We spent a few days in my favourite city on the planet this summer, San Sebastian (how can you not love a city where one of the main forms of transport is the skateboard!), where we discovered the finest tapa known to man. It was just behind surfy-cool Gros beach, which to my mind is far more interesting that it’s posh, famous cousin, La Concha, on the other side of the old town…
So to this mighty tapa, so good it has won it’s own award… It’s a sort of crepey/potatoey bacalao (fresh cod) warm, pickled-peppery sandwitch type colllection of several mouthfuls of bliss, covered in a buttery sauce. How’s that for a description!
I think you’ll just have to go and try it yourself, acutally, at only 2 Euros a go, you can try two! It’s at Pagadi, which is hidden down a little alley with a couple of other wonderful real-Gros-barrio-bars, about two and a half blocks back from the sea just off Birmingham Kalea (it’s marked on this map). If you’re looking for the ‘real’ San Sebastian, this is it!
One small problem, I can’t remember exactly what this tapa was called – but they only have two which involve bacalao, and this is the one that won the award! Try the calamaris too – wow…
If they are going to enjoy 3 hour lunches, I am going to enjoy 3 hour lunches. If they are going to invite me out for a two hour coffee, I am going to go and enjoy the amazing flavors, the conversation and getting to know my new friends. By the way, I LOVE the fact that I never feel rushed in a restaurant. Contrast that with NYC and the pressure to “turn” the tables and as a customer, you will pick the Spanish way every time. Also, here you are able to get away with leaving “cheap” tips (the norm). Try that in NYC and see what kind of service you get.
I also love not being turned off a table once the meal is finished, even an hour after the meal has finsihed! Though I have to confess that it still makes the Brit in me nervous deep inside (“I’ve finished, I better go, they might want the table for someone else!”)
Meanwhile, some cool Spain links worth checking out:
My thoughts below were inspired by a tremendous talk by Jamie Oliver at TED this week, if you have 20 minutes please watch it (below). It’s moving to see so much passion. His fight is against obesity, and to bring real food back into our lives, and it certainly got me thinking about what’s going on here in Spain too (my thoughts follow):
I wonder what happened to the Mediterranean diet? I was out eating some delicious Spanish tapas with friends recently – huevos rotos (fried eggs on fried potatoes), albondigas (meatballs), and chorizo, when one of us pointed out, “this food isn’t healthy, look at it! It’s pure meat and grease!” I suppose the glass of red wine counted for something…
I have no facts and figures, but there is a lot of embutido (cured pig products, jamon etc) and meat eaten in restaurants here in Spain these days, and not always a lot of attention paid to vegetables.
Still, I’m not sure it’s a huge problem yet. Good food still flourishes in good homes. But look at this report from 2008:
In Spain nearly two children out of every ten are obese which is nearly double the number compared to 20 years ago. This places Spain in third place after the US and the United Kingdom in terms of child obesity according to the International Association for Obesity.
Like everywhere else in the modern world, life in Spain is speeding up. There is more to do, and less time to do it in. Less time for boring incoveniences like cooking good food.
I love the way the Spanish can talk for hours about food during a meal. It drove me mad for the first few years of meals with the in-laws, but now I relish the passion behind conversations about where, for example, to eat the best gambas in Madrid, or why everyone ate so many garbanzos in the 50′s and 60′s, and just how good they were.
But you only have to go into a supermarket, or walk down the high street, to see the same packaged foods, and the same fast-food outlets, that you find everywhere else in the world these days.
I hope there is still a chance for the future of real, home-cooked food in Spain. The increase in obesity in kids here makes it easy to presume that things don’t look good for the Mediterranean diet. I wonder what’s going on?
As I said above it’s moving to see so much passion from jamie Oliver, and his fight against obesity, his dream to bring real food back into our lives, but I think it’s more than just about food. Food is just one aspect of a better life we are losing.
We don’t just need to eat better, we need to slooooooooooow down, stop rushing rushing rushing, striving striving striving, and enjoy the good things – like good healthy food – in life again.
And Spain still has all the traditional values deeply ingrained enough to spearhead a return to that good life.
Let’s forget the Mediteranean diet.
How about going deeper still, and championing an entire Mediterranean Lifestyle again, before it too is lost forever in the running-running, rushing-rushing, hustling, bustling reality of our consumer-driven, TV-iPad-iPod-BMW-loving, fast-city-living, world.
