Colm Tóibín, author of The Master and Mothers and Sons
Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spainby Paul Richardson
Richardson's vibrant writing takes readers beyond gazpacho and paella and/i>
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Vivid and richly textured, A Late Dinner is a delightful journey through Spain and Spanish cuisine. Paul Richardson is the perfect guide. In lush prose he brings to life the fascinating people who grow and cook and eat the hugely varied and still little-known food of Spain.
Richardson's vibrant writing takes readers beyond gazpacho and paella and immerses them in the flavorful world of Spanish food -- from the typical coastal cuisine; to the ancient shepherd cooking of the mountains; to the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and San Sebastián, where chefs are setting the trend for modern cuisine across the globe. His evocative descriptions -- the fried þsh in Cádiz; the tender asparagus and sweet crispy lettuce of Navarre; the Catalan calçotada, a feast of grilled spring onions in a nutty, delicately spicy sauce; the whimsical creations of internationally acclaimed chef Ferran Adrià -- are a celebration of the senses.
Richardson traces the roots of Spanish cooking to the landscape, the people, and the history of this beautiful and complex country. A Late Dinner is a glorious and intimately drawn portrait of Spain.
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The Spanish have a phrase, leyenda negra, to indicate a bad reputation so obstinately perdurable that it takes on the quality of myth. And there have been few legends blacker, if you discount the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews by the Catholic kings, and the atrocities of the Spanish empire in the New World, than the abominable food supposedly served in the fondas and posadas of Spain. What was attractive about this country to foreign writers and artists was the exotic archaism of a place out of step with the rest of Europe, its wild and little-visited landscapes, its immense wealth of architectural and artistic treasures, but never or almost never the quality of its food.
Generally speaking, when writers on Spain have turned their attention to the national cuisine, it has been to cast aspersions. Literary travelers of all eras turn up the same catalog of shocking hygiene, primitive installations, and general ignorance of the culinary arts. Spanish food was thought to be monotonous, poorly prepared in foul conditions, swimming in rancid oil, and stinking of garlic.
The French, while thrilling to the passionate wildness of their southern neighbor, have traditionally turned up their noses at Spanish cuisine. A saying popular in nineteenth-century France declared of Spain: Des milliers de prêtres, et pas un cuisinier ("Thousands of priests, and not a single cook"). One of the earliest literary incursions by a Frenchman in the field of Spanish gastronomy is an account by Jean Muret, priest and diplomat, of dinner at a posada in Tolosa in 1666. The meal is presented as tragicomical: it begins with a bowl of thin soup which is intended not to be drunk but to have bread dunked in it. On so doing, the priest burns his mouth. The second course is a salad of "grasses" with oil and vinegar, followed by a piece of goat which needs to be chewed for half an hour in order to be swallowed.
The account of a visit to Spain, a few years later, by the comtesse d'Aulnoy, a lady of mode, exercised a powerful influence on subsequent writers on the subject -- despite the distinct possibility that she may not actually have traveled to many of the places she described -- contributing in large measure to the popularity of Spain and Spanishness among several generations of French romantics. The countess found la cuisine espagnole so repulsive, so excessively flavored with saffron, garlic, and spices, that, she said, she would have died of hunger were it not for the French cook she brought along with her. She did approve of the fruit, especially the figs; she adored the muscat wine; and she thought Spanish lettuces sweet and refreshing. The favorite meal of her trip was a collation offered by an upper-class household in Madrid, at which she happily nibbled at fruit conserves served on gold paper, and drank hot chocolate with milk and egg yolks. With almost everything else, however, the comtesse found fault. In Spain, she pronounced, the roast partridge was "usually" burned to a cinder. The lamb was tender enough (the quality of local lamb is often mentioned by early travel writers), but ruined by being fried in filthy oil. Spanish table manners, or the lack of them, horrified the comtesse: in some establishments she found no cutlery or napkins, her fellow diners burped openly at the table, and their custom of picking their teeth with a stick seemed to her beneath contempt.
Taken as a whole, the image of Spanish food over the centuries is rather like that of the country itself: primitive, crude, and so strongly flavored as to be shocking to delicate palates. Even Richard Ford, whose Handbook for Spain (1845) is possibly the best-researched (as well as the most opinionated) travelers' guide to the country ever written, describes the national cuisine as "by no means despicable." The worst stumbling block, for Ford, as for most of the early travelers in Spain, is a somewhat too liberal infusion of garlic. "From the quantity eaten in all southern countries, where it is considered to be fragrant, palatable, stomachic, and invigorating," he writes, "we must assume that it is suited to local tastes and constitutions. Wherever any particular herb grows, there lives the ass who is to eat it."
