I’ve been working on a new cookbook featuring almond milk, and one of the first ideas that came to mind was ajo blanco, a traditional Spanish cold soup made with almonds, garlic, stale bread and milk. Its roots are somewhere in the 8th century, when the Arabs conquered Spain and brought their highly civilized culture to the Iberian Peninsula. They introduced arts, sciences, mathematics, algebra, and their sophisticated cuisine, along with a great variety of foods, including exotic spices and almonds. It was Arabic cooks who first had envisioned cold soups and other cold foods. The English word “sherbet” comes from the Arabic sharbat, a chilled infusion of rose petals, hibiscus flowers, or fruits.
Ajo Blanco (“white garlic”) is utterly simple, yet its flavor and texture (not to mention its temperature on hot days) are profoundly gratifying. The preparation is so easy. First, day-old crustless bread is soaked in water to soften it. While it soaks, blanched almonds are pounded in a mortar with garlic and salt until a smooth paste forms. Then the softened bread is ground in, and water is added to create the soup. Most recipes also include milk, which is where I substituted with unsweetened almond milk. Once the soup base is smooth, olive oil is beaten in, followed by red wine vinegar (I prefer the mellow flavor of aged sherry vinegar). Once the soup has chilled, it’s served in a wide bowl, garnished with toasted sliced almonds and a flourish of olive oil, and accompanied with green grapes. The soup itself is delicious, but the combination of the garlic-infused, slightly tangy almond cream, the crunch of toasted almonds, and explosions of fresh green grapes is spectacular.
I had heard of ajo blanco many years ago, but because it had been referred to as “white gazpacho,” I thought it a travesty (I was an avowed gazpacho lover). Little did I know that it was in fact the original gazpacho, the precursor, and that the more familiar tomato-based one came upon the scene many centuries later, when returning Spanish conquerors brought New World ingredients home, among them tomatoes and peppers. After learning to make this light, velvety-rich delicacy, I was instantly converted, and I’ve been an avid fan ever since.