What do you think? Do you see any chance for the concept of a ‘Mediterranean Lifestyle’ that includes that famous diet everyone is so fond of talking about?
I just popped out to a favourite local bar, where my favourite barman, super-friendly, 50-ish, thick white hair and humour as dry as a brick, brings in his home-made tortilla every day.
‘Un pincho de tortilla’, I said, ‘but don’t heat it up, I’ll have it just as it is’.
I’m not fond of microwaved tortilla, so usually add this specific request.
‘Si si,’ he replied, followed by some incomprehensible mumbles, and two minutes later, I was presented with an enormous slab of steaming microwaved Tortilla.
Damn. At this point it dawns on me that the mumbles I’d missed in his earlier reply must have been something like ‘Si si,…but you can’t eat it cold, it’s much better heated up.’ Subtext: you don’t know what’s good for you, I’ll bring you your tortilla how you really want it, piping reheated-hot!
Now, if I was Spanish enough, I would a) have complained at this point and demanded what I’d asked for, namely cold tortilla, and I suppose b) understood what he’d mumbled in the first place! I like to convince myself that after 11 years I’m pretty much 99% bilingual in terms of understanding spoken Spanish, but this guy’s mumbles cause me no end of trouble!
The real issue here though, is the incredibly well-intentioned ‘you don’t know what’s good for you’ subtext that led to the hot tortilla (which was very nice in the end, of course). It happened earlier in the year when I was in the same bar with my father.
Dad wanted a ham and cheese bocata (roll). ‘Una bocata de jamon iberico con queso manchego’, I asked my white-haired mumbling barman friend.
‘Ha, yeah, right!’ he answered, with a look of wry disbelief on his face, ‘Jamon iberico and cheese in the same peice of bread? Are you mad? Jamon York and cheese yes, but certainly not Iberico! There are some things you just don’t do!’
‘Errr, a jamon iberico bocata and a seperate plate of manchego cheese then?’ I ventured nervously…
‘Asi es, now you’re talking,’ he smiled, and that, of course, is what we ended up with.
The universe could rest in peace, things had been restored to how they should be. Iberian ham and manchego cheese together, yet separate, como Dios manda.
If I was just a little bit more Spanish after all these years of concerted effort, I would have know that in the first place!
If only all restaurants in Spain were like this! It is classic (hasn’t changed in decades – neither have the waiters, who, by the way, are friendly!), opens at 11 am, and is non-smoking!
What this means it that we can go there with our baby and eat with him before 1pm! Seeing as he has a siesta at 2pm, there is practically no other restaurant in Spain we can eat lunch at these days – oh, and all the others are mostly smoky too, so 100 more points to Asturian Cider House ExtraordinaireCasa Mingo for keeping the nicotine out as well.
(Meanwhile, here’s an amusing article in El Mundo where bar and restaurant owners weep for their certain future of economic ruin if the Health Minister continues with her evil plans to remove smoking from every bar and restaurant in Spain: ‘Nos arruinan a todos’. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think every bar and restaurant in the UK, France, Italy etc went to the wall when smoking was banned there!)
Anyway, this isn’t meant to be another anti-smoking post, just a message from a parent thankful to have a clean atmosphere to take his son out to an early lunch in – “Ole por Casa Mingo!”
Let’s stick with eating and drinking, and look at another reason why Spain is great/the Spanish are great.
There is something wonderful about going out to a bar or restaurant with friends, and ordering a few different plates of ‘raciones‘. Like a larger version of tapas, raciones, as you probably know, are just a big plate of only one thing – jamon, calamares, cheese, gambas (pictured above)…. and the idea is to order a few of these and share them.
Everyone picks a bit from one plate, a bit from another, and keeps eating until there’s no need to order any more as everyone is full and contented.
I’ve known non-Spaniards, including myself at the beginning of my time in Spain, to be perplexed by this, even to feel exceedingly anxious in fact at this whole concept – some people just want to have their own plate of food without anyone else attacking it… that way you know just how much you are getting, and no-one is going to start stealing it from you!
How nice it is when you get over that attitude, and really really start to share, without a single worry about whether the person sitting opposite you is going to have one more croqueta than you, one more bit of finest jamon… I have to confess that even now, the selfish Brit in me still has his eye on that last croqueta, occasionally feeling pained to see it open to the table… It’s something I’m working hard on!