It is true that, as the author and gastronome Rafael Núñez remarks in his curious study of foreign attitudes toward Spanish cooking, Con la Salsa de su Hambre (literally "With the Sauce of Their Hunger"), for much of its history Spain presented serious natural disadvantages to the visitor from northern Europe, unused to the country's extremes of heat and cold, its forbidding terrain, and its unfathomable bureaucracy. To cover the large distances between cities where there was, from the point of view of the nineteenth-century cultural tourist, something to see, required considerable fortitude in the traveler, as well as plenty of money. (The trip from Madrid to Cádiz by stagecoach cost an astronomic 3,000 reales in 1844, three times a schoolmaster's annual salary.) The awfulness of Spanish hotels became one of the great clichés of travel literature -- a much-repeated joke divided them into three categories: bad, worse, and worst -- and writers fell over each other to regale readers with bug-infested beds, towels the size of handkerchiefs, and sanitary arrangements that were an affront to civilization. Visitors were often advised to bring their own sustenance, because the food provided was supposed to be inedible.
All the same, can the food these travelers were served really have been quite so extravagantly bad? As Rafael Núñez wistfully inquires, how much of what they found in Spain was simply what they expected to find? Spanish food was so routinely disparaged, just as the dreadfulness of Spanish roads and accommodations was so ghoulishly dwelled on, that one wonders whether readers didn't come to expect the thrill of horror these accounts so faithfully provided. It may be that, for early writers traveling in the peninsula, Spanish culinary habits were another fine example of that savage exoticism, that primitive brutishness, which formed the basis of the romantic image of Spain.
The summer before I went to the university, my family broke with the habits of a lifetime and took a holiday apartment in Jávea, on the Costa Blanca. We had little money to spend on what we were used to thinking of as luxuries, like groaning platters of fresh seafood. Our meals were taken at the apartment, with its perfectly awful view of a building site, and we kept to the English timetable and mostly to the English culinary repertoire.
During the day we lay on the beach, but when the weather turned cloudy we got into the car and drove along the traffic-clogged roads to take a look at the other resorts strung out along the coast.
So I had been to Benidorm before. To the snobbish middle-class juvenile that I was, Benidorm seemed the epitome of all that was vulgar and plebeian about vacations abroad. I remember the day we went there to laugh in the red, booze-shiny face of mass tourism. In the event, the soaring towers of this Manhattan-on-Sea amazed and rather shocked us; the sheer scale of the operation silenced our snickering. There is something about the sight and sound of 20,000 people having fun in the sun that renders meaningless such elitist concepts as taste and authenticity.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Benidorm was still in rude good health. In early June the place was full to the gunwales, and the Playa de Levante, Benidorm's spectacular arc of sand, was a panorama of pink flesh with a flotsam of sunshades above.
Environment, life, and food: all are interconnected. If you drive into Benidorm, what you see of the countryside is almost entirely new; the urbanizaciones have appeared as if by magic in the midst of a landscape as dusty and unforgiving as the moon. Olive trees that once provided oil for food and light now serve as decoration, islands in a bright green sea of irrigated grass. Carob trees whose long brown pods were once used as animal feed, and even kept human beings alive in times of scarcity, have long since been retired from a life of utility.
I parked behind the beach and walked along the Playa de Levante, dodging a succession of pale-skinned families in various states of undress. A background babble of European languages: French, Dutch, German, English, and what sounded like Finnish. A bar on the promenade offered a complete list of the elements likely to appeal to the Anglo-Saxon male on his vacation abroad:
There was a surreal, postmodern quality about Benidorm's food, like something out of the twisted, out-of-kilter, sci-fi worlds of J. G. Ballard. There were pizzerias and pasta joints, English pubs and French bistros, Chinese and Indians and Moroccans and Thais. The menu at one bar zigzagged from spaghetti bolognese and prawn cocktail to French omelette, Hungarian goulash, and arroz a la cubana -- the homespun Spanish dish of plain rice, fried egg, fried banana, and tomato sauce, supposedly invented in the 1920s by a Cuban exile in Madrid. Only in a place like this might you find a hybrid of Norwegian tavern and Spanish bar, El Quijote Nordiska Krogen, serving, on the day I put my head around the door, a choice of "beef cordon blue and chips," or "stroggenoff."
