In 1835, during the Carlist uprising in Spain, the rebels laid seige to Bilbao. One day during the siege, the Carlist commander, General Tomas de Zumalacarregui y de Imaz, was passing a farmhouse and demanded that the farmer’s wife prepare him something to eat. All the woman had were some eggs, a potato and an onion, but she managed to rustle up what became a classic:
Cut some potatoes into thick slices, and roughly chop up an onion.
Heat a good dose of olive oil in a large frying pan, then gently fry the potatoes and onion until soft. Drain off the oil.
Beat the eggs and stir them into the potatoes and onion, and season. Heat some of the reserved oil in another pan, and tip everything into it, shaping it all into a cushion shape with a spatula.
When almost set, slide the omelette onto a plate, turn it over, and return to the pan. Repeat this a few times until ready.
So delighted was the general with the result that he ordered the army caterers to make tortilla de patatas – what we call Spanish omelette – a standard part of the men’s rations. So goes the story. In fact, the earliest description of the dish predates the Siege of Bilbao by a couple of decades.
How Not to Fry an Egg
Hannah Glasse, the anonymous author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by a Lady, decried the French method of frying eggs:
I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs, when, everybody who understands cooking knows that half a pound is enough.
She goes on to include a recipe on ‘How to roast a pound of butter.’ Mrs Glasse had no great admiration for French cuisine: after giving detailed instructions on ‘the French way of dressing patridges’, she concludes, ‘This dish I do not recommend; for I think it an odd jumble of trash.’ One of her more exotic recipes was for ‘Icing a Great Cake Another Way’, which involved the use of ambergris, a waxy and highly perfumed secretion from the intestinal tract of the sperm whale. Incidentally, the Chinese, who sprinkled ambergris into their tea, called the substance ‘flavor of dragon’s saliva’.)
(Source: A Curious History of Food and Drink by Ian Crofton)
Recipe for Potato Omelet (tortilla de patatas)
- 250 g new or waxy potatoes, peeled and cut in 1.5 cm dice
- 300 ml olive oil
- 1 medium onion, peeled, halved and sliced thinly (optional)
- 6 large eggs
Dry the potatoes on a tea towel or some kitchen paper as soon as you have diced them. Heat the oil in a smallish non-stick frying pan large enough to contain all the ingredients (I use one with a 16 cm diameter base) over a medium heat and put in the potatoes and the onion, if using. Cook over a low heat, with the lid on, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes feel tender when you prick them with the point of a knife. Do not let them color. Move them occasionally with a fork. Then drain in a colander, keeping the oil for another time. Spread the potatoes and the onion, if using, on kitchen paper paper and sprinkle lightly with salt.
In a bowl, beat the eggs lightly with a fork, adding a little salt. Add the potatoes and the onion, if using, and mix gently.
Pour 1 tablespoon of the drained oil back into the frying pan and heat until it almost begins to smoke. Pour in the egg and potato mixture, and turn down the heat to low. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes until the eggs set at the bottom, shaking the pan occasionally with a gentle circular motion so that the omelet doesn’t stick. Place a slightly concave lid larger than the pan on top and flip the pan over quickly, inverting the omelet on to the lid. Pour another tablespoon of the oil into the frying pan over a high heat, then slide the omelet gently back into the pan, uncooked side down, and lower the heat. Cook for 2 minutes more until only just set. Run a wooden spoon round the edge of the omelet to give it a tidy look and turn out.
Serve it warm or at room temperature.
(Recipe Source: The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden)