BARCELONA, SPAIN — The word "gazpacho" is used colloquially by some in the south of Spain to mean roughly the same as hotchpotch, mishmash, or concoction.
Those are all pretty good descriptions of the dish gazpacho, the famed cold soup from Andalusia. There is no single recipe for gazpacho, but the classic ingredients include bread, tomatoes, garlic, green peppers, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and often onion and cucumber.
Almost anything goes. With endless variations, choices are personal, and more often than not reflect what is found in the refrigerator. "If you have more or less of the ingredients, and you grind them up," my mother-in-law in Barcelona told me, "you can call it gazpacho."
In one Andalusian village, people may make it with cucumber, in another with lemon and no vinegar. Another may use fresh mint, while the next uses mint as well as hard-boiled egg, vinegar, and rabbit liver.
Perhaps the only two obligatory ingredients are oil and bread. But even bread can be omitted if you want to make more of a drinking gazpacho. My wife, Eva, and I sometimes make a big breadless batch in the summer and leave it in the refrigerator in pitchers to drink from glasses like a hearty juice.
According to "Larousse Gastronomique," the authoritative culinary encyclopedia, the word gazpacho comes from the Arabic meaning "soaked bread." Not everyone, though, agrees with such straightforward etymology. Food scholar Clifford Wright, in his referential tome on the histories of Mediterranean cuisines, "A Mediterranean Feast," says that etymologists believe it comes from the word "carpa," meaning "residue" or "fragments" and borrowed from the Mozarabs (Christians who lived under Muslim rule in Spain). It may even be a pre-Roman Iberian word modified by Arabic.
The history of the word can be debated, but the roots of the dish are clearly Arabic.
Arabs invaded Spain in 711, and within 10 years controlled most of the peninsula. Muslim Spain was called al-Andalus, an entity that shrank southward over 800 years as the Moors (as the Muslim invaders were called) gradually lost more and more territory. The last Moorish city, Granada, was finally taken, and the long Christian Reconquista complete, in January of that auspicious year 1492.
Al-Andalus was the most sophisticated place in medieval Europe, rival to Constantinople and Baghdad, a meeting point between the Orient and Occident, where important advances in mathematics, medicine, and agriculture took place, and great works of art and philosophy were created.
The lasting influence on the culture of Spain, especially in Andalusia, where the Moors ruled longest, runs deep in the architecture, art, poetry, music, dance, language, design, and of course, food.
The Arabs instituted the combining of sweet and savory (say, meat dishes with raisins and pine nuts) and the pounding of ingredients to form pastes. They encouraged the use of spices and even defined an order of eating in courses (ending with dessert) instead of simply piling everything onto one plate. (This didn't catch on in the central and eastern parts of the Islamic world.) And, of course, many new foods were introduced, as is so clearly reflected in the Spanish words for these new items. The Spanish arroz (rice) comes from the Arabic arruz, azafrán (saffron) from za'faran, azúcar (sugar) from az-zukker, limón (lemon) from laymun, naranja (orange) from naranya, and so on.
The Arab version of gazpacho used bread, almonds, garlic, salt, olive oil, and vinegar. No tomatoes or peppers, of course. These are New World foods, incorporated once Spanish exploration of the Americas brought them to Andalusian ports.
Ajo Blanco is a modern version that keeps to the spirit of the original, forgoing tomatoes and peppers and using almonds. This white gazpacho is now generally linked to the coastal city of Malaga and incorporates fresh green grapes. The sweet tang of the grapes counters the bite of garlic, and the delicate nuggets are a surprising contrast to the cream purée.
One technique I learned from Raimundo Fernández Rodríquez, owner of the Mesón Don Raimundo, a restaurant in Sevilla that specializes in Mozarab cuisine, is to soak the ground almonds in milk before adding them to the paste. This increases the creaminess of the almonds and gives the gazpacho an even silkier texture.
During the summer, when the heat swells in our Barcelona flat, we prepare gazpacho frequently. It doesn't replace a first or second course. Its role on the Spanish table is akin to salad, which is always served after the main course.
The Ajo Blanco we eat at home might be similar to what the Moors consumed in their ornately decorated, honey-hued buildings during the suffocatingly hot summers in al-Andalus but thanks to modern refrigeration, it's even more refreshing.
1 cup almonds, blanched in water for 1 minute
1/2 cup milk
6 ounces (about 4 thick slices) hearty country-style bread, crust removed
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
4 cups ice water
1/2 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup green grapes
Blanch almonds and remove skin. (It comes off easily after blanching, but for convenience buy skinned almonds.) Grind almonds slightly with mortar and pestle, or chop coarsely and place in a bowl. Cover with the milk (use more than 1/2 cup if needed to cover), and let soak overnight or as long as possible.
Tear bread (without crust) into chunks, cover with water, and then squeeze it out. (Do this immediately if the bread is fresh. If it is old and hard, which is preferable, allow it to soak for about 10 minutes.)
In a food processor, blend almonds with milk, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, ice water, cucumber, and grapes to a fine paste. Add half the bread and keep blending. Add remaining bread and blend again until smooth.
Strain or press through a sieve, and refrigerate until chilled thoroughly. Serve in bowls garnished with a bunch of grapes on the side, and toss a few quartered grapes into each bowl.