In a documentary I once saw on the BBC about British expatriates in Spain, there was an unforgettable image -- a corpulent Englishwoman in the tiny kitchen of her restaurant on the Costa Blanca,
serving up English dinners with roast beef, gravy, three veg, and Yorkshire pudding, the poor woman pink and sweating in the heat of a Spanish summer. It is not that there is anything wrong with good old-fashioned British fare, especially on a good old-fashioned British winter day, with a cold drizzle falling from a gray sky. But here, under a blistering sun that cracks pavements and strips paint off walls, it is as incongruous as a bullfight in the snow.
Everywhere you looked in the restaurants of Benidorm, there were photographs of food: color snapshots provided to indicate what would arrive on your plate, should you decide to order it. This entirely functional form of food photography is very much a part of Spanish life, and not just in tourist establishments. You see these photos in the kind of restaurant that serves up platos combinados, the "combined plates" numbered one, two, three, in their various permutations of fried egg, bacon, pork chop, fried green pepper, tortilla, tomato, and french fries. These images have canonized a certain type of proletarian cuisine, now going out of fashion as fast as the kitschy images themselves. I find them strangely poignant, and often wonder about the anonymous photographer who must have taken them, probably back in the 1970s. At the café by the church, where a balustrade looks out over Benidorm's two magnificent beaches, one on each side of the peninsula, the photographs of ice cream sundaes and banana splits were now almost completely undistinguishable, their once lurid colors bleached white by a decade of Costa Blanca summers.
The gastronomic history of Benidorm is not well documented, but you can get some idea from the general history of the place and its sudden transformation from rustic village to tourist megapolis. Although the soil of this barren coast is poor, chalky, and lacking in minerals, the village of Beni-Dorm ("son of Dahrim") had always found a way of producing decent harvests of wheat, barley, maize, figs, and carob beans.
In 1926, when the population of the village was 2,160, its main occupations were agriculture and fishing. Benidorm had no proper harbor, but the boats were drawn up on the beach. In 1944, at the height of its importance as a fishing port, no less than 500 tons came in on Benidorm's fleet. By the start of the 1950s, however, it began to be clear that there were easier ways of making money, and the fishing industry foundered.
At the dawn of the tourist era Benidorm tried hard to sell itself, if not quite as a gastronomic paradise, then at least as a place where the diet was healthful and affordable. A press advertisement for the "Grand Sea Bathing Establishment of the Virgin of Suffrage in the Village of Benidorm, property of Don Francisco Ronda y Galindo," assured those readers tempted by the idea of a summer residence by the seaside, that "nowhere else will they find a more benign climate, more delicious beaches, healthier or cheaper food, or a bathing establishment with better conditions for the bather than that which Don Francisco Ronda has the pleasure of offering to the public." A note at the bottom of the advertisement draws our attention to various prices: a kilogram (or kilo) of lamb (1 peseta), a pound of beef (1.75 pesetas), chickens (1.50 each), and boiling fowls (interestingly, hens, at 3 pesetas each, were twice the price of chickens). Red mullet and hake were priced at 1 peseta per kilo. Grapes, melons, pears, apples, peaches, and figs were 10 céntimos a kilo. Vegetables were simply baratísimas: "very cheap." Most of this produce would have come straight from the gardens that stood behind the Playa de Levante, where forests of high-rises now crowd the shoreline.
Leaving Nacho at home to look after the farm, I drove across the country to stay with his mother and father at their place in Alicante. The morning after my arrival we sat on the veranda, with its distant view of the Mediterranean, drinking coffee in the early sunshine. When I told Nacho's father, Manuel, that I was off to Benidorm, he cast his mind back to the days of his youth, when the resort was just a scruffy village surrounded by almond orchards and dry stone walls.
"I knew Benidorm when there was nothing. Nada. Just the village and the beach. What was it like then? It was precioso. Well, the whole coast was lovely," he said mournfully.
"It was just a white village. There were fishing boats, pulled up on the sand.... We used to go there on excursions, myself and a few friends. I used to know the man who went around the village with a horse and cart, selling vegetables. The beach had fields behind it, with fig trees. There was never anyone on it. At one end was a chiringuito, a beach shack built of bamboo, where you could have something to eat. It was very simple. I went there once with María Teresa, when we were courting. I think we ate tortilla. María Teresa, do you remember that day?" He called to his wife, who was busy in the kitchen, "Didn't we have tortilla?"
"How should I remember what we ate?" she replied laughingly, bringing in more coffee. "Honestly, Manolo, it was nearly sixty years ago!"
