A potato by any other name would still taste as good.
Sometimes I really can’t be bothered to think about what I want to eat when I’m in a tapas bar. Or sometimes I just find myself in a tapas bar and think ‘I should eat something.’ Sometimes I just want to stuff my face with something hearty. I want something easy, crowd-pleasing, tasty and cheap. There are, of course, many dishes like that in Spain, but my edible litmus paper is the legendary patatas bravas. I always order them as both a price and quality check for whatever bar I’m in.
The act of cooking potatoes – frying, boiling, roasting, baking – and adding a sauce is certainly not unique to Spain, nor do they necessarily do it better than other countries. When in Belgium, there’s nothing like good frites in ketchup, BBQ sauce, mayonnaise etc. At home, when in the UK, I can’t help but want a well-cooked jacket potato loaded with cheese and beans and HP. In Frankfurt I love eating the dish of boiled potatoes and eggs covered in a green herb sauce (Grüner soss und Salzkartoffeln). And the Irish? Well, they’re just potato masters.
I always found the bravas sauce peculiar, as generally the Spanish don’t accompany a lot of their food with sauces. The Spanish, however, are potato addicts of the highest order, and are no strangers to sauce-on-potato dishes. There are a few different toppings but today we’ll focus on the spiciest and most famous of the lot: patatas bravas.
Even though this dish has become one of the absolute staples of Spanish gastronomy – tapas bars from London to Tokyo will serve it – and is a dish that even the UN ratified as an ‘official Spanish dish’, the famous patatas bravas tapa is not very old.
There does, at least, seem to be some kind of agreement that, at least in name, the dish is from Madrid.
In 1893 the gastronome and writer Ángel Muro wrote that the people of Madrid liked potatoes covered in ‘any sauce, any dressing…even fat or saffron’. Later on, in 1967, we see the first mention of the name in a book called ‘Vivir en Madrid, años 60’ by Catalan-born, but Madrid-adopted, journalist Luis Carandell. He writes ‘patatas bravas, which in some places are called ‘patatas a lo pobre’, are fried potatoes with a spicy sauce’. Basically, yes.
There seems to be, through the work of many great gastronomic investigators, some consensus that patatas bravas originated in one of two mythical bars in Madrid: Casa Pellico or La Casona. Sadly neither bar exists anymore, and the ‘oldest’ establishment still serving from that time is Las Bravas who claim that from 1950 they have been serving their patented bravas sauce. I find it to be nowadays a bit of a sell-out and local tourist franchise. And the sauce isn’t very nice. By 1960 the long queues at these two aforementioned bars were already a mentionable part of the local food culture. So bravas is kind of a big deal in Madrid.
These days people have stopped queuing but almost every bar, taberna, mesón, cervercería, tasca, and restaurant in Madrid, and in most places around the country, will have bravas on their menu.
The sauce is a little bit of a fiddle, but not difficult. And the trick, as always in Spain, is to nail the cooking of the carbohydrate. There is also, like with the tortilla with or without onion debate, a lot of heated discussion as to whether or not the sauce should contain tomato. Though I love it with tomato, I shall comment on the ‘original’ style of recipe that gets the famous orange colour from the paprika.
Basically – and I await the hate mail with glee – the classic style is a cooked-out, bright orange sauce of onion, garlic, flour, pimentón picante or ahumado (smoked), cayenne chilli, seasoning, water, a touch of vinegar and maybe bits of ham and colouring. Blend it up, cool it and it’ll be ready for the next day.
The potatoes should be cut up into fairly well-sized chunks – about half or a third the size of what you would have for roast potatoes. Then they are thrown to their sizzling deaths in oil. Better to cook for a while, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, at a medium heat before cranking it up high to finish them off for 5-10 minutes. It isn’t necessary to par-boil the potatoes first, just use lots of good oil and a deep pan.
Then, quite simply, slather the sauce all over the potatoes and serve hot and with bread for mopping up.
Tweaking the sauce to your preferred taste is the fun part: add tomatoes, add more chilli, even try adding a bit of asian sweet chilli sauce, try it less spicy with sweet paprika instead, and so on. Make the sauce your own.
It’s simple but glorious and makes a mockery of my attempts at a carb-free diet.
Where I eat:
Madrid – Casa Toni (Calle de la Cruz, 14), Malaspina (Calle de Cádiz, 9), Docamar (Calle de Alcalá, 337), La Villa del Pescaíto (Calle de Toledo, 26), La Posada del Dragón (Cava Baja, 14), Taberna Acuerdo (Calle del Acuerdo, 36), Los Chicos (Calle de Guzmán el Bueno, 33), Vi Cool (Calle Huertas, 12), La Chula de Chamberí (Calle Fernando el Santo, 11), Nueva York (Av. del Ensanche de Vallecas, 11).
Ponferrada – El Bodegón (Travesía Pelayo, 2).
Barcelona – Bar del Pla (Carrer de Montcada, 2).
Logroño – Bar Jubera (Calle del Laurel, 18).
Sevilla – Salomón El Rey de los Pinchitos (Calle Lopez de Gomara, 11).
Requena – Mesón la Villa (Plaza de Albornoz, 13).
This is a slight list as I think I have eaten bravas in perhaps 80% of everywhere I’ve visited in the country.
What I drink with it:
A nice cold bottle – tercio – of local Madrid Mahou beer.
What I listen to:
Nectar – Tindersticks.