Saturday, 11 July 2009

The food we serve

Catalan tartlet a vegetarian dish with tomatoes, courgettes, onions, capers, raisons and egg.

Last year, we conducted a study of the food that we serve in the hotel, as eaten by our guests for breakfast and evening meal. We wanted to know, in percentages by weight, how much of the food is produced by ourselves, and where the rest of it comes from. It was very pleasing to find that about 30% of the food is produced on the hotel farm. Over 15% of the rest is bought directly from certified-organic local small producers. We bake all our own bread, cakes and desserts from basic ingredients, representing another 20% of the food consumed. We buy about 30% overall from a specialist organic distributor. It’s also worth mentioning that over 98% of all the products used in the hotel restaurant are certified organic.

Freshly baked bread
But what does this mean?
When 30% of the food we use is produced by ourselves, that means a lot of fresh food, so a lot of preparation time in the kitchen – scrubbing, peeling and cutting vegetables and fruit – no ready-prepared packs just waiting to be opened and cooked. It also means the cooking has to be adjusted to what is available and in season. Growing and farming are weather dependent, and however hard we try on the farm, we don’t always get a continual supply of the same food all through the period when the hotel is open. Most of the food is seasonal, and this means that the kitchen has to adapt to what is available from the farm at any particular time of year

Mangetoute peas in the vegetable garden waiting to be picked.

For example, in April there are normally lots of mangetoute peas, then broad-beans in May, an abundance of raspberries and strawberries in June, plenty of beetroots in July, courgettes from July to September, peppers in August, and so it goes on. And it’s not only the vegetables that are seasonal: the chickens lay lots of eggs as the day-length starts increasing in March and April; our lambs are at their best by July, having fattened up on the spring pastures; and then there is the apple harvest in October. True food is seasonal.

Sweet peppers harvested in late summer

Imaginitive cuisine.
When I asked Joe what she thought was the most characteristic thing about the hotel cuisine, she said it is cooking with what is available. This means making the best use of what we have in the vegetable garden at that moment (or what is available from other small producers, or the market, or wherever), and using imagination in the way the food is prepared.

Preparing a "salpicon" salad in the kitchen

Roulades are an excellent example of adapting the dish to what’s available. Roulades can be based on so many different ingredients – such as leaf-beet, leeks, or carrots for savoury roulades – or on soft-fruits for dessert roulades, such as raspberries or strawberries. And when you get a glut of beetroot, for example, it can be roasted with cheese as a vegetable to accompany the main course, or used to make soup, or served in a salad with an orange mayonnaise, or served marinated in honey – and of course in a roulade. It’s all about imagination and creativity, and Joe certainly has those when it comes to food.

Fresh soft fruit dessert

The result is a tasty, varied and healthy cuisine, using lots of fresh produce. It’s often only a couple of hours from the time the food is picked to the time it’s served on your plate.

Picking raspberries in the afternoon ready for the evenings desserts

Local products and varieties.
Is the food we serve typically Spanish? Probably not. But because of our belief in using local varieties and races, the food we serve is based on a lot of genuine Asturian products. We often grow local varieties, and even produce the seeds of some of them so as to help maintain those varieties, as is the case with our onions, dried beans, and maize. Our apples are all Asturian cider-apple varieties. Our lamb is the indigenous Asturian race the “xalda”, now recognized by the slow food movement. Our beef comes from another indigenous breed, the “casin”, or Asturian mountain cow, which we buy direct from a young organic farmer called Angel Merino. Angel grazes his cattle on the Sueve Mountain range just 5 kms from the hotel. We buy a whole cow, which gets sent to the slaughter-house, and then we go to the cutting-house to supervise how it is cut for us and to help pack it. We then have a whole cow, with lots of different cuts of meat, and imagination is needed again to think of ways to prepare the different cuts. Maybe we will serve fillets with a mild “Cabrales” sauce (Cabrales is a local blue cheese), or a stew with peppers and tomatoes, or maybe we will make sausages and serve them with caramelized onions (onions from the vegetable garden of course, and from a variety which has been saved in the village for 40 years now!).

The farm with the Asturian xalda sheep grazing in the orchard planted with Asturian cider apples

One thing is sure – a lot of work, time and effort are put into sourcing, growing, preparing, and cooking the food that we serve in the hotel restaurant. However, to serve food which not only tastes good and is healthy, but embraces our beliefs, respects the environment, and supports local communities, is a reward in itself for us, and hopefully for our guests too.

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Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.