Nothing remains of that time, and few people now remember it. The dizzying changes Benidorm has undergone during the last half century have given the place an entirely new identity. The town's population has grown tenfold in forty years, from 6,202 in 1961 to 67,573 in 2004. Twenty-eight percent of its inhabitants are English, French, Dutch, German, Moroccan, Ecuadoran, Swedish, or Norwegian. Of the town's 330 restaurants, according to official bulletins, around fifty are "foreign."
James A. Michener, in his odyssey Iberia, writes memorably, if fancifully, that when he first came to Spain, around 1932, the traveler arriving near Valencia by boat could smell the orange groves even before he made landfall, as the perfume of their blossoms was carried out to sea on the ocean breezes. More than three-quarters of a century later, the distant fragrance of orange flowers has its modern equivalent in the reek of frying oil, bubbling in a thousand deep-fat fryers in restaurants along the Spanish Mediterranean coast.
By midday I had walked the whole length of the Playa de Levante, and the tourists were already sitting down to their steak pies and stroganoffs. Wedged between a French patisserie and a Spanish pizzeria was an unassuming bar specializing in the cuisine of the neighboring region of Murcia. Spread out on the countertop were baskets of green peppers, artichokes, tomatoes, and broad beans. The huerta, the fertile well-watered region that cradles the city of Murcia, has inculcated a profound respect for vegetables that amounts almost to dependency. Some of the great dishes in the Murcian repertoire are entirely vegetarian. The murcianos' love of broad beans is proverbial, and it's not uncommon to see them munching their way through piles of raw beans, either as a bar snack in a heap beside the plate or along with the main meal. They remove the pods with a stroke of the thumb to devour the tender beans within.
"There used to be a walk along the river, when we visited Murcia," Manuel had reminisced that morning, "where we would all go to walk in the afternoon. In the summer, there used to be a stand selling lettuces, and people would buy one and walk along the river. It was funny to see all these young folk like us strolling along the river, munching these lettuces as if they were ice cream. But actually they were delicious, and a very refreshing food for a summer afternoon."
Only in Murcia could lettuce be conceived of as a fast food.
I sat down gratefully at a table on the terrace and ordered a plate of snails, a handful of fried almonds, and a large Estrella Levante, the excellent local beer of Murcia. The snails -- another great levantine favorite, cooked in a sauce with a slight kick of chili heat -- arrived with a glassful of toothpicks for wiggling the creatures out of their shells. They tasted so good, and the beer was slipping down so nicely, that I decided to stay put and forget about a proper lunch. The bartender brought me a plate of michirones, the classic murciano stew made with dried broad beans; a plate of zorongollo, a variation of scrambled eggs with onion and zucchini; another large beer; and a couple of juicy salted anchovies with toast and olive oil, and before long I was beginning to feel the relief and satisfaction that come when you realize you have made the right choice about a place to eat. It may have been the purest fluke, but I had managed it. And in a place like Benidorm, the odds were not exactly in my favor.
That afternoon I set out on foot from Manuel and María Teresa's house along the beach, the towers of Benidorm gleaming in the distance like a futuristic vision. Between Alicante and Benidorm is a string of minor towns that never quite made it to Benidorm's fame and fortune, but were happy to chug along gently in its wake, often preserving something of their original character. The Playa de San Juan, just to the south, is a magnificent, wide swath of sand, whereas El Campello has an ugly, stony beach, making it imperative for the town to possess some industry other than tourism. That is why it has clung with such tenacity to its little fishing fleet, and still has a proper fish market where the general public can go on most days and buy fish straight off the boats, without any of the intermediaries who cut fishermen's profits and push up prices at the larger Mediterranean ports.
In the early evening sun, after a long hot day, commerce and society spring back to life. Down on the beach at El Campello a game of pétanque was in progress, and a group of old men in shorts and sandals looked on, calling encouragement in Catalan and Spanish. Up on the harborside stood the lonja, a newish brick construction with the kind of all-purpose municipal modern look that could just as well have been a primary school or a library as a fish market.
When I got there the market was about to start. Two boats, tied up in the harbor outside, had just came in from the day's work; their nets lay in a heap on deck, and the blue plastic boxes of fish were being unloaded from the deck to the harborside, and from there to the back door of the lonja. From production to consumption in the shortest possible time, in the shortest possible distance. A crowd was gathering in the interior of the market, watching the fish come in from the boats in lots of a kilogram or sometimes more, each lot on its own white tray.
