There are certain dishes that are synonymous with Spain. And meatballs, or albondigas, is one such meal.
This is a must have meal in a country where the quality of albondigas served to you can vary considerably.
Sometimes a bar will served you meatballs from a tin. Salty, otherwise tasteless, chewy and in some awful sauce.
But when you find an establishment serving you homemade albondigas, you are in for a treat.
The word albondigas hails from the Arabic language and the word al-bunduq, meaning hazlenut. When prepared correctly, the dish has a more Moorish than Spanish taste.
In Mexico i was served albondigas as just one part of soup but, in Spain, it is served as a starter or main meal in itself.
When a neighbour, Maria Luisa, has lots of grandchildren visiting i ask her what she will feed the hungry army. The answer is always the same.
She says: “Albondigas. They love them. I cannot make enough for their mouths. I like them because they are cheap and easy to make. I have been making albondigas since i was girl so i could do it in the dark. You must get the mixture right between the breadcrumbs and meat. I choose the meat i use when at my local butcher shop. She puts the meat through the mincer twice. I never use or eat tinned albondigas. They are not good.”
Maria Louisa once tried to show me how to make magnificent meatballs. But she was so fast i blinked and missed much of the preparation. For a lady in her eighties, she has the fastest working hands i have seen in Spain.
For the sauce she uses fresh tomatoes bought from the local market. She skins, scalds and chops them. I feel sure i saw sherry being used and she throws onion and garlic into the frying pan.
But it was watching her mix the meatballs that was most fascinating. Her hands are deliberately wet when she rolls the meatballs into a uniform size that is perfect for little mouths. She dusts them with flour. Then she fries them carefully making sure they are brown, but not too brown.
She told me: “You must not leave them frying. If someone telephones me or calls at my door they must try again later. I will not leave my albondigas to burn after all the work that goes into making them. I left my granddaughter to watch them once and she didn’t. She watched television instead and when i returned a few minutes later the albondigas were ruined. I had to throw them away and begin all over again.”
For my part, i prefer the albondigas to be served with the sauce on the side. Then you can choose how much you use. The very best albondigas have been made in such a way that they are succulent to taste on their own and you don’t have to dip them into the sauce if you don’t want to.
Like classic dishes the world over, albondigas is a true taste of Spain and memorable for all the right reasons. But only when made by someone who knows what they are doing.
Maria Louisa has promised to give me any leftovers from a forthcoming birthday party. Having tasted her albondigas in the past, i doubt there will be any.