[Curator's note: It's the too-fast yeast and preservatives U.S. breadmakers use. The hyperactive yeasts make bread go stale almost instantly, and the preservatives mean bread stays spongy and awful right until it turns moldy. Much of southern Europe--Tuscany and on down in Italy; all of Greece--has a tradition of using stale bread, I'd bet because the dry climate discourages mold. I wrote a column on one of the most famous of these, the Tuscan bread, tomato, and cucumber salad panzanella--make it before the hard frosts! And I mentioned there a book worth seeking out, Gwenyth Bassetti's Cooking With Artisan Bread, which largely focused on the tradition of cooking with stale bread. She knew, having started one of the country's most successful artisan bakeries, Grand Central in Seattle and Portland.]
There is also a certain psychological obstacle. Since the great hygiene campaigns of the 1950s at the dawn of our hyper-consumerist age, most Americans have a deeply ingrained aversion to letting foodstuffs get old or stale. In Spain, land of cured meats, aged cheeses, and stale bread, that's not an issue.
The fact is that in any kitchen in Spain you will find a basket of old bread, which is later destined to all kinds of uses. It serves to thicken sauces and give consistency to soups, both hot ones like sopa castellana and cold ones like gazpacho. Soaked in a little water it becomes the base for dips and spreads like salmorejo, and soaked in milk it becomes the base for torrijas or bread pudding. Why buy breadcrumbs when you can just grate a chunk of old bread? Why buy croutons when you can fry up little chunks of old bread? And then there are several traditional dishes in which old bread is the star of the show. Fresh bread won't work for these dishes; it has to be stale.
Migas are perhaps the apotheosis of old bread. The name literally means "crumbs," and that's pretty much what it is. This is humble food, food of poor shepherds in the dry hills of Extremadura, food which in Madrid is remembered with a mixture of rue and nostalgia as the hardscrabble fare of the hungry years after the Civil War. In those years it gave new life to the stale butt of bread, the last rind of ham, whatever fragments of chorizo or panceta might found. Of course what goes around comes around, and the generation which has grown up in the abundance of the last 30 years is rediscovering the charm of their grandparents' survival rations. Migas now appear on the menu of chic tapas bars all over the country. There are thousands of variations, but here's the basic idea:
• 500g of stale white bread (the denser and more uniform the texture of the bread, the better)
• Olive oil
• 6 to 8 cloves of garlic
• One small Spanish chorizo or chistorra
• Two thick strips of bacon
• Pimentón (Spanish paprika: sweet or hot)