A little taste of Spain

I can’t claim to have invented it, nor really spent much time throwing it together, but this simple dish is one of the tastes I have most missed from my short time in Spain: bread, cheese, and membrillo.

Membrillo is something that I didn’t know quite what it was, but I knew I liked it, and that was enough.  What I knew then: it was some kind of thickened fruit paste that put me in the mind of the texture of high quality fruit leather if you stopped short of fully drying it out; it had the full flavor of a fruit concentrate and a slightly gritty texture that lent it enough interest to keep me from thinking I was eating baby food.  I had thought that maybe it was apricot, because the membrillo I got in Santiago de Compostela* was a kind of glowing amber, but the flavor was not quite right; I put it down to really good, Spanish apricots.

I wrote it off to a happy food memory (I have many, many of those), until I ended up poking around in the cheese section of Whole Foods with Alida, where we had ‘only’ gone to get fancy coffee, and of course got sidetracked. I was further distracted by the Spanish cheese selection, trying to see if there was a wedge of Manchego that wasn’t expensive enough to take my breath away (quit the breath from me, in Spanish) when I saw it, with a happy little sign: membrillo.

True, the name isn’t very attractive – I always think of membrane, which is not a word conducive to the appetite, but I immediately resolved to buy it, along with a slightly cheaper cheese (emphasis on the slightly), Campo de Montalban, an aged mix of sheep and cow milks,  and indulge in complete gastronomic nostalgia.

Membrillo and cheese

Delicious and elegant in its unabashed simplicity.

Membrillo turned out to be quince paste, much to my surprise.  I have never seen a quince.  It has always been just a fun word that might give you a leg up in Scrabble to me, but I’m very happy to meet its acquaintance at long last.  To me, the flavor is like a mix of plums and dates, an intriguing mix that teases the tongue and softens the force of aged Spanish cheeses.  Of course, its mystique is also why I’m not including a recipe: I have no clue where to find or how to process such a fruit… I’m just going to let Whole Foods do the hard work for me as I lay slivers of sweetness over nutty cheese on hot, crusty bread.  I like that plan.

*Santiago de Compostela is in Galicia, Spain, in the northwest corner of the country.  It’s at the end of the famous Catholic pilgrimage Camino de Santiago, Santiago being the Spanish name for St. James, whose remains are in held in the Cathedral there.

Catedral de Santiago

Catedral de Santiago

The reason I take this little informational side jaunt is that one of my favorite cheeses comes from Santiago; not for its flavor, though that’s excellent, but for the best (possibly apocryphal) cheese story in the world.

There are many statues of St. James in and around the cathedral and the city, in his various forms and apparitions, but there is one particular St. James that is just very happy to be alive and tramping down the infidels (St. James was not a nice saint, miracle-wise).  When one of the bishops was checking up on the decoration of the cathedral, this particular statue caught his eye.  Compelled by the expression of joy on the saint’s face, he turned to see what exactly St. James was gazing upon.  When his own gaze fell upon the object in question, the sculptor was called to the carpet (cobblestones?) rather quickly: St. James was eternally gawking at a very voluptuous, scantily clad maiden.  The infuriated bishop insisted that the sculptor pare down the dimensions of the woman, conserving the sanctity of the cathedral.

The people of Santiago thought that perhaps the bishop had gone too far – after all, wasn’t St. James once a man, too?  To get back at the stuffy man, the cheesemakers stepped in and began reshaping the traditional Galician cheese.  It’s a cows’ milk cheese, very mild, a bit like Babybels, without the processed bite, but with the wax rind.  Queixo Tetilla was born – literally: nipple cheese.  It is shaped like a breast, and as my friend Kat and I independently said, “If I were to make a cheese shaped like a breast, it would taste like this.”  It’s creamy, pale, and with a very soft, milky texture. Queixo is Galician for cheese – yes, another one of those pesky non-Spanish Spanish languages.

queixo tetilla

It's not real nipple cheese unless it has the mark of origin!

To add insult to injury, the aged version is called San Simone – St. James’ mother.

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Hey, I'm Desa. I've been bouncing between the Pacific Northwest and Sevilla, Spain in the last few years and from tiny apartment to tiny apartment. I cook mainly for one, which means some potentially boring meals, but here I'll be sharing the food that excites me. Feel free to offer suggestions, commiseration, or desires. And thanks for coming by!

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