An Evolving Passion: One Girl’s Relationship with Spanish Food
I’m so happy to have Lauren of Spanish Sabores guest posting today! Though we’ve known each other in the wonderful world of travel blogging for a while, we just recently met up in Madrid. I’m so impressed by her entrepreneurial spirit (check out her food tour in Madrid!) and absolutely love her food posts over on her blog, so I asked her to write about where it all began: her relationship with la comida Española, that is! Make sure to pop over to her site Teach and Travel to check out a piece I did on three pueblos blancos I adore.
“It’s nothing special…”
That is what I would have said if you had asked me about Spanish cuisine six years ago. I was seriously mistaken and quite naïve—to be blamed in part on a penny pinching Spanish host mother and the free, but often mediocre, tapa culture of Granada. I would never have thought that only six years later I would be earning a living giving food tours and writing about authentic Spanish cuisine.
When I first came to Granada, Spain in 2007 to study Spanish, I lived with a retired couple— Miguel and Josefina. Miguel had a mild form of dementia and didn’t talk very much; he mostly just watched football and occasionally asked me if I liked what we were eating. Josefina was the family’s sole provider, and at 67 years old she was able to make some sort of living by hosting exchange students. I arrived starry eyed, expecting a loving Spanish mother figure, but instead I met business minded Josefina. It was her seventeenth year hosting students, and it really was her business.
I didn’t really mind; I went out a lot and loved the apartment’s location. But for learning about Spanish food, Josefina’s house was not the right place! Despite claiming to have owned a small restaurant in her younger years, Josefina was a pretty awful cook—when she cooked at all! Mostly, she fed me frozen foods or typical inexpensive Spanish dishes. There was arroz a la cubana (white rice, tomato sauce and a fried egg), ensalada de arroz (a cold rice salad with frozen vegetables, tuna, olive oil and vinegar), and tortilla a la francesa (a boring, dry omelet with absolutely no toppings or seasoning). Sounds great right? In fact, during the entire four months that I lived there I was only served meat once (if you don’t count the frozen fried concoctions) and by the end I had lost about 10 pounds!
Image found here.
I couldn’t complain because I was in Granada—the city of free tapas and cheap kebabs. I survived quite nicely on croissants, small beers and free tapas, and lamb kebabs, and I actually quite enjoyed that diet at the time. I was convinced that Spanish food was not much more than cheese, olives, ham and eggs (all of which are indeed important Spanish ingredients) and rarely ate out at a restaurant to be able to know any differently—I was on a student budget after all!
Toward the end of my four-month stay I remember visiting Madrid. My friend and I decided to splurge on a nice restaurant recommended in our guidebook. I was dying for a steak—any cut would do. We analyzed the menu, her Spanish better than mine, but couldn’t find the word we’d learned for steak—bistec. So we settled on other options, only to quickly observe everyone around us diving in to their big, juicy steaks. We learned a valuable (albeit disappointing) vocabulary lesson that night; bistec means steak in much of Latin America, but in Spain people use other vocabulary.
So after four months in Spain I headed home, largely unimpressed with Spanish food and confused about why I kept on hearing that Spain had “the best restaurants in the world”. Oh, if I only knew!
I moved to Seville two years later, and was, gastronomically, at a completely different point in my life. I had since discovered a love of wine in Argentina and taken various wine courses as a part of my degree in tourism. I’d also worked in some of the best Massachusetts restaurants and country clubs where the chefs imparted upon me their love of the kitchen— so much, in fact, that I had to make the difficult decision between culinary school and moving to Spain. It was a tough choice, but Spain was a much more economical decision at the time.
The night I met my husband I was only one week into my new Spanish life in Seville. I told him that Spanish food was boring. He looked at me, confused. He didn’t defend his cuisine, instead he just told me to wait. He ordered some tapas at the restaurant where we were having a drink. It was a simple tapas bar, but it was where I woke up to the reality of the quality of Spanish cuisine.
Three years later food is an enormous part of my life. I am constantly trying new dishes and restaurants in search of exciting combinations or simply well done traditional food. I now believe that Spain offers one of the most exciting, high quality, and healthy cuisines in the entire world. It just takes some time to try things and find out what you like.
Here are some of my favorite Spanish foods that I had never tried in the US. If you get the chance, please try them—they might just change your life!
Pulpo al Gallego: Galician style octopus is thinly sliced and served with smoked Spanish paprika, sea salt and extra virgin olive oil.
