‘Well that’s not what I thought a tortilla was at all.’
The American expressed surprise at not being presented a soft, pale cornflour flat bread.
‘Yes, we’re not in Mexico.’ I smiled back.
The problem with the word tortilla is that, around much of the world, it is famed in Tex-Mex, or Mex, restaurants, as being an edible wrap for meat and veg, guacamole and hot sauces. We’ve all eaten the ‘Old El Paso’ tortillas and thrown the spice mix into the chicken and peppers and felt like Jamie Oliver.
However in Spain our tortilla is not that. The tortilla española is a very different edible beastie. Here it is often translated as Spanish potato omelette. And that’s about right. About as simple as it gets, but hard to find a great one. The search for the perfect tortilla is a personal obsession. Out of simplicity is born perfection.
The origin of the Spanish potato omelette is pretty murky to be honest. But, it gets easier if you isolate its most traceable ingredient: the potato.
Christopher Columbus, having got lost and missed the East Indies, ‘discovered’ the New World at the end of the 15th century. The Bahamas, then Mexico, then the rest. The Spanish colonisation of Central and South America began. Apart from subjugation, rape and pillaging, plundering (gold in this case) and domination, one positive side effect of Colony was the importing of new goods.
During the 1500s in return for diseases, the Spanish brought back all manner of goodies: tomatoes, peppers, tobacco, chocolate, vanilla, pumpkins, blueberries, sunflowers, beans, chillies, avocado. And the potato.
It was much maligned at the start and was called by its Quechua name of papa. Later on to not confuse it with the batata (sweet potato) that was readily planted in Malaga, the Spanish renamed it to patata. Genius.
It was the ultimate poverty food. Hated by most – probably due to incorrect cooking – and thought of as lowly. Even the Royal Language Academy of Spain in 1560 called it, officially, an ‘insipid foodstuff’.
It wasn’t until the 18th century people started to like it. Subsistence food that became popular, became iconic. That’s very much the story of Spanish dishes all over. During the poverty-stricken Spanish Civil War in the 30s they even made ‘fake Spanish omelette’ without potatoes or eggs with orange peel and flour, garlic, bicarbonate of soda, water and pepper; such was its popularity.
But at what point some smart chap or chappess decided to add eggs, salt, onion (or whatever) and call it a tortilla, we can never truly know.
My friends from Extremadura claim, with good reason, that it was first invented in their town of Villanueva de la Serena in 1798 by a man called José de Tena Godoy and his chum the Marquis of Robledo de Badajoz by adding potato to eggs, flour, salt, yeast and water. But, really, this could have given rise to something more like a buñuelo. New research seems to show that what we know today as a tortilla, and in name, is from poor Navarran workers in 1817: ‘two or three eggs in a tortilla for five or six, because our women know how to make them big and fat with few eggs, mixing in potatoes, breadcrumbs and other things.’
Few dishes are as simple as the humble tortilla española. The base ingredients are a mixture (cuajada) of eggs, potatoes and salt, fried in olive oil. Most people nowadays do, and should really as it’s better, add onion.
Tortilla simply means little torta. Torta translating officially as a ‘mass of ingredients cooked in a round shape’. The mixture is placed into the pan and is cooked through. Ideally you want to keep it moving in the pan. When the mixture still looks too liquidy it’s probably time to flip it over – either with a plate, a special gadget, or with a pancake-like toss. Then cook the other side. There’s not much more to it.
It’s best served warm and ‘huevosa’: all gooey and eggy. Though this isn’t a rule. It can be served fully cooked through solid, almost liquid, cold, hot, eaten for dinner, tapas, or for breakfast, covered in sauces, cooked using caramelised onion, stuck in a baguette, or ameliorated with other ingredients – though those aren’t officially ‘española’ any more.
Types or variations:
Betanzos – very liquid
Tortilla campera – red pepper, chorizo, vegetables
Tortilla paisana – similar to campera, but often the veg is carrots or peas, green beans and maybe jamón
Tortillera de pataques – enormous Asturian giant tortillas
Tortilla de chorizo – with added chorizo…obviously
Tortilla rellena – usually two slabs of tortilla filled with various meats/cheese/veg
Tortilla gaditana – Spanish omelette from Cadiz cooked with grated potatoes
Bars plug it as ‘the best in the city’, competitions have been held to find the greatest, most traditional bars will have one, and yet it remains just eggs-potatoes-salt-onion. Most Spaniards, including the top Spanish chefs, swear that the best is made by their (grand)mother.
Me? I like it gooey, lukewarm, with the onion cooked to golden and lots of salt.
One word of warning: be wary of anything light beige, solid, cold and not showing any signs of real cooking; almost looking plasticky and shiny. These are mass-produced tortillas using huevina – liquid or powdered ready pasteurised egg mixtures. Good bars will have a hygiene rating that allows for the use of real eggs, but historically – to not risk salmonella – fresh eggs were banned!
Where I eat:
Madrid – Cerveriz (Plaza de San Miguel, 2), Bodegas Ardosa (Calle de Colón, 13), Txirimiri (Calle Humilladero 6), Pez Tortilla (Calle del Pez 36), El Buo (Calle Humilladero, 4)
Barcelona – Vivanda (Carrer Major de Sarrià), Ambiente del Sur (Carrer de Viladomat), Bar Electricitat (Carrer de Sant Carles, 15)
Sevilla – Bar Santa Marta (Calle Angostilll, 2)
Zamora – Chillón (Calle Diego de Ordax, 6)
What I drink with it:
Instead of wine, for a good, salty tortilla a delicious and crisply acidic Spanish cider from Asturias will do the trick. Trabanco is a fantastic brand. Don’t forget to pour from on high: escanciar.
What I listen to:
This Love Affair – Rufus Wainwright