Buen Provecho! The Wonderful Culinary Delights Of Spain



While traveling through Spain last spring break (and isn’t it nice to be able to write that?) I felt faint twinges of disappointment because I couldn’t immediately share my culinary epiphany with the rest of the Colgate community. I had always, for some inexplicable reason, considered Spanish food and Mexican food to be pretty much identical. My 10 days in Spain not only destroyed that misconception, but also opened my eyes, however briefly, to the myriad styles and intricacies of Spanish cuisine. My father being who he is (and that, my friends, is a Jacques Pepin wannabe masquerading as a journalism professor), I was expected to report back to him on all manner of Spanish gastronomy. Therefore, I took copious notes in the best restaurants I visited in Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid. Madrid was more impressive than Valencia, which still managed to impress with its stunning array of paellas, a.k.a rice dishes with meat, fish or vegetables. But without a doubt, Barcelona, that swinging place where staying out until 6 a.m. is a rule, not an option, provided the most interesting food of the trip (and certainly the most interesting people). So here, for those of you who were wondering how to spend the next couple of days – and know that the answer is not The Jug – here is a mini handbook for medium-high end eating and drinking on the edge of Basque country.On the Barcelona waterfront at El Dique – a cozy, informal tavern – my roommate Lindsay and I grazed the tapas and drank sangria. Tapas are more involved versions of hors d’oeuvres, and can certainly be made into a whole meal if one chooses. Among other choices, we had octopus, thinly sliced and lightly fried in the Galician style. Think of the consistency of squid but with a bit more bite. If that doesn’t tempt you, don’t think about it.Not more than a hundred yards from our hostel, Lindsay and I discovered the Mercat de la Boqueria, an enormous market selling any type of food one could think of. Within the market various lunch counters serve up basic fare. But saying basic fare in Spain is like saying minimalist Rococo. I consumed your basic elaborate plate of mussels, clams, calamari, cuttlefish, crayfish, mackerel, cod and salmon and a beer for the Euro equivalent of $25. Excuse me? And all of this was just a warm-up for the dinners that came later. We’re not in Parkside anymore, Toto.Our dinners in Barcelona were two of the best I’ve ever had. The first restaurant we visited, in the jazz-happy Pla?ca Reial, was called Santamonica and at first the experience looked less than promising. The cavernous basement restaurant turned out to have excellent service and terrific dinners. The carrot and oyster soup (it really works!) had a hint of orange salt which woke everything up nicely. Additionally, the chocolate fondant with dolce de leche ice cream was practically transcendent. The second night, we ventured all the way across the street from the hostel to Irati, a bustling bar-restaurant of the Basque persuasion. Courtesy of the restaurant, we each had a complimentary little plate of potato and garlic, finely chopped and saut?eed with a Madeira reduction sauce. I ordered red peppers, one stuffed with prawns, spinach and pine nuts and the other brimming with chopped clams and a jalape?no sauce. Next came hake with a green sauce of basil, garlic, clam juice and butter. Lindsay had some manner of superb beef, two medium-rare medallions, served Iberian style and topped with rose-flavored sugar balls. Sounds weird; it wasn’t.The wine was the real star, however. Basque wine is produced in very small amounts compared to other regions, and only about 10,000 cases are shipped to the United States per year. We had a 2003 Getariako Txakolina Txomin Etxaniz-no kidding. I only hope my editors don’t attempt to “fix” the spelling. This white wine is bright, crisp, apple-y and has a hint of carbonation from the acidity. It is, to use some technical language, a party in the mouth. In the Basque tradition, it is poured into large tumblers from about three feet above in order to aerate it properly. I have three favorite white wines in my life (so far), and this is one of them. The other two, incidentally, are the 2003 Coopers Creek Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, which has a delicious citrus and passion fruit taste, and the 2003 Hugel et Fils Riesling, from Alsace, which is floral, dry and brisk.Now that I’ve veered off into wine snobbery, I might as well recommend some reds for your next evening out, in Spain or elsewhere. Come to think of it, maybe it should just be elsewhere, in that none of them has the slightest thing to do with the Iberian Peninsula. But they really taste good. The 1999 Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley is spicy, peppery and ripe with blackberry and raspberry flavor. If you’re grilling meat, this is your wine. The 2001 Paradis Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel Cask Reserve 38 from California is darker than the Rancho Zabaco and has a deeper taste, more along the lines of black cherry. Finally, the 1999 Philippe de Rothschild Pauillac from the Bordeaux region tastes strongly of black currant, violet and smoky coffee and is perfect with venison, a definite plus during deer season in Central New York. As the dear departed Julia Child used to say, bon app?etit!