Mercedes, Spain

MERCEDES

LIVES: Madrid, Spain

BORN: San Sebastian, Spain, 1931

MOTHER TONGUE: Spanish

GRANDCHILDREN:  Coro, Carla, Mariana, Mariano, Enrique, Pedro, Juan, Jonás, tomas, mercedes, Ana, isabela, Paloma

THEY CALL HER: Abuela

My family comes from the north of Spain, which is where this recipe comes from. In my hometown of San Sebastian, the ladies of the house were supposed to cook very well, otherwise they were completely disgraced. If you didn’t know how to cook very well, you were a pariah, so I had to learn not just to cook, but to do it well.

In my grandmother’s house, which was really a temple of culinary knowledge, I learned absolutely everything I know now about cooking.They did everything at home, including slaughtering the animals we would eat. I remember watching bloody massacres of a chicken being placed between the cook’s legs before being decapitated. Then it would run around the kitchen headless. I would then have to suffer seeing the entrails of the chicken being pulled out.

I thought it was the cabinet of horrors in my grandmother’s kitchen. They’d put live lobsters on to boil and I would feel so awful about it, watching their claws being axed off. It was like torture. I hated it. I much preferred when I began to learn to cook in France during my summers in the Basque country. It was less traumatic. When we would cook meat and fish there, it was already dead!

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I actually had such a wonderful time in France when I was younger. Not just because the food was better, but because we were able to read books that were banned in Spain during Franco’s rule. I’d spend hours consumed in Gabriel Garcia Lorca. In fact, all the frivolous things we wanted, like fashion, were so much better in France than what we had access to here in Spain.

Franco found us a miserable nation after the war. There was nothing to eat and we had no clothes or shoes to wear, just hand-me-downs passed on from sister to sister. We’d buy meat on the black market from men who would carry around suspicious suitcases. They’d open them up and the suitcases would be packed full of all kinds of meat inside. No-one farmed for the entire war period. There was no agriculture because everyone was  out killing each other.

My grandmother however, had a lovely garden. When the war came, my mother who was very practical, took away all her beautiful roses and flowers and instead, planted tomatoes, green beans, cabbages, carrots. Her garden became a vegetable garden.

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I was inspired by this garden to begin using vegetables for centrepieces in my career as florist to the Spanish royals. Young married girls who want to have a lovely table can, for instance, use a wine coloured centrepiece with red grapes, aubergines and mauve cabbage. Combined with different pinks, it looks lovely. Then the day after your party, you can eat all the vegetables.

I do love to dress tables and to cook but the one time I did not like to be a woman was when I was pregnant with my first child. Pregnancy should be reserved for cows, not for young ladies. I had such a terrible time. I was all the time tired so I began to take my breakfast in bed. My husband, who really was the sweetest man, would bring it to me and I have taken my breakfast in bed ever since.

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Mercedes’ Recipe

Grand Dishes is now crowdfunding with award-winning publisher, Unbound. Help us make Grand Dishes and get this recipe when you pledge to make the Grand Dishes cookbook.