not cause a bottle of great olive oil to go rancid with some "added flavors"
En fin, gazpacho has taught me to respect the ingredients at their best, unadulterated by herbs and spices, and only enhanced by a touch of salt and maybe a crack of black pepper. Of course I would learn this from dear Spain, the land where the only condiment on the table is a large terrine of regional olive oil to douse whatever you ordered in upon arrival. I did add some olive oil croutons and toasted sunflower seeds on my most recent batch of gazpacho and it was glorious--I still think the Spanish would approve, seeing as that they also have a loving relationship with pipas (sunflower seeds)...and I continue to enjoy that large pitcher of gazpacho in my refrigerator, soaking up the flavors of summer and reminding me what sun tastes like.