But the sharing doesn’t stop with the actual food, it carries on into that nightmare of nightmares in many cultures… the division of the bill.
Amongst the Spaniards I have met, one of two things will happen.
1) There is an almighty argument about who should have the pleasure of paying the entire amount, to invitar everyone else – this can go on for up to 5 or 10 minutes, getting fairly aggressive, until one party gives way, and either the bill is paid by just one of the party who is delighted to treat the rest, or…:
2) The bill is shared equally amongst those present, no matter what anyone had to eat or drink! There is none of the famous ‘who had the prawns’ careful analysis of every single thing that every single person ate, it’s just “it’s 40 Euros, there’s four of us, so 10 each” – end of story.
Occasionally someone will arrive very late and eat much less, in which case they’ll be either be paid for by everyone else, or will put in a token amount, but the rest will always be split, evenly, without a hint of fuss. It is a quite enormous relief and saves an untold amount of stress.
So here’s to complete, relaxed, contented sharing! Food, bills, wine, good times… just another reason why Spain is so extraordinarily great!
I was recently asked just what was so great about Spain, so I’ve decided to dedicate a mini-series this summer to answering just that question. First up, the honesty system…
It never ceases to amaze your average Brit that you can walk into most bars in Spain, order as much as you like to eat and drink, and pay nothing until you are about to leave when, quite often, the barman will ask you to remind him what you had!
Clearly there is massive room for abuse here. Had 5 cañas one night but only want to admit to 4? The worn out guy in the sweat-stained shirt who’s been working since 7 am isn’t going to notice… but as far as I know, this system is rarely exploited.
The most amazing example I’ve seen of the honesty system in practice was in San Sebastian.
You walk into a bar there and find the bar top covered in plate after plate of incredible tapas, or pintxos as they are known up there (see photo above), help yourself to as many as you like, and then casually inform the barman (who hasn’t been taking a blind bit of notice of your eating habits) just how much you’ve had. You then pay him and leave.
Can you imagine how much that system would be abused in other parts of the world if suddenly introduced over night? Yet in Spain this has been going for years. The bar owners trust the customers, and the customers basically act honestly in return…
…Except for those that feast outrageously then ‘do a runner’, or a simpa as it’s known in Spanish, but that’s a tale for another time… All in all, the honesty system is without doubt one of those things that puts the ‘great’ into Spain. Would you dare to abuse it?
“Come, come, good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used; exclaim no more against it.” – Shakespeare, Othello
A Spanish winery has taken the old Spanish proverb “con pan y vino se anda al camino” to heart and is developing a product called Pan de Vino (“wine bread,” in English). The purple-colored bread will reportedly have all of red wine’s health benefits with none of its side effects. In other words, it won’t make you tipsy. That means you can eat as much of it as you like and not have to worry about it going to your head. What it will do to your hips and waistline, if eaten in excess, however, is another matter.
The research unit of Grupo Matarromera, a large winery based in Valladolid, Spain, is creating the bread in conjunction with Spain’s Centro Tecnológico del Cereal. Its researchers claim that one slice of the bread will equal two glasses of wine, in terms of health benefits.
Red wine contains a large amount of polyphenols, naturally occuring chemicals that help reduce the negative health impact of fatty foods. These polyphenols, located in the skin of red wine grapes, have antioxidant qualities. In plain English, drinking red wine in moderation is good for your body because it lowers bad cholesterol and can help keep your heart healthy.
Pan de Vino gets its purple color from the skin of wine grapes. Because the wine bread doesn’t contain actual alcohol, Matarromera says it will be safe for pregnant women and children to eat. But perhaps the biggest plus of Pan de Vino, apart from its heart healthy benefits, is the fact that it will stay fresher longer than conventional bread, according to the company.
Pan de Vino is currently still in the research and development phase, although Matarromera has said it expects to bring the hybrid comestible to market sometime next year.
If Matarromera tiene éxito with this venture, perhaps other Spanish food and beverage companies will follow suit creating their own unique twist on classic Spanish foods. Chorizo-flavored churros, anyone?
Actually, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone were already in a laboratory somewhere right now trying to invent such a concotion. After all there are a lot of wildly creative chefs and food scientists in Spain.
Can you guess which of the following menu items do NOT currently exist in Spanish cuisine? Leave your guesses in the comments below. We’ll update this post later on with the correct answers once we get at least 20 responses!
