Sunday, January 17, 2010

Posts from a Spanish Diary: #5 La Comida

I am often asked, with wide eyes and drool already welling, what sorts of things I ate while in Spain. Video montages of a food tour through Europe are playing before the inquirer's eyes before I've gotten a chance to answer.

The rural Spanish, like many rural dwellers around the globe, are still closely tied to their land. This being so, one country's cultural outpourings will have wide variances depending on the specific regions' own natural bounties. Sheep, goat, olives, rice, almonds, oranges, tiger nuts, chickens, squid, and pigs abounded in my region of Spain. I love to say "my region" as if I own some of the spirit of it. I do feel a little like a fraud but I have grown attached to that land. The fresh, local farmers markets had wonderful produce to choose from and the few local home-made Spanish meals I had were adventures in new tastes and sights and smells.

But take a second and think about the typical countries that come to mind when you think of cuisine. At least for me, Italy and France are immediate. Spain wouldn't necessarily have jumped in there with those giants of food perfection. The preparation, the presentation, the almost haute-couture idea of food is associated with, well, other countries. Spain, Spain just seems to slip through with winners every now and again. Now, I have to say, I love this about Spain. When they do whip out the winners, they are strong enough to contend with any. But, in keeping with the Spanish attitude, they are content to be casual in most things, including their food. There are three phrases I think all Spanish have as mantras, "whats the rush?", "tomorrow!", and "siesta!" I met very few Spaniards who seemed overly concerned, anxious, or competitive. If put to the test, sure they could blow you away, but they know that and so on a normal day, why the fuss? Why not just a damn fine bocadillo?

Our casual dining experiences were not varied. No matter where we went, there were the same variations on the theme. The bars, or we would call them cafes, all served a few tapas behind a glass. Most had squid, a variation on egg salad (that one took me a while to figure out), sausages in a liquid of some sort, blanched almonds, olives (of course), and maybe some clams or another variation on a liquidy/mayo salad with unidentifiable lumps. Frittatas are another choice, made with egg and plenty of potato. This, of course, you would get with bread and beer. Keep in mind that none had labels, let alone labels in English, unless I was closer to a city. There, the bars would usually have something in English. My favorite was one touting "Home-made cooking, regional especialites, varied dishes, especial menu for pilgrims". Not that English menus were really that great ... to not even try didn't seem to fit with the spirit of travel and sometimes they were more mysterious than the Spanish ...

Bocadillos were a staple. Manolo's Bar, about 10 minutes from Seth's, served some of the best. Bocadillos are sandwiches or paninis. They are served with anything you want inside but don't over do it. The bread is the best part. "Un bocadillo con pollo, queso, tomatae, y lechuga, por favor," I would rattle off, trying to sound casual as I listed more ingredients than others usually do. Type of cheese or chicken or seasoning? Don't worry, you won't have to make that many choices, plus they wouldn't have stuck around to listen regardless. Bread, toast, french fries, beer, and any other high carb menu item are found a plenty.

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