A friend published a post on facebook this week which drew a raft of comments resulting in some gently heated debate. The post was this – “With the exception of tarta de Santiago and bloody turrón, the Spanish are poor on desserts.”
Some people agreed, others, mainly Spanish speakers, didn’t and reeled off a list of Spanish desserts to show how incorrect the statement was. When I saw what was on these lists I was tempted to add “is this list meant to shore up the defence’s argument or strengthen the prosecution’s?”
The list included these – quesadillas de El Hierro, truchas de cabello de ángel o batata, pella de gofio (dulce), frangollo, leche asada, ensaimada mallorquina, torrijas, tortitas de calabaza, yemas, fartons, buñuelos, bollos de anis, arroz con leche, frangollo, mus de gofio, milojas, bienmesabe, polvito Uruguyo, crema Catalana.
I’ve eaten nearly all of these at one time or another. Most aren’t bad, they’re just not particularly interesting or inventive. Because the ‘debate’ was Canary Island based, there are quite a few Canary Island desserts in the list. Take the first, quesadillas. I don’t have to say anything, just look at the picture. If that turns up on your plate for dessert are you really going to get excited about it?
Arroz con leche is basically rice pudding; leche asada is fried milk; pella de gofio is an acquired taste; buñuelos are a bit like doughnuts; polvitos are pulverised biscuits; crema Catalana is the Catalan version of crème brûlée. Like the others mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not a dessert which has me doing cartwheels when it’s the only option on the menu. But I’ll happily eat all of them… in the absence of desserts from other countries.
The issue is not one of whether these Spanish desserts are good or bad in their own right. It’s only by comparison with the desserts of other nationalities that you can really judge just how good a dish is. i.e. frangollo might be the best-tasting dessert some of the folk commenting have tasted, but it’s not the best-tasting dessert I’ve tasted, not by a long shot.
Take ten popular British puddings as an example – jam roly poly; Eton mess; sticky toffee pudding; knickerbocker glory; bread and butter pudding; summer pudding; spotted dick; apple/rhubarb crumble; banoffee pie; and syrup sponge pudding. I have to stop at ten as I’m making myself ravenous, nostalgic hunger welling up like a sweet tsunami. In a face-off between the Spanish desserts and the British puds, the UK puds are going to win every time.
“Of course they are,” you cry. “You’re British and therefore biased.” It’s a fair point, but swap the UK puds for desserts from other countries with a reputation for making tasty puddings (Germany, France, Italy) – lemon meringue pie, cheesecakes, appel strudel, black forest gateau, profiteroles, tiramisu etc. – and the result will still be the same. There is one which would give the non-Spanish desserts a run for their money though, torrijas (similar to French toast). The best torrijas I’ve eaten have been exceptionally good.
I love Spanish cuisine; the top Spanish chefs are the best chefs in the world. I prefer the Spanish approach to eating; give me a lively Spanish restaurant over a stuffy French or British one any day of the week. But when it comes to traditional desserts, they’re simply not the strong point of the country’s cuisine. However, if anyone who has actually tried most of the dishes mentioned still insists they would choose bienmesabe over cheesecake, or crema Catalana over sticky toffee pudding, then fair play.
Who am I kidding? Or, more to the point, who would they be trying to kid? Nobody in their right mind would ever turn down a sticky toffee pudding in favour of a crema Catalana.