An insider’s view on the popular and controversial cold tomato soup from Spain: Gazpacho.
I am a night owl and have been struggling waking up early since I was a little girl. There was only one event that could make me crawl out of my beloved bed to the kitchen before 8 am during the summer holidays: the far off sound of my mum’s liquidiser, together with the fragrances of fresh vegetables from my granddad’s farm –tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers, mixed with garlic, olive oil and vinegar- harmoniously spreading all over the house. At the time, and still now, I couldn’t smell the salt, the seventh ingredient of my mum’s gazpacho recipe, which I’m going to share with you; just so you can understand the power of this humble and delicious dish.
As a Spaniard living abroad and always in touch with foreigners, I’m usually asked about the best gazpacho recipe. For me, the answer is obvious: mine! I learned it from my mum, who learned it from her mum, who learned it from hers… At the age of 22, while I was living in The Netherlands, I wanted to impress my independent Dutch flatmates who, by the way, couldn’t believe that it was the first time I was living on my own. While in Spain, I had seemed adventurous and a pioneer. Talk about cultural biases. And yet, if truth be told, I could hardly boil pasta and mix it with canned tomato or cream sauce (pesto sauce had yet to be commercialized in the late 90s, at least not out of Italy), whereas they could all bake sophisticated cakes, even before Google existed, thanks to their handy recipe notebooks. Thinking about it now, one regret I have about being a nomad is that no matter how severe Diogenes syndrome one has -and I do have it!- one has to get rid of some treasures such as that red-spotted notebook paper with an entry titled “La mejor receta de gazpacho del mundo” / “The best gazpacho recipe in the world”. That’s the name I decided to give my mum’s gazpacho recipe, and my way of appearing more interesting to my Dutch buddies. Let’s call it Mediterranean picaresque.
But, is it the best gazpacho recipe in the world? The answer is obvious: for me, yes. For others? Maybe, not. My recipe doesn’t even contain water or bread, two ingredients that many people would defend with their life. Because, let me tell you a couple of secrets about gazpacho, the most popular cold Spanish soup, that not only arouses passions, but can also be quite a controversial subject:
There are many “best gazpacho” recipes. At least, one for each Spaniard you ask. Before I set upon writing this article, I conducted a simple survey, by asking some of my friends “what is the best gazpacho recipe”. Each and every one provided me with a different answer. Some of them are fed up with homemade gazpacho (because of the time and effort involved) and, even then, none could agree about the best commercial gazpacho brand.
There is no consensus about its origin, nor its ingredients, and obviously there are many claim to the best recipe. Not surprisingly, in the summer of 2016, there began a hot and public discussion in Twitter when one of the main websites about food in Spain, El Comidista –lead by the popular gastronomic critic Mikel Iturriaga- shared a video entitled “One Minute Gazpacho Master”. Immediately, and for some days thereafter, the polemic was served. They received many comments, some from angry gazpacho experts highlighting the crimes of the instructive and seemingly harmless video, and others critiquing the “genuine” gazpacho recipe, as if their lives depended on it.
From Al-Ándalus Farmers to the World
It’s hard to believe that this pale orange, pink or red coloured soup -depending on the maturity of the tomatoes and the mixture of ingredients- didn’t originally contain any tomatoes at all. In fact, it wasn’t until the discovery of America in 1492 that Europe learned about the very existence of the tomato. However, we know that during Al-Ándalus period (711-1492), farmers were already eating gazpacho in the fields of southern Spain, especially during the long, hot summer days. Back then, gazpacho was a simple mixture of breadcrumbs softened with water, olive oil, vinegar and salt. This traditional and popular country recipe, shared orally for many generations, didn’t appear in a recipe book until the 18th century, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that the inclusion of tomatoes in the recipe actually took place. By then, the Spanish bourgeois started to become interested in the peasant dish, somewhat enriching it even further by adding some vegetables as toppings, and using fancy porcelain dishes and bowls to delight their exquisite guests. Then, in the second half of 20th century, the large scale introduction of electronic devices in the Spanish bars and kitchens made the hard task of puréeing vegetables a lot easier. And with the first influx of tourists -coming mainly from northern European countries- in the 1960’s, gazpacho started to become an international affaire.
