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Tuesday 14 October 2008

Terrazzo and Tortilla

When I first went to Spain in the early seventies, I remembered my Italian grandmother. This was sparked off by a combination of smells. It took me some time to work out just what it was: a sofrito of garlic and olive oil and tomatoes – and bleach. Spanish women used a lot of bleach (and sometimes something they called aguafuerte, literally strongwater - diluted hydrochloric acid). When I was very young I used to watch my grandmother washing the terrazzo floors – I thought of them as ‘mosaic floors’ and as a small child I’d watch the mosaic ‘pop’ back to colour: red, green, a deep pink and what I’d now call French blue.

So much of our memory is made up of smells. Rather stronger than Proust’s in my case but the same principle. The best smells come from cooking.

In The Maze of Cadiz (due out on November 13th) Peter Cotton arrives in Spain in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and gets a real taste of the poverty the country is experiencing. His first decent meal is tortilla with Serrano ham. Comforting, satisfying, simple food that has become chic with time.

Here is how I have always made tortilla de patatas (after watching my Spanish friends in action and eating the results). It’s similar to the frittata my grandmother used to make. But this will give you a taste and a smell of Cotton’s Spain:

  • ½ kilo of potatoes - waxy, salad potatoes are best for texture and flavour and hold together well. Never use floury baking potatoes. They definitely do not work. (I tried this once when I didn’t have any others and, although it tasted ok, it was a soggy mess.)
  • 1 small onion - or even better, several spring onions
  • 4 eggs
  • some good quality olive oil
  • a little salt and black pepper.


  • non-stick frying pan
  • a slice or wooden spatula
  • a large plate for turning the tortilla


  • Peel the potatoes and cut into cubes or small slices about a third of an inch thick.
  • Peel and chop the onions. If you are using spring onions, keep the finely chopped green part to one side.
  • Heat some oil in a non-stick frying pan - enough just to cover the potatoes.
  • Add the potatoes and fry gently, stirring and turning occasionally until they are nearly cooked.
  • Add the onion and continue cooking until the onions are soft and the potatoes are cooked but only just beginning to take colour.
  • Remove the potatoes and onion from the pan. Drain well and put them into a bowl. Add salt and black pepper to taste.
  • Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt, and add to the potatoes and onion mixture in the bowl.
  • Add the chopped green part of the spring onions and mix well.

To make the tortilla

  • Drain the oil from the pan and wipe out with kitchen paper to ensure a smooth surface.
  • Add some oil and swirl around the pan over the heat to coat the surface – better a little more than a little less oil, as you can always drain it off when the tortilla is cooked.
  • When the oil is hot but not quite smoking, add the tortilla mixture and tilt the pan to spread evenly. Shake the pan from time to time, until the tortilla moves freely.
  • Turn the heat down low (to avoid the surface from becoming burnt or too brown) and continue cooking, shaking from time to time, until it is nearly set.
  • Place a plate over the pan and invert so that the tortilla is now turned over on the plate.
  • Add a touch more oil to the pan if necessary and heat before carefully sliding the tortilla in, to cook the other side. Use the spatula or the slice to press in and shape the tortilla neatly around the edges.
  • Turn the heat right down again and leave until the tortilla is cooked through.
  • Slide on to a fresh plate and leave to cool for a while before cutting – either into wedges or into squares if serving as a tapa.
  • Serve with mayonnaise

Tortilla is good to eat hot or cold, but never put it in the fridge. My Spanish friends disagree about whether it is more authentic with or without onion. I prefer it with. You can also add chopped green or red pepper when frying the onions and/or some chopped chorizo.

A different, equally delicious tortilla can be made substituting the traditional potato mix with aubergines, garlic and onions (add some courgettes and a little green pepper too if you like). This is good served with a fresh tomato sauce.

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