En España – Holy week is heavenly for food

Published 11:59 pm Friday, July 10, 2009

I’ve been absent from these pages for awhile mostly due to being limited in my travel and my parents’ thorough coverage of India last year. However, I had the good fortune to visit Spain in April. As a treat for the intensive study for my medical board exams, the day after my test, I flew to Barcelona. When I left North Carolina, it was sunny and spring-like. When I arrived at what I thought would be a temperate Mediterranean city, it was cold, rainy and dreary. But unlike most spring-breakers who seek out hot spots for sun and surf, I was in Spain for the food, the drink and the art.

Spain is well known for its tapas culture. Couples, groups and families go out to eat, meet and snack on small plates with the requisite glass of rioja or cava (Spanish sparkling white wine, e.g. “champagne”). The only drawback to being a solo traveler is a relative lack of camaraderie at meals. The advantage to eating with others when trying new cuisine is sharing. As one person, I can only order so much. However, unlike China, where I was often turned away from restaurants because they didn’t understand that a person would want to or could eat alone, I was one of the throng at the warm, boisterous tapas bars.

Regardless of the ambiance or my table for one status, the food was lovely. I ate jamon (ham) at almost every meal. They often qualified the savory salted pork as “acorn fed” because that was the food of choice for the yummy little piggies in which I indulged. I love my cured meats. Besides the soft, melt in your mouth jamon that I relished, I tried to branch out and try things that I would not normally eat or could not get back home. My last night in Barcelona was finally sunny and pleasant, so I splashed out by eating outdoors. There was no beautiful sunset on which to gaze at the outdoor table because, as you may have heard, the Spaniards are late eaters.

On this particular musky Mediterranean night, I was eating outside, enjoying a glass of the house white, at a restaurant with the main cathedral of Barcelona in front of it. The old stone plaza was clinking with the quick walks of French holiday making teenagers, the easy swish of the Barcelonians out on the town, and randomly, marbles strewn from an unseen stranger from the angled, ancient cobble alley from behind the church.

I ordered a variety of tapas because as a rule follower, I believed I had to order at least three as the menu deemed outdoor diners must. I had some chorizo, a spicy sausage, which was, this night, merely adequate. My first night in Barcelona however, I went to a cava (champagne) bar that boasted a deal of a 2 Euro (~$3.50) glass of cava and 1 tapas included. So, I had my glass of cava and then perused the offerings. Unlike fat averse America where we are still fatter than everyone in the world while buying lean cuisines, the Spanish enjoy their lipids. They use olive oil so much that at a chain sandwich shop at which I dined one afternoon in Valencia, they had tiny 3 ml bottles of olive oil on the table like we have sugar packets in tubs at restaurants. The key of course, is portions, though I am no master of that. At the cava bar, the proprietor scooped up the hardened fat off the chaffing dish with a spoon and put it on top of the chorizo. I was horrified until I was served the chorizo piping hot with a side of bread. I slid my crusty bread around the orangey spicy, now liquid, fat with zeal and it and the chorizo were delicious.

Though that last Barcelona evening’s chorizo was not as good as the first, I did try some bacalo, dried salted cod, in fried balls as well as some fresh fish. The fresh cod was drizzled in olive oil and white vinegar and while not my favorite dish, was piquant and interesting. I had various and sundry other tapas that night but what stands out in my mind is actually the simple tomato bread that they served. Counter to most American restaurants that give you bread sticks or rolls free, European restaurants tend to offer appetizers that you have to pay for but if you are not savy seem gratis. While I know this, I allowed myself to be served the tomato bread and I am glad I did. It was mild, pleasant and smoky from the grill; a lovely little thing to nosh while people watching and sipping wine.

I moved on from Barcelona and enjoyed sunny beautiful days at the dramatic Arts and Sciences complex in Valencia, blue skies and fragrant flowers at the Alhambra in Granada and then made my way to Sevilla, expecting it to be an enchanting city from the Middle Ages. Due to the confluence of illness, holy week, heat and hunger, Sevilla was horrible. I arrived by train from Granada around 4 in the afternoon and having read my guide book assiduously, got the appropriate bus and was duly enjoying the novelty of the city.

All told, seven or so hours after I left Granada, I was able to lay my bags down and set off unlabored into the Sevillian streets in search of food and holy entertainment.

I had read about the small establishments that sold montaditos (another kind of tapas) and I hunted them down. Along the way, I was amused by the holy week processions and stopped to take some pictures while I enjoyed the sunshine.

Because so many wonderful things I had in Spain were grilled and this is the season, I thought it apt to offer the simplest of grilled dishes. If you are familiar with Italian bruschetta, this is similar but without all of the mess of toppings. Tomato bread is a simple start to lots of meals and would be a nice accompaniment to grilled seasonal veggies, fish, chicken or virtually anything. Grilled shrimp (gambas a la plancha) is a quintessential Spanish dish and would go well with this and can undoubtedly be found in a variety of cookbooks and websites. The essence of this dish is vibrant products and some hot coals.

Pan Con Tomate (Spanish Tomato Bread)

1 loaf crusty bread

1-2 cloves garlic

1 juicy ripe tomato

Salt and pepper

Good quality (extra virgin) olive oil

Heat your grill (outdoor is eminently preferable), broil or toast. The bread can be anything you like but French bread, an Italian loaf, ciabatta, or something in that range is perfect. Slice about ½ inch thick. If using a crusty French bread loaf, this dish isn’t meant to be too crunchy. Cut thinly and diagonal so that you have a lot more white middle part than you do crust. If you are using a ciabatta-like roll, slice horizontally with the same principle, more middle than crust.

When the grill is heated, grill bread until toasted, but not crunchy, on both sides. Taking a garlic clove from a head (don’t use anything prepackaged or from a jar), smash the shell with the flat side of a large knife and peel. Rub the smashed clove over the bread slices. Drizzle good tasty olive oil over the slices and sprinkle salt and black pepper as desired. The tomato is a crucial part of this dish; use a fresh, ripe summer tomato, not one of those things you buy in sanitized clear plastic containers. Take advantage of your neighbors, your garden or road-side stands for the freshest. Cut the tomato in half and squeeze while rubbing the tomato over toasted bread slices so that the pulp saturates the bread (use the meat of the tomato for other purposes). Divertirse (Enjoy)!