You would think that gazpacho burst into life after Columbus returned from the New World with the glamorous red fruits of the solanum family, tomato and pepper, among his swag – but you would be wrong. The Spanish “salad” soup originated in Andalucía long before Columbus, and it was born of need, as a way of using up surplus old bread by combining it with other everyday ingredients – garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt, plus whatever other vegetables might be available. Only later did tomatoes take the starring role.
To make today’s kitchen gazpacho, you combine chopped tomato, pepper, cucumber, a little onion and plenty of garlic with olive oil and – though this has fallen out of fashion – decent-sized pieces of day-old bread (an older loaf absorbs flavours better). Let these ingredients marry together for a couple of hours before adding sherry vinegar and salt. Then blend while slowly adding more oil, and pass the mixture through a fine sieve. Or not. Some people like to serve it chunky. There are folks who leave out the peppers. Others would rather die than include onion. Occasionally, the dish is garnished with watercress. More usually, it’s a little extra chopped tomato, cucumber or pepper. Or not. Some cooks soak their bread in water as a first step. Others add a pinch of ground cumin right at the end. Then there’s a new wave of chefs making it with melon instead of tomatoes, or sharp-tasting green apples.
But that’s gazpacho for you. There are as many variations as there are households, and every one is authentic. If you are travelling around Spain, each bowl you eat will offer a snapshot of the region you are visiting – its history, geography and weather.
It’s easy to fiddle around with the recipe, but to elevate gazpacho to world-class levels you need a good gardener more than you need a chef; what matters most is the quality of the raw material. And to make it really sing, you need one final ingredient: heat. Gazpacho can be delicious served in the evening, at home or in a restaurant. But gulped down in the middle of the day under the glare of the Spanish sun, when you are parched and tired, it is an elixir from the gods.