The slab was filling up: I saw conger eels, flatfish, red mullet, and escórpora, the ugly spiny orange scorpion fish that (as rascasse) is a main ingredient of the French bouillabaisse and bourride. I wandered away from the action to look at the photographs around the walls, which showed El Campello as it used to be in the 1950s. A line of dark little boats along the beach, with a row of low houses behind them. Women and children in rough black dresses, their hair pinned back, each sitting on a nest of nets like a giant spider in a web. The fleet's various boats with their picturesque names: Marufina, Lolica, Fina Tendero de Terol. The Toñi Carmen, tragically shipwrecked in 1954.
A man in a white coat with a head mike, the auctioneer, was strutting about, explaining the process to his attentive audience. Housewife-cooks of a certain age, in flowery summer dresses with robust arms protruding from their short sleeves. One woman wore the bata de casa, a blue-and-white pinafore that is practically the uniform of the Spanish housewife. The big-bellied man who schmoozed with the auctioneer was clearly a restaurateur. As at any kind of auction, the public fell into two types: buyers and nonbuyers. The latter looked on in curiosity, with the quick superficial gaze of the tourist; the former focused intensely on particular items, their eyes as beady as those of the specimens they examined so expertly.
The merchandise slapped and flapped in its white trays. First up was a flying fish: a novelty item. The auctioneer held it up for all to see, a boxlike creature like one of the Wright brothers' early machines, pushing open tiny concertina wings. The bids went on and on, but the fish failed to take wing in a commercial sense and it was shunted away sadly, unsold and unloved. The unglamorous lots, the ugly and unfashionable fish, went for so little money one wondered whether they were worth anyone's while. An ashen-gray conger eel went for one euro and fifty cents. A kilo of dogfish could be yours for a euro.
One woman made off with a large lampuga (the common dolphin fish), then came back for three kilos of red mullet: "Do that on the plancha, flip flip, bit of olive oil, bit of lemon, and you've got yourself a nice lunch," spieled the auctioneer. And now we came to the rockfish, the bony little fish which are essential for a good fish stock, such as that needed for the fish-and-rice caldero typically eaten for Sunday lunch in El Campello. And of course it was a Friday evening, and the whole town was thinking about the weekend. Now suddenly there was a flurry of interest. Hands were going up all over the place. Each tray held three or four of these diminutive monsters -- the man called them morralla. Caught up in the bidding fever, I bid three euros for a kilo, proudly taking them to the counter to be weighed and paid for. I would take them back for María Teresa, and beg her to make me a proper caldero for lunch the next day.
A moray eel in an elegant mottled yellow-and-tan design. "That's also a good one for stock," confided the woman in the blue pinafore, who was now standing next to me. Then came a tray of small pargos, with a huge tiger prawn that had somehow gotten in among the fish. And a greasy-looking dogfish, looking more like a catfish. The auctioneer held out the tray so the fish's toothy muzzle faced the audience, and frightened a little boy in the front row.
And now, señoras y señores, for the stars of the show. The dorada or gilthead bream has long been one of Spain's absolutely favorite fish. But the dorada has been so ruthlessly overfished in the Mediterranean that it is rarely seen in public these days, and depends on an army of lookalike farmed doradas -- at half the price and half the flavor -- to keep alive its reputation. The single real, wild gilthead bream at today's auction went for twenty-one euros to the big-bellied restaurateur. When the price was announced, the woman in the pinafore poked me sharply in the ribs.
In the summer of 1991, with Britain in the throes of an economic recession and Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence reminding its millions of readers that life was easier in the south, I quit my job at the magazine and moved to the island of Ibiza. For the next ten years I lived with Nacho in a house within sight of the Mediterranean Sea, on a stretch of coastline that had somehow escaped the rampant development which has pulverized the rest.
The island was a microcosm of Spanish food in the sense that it could be divided into the coastal zone, where the cooking was mainly marinera; and the inland uplands, where a different kind of cuisine had developed, based more on meats, the products of the matanza (the annual pig slaughter), and vegetables from the huerta. The remarkable thing was the way that, on a scrap of land just forty by twenty kilometers, there could be such a world of difference between the two. But there was. In the center of the island, where elderly peasants lived who had seldom been to the seaside, you might be served up a sofrit pagès, a popular dish of mixed meats first simmered, then sautéed with garlic and vegetables. On the coast, there were fish soup-stews like bullit de peix and skate wings with potatoes.
