Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Wandering Gourmand. Spain.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent two weeks this winter driving around Portugal and Spain with three members of my family. In a minivan. It was one of the craziest trips I have ever taken in my entire life. We ate (and drove) our way up Portugal, heading north from Lisbon, with many culinary and scenic detours along the way. On the fifth day, we arrived in Spain, staying at a Parador in Baiona. We would stay at a different Parador for each of the six nights we spent in Spain. Similar to the Pousadas in Portugal, the Paradores are a chain of government-run hotels, housed in former castles, fortresses, monasteries, medieval houses, and in one memorable place, a 15th-century Royal Hospital that served the pilgrims who came to worship at Santiago de Compostela. I think there is even a Parador on the grounds of the Alhambra (it is the most expensive of them all). They range from three to five stars, and like the Pousadas serve excellent regional cuisine in their restaurants. However, a slight miscommunication at dinner (that first night in Baiona) led to my being served a salad with a cold terrine of octopus (most excellent, very simple), and then, a dish of octopus cooked with potatoes (which I had most definitely NOT ordered). The octopus was chewy, the potatoes mushy, the entire dish completely without flavor. There was no way I could eat that much octopus, and after struggling vainly with a few (maybe several) mouthfuls, I gave up. I don't think I have been able to eat octopus since.

As with the time spent in Portugal, there is no one meal that stands out clearly in my mind from our journey through Spain. We ate a lot of jamón, because a certain member of our party who shall remain nameless insisted on ordering it at nearly every meal. It was addictive, those dark-pink slices of ham rimmed with a sliver of white fat, salty and intense, with a faint sweetness, sliced a little thicker than prosciutto is in Italy. One night we couldn't face an actual dinner, so we ordered bread and two different kinds of ham, some other sausages, and other little things I can't remember in the hotel's tapas bar. After a week of traveling and eating endless meals my soul cries out for the simplest sandwich, a few slices of ham and/or sausage, some crusty bread. A glass of wine, maybe a piece of cake afterwards.

The most excruciating thing about traveling in Spain is that people don't eat dinner until late, perhaps around 10 pm. Restaurants don't even open until 9, maybe 8:30 at the earliest. We were further discombobulated by the fact that Spain is an hour ahead of Portugal, which none of us realized until the second or third night. (Whoops). We found a workable routine - eating a leisurely (and extravagant) breakfast around 8 or 9 (always featuring plenty of cafe con leche, and, of course, plates of jamón), and then lunch at 1, followed by a light dinner at the tapas bar around 7 (often involving a few more plates of jamón and other small dishes, although one night involved some fantastically juicy fried frog's legs). A few nights did end with dinner at 8:30, with our party being the first to arrive in the empty dining room. My notes describe a roasted shoulder of lamb, with crispily fried potatoes one night, and a intensely beefy tenderloin sprinkled with sea salt that crunched between my teeth the next night.

I have mentioned before a long-standing obsession with crêpes in their simplest form, plainly drizzled with lemon juice and powdered sugar. But in Santiago de Compostela (at the basement restaurant of the Parador Hostal dos Reis Católicos) I had the most exquisite dessert, my favorite of the entire trip. Crêpes were layered with applesauce and pastry cream, each layer of filling barely thicker than the crêpe, the top layer sprinkled with sugar and caramelized. The caramel topping cracked beneath my fork, everything hot and sweet and tender with the contrast of burnt sugar crunching against the flavors of apple and cream. It was absolute heaven.

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