The industrialization of gazpacho soup-making began in the 1990’s when some local food producers started selling thousands of cartons and bottles of the soup in the Spanish supermarkets. Today, up to the period ending March 2019, the Spanish consume 64.4 million litres of processed gazpacho per year (with an average yearly growth rate of 8,1%) which implies a profit of 143.2 million euros (with a growth of 12,5%), according to the market research consultants Nielsen Spain. “More than 75% of the business takes place between the months of May and September. The distribution of the product adapts to the seasonality, and in the lower sales months gazpacho is not even sold in the smaller supermarkets”, explains Teresa Carrión, Client Business Partner at Nielsen Spain. She emphasises that the gazpacho market has still got two w ays of increasing in Spain: on one side, “it’s expectable to obtain new consumers, as it’s a healthy and a ready-to-eat product, which makes it appealing for an important target of the population”, and on the other side, “the deseasonalisation of the category and keeping a permanent distribution in the stores is another growing axis”.
This is only regarding the Spanish market. Because, according to the main gazpacho producers in Spain, the exports are increasing, over a shorter period of time than the domestic sales, and taking into account that every year new countries in Asia, Africa or the Americas are joining the gazpacho fever. For example, AMC Natural Drinks, one of the industry leaders (in 2018 it produced more than 20 million litres of gazpacho) explained that their production is “for clients in the five continents through the main supermarkets and for big European brands, satisfying the increasing demand for a modern consumer looking for a healthy dish or snack, which is also convenient and delicious”.
This is why today it is easier to find big advertisements of processed gazpacho in the bus stops of Paris or cartons of gazpacho on the shelves of a regular supermarket in Tokyo. No one can resist the charms of the gazpacho!
The Best Gazpacho Recipe in the World (or Not)
If you can’t find gazpacho in your local shop, you might like to try to prepare a homemade one. It takes some time, but it’s really easy and the result is fresher, tastier and more nutritious than a store bought kind. I share with you my dear gazpacho recipe, which might not be the absolute best in the world, but it has opened a few doors for me abroad, and some hearts along the way too. I hope it will open your heart, and perhaps whet your appetite for Spanish cuisine. Here goes:
(for 4 people)
1 kg of mature tomatoes (pear-shape ones are ideal)
1 small-medium sized cucumber
1 good-sized slice of green pepper
1 or 2 clove of garlic
1 cup of olive oil
½ cup of vinegar
2-5 pinches of salt (up to taste)
Peal and chop finely the tomatoes. Discard the remaining peel.
Place the chopped tomatoes in a big bowl and add some salt, olive oil and vinegar.
Peal and chop finely the cucumber. Discard the peel.
Add the chopped cucumber to the big bowl and add some more salt, olive oil and vinegar.
Chop finely the slice of green pepper.
Add the chopped green pepper to the other vegetables in the big bowl.
Peal and chop finely a clove or two of garlic.
Add the chopped garlic to the bowl.
Mix all the vegetables and the juice (salt, olive oil and vinegar) together.
Let the mixture marinade for a while. As long as you leave it, the more flavourful will become.
Blend the mixture with a liquidiser or food blender.
Now, taste it. Sometimes, you may need to add more salt, olive oil and/or vinegar until a perfect symphony is reached. Each to their own!
Let it cool in the fridge for at least 4 hours, or until it’s quite cold and ready to be served. The colder the better, but not frozen!
For a lighter texture: use a strainer to get rid of the seeds and leftover skin from the peeled vegetables.
For a thicker texture: try adding some bread
To balance the flavour of the acidic juice: add some water (or sugar)
To avoid garlic breath: remove the inner seed of the clove
To remove the bitterness of the cucumber: before pealing it, slice both ends of the vegetable. Then, rub the sliced ends together with the exposed cucumber making a gentle white foam. Keep rubbing until it stops producing foam
To provide a gourmet touch: you should use Sherry vinegar
Serve it with some cubes of cucumber, green pepper, and/or some croutons (fried or raw cubes of bread)
Now that we acquainted, I can confess that I have committed several gastronomic crimes as a child, one being the addition of ice cubes to the gazpacho, simply because I couldn’t wait to cool it in the fridge. A warning: don’t do it, unless you are as impatient as an 8 year-old child, or a gazpacho maniac, just like me.
In my opinion, the best gazpacho is the one that suits you better. Experiment with the amounts of garlic, vinegar, bread or water; with the thickness and texture; remove the pepper; add onion; or even try new ingredients such as asparagus, watermelon or strawberries, and become the new international gazpacho innovator.
If you can understand Spanish, don’t miss this scene from one of my favourite (and most popular) Pedro Almodovar film “Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” / “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”:
English corrections: Andrew Jennings
Photography by: Arzu Sak Seyhun