Ajo Blanco looks and tastes greater than the sum of its parts: white garlic and blanched almonds, together with day-old bread, extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar. Whizz. Thin with ice-cold water. Season with salt – that’s it.
Sensationally simple. A recipe as old as the Moorish occupation of Andalucía, although apparently rooted deeper – without the almonds – in Roman times.
My first attempt, however, sloshes out a skinny-dipping cold soup. Pretty in colour, but the grapes that are supposed to garnish it with grace and sophisitcation … sink without a trace.
Less haste, more speed. And I need to ditch the 600ml of water.
Luckily, Ajo Blanco (local to Málaga and Granada) has a string of sibling soups, all of which belong to the Gazpacho family.*
Moorish Mazamorra (of Córdoba) is almost the same as Ajo Blanco, but uses less water (and in some recipes, more bread). We loved it when we were there – a rich, creamy intensity of almonds and garlic.
That’s the soup I want, so I try again, ably assisted by my young technicians – who shift my camera to include a blurred tin of La Dalia pimentón (which sadly has no place in this recipe).
The texture is better – thicker and creamier, if not as silky smooth as the soup we savoured in Córdoba. It’s full-bodied, so I serve it in shot glasses and one small ramekin. A soupçon.
I choose two different garnishes: almonds, black olives and egg on one, and grapes on the other (more usually an Ajo Blanco adornment).
And right at the end I can’t resist an unorthodox sprinkle of pimentón.
Each casa, tapas bar and restaurant in Andalucía will have its own way of making Mazamorra or Ajo Blanco, but here’s how I make mine:
200g sourdough, soaked in a little water (pan de pueblo when in Spain – village bread)
50g blanched almonds
200ml extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
salt to taste
Traditionally a pestle and mortar are used, but I opt for the lazy blender route. It’s best to blitz the garlic first if you do the same. Simply add the almonds and bread, and mix until a paste forms. Then slowly pour in the oil whilst blending, and don’t forget the vinegar. Some recipes specify the amount of water, but I just put in as much as seems good to me. Chill for a couple of hours, let the flavours form, then garnish as you wish.
*The Gazpacho Family
Every family has a history …
I’ve already mentioned the Romans and their nutritious basic soup of bread, salt and vinegar, to which garlic and olive oil were added over time. Then the Moors (8th – 15th centuries) brought almond trees, and the cold soup evolved into Ajo Blanco and Mazamorra.
Christopher Columbus’ New World discoveries of tomatoes and bell peppers were eventually used to colour the soup. Today, the famous red-chilled Gazpacho bears the generic name of all the cold soup siblings:
- Salmorejo is a Córdoban soup like Mazamorra, which uses tomatoes instead of almonds (traditionally topped with jamón and eggs).
- Porra Antequerana (of Antequera) is like Salmorejo but takes more bread (adorn with jamón, eggs or tuna) .
- Further North you can taste Ajo Blanco Extremeño (from Extremadura).
- In Granada, Ajo Blanco is eaten with a potato.
- Sopa de Ajo is another relative found all over Spain, but originally from Castille.
The regional varieties (and their garnishes) are probably endless, and are slightly confusing. I had to map out the extent of my knowledge to make sense of it. Don’t click – I’m afraid it’s not interactive – but hopefully you get the gist.
These soups are humble in origin. Using cheap, readily available ingredients (stale bread, olive oil and garlic), people would add whatever fruit was to hand (almonds, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers), and create a simple dish which filled, sustained and refreshed them as they toiled in vineyards or olive groves under the scorching Spanish sun.
Nowadays they are enjoyed by rich and poor alike; by top chefs seeking to innovate and ordinary people wanting a familiar dose of flavoursome, good food.