1. Skate wing (a type of fish) with pig trotters (pig’s feet) and tabouleh
2. A “popcorn” made out of tomato water and olive oil
3. Manchego Cheese ice cream
4. Cow stomach lining and cow intestines with garlic
5. Bacalao butterscotch cookies
6. Dried octopus chips in soup
7. Vegetables with jelly
8. Peanut butter and jamón serrano bocadillo
9. Scallops in coffee cream, cinnamon and curry
Guest blogger John Scheck is getting significantly Spanish…
Whether it’s called a bar, a bodega, a cevercería, a tasca, or a café, every Spanish city has one or two on every block. If there are 1,000 places to grab a glass of wine or a beer in every Spanish city then you’ll need at least 1,000 excuses to visit. I’m the cautious type so I have more excuses than are legally required in Spain. Here are just a few.
-The bodega is right next to the bin where you drop off your recyclable plastics. I drop off my bag of recyclables and I stop in for a glass of wine; it’s called multi-tasking. I also recycle glass and paper separately. The bodega is also near the trash bin so this excuse counts as four (plastic, paper, glass, garbage) which is really multi-tasking. I could take all of my trash out at once but where’s the fun in that?
-I run out of wine at home so I stop in for a quick glass before I go to the supermarket to buy another bottle. This may sound redundant to you but I see things differently since I moved here.
-My cable TV is out in the apartment and Valencia CF is playing. This probably means that the cable isn’t working at the bar either but that’s a chance I’m willing to take.
-The café is an integral part in the quotidian life of the Spanish people and I need to be there to experience it. While I’m there I’ll need to drink a glass of wine or I’ll look like a tourist.
-The bodega is right on the corner so at least I won’t drink and drive. I don’t have a car but still. There are other consequences of drinking far from home. What if I got tipsy somewhere across town and then used the wrong metro card on the way home? I could waste a three-zone fare card on a one-zone ride. Also, friends don’t let friends take cabs drunk. Trying to explain to a cab driver where I live my labyrinthine neighborhood would be a chore for someone who is both sober and completely fluent in Spanish—two things I will probably never be at the same time, not any time soon at least.
-I don’t want to bore you with a lot of details concerning balance of payments, international currency fluctuations, and other macroeconomic insights that you wouldn’t understand anyway, but just trust me on this one: America and Spain are both counting on me to prop up our mutual reliance on free trade. Excuse me, I have to get back to work now.
-I hate to use the excuse that the bodega is between the metro stop and my front door because there is a bodega between everything and my front door. I’m surprised that there isn’t a bodega in the lobby of my building or on the elevator. I live on the fifth floor, how long am I supposed to go without a glass of wine? I promise that I will only use this excuse as a last resort.
-The bar is a good place to practice Spanish. I can also speak Spanish at the market, or the library, or museums, or at home with friends, or just about anywhere. This is Spain and they speak Spanish here (at least when they aren’t speaking Valenciano, or Catalan, or Basque, or Gallego like in the movie I saw recently). I think there is something that you aren’t fully grasping here and it’s kind of important. I can get a glass of wine at the bodega. Seeing that this is Spain, they probably serve wine at the library; I just don’t know where to ask.
On a recent visit to Madrid my sister was amazed to see me order, drink, and actually ENJOY, a non-alcoholic beer – un sin alcohol.
“Does it actually taste nice?” she asked, adding, “I don’t think that even exists in the UK!”
I pointed out that it certainly exists, but that it’s unlikely many people would be seen dead drinking it. We ordered her one too, and her reaction went something like:
“Oh my God, it actually tastes like beer! And… it’s… really quite drinkable!” followed 5 minutes later by: “… you know, it actually feels like this beer is still going to my head a little…”
Such is the power of years of association. Beer taste = tipsy/drunk etc. On a hot day, non-alcoholic beer can still leave you feeling light-headed, but it is all, and only, in the mind.
Some sin-alcohol beers do have a trace of alcohol left (“less that 1%”), but it really is minimal. And the thing is, here in Spain, people drink it all the time without the slightest hint of shame, without for a minute thinking it might dent their macho image, or cool quota.
Personally I prefer Laiker, made by Mahou – I think it’s actually the best tasting beer in Spain!
How about you? Would you drink a ‘sin’, or would you sooner be seen dancing naked in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor?