St. George, the patron saint of England, whose plucky, dragon-slaying derring-do is taken as emblematic of the English spirit, far from being a native of the British Isles, or for that matter, far from ever having come close to visiting them, was actually an adventurous squire of the modern-day country of Georgia who lived around the third century AD.
In a similar vein, Spain’s national icon, the highly venerated black Madonna of Guadalupe, to whom thousands flock annually, was unlikely to have been a Christian and there is some doubt that she was a virgin either. The Moorish legend of a saintly maiden who performed miracles of healing with the water from a spring concealed by a thicket of trees in the wilds of the remote region of Extremadura was popular in Spain from around the ninth century. The water source, Wadi Lubim, meaning hidden waters in Arabic, became corrupted over the centuries by Spanish tongues into Guadalupe and the miracles of the so-called maiden conflated with the holy miracles of the Virgin Mary. In this way, the symbol of the Virgin Mary with Moorish features became Santa Maria de Guadelupe, and her shrine can be visited today in the province of Caceres.
The veneration of the Black Madonna in the New World and Caceres’ possession of some of the grandest mansions erected by returning Conquistadores is no coincidence. In fact, almost perfect balance is achieved through the legend of the virgin appearing in the form of an Aztec teenager to conquistador Juan Diego in 1531 demanding that he persuade the Bishop of New Spain to build a cathedral on that spot. Another so-called Black Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe became the patron saint of Mexico during the same period in which the plunder of riches from the conquered Aztecs was paying for the construction of ostentatious palaces in a provincial sun-baked town.
Moorish influence remains as evident in Spanish cookery as the impact of the age of exploration and the conquest of the New World. The Moorish introduction of citrus, saffron, cumin and rice to Spain and the introduction from Mexico of peppers, tomatoes, beans, potatoes and corn fundamentally shaped the flavors and preparations we instinctively associate with Spanish cookery and that differentiate it from the cuisine of anywhere else.
One of the most ubiquitous and well-loved tapas menu items at tascas throughout Spain, pincho moruno, or Moorish kebab, might be the dish in which the Moorish and Mexican influences on Spanish cuisine are best demonstrated. Traditionally made with chunks of marinated pork grilled over coals it persists as an echo of the North African lamb brochette, adjusted to ignore halal and accommodate the Iberian obsession with pork. The hearty seasoning of cumin and hot or sweet pimenton, garlic and thyme pairs two of the most emblematic spices of the Moors and of Mexico.
In many parts of Castilla la Mancha and Extremadura, if you order pincho moruno in a tapas bar, you’ll be asked “sin o’ con?” (with or without), referring to the level of spiciness you’d like in your kebabs. A typical order would be “dos sin, tres con” (two mild, three spicy), the latter having been marinated in spicy paprika. In yet another example of Mexican influence on the most Spanish of things, it was in the monasteries around the Extremaduran town of La Vera where the first peppers brought from the New World were planted. Indeed, pimenton de la Vera remains the gold standard among Spanish pimentons.
Dryness is a frequent problem with grilled pork, even if it has been afforded a lengthy bath in an olive oil based marinade. Grilled lamb doesn’t usually have this problem due to its higher fat content, but the flare-ups that dripping grease provokes can give the meat an acrid, bitter taste. Seeking to mitigate both these problems, we traded the typical pork shoulder chunks for strips of luscious pork belly, and the grill for a ridged griddle pan. We also used soaked bamboo skewers instead of metal ones to add even more moisture to the equation. The result: moist, delicious meat with the crispy edges synonymous with grilled food but without the burnt flavor.
Far be it for us to tamper with such a time-honored recipe, but given pincho moruno’s adoptionist history of accommodating such a variety of influences, the upgrade from shoulder to belly probably isn’t that big an issue even for traditionalists. That said, perhaps in several hundred years, food historians of the future researching a fundamental step change in the preparation of this dish may happen upon these web pages in some dusty, forgotten corner of the internet and find that it all began here. It can’t be any less likely that a rogue wanderer’s preposterous claims to having defeated a mighty dragon resulting in 60 million souls in a far-away nation devoting themselves to your legend, can it?
serves 2 as a main, 4 as a tapa
- 1-1.5lbs (about 3/4kilo) fresh pork belly, cut into slim slices.
- 6-10 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 healthy teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon sweet or hot Spanish pimenton
- 1/2 teaspoon dry thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- a couple of good jiggers of olive oil to coat
- (optional) a splash or more of Spanish sherry vinegar
Note: you’ll also need about 10 pre-soaked bamboo skewers.
- Heat a griddle pan or grill to medium high, not screaming hot as pork belly will burn
- Brush off most of the garlic from the meat and load skewers so they’re tightly packed
- Cook, turning every couple of minutes, until skewers are brown and crispy on all sides. 8-10 mins total per skewer.
- Allow meat to rest for up to five minutes, as it will setup and be easier to get off the skewer after this
- Serve with patatas bravas or other typical tapas and plenty of inexpensive red wine.