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The controversial history of the Spanish tortilla – and the strict rules for making your own

The humble Spanish tortilla appears to be a simple recipe – an egg and potato omelette, possibly with onion – enjoyed by many holidaymakers, however, new research suggests it has been used by General Francisco Franco for political purposes; as a secret weapon to boost national pride.

Franco’s tourism department has asked hoteliers to avoid serving regional stews because they have strange flavors that might put off tourists and to serve tortillas and other famous Spanish dishes instead.

Franco, who died in 1975 after nearly 40 years as head of state, ordered the Tourism Directorate to ensure that holidaymakers taste only “Spanish dishes”.

“During the Franco dictatorship, the promotion of national cuisine in general was an important part of the nationalization program and was considered an important national symbol,” said researcher María Reyes Baztán.

“His obsession with promoting everything Spanish and purely national made the tortilla one of the most famous and popular dishes in Spanish gastronomy.”

General Francisco Franco Bahamonde circa 1967 (Photo: Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Reyes Baztán, 27, a Spanish PhD student at the University of Warwick, has looked at how the tortilla has been manipulated for political ends since the 19th century in an attempt to promote the image of a united Spain, despite regional conflicts.

His research paper entitled Potatoes and Nation Building: The Case of the Spanish Omeletwas recently published in the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies.

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She argues that a series of influential writers and cooks helped create this image of the omelette as a symbol of Spanish identity.

Emilia Pardo Bazán, an influential Spanish intellectual and writer in the early 20th century, included the tortilla in a series of cookbooks.

“In Bazán’s cookbooks, the tortilla was also used as a tool to nationalize Spanish cuisine,” writes Ms. Reyes Baztán.

Dionisio Pérez, a writer during the earlier dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera between 1923 and 1930, was commissioned to write a cookbook to defend the Spanishness of the omelet against foreign suitors.

“He even claimed that dishes attributed to the French like the omelet or the tortilla francesa were in fact Spanish,” Ms Reyes Baztán said.

She said the connection between politics and the tortilla came to mind during a conversation one night with a friend at college.

The Dos and Don’ts of Making a Tortilla, According to Maria Reyes Baztán

DO: Prepare with eggs, oil (olive or sunflower) and potatoes. Onions are optional

DON’T: Use chorizo, crisps, eggplant, peppers – unless you want to incur the wrath of all Spain

The tortilla, which was originally considered a popular dish until it was adopted by the Spanish middle classes, has sparked a series of controversies.

Most revolve around whether or not to use onions, with purists insisting that no real tortilla should contain those dirty bulbs, while others believe they add a welcome sweetness.

Ferran Adrià, the chef whose El Bulli restaurant was crowned the best in the world five times by Restaurant magazine, scandalized public opinion by using crisps and serving them in a cocktail glass.

Maria Sanahuja, food journalist at Spanish-language daily El Pais, said: “Adria caused a stir because he used crisps that aren’t real potatoes. They just aren’t. It’s like using quinoa in a full English breakfast.

Ms. Sanahuja said that the tortilla is a dish identified with all regions of Spain.

“In contrast, paella originated in Valencia or Alicante, Catalonia is known for a distinctive sausage called butifarra or pan con tomate (bread and tomatoes), Galicia is famous for peppery octopus and the Basque Country is proud of its pintxos – food on sticks. But tortillas are all over Spain,” she said. I.

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