Boquerones en Vinagre: Anchovy fillets that are cured in a vinegar marinade.
Salmorejo: A creamy cold tomato soup made of tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, stale bread, and olive oil. Served with diced Serrano ham on top.
Huevos Rotos: Soft-boiled eggs served on top of homemade French fries with choice of Serrano ham, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), vegetables, etc.
Croquetas de Boletus: Crispy fried mushroom and béchamel fritters.
Langostinos Tigres a la Plancha: Delicious jumbo prawns sprinkled with sea salt and grilled, served whole in their shell.
At this point, I still fantasize about going to culinary school and being the next Ferran Adria, but I make due with being a decent home cook instead. Yet I try to transmit my love for the Spanish kitchen through my writing and now with my food tours in Madrid. Basically, I don’t want other people to ever endure four months thinking that Spain is nothing more than olives, cheese, and free tapas. Spanish food is fresh, diverse and delicious, and Spain is an essential travel destination for anyone who loves food.
Where to Eat in Tarifa, Spain: Restaurante El Tesoro
Sometimes you have a dining experience that’s so perfect, from the location, to the food, down to the service, that it doesn’t really matter what the bill says at the end.
El Tesoro, located in the mountainside of Tarifa near Bolonia gives you that type of experience.
The restaurant is located off of the highway, past a sign prohibiting you from entering this “Military Road” and up a steep and curvy path that gets progressively worse the closer you get. In fact, the road is so bad (paved only about half-way and pock-marked with potholes and gravel the rest of the way) that you consider turning around.
Finally, you see signs for it, “El Tesoro”, which is truly a treasure, and a hidden one at that. Park next to a delightfully rustic farmhouse, which backs into several jagged mountain peaks.
You enter onto a gorgeous terrace, with sprawling views of the restaurant’s vineyards, and in the distance, ribbons of Tarifeña beaches and perhaps most impressively, Moroccan coastline.
Though the terrace is seriously tempting, it’s nighttime and those chilly Levante winds are no joke, so take a seat at a table inside the dining room.
Of course, no proper Spanish meal shall be started without olives and bread, and just because El Tesoro realizes the magic is all in the details, the waiter will bring out complimentary gazpacho shooters. They are like drinking the Spanish summertime in a glass.
Now, turn your tastebuds to a refreshing bacalao and smoked salmon salad, tossed with crunchy red and green peppers, onions and a cool vinegrette.
Splurge a little and ask for a plate of nutty jamón ibérico de bellota to prep your palate for the main course.
Go for the local specialties of retinto beef or Atlantic tuna cooked to perfection and draped in simple spices and/or sauces as accompaniment.
Indulge in a tarta de manzana that’s good enough to trick you into thinking your own Spanish abuela made it for you, and sip on a digestivo on the terrace under the stars.
El Tesoro is located at the turn-off of Km 73 (direction to Bolonia) at Betijuelo 6 in Tarifa. Main courses range from 15-45 euros.
Bilbao’s Best Pintxo
There’s a Basque saying that succiently sums up the culture:
Nola jan jakitea, nahikoa jakitea da.
To know how to eat is to know enough.
If you’ve ever been to Basque Country, or met a Basque person, chances are, you’ve discovered they’re super passionate about food. Everyone’s a foodie. Conversations about food come up regularly, and social gatherings aren’t complete without an array of pintxos (the Basque bigger-and-better version of tapas) within close grasp.
When I head to Bilbao, I make a bee-line for Café Iruña.
When you walk through the door of this ample space, an establishment of over 100 years old, you’ll notice it’s tiled wall-to-wall with gorgeous tile-work of surprisingly (very non-Basque) sherry from Jerez.
Though it’s beautiful, your attention (and sense of smell) will soon guide you to the corner where you’ll find someone manning the grill, underneath a sign that claims these are the best pintxos of their kind the whole world over. How very Basque to make a claim like that!
But, as exaggerated as the Basques may be, they’re not kidding around when they’re talking about this pintxo. Called the Pincho Moruno, it’s a perfectly seasoned, perfectly tender lamb kebab, grilled to, well, perfection!
I take all of my guests here. And if you’re ever in Bilbao, take yourself to Café Iruña (Calle Berástegui 4), order the Pincho Moruno and thank me later.
(My 2nd place pinxto award goes to the grilled and seasoned mushrooms at Bar Motrikes (Somera 41) in the Casco Viejo. You’re welcome!)