Recently I came across a list of culinary specialities of Villalonga town, and I wondered how and when and, more importantly, where among the eating places in town one could sample them. On that list was Blat Picat. Serendipitously, that was precisely what was on offer for lunch at La Llacuna’s Hotel Bonestar the other day. What exactly is Blat Picat?
Blat Picat is literally ‘pounded wheat’ (pounded = Valenciano picat, Castellano picado; wheat = Valenciano blat, Castellano trigo). Rather unusual for Spain, this dish from the La Safor region of Valencia and northern Alicante features cracked wheat instead of rice. Blat Picat is a hearty stew cooked long and slowly over very low heat, and as with all stews, the longer it cooks, the better it gets. As with all traditional country dishes that for centuries have sustained poor, hard-working folk, preparing it is rather laborious. Whole wheat grains with their hulls intact are soaked overnight to hydrate, then pounded in a mortar the following day to be dehulled, leaving just the cracked wheat berries. (How curious — to call wheat grain a berry.) The grains then undergo long, slow cooking until they are soft, about 2 hours.
What else goes into Blat Picat? The version served at Hotel Bonestar (in La Llacuna, near Villalonga) is one that has been made in the proprietress’s family over generations. It is a simple and unsophisticated dish, she explained, but it needs cooking over several days. Other people add all sorts of fancy elaborations, she continued, waving a hand to denote neighbouring Alicante. But the authentic original dish, as cooked in my family, she said, was of the humblest, simplest ingredients. Whatever one had on hand or stored from the home garden’s harvest went into it. Of course besides the wheat grains, in go an onion, a handful or two of chickpeas, a cardoon or two, carrots, a tomato, a pig’s trotter or tail, saffron, salt, and olive oil. Her preference when cooking traditional dishes is to remain faithful to the way her mother and grandmother prepared them. Hotel Bonestar’s Blat Picat is a very thick stew — as thick as porridge — and the grains have the satisfying texture and flavour of pearl barley. It is very much a dish that a grandmother would have prepared — hearty, nourishing, wholesome. Just the ticket for a cold day.
Blat Picat is rarely to be found in the well-known coastal cities, such as Denia or Benidorm, Gandia or Oliva. Nothing in it comes from the sea, besides salt. Blat Picat hails from the mountains of the interior, where winters are harsh and often snowy, a fact which comes as a surprise to many. This winter has seen weeks of torrential rain and freezing winds, hailstorms, thunderstorms, and more than 10 centimeters of snow in the mountains. But all these are considered blessings after several continuous years of drought in the La Safor region.
In northern Alicante, just a few meters beyond the mountain range that divides it from the La Safor region of Valencia province, the essential elements of Blat Picat are (besides cracked wheat) — chickpeas, white (navy) beans, cardoon stalks, carrots, turnips, tomatoes, blanquet (clove- and fennel-flavoured sausage or white bottifarra), and saffron. With its diverse charcuterie, Alicante-style Blat Picat is decidedly upscale, a far cry from the plebeian version I sampled. And rather than being simply called Blat Picat, it is referred to as Olleta de Blat Picat (‘Little Pot of Pounded Wheat’).
It is not inconceivable that Blat Picat is a throwback to a dish made centuries ago by moriscos or marranos (Moorish or Jewish converts to Christianity) dish. As Claudia Roden mentions in her book, The Food of Spain, many dishes regarded as traditionally Spanish are in fact Jewish or Moorish in origin. The small amount of pork added to a dish is a telling factor. To allay suspicious neighbours, marranos and moriscos would often serve their food with a small but visible amount of pork, later to be retrieved untouched. By 1609 however, most moriscos, as had the marranos before them in 1492, had been expelled (according to the official historical record, that is. But could there have been a possibility of not a few who had evaded expulsion?).
Blat picat is remarkably similar to contemporary slow- and lovingly cooked stews made elsewhere based on local grains and legumes, such as hamin or adafina for Sephardic Jews, prepared on the day prior to the Sabbath, and Moroccan hergma (chickpeas with lamb or calf or goat trotters), or even French cassoulet and Portuguese/Brazilian feijoada. When I mentioned to Hotel Bonestar’s proprietress that there seemed to be an influence of morisco cuisine in the cumin used to flavour Blat Picat, she agreed most readily. (Historically, Villalonga was a morisco village, as are neighbouring villages whose names begin with the syllables ‘al’ or ‘ben’.)
