A Hearty Bean Stew From the Spanish Highlands


Juan Alcón

To try a traditional recipe for olla podrida, a Spanish bean stew with pork, click here, or click here to view a slide show of the dish being prepared.

Rotten pot. Not an altogether appealing name for this traditional Castilian bean stew, but what it lacks in elegance it makes up for with nourishing comfort. Nearly every region of Spain has its own take on beans-plus-meat: hearty food for damp winters and hard work. In Burgos, it's called olla podrida. "Lots of calories, cheap. Each region according to what grows there. Kept you warm: if you had money, with more meat, if you didn't, without." An incontrovertible analysis by Amaia—economist, feminist, and activist—standing in her parent's kitchen in front of a heap of pork ribs.

Amaia has invited a crowd of friends from Madrid to her family's home in Burgos for a long weekend, and is preparing this local specialty in quantity while the rest of the gang plays cards in the living room. Gales of laughter reach the kitchen. Amaia has a practical, no-fuss attitude towards the process: in minutes she has unwrapped and dispatched all the ingredients. Beans, water, ribs, and chorizo go into the pot, with a whole onion simply cut in half, a few cloves of garlic, and some salt. That's it. We have to take our pictures quickly before the pressure cooker is sealed.

"I'm afraid none of this is very authentic" she says. "I did buy the beans at the farmer's market, but the rest is all from the supermarket." The beans are what give the dish its particular local character: they are alubias de Ibeas, a dark purplish-red bean particular to Burgos, which Amaia has soaked in cold water overnight. After soaking, the bean is a brilliant mauve, and the water blood-red.

"Olla podrida is a regional classic. Everything is pork: ribs, chorizo, morcilla. It's what people had in the villages. Even the poorest people had at least a pig, and they did the matanza at home." Matanza is a festive day in the early winter when pigs are slaughtered and neighbors come together to process the meat, making all manner of sausages that could be cured and kept all year, a tradition made more difficult by EU slaughtering regulations. "Any other kind of meat you had to buy, and nobody had money. In the villages you used whatever you had."

In the villages of Burgos, that was pork and beans. Other parts of Spain might have verdant gardens and mild climate, but in the heart of the Castilian highlands the winters are freezing and the summers a dry blaze. It is hard country: both agriculturally and ideologically unforgiving. The villages are huddled clusters of adobe, and references to El Cid, legendary strong arm of the reconquista, are rampant, as if he had galloped through in a cloud of dust and religious fanaticism just days ago.

Amaia counts out two ribs per person, plus half a chorizo. Tomorrow she will add the morcilla, or blood sausage, the crowning glory of the stew, just before serving. "In Spain there a thousand different kinds of morcilla, each one a little different, but the ones from Burgos are especially famous. So much so that if you say you're from Burgos people say 'Ah, like the morcilla,' which is kind of annoying. The morcillas from Leon are sweet, with raisins and pine nuts, the ones from Granada are made with lots of spices ... here no, it's really simple, I don't know why it's so good."

The pressure cooker goes on the flame for some 40 minutes, until the beans are soft, then the whole thing is left to sit overnight. The next day, before serving, Amaia adds a few whole morcillas and boils off whatever liquid remains. The result is inexplicably divine, silencing our gregarious gaggle of friends into reverent concentration.

Olla podrida is a local food to fit this hard landscape: heavy, serious, no frills. But not without a special grace, perhaps derived from its very simplicity. Would it be blasphemous to compare these beans to the Romanesque churches of the area? They are somber, unadorned stone naves that somehow achieve a luminous, transcendental quality, which all the baroque frippery of later centuries never equals.

Recipe: Olla Podrida (Bean Stew From Burgos, Spain)