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Forget what you know: This is gazpacho

The Spanish classic is ripe for variation. But first you have to understand it.

August 13, 2003|Leslie Brenner | Special to The Times

When late summer's harvest gives us ripe, juicy tomatoes, thoughts turn naturally to gazpacho. Festive and flavorful, it's August's marvelous scarlet liquid salad.

Yet somehow, over time, what began as one of Spain's great gifts to the world's culinary repertoire has become a sort of anything-goes, toss-it-all-into-the-blender affair. An authentic gazpacho is as delicious as paella, and far easier to reproduce. Sadly, more often than not in the hands of American cooks, it's a chunky, insipid puree that can only be rescued by the addition of more tomato juice.

Real gazpacho -- that is, tomato gazpacho made from the traditional ingredients used in Seville, capital of the cold soup -- is one of those simple, perfect dishes in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It has deep tomato flavor, sure, but never uses canned juice: Gazpacho demands only the ripest tomatoes. But underneath that, it's got body and bite, which come from the bread and garlic that are its base. It's got a little zing -- that's from Sherry vinegar. And it's got soul, which comes from good, fruity olive oil. Get the balance right, and you've got a dream of a summer soup.

Once you understand what defines gazpacho, then you can play, add garnishes, experiment.

It may come as a surprise that the tomatoey salad-soup that we all know and love has origins that have nothing to do with tomatoes.

In fact, gazpacho predates the 16th century arrival of tomatoes (and peppers) in Europe; most culinary historians say that its roots go back to Islamic Spain, sometime between the 8th and 13th centuries. According to Clara Maria G. de Amezua, an authority on Spanish cuisine and founder of the Alambique cooking school in Madrid, gazpacho dates back to the 7th century.

In those days, garlic, salt and bread were pounded in a mortar-like vessel called a dornillo; vinegar and olive oil were then beaten in. The thick soup that resulted has much in common with sopa de ajo, a traditional hot soup that is still eaten in much of Spain, as well as ajo blanco, the cold soup from Malaga also known as "gazpacho blanco," or white gazpacho.

Once Columbus brought back tomatoes and peppers from the New World, these were added to gazpacho, along with cucumber. The result is the marvelous cold soup that reaches its apogee in the restaurants and homes of Seville, where it's served with a variety of garnishes, including finely chopped green pepper, cucumber, green onions, hard-boiled eggs and toasted (or dried or fried) bread cubes. It's no accident that tomato gazpacho happened in Seville: According to De Amezua, the vegetables that Columbus brought spread through Spain via Seville.

It all begins with bread

Although there is debate among linguists as to the derivation of the word "gazpacho," the most widely accepted explanation is that of Spanish philologist Juan Corominas, who suggests the origin is the pre-Roman Mozarab word caspa, meaning "fragments" or "flakes," as in small pieces of bread.

"A gazpacho is not a gazpacho without bread," says Anya von Bremzen, a cookbook author and expert on the cooking of Spain. In her upcoming book, "The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes" (HarperCollins, February 2004), she offers a traditional, Seville-style gazpacho -- using bread, of course. "And it has to have cubes of fried bread as a garnish," she adds. It has to? "Well, no," she concedes. "But they're awfully good."

Hmmm. So those cold, chunky pureed soups made from all the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions you can stuff in the blender aren't exactly gazpacho. And tomato juice or V8 juice? Banish the thought. Watermelon gazpacho? It may be good (or maybe not), but in any case, gazpacho it ain't.

Olive oil and vinegar, on the other hand, are essential; De Amezua calls them "the secret of a good gazpacho." And apparently she isn't the only one in Spain who thinks so: A Spanish saying counsels, "With a bad vinegar and a worse oil, a good gazpacho cannot be made."

This holds as true for the red gazpacho that's so celebrated in Seville as it does for ajo blanco, the "white gazpacho" of Malaga. In this version, garlic and salt are pounded together with bread and almonds, along with good Sherry vinegar and olive oil. In the summer, green grapes are added as a garnish; some cooks also add grapes into the puree. In spring, chunks of melon or apple might substitute as the garnish.

Gazpacho's ability to refresh is important -- it's more than coincidence that Andalusia, the region that invented it, is known for its hot summers. Vinegar was known to the Romans for its restorative properties, and that may be one reason its presence in the soup has stood the test of time. In Seville's tapas bars, gazpacho is often served in tumblers, as a drink; trendier restaurants there present it in shot glasses.

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