If you’d like to taste Blat Picat and other Villalonga specialty dishes such as Arros al Forn (Baked Rice) and Coques Escaldades (literally ‘scalded cakes’, but more like griddle-made flat breads), come to the 9th annual Villalonga Blat Picat Gastronomic Festival (Fira Gastronomica) on 4 – 5 March. The official opening is at 11 am on Saturday the 4th, with lunch from 1 pm (purchase tickets beforehand). Lots of related events are on throughout Saturday and Sunday: a competition for the best Blat Picat; local foodstuffs on sale; games and activities for children; displays of local crafts, and live music. Check out the schedule (in Valenciano) of what’s on here. The Gastronomic Festival closes on Sunday evening. Below is a recipe for Blat Picat.
Like all humble dishes, Blat Picat develops its full flavour not through costly ingredients but with the expenditure of time — lots of it — and effort. It needs to be prepared at the very least 24 hours before serving. The principal cast, as it were, of grains, chickpeas, and meat can be made way in advance, frozen, and thawed when needed. The supporting cast of vegetables can then be added an hour or so before serving. Ingredients marked ‘optional’ are those found in Alicante recipes. The dish I ate at Hotel Bonestar did not include these. There is really no hard and fast rule as to what goes into a Blat Picat. Each cook makes do with what is in the pantry or home garden, or follows what his or her family has always done. As long as the base of cracked wheat and chickpeas are present, you may add whatever winter vegetable is in season.
Ingredients (To serve 4)
250 grams unhulled wheat grains (alternatively wheatberries or cracked wheat), soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed.
150 grams dried chickpeas (garbanzos), soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed (alternatively 150 grams of prepared bottled, canned, or frozen chickpeas)
100 grams white (navy) beans, soaked in cold water overnight, drained, and rinsed (optional). (Alternatively 100 grams prepared bottled or canned white beans.)
4 (or more) tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
250 grams pig’s trotter, tail, or ribs
150 grams white sausage (blanquet, a clove-flavoured sausage; or onion-flavoured white bottifarra, sliced (optional); or 5 cloves (optional)
4 rashers smoked country bacon (pancetta), diced (optional)
2 dried sweet peppers (ñoras, stems and seeds removed), sautéed in oil and pureed, or 1 teaspoon unsmoked paprika
200 grams winter squash, cubed (optional)
2 carrots, peeled and cubed
1 large tomato, diced
1 cardoon stalk, rubbed with lemon juice and salt, washed, and sliced into bite-size lengths
2 small white radishes or turnips, peeled and cubed
12 strands saffron, soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water (or white wine, if preferred)
1 – 2 tablespoons (or to taste) ground cumin
1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)
salt to taste
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
¼ head small cabbage or 6 chard leaves, sliced in bite-sized pieces (optional)
Pound the wheat grains in a mortar to separate the hulls, rinse, and put in a heavy-bottomed pot with enough water to cover the grains. (Wheatberries and cracked wheat are ready to as is, simply rinse.)
Bring the grains to a boil then lower the heat to simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours, or until the grains are tender. Set aside, reserving the cooking liquid.
In a separate pot, put chickpeas with enough water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender. Drain but reserve the cooking liquid, let cool, then remove the seed coatings. Set aside. Do the same with the white beans, if using.
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil and sweat the onions until softened.
Add the pork, preserved meats if using, and the pureed ñora peppers or paprika, and the rest of the vegetables (except for the potatoes and cabbage or chard), the saffron with its soaking water (or wine), and spices.
Add the grains and chickpeas, stirring gently with a wooden spoon to prevent mashing the ingredients.
Add just enough of the cooking liquid from the wheat to come approximately two-thirds up the ingredients. (The consistency of this dish, in the style of Villalonga, is more like a porridge. It should not be soupy. You can adjust the consistency later by adding some of the cooking liquid from the grains or chickpeas, or water, if you find that it is too thick. You can always add more liquid, but it will be difficult to make it thicker without resorting to using additional ingredients.)
Bring all to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, until the vegetables are tender.
Taste, then add more salt or spices if needed. The preserved meats (if used) may be sufficiently salty.
Half an hour before serving, add the potatoes and cook until tender.
Add the cabbage or chard, if using, and cook for 10 – 15 minutes or until tender.
Serve piping hot in a large bowl, making sure that the meat and vegetables are distributed evenly among the servings.
Another way of serving this is puchero-style: that is, the grains and chickpeas as a first course, followed by the meat and vegetables as the main course.
As it is rather heavy, no accompanying side dish is served with Blat Picat.