If you say oxtail to a British person they are likely to think of a tin of soup bought for 49p from a local store. Not sexy food. If you say oxtail, or more precisely, rabo de toro, to a Spanish person, you are likely to witness salivation on a Niagran scale. Bull’s tail stew is one of the greatest and most unknown of Spanish dishes and it is an especially perfect dish to warm one’s cockles in the surprisingly fierce Madrid winter. Blue skies, yes. Subzero temperatures? Also yes. A superior cold weather meat dish you will not find. Yet you will also find locals gobbling the stuff down in May during the capital’s San Isidro festival where six bulls kick the decidedly stabby bucket every day for the month.
This dish’s story has it coming across as possibly one of the most ‘Spanish’ sounding of all. It is as if the dish was created solely to sound like a cheap stereotype. Its history lies in Andalucía, that land of flamenco and white towns, eternal sunshine, and bullfighters.
Fighting a bull is not a ‘Spanish’ activity. We can thank, or blame, depending on your stance, the Ancient Greeks and Romans for that. The Venationes, human-versus-animal events. Maybe for entertainment, maybe for punishment. Fighting animals for audiences is not new, but bullfighting specifically became popular and culturally embedded in France and Spain in the medieval period and continued to evolve from there.
Regardless of one’s opinions about the bullfight, the fighters themselves respect the bull and they aren’t about to waste it. Leather will be made from the hide and every bit of the beast will be eaten. Romans used to eat bull tail – check out Marcus Gavius Apicus’ belter of a dish in ‘De re Coquinaria’ – but the current dish seems to hail from Córdoba and the 16th century and was later modernised in the 19th.
Nowadays the majority of ‘bull’s tails’ that are sold in the shops are in reality cow or ox; given that real fighting bull tails are a relative rarity and are, when attained, not cheap these days.
The ingredients for this dish couldn’t be simpler. I’m sure, as per every stew, there are variations in the recipe but the general array seems to be:
Onion, carrot, peppers
Bay leaf, salt, black pepper, paprika, cloves
After browning off the meat, the dish is the classic tale – get it? – of making a stew. Adding the various ingredients at their required stages and then cooking for a long time. From 3 or 4 hours up to 8. The resulting reduction and slow cooking gives a meat that should fall away from the bone with the merest touch of a fork and a sauce that is both rich and slightly gelatinous and that is crying and mooing out for bread to be dunked.
Where I eat it:
Madrid – Anciano Rey los Vinos, Posada del Dragón, Mercado de la Reina, Casa Toribio
Montilla – Las Camachas
Aguilar de la Frontera – La Casona
Córdoba – El Caballo Rojo
Sevilla – La Antigua Abacería de San Lorenzo, Uno de San Román, La Flor de mi Viña
What I drink with it:
A dish like is really calling out for a red wine with body and depth. A bottle of Toro or Ribera del Duero would do the trick. But, should you want an even more decadent pairing, try an Oloroso (either from DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry or DO Montilla-Moriles). This nutty-caramel dry sherry with match perfectly with the sweet meat and slow-cooked sauce of the rabo de toro. If you want a steadfast bargain, Gonzalez-Byass make a benchmark version called ‘Alfonso’. But if you can dig deeper, the Lustau Pata de Gallina from Jerez is remarkable and the Marqués de Poley from Toro Albalá (Montilla) is wonderful.
What I listen to:
Vonarströnd – Íkorni