Sunday 27 February 2011

One Hundred Small Pieces

By Richard Morley.

A “Real” was a Spanish coin introduced by King Pedro I of Castille. Later on came the coin known as the “Peso”, Spanish for “weight” which was the equivalent of eight “reals” and legally weighed 27.468 grams of silver. Other names for the Peso were the “real de ocho”, “the eight real coin”, and the “Thaller” or “Spanish Dollar”. Worth eight reals, now you know where the phrase beloved of pirates, and parrots, “Pieces of Eight” comes from.

On the 23rd of December 1865 four countries, France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, formed the Latin Monetary Union and agreed to standardize their national currencies to conform to four and a half grams of silver, which allowed them to freely use, and trust, each others’ currency. So began an experiment with a currency while not international in fact, became one in practise. Indeed, France, Belgium and Switzerland did use the same name, the Franc, for their currency, although Italy used “Lira” because it was them, four years earlier, under King Vittorio Emanuelle II, who had decided to standardize the currencies used in that country to a coin of four and a half grams weight. Although originally a “Lira” was actually equivalent to a pound weight of silver. Rather too heavy for the average pocket!

The idea of monetary union in Europe was such a success that in preparation to join the LMU Spain, on the 26th of June 1864, decreed that a new coin, the peseta, replacing the old escudo, would also weigh four and a half grams of silver.

The name, “peseta” comes from a catalan word, paceta, meaning “a small piece of something”, and the peseta was meant to be small piece of the peso – a fifth, in fact.

Spain and Greece joined the LMU in 1868, followed by Romania, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Serbia and San Marino in 1896. The Vatican also joined, but when it was found its coins did not contain the requisite amount of precious metal the Swiss and French banks insisted on its ejection. Records do not tell if the pieces of silver inspected numbered thirty, but they were kicked out anyway! Later, the exchange rate of the member currencies was changed from a silver to a gold standard, but the LMU survived until the reorganization (if that could possibly be the right word) of Europe caused by the First World War.

So, monetary union in Europe is not a new thing. It remained a successful concept for more than half a century. I wonder if back in the 1870s people were blaming it for increasing prices and the ruination of their banking system. Perhaps not. Being the LATIN Monetary Union, Germany was kept out of it.

Spain, of course, continued to use the peseta until its eventual replacement by the Euro in January 2002, but remained as legal coinage until March. After which no peseta coins could be used - ever – again!

Repeat – EVER!

So why, when emptying trouser pockets prior to a spot of laundry a few days ago, did I find a one hundred peseta coin among my change?

I know how. I had only made one purchase that morning – a packet of cigarettes – from which the change from a five euro note would have been seventy five céntimos, usually consisting of one 50, one 20 and one 5 céntimo coins. The estanco that had sold me the cigarettes had slipped me, instead of the 50 céntimo coin, a hundred peseta coin. Almost totally alike in size and colour, although the 100 peseta coin weighs nine grams opposed to the 50 céntimo’s eight (according to our diet portion weighing kitchen scales), I had failed to notice the difference while sliding the change into my pocket.

So much too for that silver standard of the LMU. If we were still using it my rogue coin would have weighed four hundred and fifty grams – a pound of silver – and be worth around €400 at today’s prices. If only – sigh! I would be writing a different post if that were the case.

Evil thoughts began to cloud my mind. The estanco I had used was not one I had used before. Had they taken advantage of my unique guiri status to palm me off with useless currency? To be charitable, perhaps they had not noticed either. Maybe this coin has been circulating, masquerading as a fifty céntimo coin, for years, refusing to acknowledge its now worthless status.

It was minted in 1988 and bears the head of the King, Juan Carlos I, looking incredibly like his son, Felipe, does today. It is hardly worn, its aluminium-bronze composition having stood up to the test of time and jingling against other coins in pockets and purses very well.

Aluminium-bronze is mostly copper with varying degrees of aluminium, iron, nickel, manganese and zinc added into the mix. It is worrying to note that a maximum of 0.4% arsenic was allowed.

The composition of the newly hatched usurper, the fifty céntimo coin is something called “Nordic Gold” consisting of again, mostly copper, but with 5% aluminium, 5% zinc and 1% tin. Apparently this combination of metals is supposed to make the coins antimicrobial, that is, it inhibits the growth of bacteria, fungi and protozoans. (Sometimes this blog is just a mine of information!)

But whatever my one hundred peseta coin is made of, it is still worthless. And it remains so despite friends gleefully telling me that I have done well out of the deal. That my new possession, at the peseta / euro conversion rate is actually worth eighty-three of these new fangled céntimos.

Try telling that to the unsmiling, unhelpful check-out girl in Dia!

