This is a standalone introduction to five or six planned posts from our recent road trip across Spain. Think of it as background colour.
Maybe it’s my time of life. Maybe it’s this entire Brexit farrago: but recently I have been reflecting on what it means to be the son of a European immigrant. And the older I get, the more I realise how deeply my ideas about food have been shaped by my Spanish ancestry.
There’s nothing unusual about that, of course: we are all somewhere on the perpetuate-reject spectrum with our early experiences of cooking. But it was certainly a point of difference, what we ate: my primary school classmates with their individual M&S trifles, their Cadbury chocolate mini rolls, their white bread sandwiches; me with my tortilla de patatas or my lentil stew with whole cloves of garlic (perversely, I craved the former; I didn’t want to stand out).
The groundwork was done at home. I have my mother to thank for that. But it wasn’t just what we ate. It was how we ate- and still eat to this day, often sharing from a huge central dish. There may be pieces of slow cooked pork with apples and sweet onion, or a mound of rice with chorizo and peppers, or an ensalada rusa, or pinchos moruno, or lentejas caseras, or croquetas flecked with ham or chicken and tarragon; and of course the Christmas turrón Jijona, that sticky, sweet, nutty, chewy treat.
And through this, I absorbed certain values and ideals too.
But it was on Spanish soil that it all made sense. Although I spent only a fraction of my childhood there, it left its mark. It strikes me that comparatively short stays in central and northern Spain imprinted so many memories on me, a process which wielded a brush with vivid strokes. It was an immersion course in another gastronomic language.
Cooking from scratch? That’ll be my mum.
Shopping for fresh ingredients just before you cook? That’ll be my Abuelita.
Thinking it’s unremarkable to drive a couple of hours ‘just’ for a meal? That’s my Tío Angel, who- in a subtly life-changing moment- showed me the long road winding into Segovia and told me how busy they get with Madrilenos intent on finding cochinillo. Put it like this: when we did the traditional ‘what did you do in the summer’ thing when we started school in Year 3, I was the only one who had ‘I ate snails’ on my list.
It took me many years to get used to this British idea of ‘tapas’, or of a ‘tapas restaurant’, as something which involves sitting down at your destination and leaving £40 lighter. It seemed to bear little resemblance to what I knew: that drinking and eating go hand in hand, part of a regular rhythm of life which includes the whole family, that over the course of an evening’s stroll you might head for six or seven or nine places, each with their own speciality, an essentially peripatetic exercise.
‘Tapas’ means standing at a counter in a shaded bar, your foot up on the rail; it means Kas Naranja and Fanta Limón for the children, a cana or a tinto for the adults. It means hospitality, largesse. Sharing. I see lomo and gambas. I see meijillones and jamón serrano. Boquerones. Chupito, hanging jamónes; cocktail stick-speared pulpo and a simple squeeze of lemon over a plate of calamares. It means being fascinated with those mottled purple-black things moving languidly in that tank in the bar opposite the entrance to my Abuelita’s block of flats on Valladolid’s Plaza Circular.
I have written at length before about this stuff, about the hardwired memories around food which still exert such a pull. Spain only seemed to register with people around me as a holiday destination, but our Spain was a world away from straw donkeys and sangria and swerving ‘that greasy foreign muck’ in favour of fish and chips on the Costa del Sol, or Fawlty Towers’ Manuel (Indians who sigh inwardly at another Apu Nahasapeemapetilon impression- I feel your frustration).
When I think of Spain, I see…
I see my Grandfather with his ever-present tinted glasses and his black beret, coming in from a busy day doing the rounds of the bars he owned, breathing a benevolent fug of cigarette smoke and vino tinto as he hugged us. I see him set up on an outside table with his friends and his beloved dominoes. I see him pouring me vino con gas at the dinner table when I was aged 7, as good a place as any to learn about alcohol. I recall the slight rasp from Tió Felix’ cheek when he hugged me, perpetually and amiably half-cut, or Abuelita frying off huge portions of hake or chicken or veal escalope for lunch, her appearance never less than immaculate. To this day, the waft of garlic in hot olive oil filling a house is still one of the most evocative smells on earth.
(It wasn’t all beer and skittles: I can still recall, far too easily, the profound unease the ten-year-old me felt in that crowd, watching the Semana Santa procession in Valladolid: the masked capirones bearing a life sized (and worryingly realistic) paso of the crucified Christ, a rictus of agony contorting his pierced and bleeding form. This wasn’t a sanitised Hollywood Jesus, blondly handsome, but a sallow-skinned man somehow forever frozen in his moment of doubt and pain, and still suffering now. There’s a hush- thousands are silent as the drum beats its dolorous rhythm; and the flickering torchlight seems to bring shadows to life and heap fresh agonies on his broken body.)
I see the glint of Tió Angel’s gold tooth (how I wished my incisor would fall out and I’d be allowed a similar replacement) as he laughingly shows me how to extract all the best bits out of shellfish. (To this day, anyone who eats prawns with me and doesn’t suck the head is dead to me. Dead.) I see el porron and Chupa Chups and hear the crunch of pipas shells underfoot.
Why this, now? Well, I’ve not long returned from a week driving and eating across northern and central Spain; and while you can find any number of greedy guiris recalling what they ate on their holidays, hopefully, this will be something different. A rationale, a manifesto, a sense of identity underpinning it all. ‘This time- it’s personal.’
Starting at Bilbao and working our way across to Asturias, then around in a huge loop to San Sebastian (Donostia), we will feast on classic Castilian roasts; visit everything from city to hamlet, from world-famous kitchens to hidden treasures to side street bars; eat like locals and pay homage to memories and ideals. We will work to a tight schedule; we (or rather P) will drive it all, as some of our destinations are remote. Above all, it will give me fresh memories to cherish: and isn’t that the point of any trip?
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.