Certain foods in the world make the eater emit sounds that really should best be left in the bedroom. For me this gastro-erotic list includes good curry, hamburgers, Christmas pudding with brandy butter, hot chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream, and, in Spain, things like cachopo, tortilla, and, that filthy misunderstood little number: the croqueta.
A lot of people when they come Spain arrive and see croqueta on the menu and feel safe. It’s familiar. Everywhere around the world seems to have their own version of these little fried golden wonders. In Indonesia (kroket), in Japan (korokke), in France and Belgium – and as extension the US, UK, Australia et al. – (croquette), Germany (Krokette), Italy (crocchette), the list goes on, these little crispy nibbles have a presence in one way of another.
Problematically for visitors there seems to be a preponderance towards expecting a potato filling. Not in Spain.
So what makes a croqueta a croqueta, and not a Krokette or a korokke?
The croqueta, despite its ubiquity in Spain, is actually a fairly recent dish of French invention. It is more than likely that the Spanish were frying similar blobs and masses of food in oil before the croqueta of course, but the dish as we know it is a French brainchild.
It seems to date back to the courts of Louis XIV, the only Louis anyone really needs to care about, and a banquet for English Prince Regent George IV and Nicholas I of Russia in 1817. A chef, going by the wonderful name of Antonin Carême, decided to surprise the royals with a fun, new dish. He served a béchamel sauce surrounded by a fat and crunchy coating. He called them croquettes à la royale.
The name is also supremely French in its onomatopoeic elegance as croquette (and thus croqueta and all other permutations) comes from the French verb croquer: to crunch. Croqueta literally means ‘little crunchy one’. And I think that’s lovely.
The arrival to Spain is murky, either 1846 if you think Alexandre Dumas is talking about it a text he wrote, or in 1867 if paying attention to the book “El cocinero español y la perfecta cocinera”.
Ironically despite the dish being utterly French, in name, invention and ingredients, the French don’t really eat them that much these days. In Belgium you can just about find them in most good traditional restaurants. But it’s the Spanish who took the croquette to their heart, named it croqueta, and went bonkers for it. Almost every taberna, mesón, restaurante, bar will offer plates of 6-12 croquetas as a sharing plate: ración.
The croqueta is hewn from humble and simple ingredients, but the making of it takes a talent and a knack. Usually Spanish (grand)mothers are the artists in this field and it is sadly a skill that is starting to disappear from this current young generation. Like the traditional French one, there’s no potato in the Spanish croquetas. The process is time-consuming but very affordable.
First of all you need to make a thick, almost paste-like, béchamel sauce and take one’s time doing it…like 20-40mins. Flour, oil, butter, milk, salt: simple, but has to be the perfect consistency. The thick béchamel is then shaped into lozenge or spherical shapes, rolled in egg yolk and breadcrumbs and deep fried until golden.
The trick is in the filling, the size, the structure of the béchamel and the cooking. Nothing is more depressing than a croqueta with a cold centre. You want them golden and crispy on the outside and gooey, but not liquid, in the middle. A thick and flavourful creamy croqueta is a guaranteed foodgasm.
The fillings are what elevate the croqueta from squishy loveliness to art. Traditionally you would just throw in whatever was at hand to make the scraps last longer, but some places create vey extensive and fancy versions. Here are some popular styles you might bump into.
Croqueta de jamón
Croqueta de boletus (porcini mushroom)
Croqueta de cocido/puchero/ropa vieja (leftover stew)
Croqueta de pollo (chicken)
Croqueta de carabineros/gamba roja (red prawn)
Croqueta de morcilla (black pudding)
Where I eat:
Madrid – Casa Julio (Calle de la Madera, 37) for creative flavours, Melo’s (Calle Ave Maria, 44) for gargantuan ham ones, Algarabía (Calle Union, 8) for shrimp ones, Casa Labra (Calle Tetuán, 12) for bacalao, La Catapa (Calle Menorca,14).
Tarifa – El Tesoro (Carretera N-340, Km 76.4) for food with a view.
Pamplona – Bar el Gaucho (Calle Espoz y Mina, 7) and Café Roch (Calle Comedias, 6) for a local croqueta variety called a frito; Bar Txoco (Plaza del Castillo, 20).
Seville – Taberna Coloniales San Pedro (Plaza Cristo de Burgos, 19).
Setenil de las Bodegas – Bar Frasquito (Calle Cuevas de Sol, 75).
What I drink with it:
A nice young red goes nicely with a sturdy and creamy croqueta. I’d go for a bottle of Losada by Vinos de Finca; a lovely Mencía wine from Bierzo.
What I listen to:
Remembrance – Balmorhea