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The great gazpacho

I wonder whether the title of a well-known dish should be used to name other recipes which have little to do with the original? I also frequently ask myself why, regardless of the time of year, we insist on including dishes which only really taste best when the main ingredients are in season.

Both concerns are applicable to one of the very few Spanish dishes with an international identity – gazpacho.

Many recipes try emulating the gazpacho, but there is much more to this dish than appears at a quick glance or taste.

El gazpacho is an Andulusian vegetable soup without equal. It should have a balanced flavour and be of a consistency, neither thick nor thin, so that it can be eaten with a spoon.

Gazpacho is not just one formula dish, several interpretations exist. The Castilian word gazpacho encompasses a number of different recipes, often identified by a regional name. However, it always consists of five basic ingredients: the “Gang of Five” – garlic, bread, olive oil, wine vinegar, and sea salt.

On the other hand, in the plural, the word gazpachos refers to hot winter dishes traditionally prepared on the plains by the shepherds of central Spain, using small game and a type of flat bread.

Returning to el gazpacho, the Andalusian vegetable soup, its origins probably lie in an old peasant recipe from the Iberian inhabitants prior to the invasion of the Moors in 711, which was based on the primitive combination – ajo-aceite (olive oil and garlic).

Some food historians believe its origins cross paths with a Moorish dish, alboronia, although I have my doubts. As I understand, alboronia is a vegetable salad similar to the Spanish pisto or the French ratatouille: in essence, a cooked sauce, not an uncooked soup.

The reason for the divergence of the recipe is that el gazpacho has incorporated at different times through history new ingredients, particularly vegetables.

To track how this multi-faceted dish evolved, it is possible to make a distinction between old and new versions of gazpacho according to the ingredients introduced into Spain after America was discovered in 1492. Tomatoes and peppers fall into the latter category.

Indeed, all sorts of different ingredients can be used in gazpacho so long as the Gang of Five has been included.

White gazpacho, as prepared in Granada, incorporates broad beans. Red gazpacho, or gazpacho andaluz, is made with tomatoes and peppers.

In some cases, other interpretations of this traditional dish will get their names from a particular ingredient. For example, in Màlaga a white gazpacho made with almonds and garnished with grapes is called ajo blanco; in Cïrdoba, salmorejo is the only gazpacho where eggs replace water.

El ajo colorado, a speciality of the province of Almerça, lists among its ingredients boiled potatoes, and the ajo blanco granadino from Granada uses boiled potatoes as a garnish.

Among the long list of ingredients accepted by those who respect gazpacho true to its original form are fresh fruit – grapes, pears, melons, and apples, mainly used as garnishes for the soup.

Dried fruit, such as pine kernels and almonds, are main ingredients of several of the other traditional versions of gazpacho.

In addition to the Gang of Five, the dish accommodates cucumber and the onion in moderation. It is delicious when made with lettuce and endive, and works well with the flavours of fresh mint, parsley, and coriander.

Animal protein – milk or eggs – can be used in a gazpacho as is the case with the salmorejo version.

However, gazpacho made with peppers, tomatoes, and a quality white bread without the crust, is a must.

When it comes to spices, only cumin and a dash of freshly ground pepper are accepted as authentic additions.

A controversial soup

Gazpacho is a dish which always provides controversy among food writers. The disagreement centres on whether hot versions can be regarded as a true gazpacho, or if the word only refers to cold specialities. What if it incorporates cooked ingredients or hot additions as garnishes?

Some believe anything goes as long as it includes the Gang of Five.

Once more, my vote goes to the purists. As far as I’m concerned, el gazpacho is a cold soup of various consistencies, flavours, and textures, which I believe hates extremes of temperatures.

Back to basics

But back to the essential ingredients of the gazpacho padre – the father gazpacho, as it is called.

  • GARLIC – Without ajo you cannot make gazpacho. Garlic is the beginning of the process: start by rubbing garlic in the mortar before adding any other ingredient. A word of caution, however – too much garlic will ruin your gazpacho.

  • BREAD – With the introduction to Spain of the multi-national hypermarkets and their tasteless “squares”, real bread could soon become a thing of the past.

What a shame for a nation which historically enjoyed excellent bread made with can deal or triticum aestivum wheat. This is the traditional white bread used for gazpacho.

For years I believed stale bread soaked in water was the best, but I was wrong. If you have the chance of baking a hogaza (the Castilian name for a round white loaf with a serious crust and a light centre), or you have a good baker, use fresh bread for gazpacho. It produces far superior results.

Stale bread was traditionally used because of the modest pedigree of this dish. It was the only treat of the poor in an area of Spain which historically suffered, for all the wrong reasons, from hunger.

Andulusia was the granary of the Roman Empire. Peasant families could only afford to bake twice or three times a week so bread, even if it was stale, could not be wasted.

  • OLIVE OIL – I have tasted excellent gazpacho prepared with all kinds of olive oils, yet have to confess that unfiltered virgin olive oils from Andulusia add to its unique character. Look for the Baena and Sierra del Segura denomination of origin labels.

  • WINE VINEGAR – A true gazpacho needs vinegar, it cannot be substituted by lemon juice. Sherry vinegar from the towns of Jerez, Puerto de Santa Marça, and Sanlócar de Barrameda in the province of Càdiz are the most exciting.

Due to the incredible concentration of the best brands (they are dark in colour, with an aroma similar to oloroso sherry) use it drop by drop, with tastings in between until the gazpacho achieves the fine balance of flavour.

  • SALT – Use sea salt (the man traditionally in charge of the daily gazpacho making in the Andalusian fields came from the sea-salt pans in San Fernando, in the province of Càdiz).

Into the 20th century

Today, the sound of the pestle rings in memory of Andalusians who have been pounding tomatoes, peppers, or almonds in marble or stone mortars since time immemorial.

Yet the gazpacho has survived even though the stone implements have been replaced by the electric blender.

I have enjoyed delicious gazpacho prepared in the blender, but always using ingredients faithful to what the traditional method of pounding set out to achieve.

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