Taking the adventure abroad
by Madeline Vail
published in Vino Magazine / September-October 2018
As a full time resident of Central California, Paso Robles specifically, I believe I can safely say that I live in a region that not only takes its food very seriously but offers such variety of flavors, ingredients and combinations that it boggles one’s mind.
That being said, on a recent trip to Spain, after hearing about how incredible Spanish food is, I went with an eager an open mind. The most profound thing I came back home with is a renewed appreciation for simplicity and purity of product. While all the creativity is exciting a simple meal where the only attraction is the quality of the one item — such as an austere plate of sliced manchego — can be so easy on the mind, much appreciated after a long hot day of sight-seeing and deeply satisfying.
Besides watching a three week old roasted suckling pig getting hacked into quarters with a blunt edged dinner plate in Segovia, I would dare to say the dining fare you will find in most regions across Spain are relatively the same, differentiated only by subtle spices, and can be separated into fairly simple categories: tapas, seafood, meat and dessert, most often referred to as postres.
The first category, tapas. With the relatively drastic increase in Spanish tourism over the past decade, the authentic concept of tapas has seemingly become somewhat of an elusive experience if one is looking for “authentic tapas.” Tapas is simply defined as “small Spanish savory dishes, typically served with drinks at a bar.” Traditionally, no matter what kind of beverage you order, whether it be a bottle of water, a coke, a beer or a flute of cava you are also offered a small plate of some tasty, little item whether is be a simple croqueta, a small toast with a slice of cheese and iberian ham, or a slice of “tortilla de espana” which is basically a savory slice of eggs and potatos and is an epic challenge to make at home. Yet, with the influx of naive and non-Spanish speaking tourists, there are now “tapas restaurants” and “tapas menus” and the entire spirit of the course can be lost if one gets too eager. Solution to the problem? Simply order your drink at any Spanish bar and wait. Don’t grab a menu, don’t help yourself or point to any of the tempting dishes displayed under glass. Just wait and see what they give you and you will be pleasantly surprised. While it may not be something you chose for yourself, it is the true spirit of tapas — a hospitable gift from the bar, a little surprise that emanates the pervading lifestyle in Spain…”here eat something!”
If you just can’t give up your sense of control yet absolutely have to experience tapas, the next best thing is to head over to the local market or boqueria, choose a counter and order up. My favorite one in all of Spain is Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. Here you will find rows and rows of every sort of “small bite” that Spain has to offer and then some. From heaps of bacalao (smoked, pickled or cooked cod) on little slices of toast and freshly fried potato chips to oysters on the halfshell and French cheeses. This Victorian glass covered sanctuary of all things gastronomic is open until midnight every night and if anything is worthy of a walk-through.
The next category would be your “mains” with the choices basically being either meat or fish. My personal favorite is the boquerones fritos, little fried white sardines served with a couple of wedges of lemon. It’s the same everywhere with the only difference being the freshness of the fish and the oil. Other typical seafood fare are mussels, calamari, octopus, cod and more cod. When it comes to meat, Spain is a carnivore’s paradise. Typical menu choices range from rich and juicy grass fed beef, grilled and served with patatas fritas (fried potatoes), stewed ox-tail to an entire leg of roasted baby goat. As for that goat, if one really wants to experience “old school” typical Spanish roasted goat my highest recommendation would be the ultra-classic Restaurante Sidrería Casa Parrondo in Madrid.
And then finally, the postres, where one will typically be offered a square of flan or maybe a slice of cheesecake. Since pastry/sweet shops can be found in every direction on practically every street, I personally chose to save my calories and take my postres solo, on their own, maybe with a cafe and avoid the distractions and the already impending pain of a distended belly from overindulging.
Now saying all that, when in the precious little town of Ronda, deep in the heart of Andalucia,
I stumbled upon a little gem with a 4.6 rating and 2,682 of TripAdviser reviews — Casa Maria. We made our reservations, assuming it would have some of the best croquetas and boquerones in all of Spain. Yet, when finally seated at the table and informed that there would be a 30 Euro per person price tag, beverages not included, I quickly came to the realization that this would not be the case. There would be no boquerones and certainly not a croqueta in sight. For some perspective on my suprise, a typical dinner or lunch in Spain can be quite economical. Similar to the French, at any authentic Spanish restaurant you will find a price fixe menu that offers four courses, including bread, beer or wine, coffee and dessert for under 15 Euro. So when we were informed by the waitress, who I later learned was the owner/chef’s daughter and namesake of the establishment, of the “price of admission” and that the only influence we had over the menu was whether or not we were allergic to anything or had a dislike for any particular food “type” ie. fish or meat — I was a little taken aback.
Yet with a TripAdvisor profile like the one I saw and my ever thirsty craving for adventure, I had no choice but to jump in and enjoy the ride. For the following two hours our party of five was served “family style” and delightfully presented with some of the freshest meats, fish and “made from scratch” desserts with a deeply influenced Andalucian style that will satisfy any foodie’s cravings to the core. A bell would ring across the plaza and dish after dish would emerge from the ancient building across the busy cobblestoned street to be presented before rows of tables nestled under the trees in the historic plaza. One group of diners was there for the tenth time, having driven hours to get there and stated unequivocally that this was their “go to” dining experience for any special occasion. Upon savoring the very last bite of a chocolate rum cake, freshly baked by the owner himself, I knew that if I didn’t live on the other side of the globe I would do the same.
And finally, if you are lucky enough to have a place with a kitchen and get tired of eating out all the time, there is one grocery store that I can’t recommend highly enough which one can find in every little town across Spain, the Mercadona. It’s easy to navigate, even without a working knowledge of the language, and being that the diet in Spain is relatively simple, with some cooking skills of your own one can easily replicate any meal — other than Casa Maria — that you had at any given local establishment. Everything and anything on the Spanish menu is on full display, including an entire counter dedicated to every quality level of Iberian ham and a fish market with fresh sardines, snapper and netted bags of mussels resting on piles of crushed ice. Just a little side note, you won’t find the eggs in the refrigerator section, but down an aisle next to the boxed milk, which is not typically refrigerated either. Who knew? But like they say, “travel expands the mind” and the palate as well.
Mercado de San Miguel
Plaza de San Miguel, s/n, 28005 Madrid, Spain
Restaurante Sidrería Casa Parrondo
Calle Trujillos, 9, 28013 Madrid, Spain
Restaurante Casa María
Plaza Ruedo Alameda, 27, 29400 Ronda, Málaga, Spain