No one wants my coin. Not even machines. That, incidentally, was the only time I tried to spend it. It was not from dishonesty, but from curiosity. I wondered if the machine could tell the difference. It can. It fell through the metro ticket machine without even touching the sides, landing with a guilt ridden clunk in the tray. There was a security guard standing nearby. I glanced warily over my shoulder as I shamefully retrieved the coin and shoved it deep into a pocket.

It’s not legal tender. I would be breaking the law. There are already several tens of thousands of counterfeit fifty céntimo coins in circulation. In the first five years after the coin’s introduction more than thirteen thousand were found. Of course this is nothing compared with the forty three thousand one euro and three hundred and sixteen euro coins that were also found to be phoney in the same period. And my 100 peseta coin, despite its twelve years of perfectly legal status up to a decade ago, is now just a worthless disk.

Incidentally, most counterfeit coins are of German origin, which might be why they have the money to bail out everyone else. I’m not accusing – just thinking aloud, you understand.

So I cannot with good conscience attempt to spend the coin. During an unworthy second I thought about dropping it in the cup of the annoying beggar who molests every passer-by outside my supermarket and seriously contemplated giving it to the violinist who plays Bésame Mucho badly on the metro. But I am an honest man, I like to think, and could not do it.

I can’t change it in a bank. It’s too old. Apparently only coins placed into circulation in 1997 and commemorative 2000 peseta coins can be changed, according the Bank of Spain’s website.

It seems I am stuck with it. A souvenir of times gone by when it would have bought me a couple of coffees or even a pack of cigarettes. Like me, it’s old and past its prime. Unwanted and unvalued.

No wonder the estanco wanted shot of it.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Living off the fat of the land.

By richard Morley

It not often that my actions lead to cries of, “That's disgusting”, but I managed it last week. In fact, twice in about thirty seconds, which has to be some sort of record. The first was when I told a student that I loved eating liver. Luckily, being Spanish she was not able to make the English pun, “Oh, but that's offal”, but she did say it was awful and added, horrible.

The second register of disgust came when I told her how I cooked it, but that's for later.

I have never understood why some people don't like liver. It full of iron, absolutely zero fat, and delicious. What is there not to like? Furthermore, there's liver and liver; from all sorts of animals and prepared in different ways. At the start of the English Villages that I attend the organisers usually arrange an activity that makes sure that we all meet each other. One of these is a series of questions about our fellow villagers' likes and dislike, their favourite activities, or whether they have met someone famous and so on. One of the questions is, “Do you like liver”, because they believe that it will not be easy to find anyone who does. And lots of people say they don't …....only to admit they do quite like paté. Well, that's liver folks, just processed.

I am no biologist, but I think most of the higher order of animals have livers and I have eaten a few in my time. There are all the usual suspects like cow, sheep and pig's liver, even kudu while isolated in a flooded African plain for a week with no food supply from our base able to get through, and my favourite, which is goat's. That comes from a long time of goat's liver and onions for breakfast while working in Africa. Here in Europe it seems goats are for milking and not for eating, so I have missed that particular delicacy for a while now. However, that is compensated by the wonderful goats' cheeses that Spain provides its consumers.

Back to livers and we have to work through the birds like duck, goose and chicken livers which while delicious when turned into paté, are superb in their natural state. My ex had a recipe from our time in Egypt of chickens' liver and rice that was outstanding. However, I think we should obtain our offal as a natural by-product of the animals' slaughter. The forced feeding of French geese just to produce foie gras, despite it producing a superbly delicious paté, is something I find as hard to stomach as much as the poor bird, so I won't eat it any more. But the French produce some Duck patés that are out of this world, so I won't complain.

It's probably too late to warn vegetarians that they probably won't like this post, but they should stop now, because if they are fuming at what I have written so far, they are going to hate what comes next.

You see, not only do I consume meat, I also like melting animals down and using then to cook with. What I mean, of course, is cooking with animal fat, which is how I disgusted my student a second time. Two or three times a week I will have a bacon sandwich for lunch. I throw a few rashers of smoked bacon into a non-stick frying pan and when cooked put the bacon between two doorstops of bread.

Smoked bacon seems to be difficult to obtain in Spain. They have so many delicious ways of curing hams and bacon and because the country is generally warmer, have no need of the northern European fires from which the bacon gets its delicious smoky taste. I used to have a problem buying it here in my little barrio, but since Carrefour opened a “Market” (and I do wonder why it is not a Mercado!) not half a stone’s throw from my apartment and which I treat as a walk-in larder, that problem has been resolved. So chalk one up for Carrefour, which is saying something as, smoked bacon aside, their “Markets” fail on so many levels. A vegetable section that does not sell carrots, no salted butter in the dairy section, no HP sauce in the condiments. Thank heavens for Eroski, a complete stone’s throw in the other direction that does sell all these things.

