In the early 1980s I lived in the Performance house (my kitchen was in the conservatory over the front porch – now removed, much to my disappointment) on Powis Square, Notting Hill. My first taste of octopus (around that time), was in Galicia towards the top of Portobello Road and on the corner of Goldborne Road. My American friend Erin, took me there specifically for the polbo á feira, boiled octopus, served on sliced potato and liberally sprinkled with pimentón de la Vera. I didn’t realise at the time, as I sat there with the old Spaniards, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, sipping wine and chewing tentacles, but this was my introduction to Spain.
Octopus has remained a firm favourite of mine, so when I came across a recipe for a French octopus pie (Tielle à la Sétoise), I thought, “I must cook that!” From the beginning I thought that the tielle looked remarkably like an empanada de pulpo and I was inclined to believe that the tradition of making octopus pie in Sète must have come from Galician settlers to the town. Mais non! The Tielle à la Sétoise comes from Italian migrants. I looked up a lot of recipes, they all contain tomatoes, some contain sweet red peppers and most contain pimentón or cayenne. The pastry in all of them is quite bread like and very close to empanada pastry. My hypothesis was that the Italian migrants to Sète might have been descendants of Catalans who’d originally migrated to Italy, when two thirds of Italy was ruled by the Kingdom of Aragon back in the 14th and 15th Centuries and later Spain. Having spent a year or so pondering on the origins of Tielle à la Sétoise, I’ve conveniently found an explanation, at the same time as I got round to buying octopus. French Wikipedia states, “Although the migrants from Gaeta imported it (Tielle à la Sétoise) in the 19th century, it can be said that it is derived from the empanadas of Spain. Indeed, the Spanish soldiers controlled the region of Gaete between the 16th and 17th centuries.” The explanation has been within my grasp for some time – I made this tiella with mussels back in September, but didn’t notice the connection (I had octopus empanada at the back of my mind and not tiella). The word tielle comes from tiella – a round pie dish and close cousin to the dish a Paella is made in (also called a paella).
I bought two small octopuses from Steve Hatt, an extremely good fishmonger in Islington. They are fresh Cornish octopus – half the price and size of a large Spanish one, but chopped up in a pie, sucker size doesn’t matter. I’m indebted to Chicago John for the cooking method. Traditionally octopuses were beaten on the rocks and cooked gently for several hours to make them tender. More recently, people have frozen octopus to break down the collagen, in place of pounding, but it still requires long cooking. Cooking the octopus in a pressure cooker, however, will cut the time down considerably to about 15 minutes. Freezing beforehand wouldn’t hurt, but it’s not necessary.
Cooked Octopus recipe:
2 small octopus (650g before they were cleaned)
1 medium onion
6 pieces garlic (peeled and bruised)
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
10 black pepper corns
a dessertspoon sea salt
2 dessertspoons olive oil
water to cover
There’s no need to dip the tentacles in boiling water 3 times to make them curl – this happens regardless in a pressure cooker. Put the lid on, bring to high pressure, then turn the heat down and cook for 15 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally. Allow the octopuses to cool before chopping into bite sized pieces. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, cook the octopus gently (with the above ingredients) for a couple of hours until tender.
Empanada Pastry recipe:
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder (fresh yeast is also common)
125ml olive oil
125ml dry white wine or dry cider (I used Albariño, Galician white wine, but the French might use Muscat de Frontignan)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
375g plain flour
In a large bowl, beat 1 egg and the baking powder with a fork. When this is mixed together add the olive oil, wine and salt, before slowly working in the flour to make a dough. Knead the dough with both hands in/over the bowl. Sprinkle on a little more flour if it is too wet (it should be slightly tacky from the olive oil). Let the dough rest at room temperature in the bowl (covered) for one hour. This pastry is easy to make and stays elastic.
Octopus Empanada recipe:
1 large onion (chopped)
1 pimiento (charred, peeled and chopped) if in doubt use a chopped red pepper
4 large tomatoes (grated) or 2/3rds tin of chopped tomatoes
6 pieces of garlic (finely chopped)
20 good quality large pitted black olives (chopped) – I used Kalamata olives
500g cooked octopus
a squirt of anchovy paste
a dessertspoon tomato purrée
a splash of sherry vinegar
cracked black pepper (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera dulce
1/2 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera picante
a dessertspoon chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
a large glug of olive oil
While the octopuses are cooking and the pastry is resting, burn a red pepper until it is black all over – on a barbecue, under the grill (broiler) or on top of a gas hob. This is a very popular method of preparing red peppers (pimientos) in Spain. When completely black, put the pepper in a paper bag, covered glass bowl or cling film and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. The pimiento will steam in the residual heat and the skin can easily be removed with the fingers or the back of a knife, with a little help from the cold tap. The seeds are removed and the flesh has a sweet and smokey flavour. You can also get these in jars from the supermarket.
Start by making a sofregit (sofrito) – fry the onion in olive oil very slowly, so that it becomes soft and sticky without burning.
When the onion has caramelised, grate in 4 tomatoes – cut them in half, grate the wet side and discard the skin. Stir the tomato in, along with the chopped garlic.
All the remaining ingredients can go in now.
Cook for another five minutes and allow to cool. It occurred to me here that the filling would make a very good pasta sauce.
The vraie (true) tielle sétoise is cooked in a round dish, as are many empanadas, though empanadas can also be rectangular and half moon shaped. Quite a lot of empanadas are cooked on a flat baking tray and the edges are folded up onto the pie lid to seal them.
While the empanada filling cools, divide the pastry in half. Oil a baking dish with a little olive oil. Roll out one half of the pastry to make a base and lay this out on the bottom of a baking dish. Prick the pastry all over and brush on the beaten white of the second egg. Bake the pastry blind in a preheated oven at 200º C for 10 – 15 minutes, until it’s just starting to look biscuity in colour (no baking beans needed).
When the pastry base has cooled, roll out the other half of pastry so it’s ready. Spread the filling out evenly on the base, leaving a 1cm gap all around the edge. I had intended to photograph this, but the filling was reasonably high and gravity was getting in the way. This wasn’t a big cooking problem, but I didn’t want to stand on a chair for 5 minutes, taking pictures and have it all go wrong. Beat the yolk of the second egg, with a few drops of water. Brush egg round the edge of the base, to make it sticky. Lift the pastry lid onto the filling and push it gently all around the edge with your fingers to make it stick. Make a chimney in the centre of the lid, to allow steam to escape. Decorate the pie lid with any scraps of leftover pastry. Brush the top with the egg yolk and water mixture – this will make the pastry brown nicely.
Bake the empanada in a preheated oven at 200º C for for 30 – 45 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Cut the pie into 6 portions and serve with salad and a glass or two of Barbuntín Albariño.
This has crispy, biscuit like pastry, fantastic tender octopus and tastes of smokey pimentón, sticky caramelised onions, sweet pimientos and an umami kick from the olives. I think I could eat octopus empanadas every day for a week! Incidentally, empanada comes from the Spanish verb empanar, which means to wrap or envelope in bread.
Journey to the center of the Galician empanada (in Spanish).