Misery and starvation were just around the corner, historically speaking, because this island society, thanks to mass tourism, had become extremely rich in a very short time. For centuries the people had been paupers; now they were millionaires. One understood, partly by intuition, that they had by no means always had it so good. Hair-raising tales were told of the civil war years, when the Republican militiamen commandeered any food they could lay hands on, to the extent of robbing grain from underground stores, and the rural populace subsisted on carob pods. The tourist boom had been a blessing (though it may ultimately prove to be a deadly curse). Now the islanders could shop at supermarkets like everyone else. They could buy smoked salmon, if they could afford it, and greenhouse tomatoes and Roquefort cheese.
Our village had been a fishing community, and it still bore the marks of centuries of dependence on the sea. The sandy bay where a couple of hotels now cater to tourism was still known as es port. On weekends, teenage boys from the village went out in dinghies from es port to fish for lobster and grouper, which they sold to the restaurants scattered along the seafront. The menu at these simple places was the epitome of cocina marinera as practiced all along the Spanish Mediterranean coast, a nearly unvarying repertoire of rice dishes with fish and shellfish, whole bream or bass baked a la sal, calamares a la romana, and cuttlefish a la plancha with parsley and garlic, as well as a few local specialities.
But that was restaurant cooking. In the daily lives of the locals, the "cooking of the sea" was a simpler, saltier affair, based on whatever could be gleaned from the ocean in the immediate vicinity of the village. Every few days a man with a white van would appear in the village square selling gerrets, a small fish caught locally by amateurs, probably illegally. They were dirt cheap: a kilo of gerrets could be had for the price of a bocadillo. But it was their versatility that made them popular -- you could do what you liked with them. Fried, grilled over coals, or cooked up with rice, they always tasted good; their white flesh was flavorsome in a rough-hewn sort of way, like sardines without the oiliness or the pungent smell.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in his history of food, claims that the appeal of fish as food is explained not so much by contemporary ideals of healthy eating as by its romantic status as the last important foodstuff obtained by something that resembles hunting. Certainly the seafood the villagers enjoyed was not the kind of thing you would find in a fish store. One old man went fishing for moray eels down at a deserted cove, bringing them back slimy and squirming in a bucket, for his wife to cook in a saffron-scented stew for their supper. One moonlit night in high summer we went out fishing for squid in a llaut, a little wooden boat with a square sail. The llaut belonged to Juan Antonio, a friend whose grandfather had built it with his own hands at a time when building his own boat was thought entirely right and proper for a young man in a Spanish fishing village. We rowed out from the miniature harbor at the end of the beach, stopping within sight of the shoreline where the water was calm and deep. Shreds of laughter and guitar music drifted from the beach bar, a whitewashed shack that had once been a fisherman's hovel. Juan Antonio showed us how to drop the thick nylon line with sardine bits attached to big hooks. From the rim of the boat hung two old flashlights upside down, for attracting the squid to the surface. When we pulled in the lines they loomed up like ghosts through the blackness.
Nights on the water, days on the rocks. On summer afternoons we hiked down to a string of little bays along the coastline where no one else went, since access was only on foot down a long mountain path. We collected sea snails and urchins -- I learned that the purple and brown ones were finer-flavored, though harder to find, than the black.
The fun was in the hunting and gathering, and in the big flavors that came as a reward for your efforts. One day I walked down to the cala alone and lay by a rock pool, watching the tiny shrimps, translucent wisps of nothingness, that paddled placidly at the edge of the sun-warmed pool. I spent the afternoon painstakingly catching them one by one with a butterfly net. When I had a handful and the sun was going down, I walked back up to the house, poured myself a beer, and stir-fried the whiskery, still-twitching shrimps for a second in a spoonful of oil with half a clove of garlic. The shrimps went from glassy to deep orange in an instant, leaching out some of their color into the sizzling olive oil.
Just as well there was no one else around to share that meal, for half of very little is hardly worth bothering with. On the other hand, I curse the fact that no one else was there to feel the mild crunch of their shells giving way to a burst of flavor, rich with minerals. It was one of the most delicious mouthfuls I can ever remember taking.
The Spanish gastronome Julio Camba wrote that just one sardine is the whole ocean. Well, those shrimps were the whole Mediterranean Sea.
Copyright © 2007 by Paul Richardson
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Colm Tóibín, author of The Master and Mothers and Sons
Meet the Author
Paul Richardson owns and manages a small farm and vineyard in western Spain. He is also the author of Our Lady of the Sewers and Other Adventures in Deep Spain, Cornucopia: A Gastronomic Tour of Britain, Indulgence: One Man's Selfless Search for the Best Chocolate in the World, and Williams-Sonoma Barcelona.
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