But back to my bacon sandwiches.

What remains in the pan after the cooking is all the melted fat from the bacon, which I store in a refrigerated container, and it's in that which I cook the liver. My student was disgusted.
“Don't you cook in olive oil”, she railed at me, as if by not using the oil of the olive I was committing some sort of sacrilegious or unpatriotic act.

And the answer is no, I don't.

I do like olive oil on my bread and on salads. Crusty bread dipped in rosemary flavoured olive oil is fantastic, but I don't like the taste when it is heated – and I can't stand the smell it produces when hot. So I will either use a corn or sunflower oil, or peanut oil in the wok, or use melted down animal.

By why do I resort to leeching the fat out of my bacon? Well, here in Spain its almost the only resource. The Spanish like their meat, with the exception of jamón, it seems, devoid of fat. Meat for sale in supermarkets has had all the fat trimmed away. A pork chop, or chuleta de cerdo, looks withered and naked lying on its polystyrene supermarket tray. It all lean meat. Steaks are trimmed, sausages, salchichas, are all meat, and nothing but the meat, and lamb, cordero, is the same. It's not a cry of, “Where's the beef?” that is raised when meat shopping, but, “Where's the fat?”

And don’t get me started on the unavailability of suet!

A friend who cooks a traditional English roast beef meal each Three Kings watched with dismay when buying the joint for the first of such annual treats when, after weighing the joint with its fat attached, the butcher proceeded to trim the fat away to be discarded before passing it over the counter. My friend protested, I am sure to the confusion of the carnicero, and got the fat back. And now each year the beef comes with it fat still firmly attached.

Now I am well aware that we should not consume quantities of fat. It clogs our arteries and piles on the weight. But meat should be cooked with its fat, or in it's own grease for the flavour.

And not just meat, but vegetables too. My friend, the chef of the Three Kings dinner, was delighted this year to find a jar of Grasse d'Oie, French goose fat, for sale in the El Corte Inglés specialist food section. (I think it was there. He'll correct me if I am wrong, but he found it for sale in Madrid never-the-less!) This was used for roasting the potatoes and parsnips that came with the beef. And they were delicious.

Which leads us to a study carried out in the south west of France where the consumption of goose fat and duck fat is probably higher than anywhere in the world and yet the population have one of the lowest rates of heart disease anywhere. Known as the “Paradoxe Français”, not only does the consumption of this type of fat not cause coronary disease, it actually seems to protect against it. I have spent some time in the French “département” of Gers where everything seems to come packed in containers of fat, even plums. When I first saw this I remember remarking, “My god, a heart attack in a jar”, but it seems I was very wrong.

And yes, I suppose that the fat from birds could probably have a different consistency to that from four legged farm animals, and that we should choose our edible fats with care. But food is more than just for nutrition; its taste is just as important.

And here, if you will pardon the bad joke, is my “beef” with Spanish food.

But before the deportation squad comes to manhandle me to the Pyrenean border I have to say I find most Spanish food fantastically delicious, with the exception of paella, but that's just me and my relationship with rice. Spanish food, and here I mean standard main courses, not desserts, has some wonderful flavours, but it has no spicy peaks or bitter lows.

A Mexican friend claims not to have eaten a decent meal, outside of his own kitchen, since he has lived in Madrid. Recently I have tried to entice Spanish friends to eat Indian or Thai, both of which are readily available in the capital, but to no avail. This is a land where HP sauce is considered “hot”. At the recent Three Kings roast dinner I persuaded a Spanish guest to follow my example and thinly smear English mustard on a slice of Jamon Iberico. I swear he then drank a whole can of Mahou Classic in five seconds flat just to put the fire out. So-called “sabor de curry” flavoured noodles on sale at my local Carrefour are bland.

Of course, I generalise!

Of course, Spain has a special relationship with olive oil. It claims to produce forty-four percent of the world’s supply. I have seen the serried ranks of olive groves while travelling south. There are dark tales of Italian produces buying Spanish oil in tanker loads and selling it as Italian oil, but that might be un mito urbano, but I know a lady whose sole job is to verify the quality of Spanish olive oil before it can be imported to middle-eastern countries, where it is prized apparently.

On bread, on salads, with fish, olive oil is wonderful. But nothing will crisp roast potato like goose fat or enrich the taste of liver like pig fat. My friends tell me that after nearly six years of living in Spain I am beginning to lose my “guiri” status, but old habits – and tastes – die hard.

I am having a large dinner this evening, so Sunday lunch was a simple bacon sandwich, which you can see at the head of this post. I do hope I haven’t disgusted anyone else!