Sunday, June 15, 2008

Spain - the country of balconies

Spain will always hold a place in my heart as the place where some of my important friendships were strengthened and my window into Europe. That being said, I now realize I could never live here. In theory, I love the idea of a loose time schedule, the possibility of daily siestas, beaches, countryside, balconies, ice cream, soccer, history and the laidback lifestyle. In practice, I can’t stand waiting on people, waiting for people and when entire countries shut down for summer holidays – never mind daily siestas. I sometimes wish I could be this laid back but I need to face facts and realize I’m just too easily frustrated (maybe I’m high strung but I like to think I’m goal oriented). My most recent 1.5 day trip to Madrid was motivated by work but we managed to go to the Plaza Mayor for dinner. In Spain dinner does not begin until around 8pm (that’s a bit early for locals). My colleague had an early morning flight so we decided to do a brief tapas bar hop. Considering our meeting didn’t end until half past 7, we were downtown around 8 and set to begin out tapas tour. I always heard about Spanish tapas in the toothpick fashion, where delicious bitesized dishes sit prepared on the bar and you collect the toothpicks and pay at the end based on how many toothpicks you have. It’s a tradition based on trust. I must admit, I’ve never experienced tapas in Spain because my 16 year old self here in a school trip was just not that adventurous. I clearly remember one day of the trip where we were given free time to eat and encouraged to try tapas but my friends and I found a cafĂ© serving chicken sandwiches and happily steered clear of the local dishes. After spending the past year living and traveling around Europe I’ve opened myself up to try almost anything and excitedly got behind my Spanish guide and supported whatever he ordered for us. Augusto asked if we like fish, this question worried me a bit but as I watched the group of 20sometings next to us receive a plate of calamari and heard him use the word frites I became hopeful. We didn’t get calamari, we got fried whole fish that looked like sardines. Unsure of how to eat these guys and slightly frightened by them I held off until my 2 dining partners had each had one. Auguato picked one up and ate all but the tail, including the bones. Christine was a bit more delicate, first adding the lemon and then slowly attempting to bite in. It was now my turn and I couldn’t get around these fish as there was no other option so I added the second lemon and picked one up. The small fish was so hot I could barely hold it without wrapping it in a napkin. With all the courage and capacity I had for strange foods I took a bite. It tasted like a fish – one whose head I’d just bitten off. I asked, for clarification purposes and to buy some time, if it was appropriate to eat the bones. I took another bite including paart of the bones. I could not do this. The fish itself as actually not so bad as long as you didn’t think about eating the skin or look too closely at its form. It tasted like white fish, a bit like chicken actually and the lemon did wonders for flavor. I just could not bring myself to eat the bones. Luckily for me, the fish came off the bones pretty easily and in this process, I could slowly eat my fish while my companions worked on the plate of fish at hand. I was almost relieved to see a plate of Spanish ham (jamon) delivered next. Normally I avoid this sort of ham because it just looks raw . On my visit to Toledo last year, jamon was served in so many different styles it was practically the only option and I finally tried it. To my surprise, it was quite good and I realized it was the local specialty and I was at dinner with the chef of the restaurant so I felt I didn’t have a choice but to try it. By the time it arrived, I had already eaten 2 fish and it was a welcome change. The actual taste of the fish wasn’t so bad and it was worth it because the wine we were drinking was amazingly delicious. We finished up and wandered around Plaza Mayor before deciding on a second tapas bar. The second bar had a selection of dishes laid out under the glass counter. As we entered I saw olives and when Augusto asked what we like, Christine said she would really love some olives – I jumped in and echoed her love of Spanish olives. She also ordered the fish located next to the olives. I didn’t think I could handle any more fish for the night so I suggested a second variety of olives. In the end, we had a plate containing 2 types of olives, 2 types of small fish (without bones and heads this time, octopus and some sort of chutney involving pickles and peppers. I was happy with the olives and the white fish in garlic was pretty good on a bead of bread. I did not try the dark fish, the octopus was not so bad but it brought back the memory of when M and I dared each other to eat the octopus at Haruki Cranston and it was so chewy and then she spit hers out so essentially I won but it was a bitter victory in more ways than one. I avoided the pickles fearing they were sweet and had another glass of red wine. It should be noted that tapas portions of wine are about ¼ of a regular glass of wine and this one left me longing for more of the first wine. After leaving the second bar full, we wandered to Plaza del sol in search of the center of Spain and stopped for a cone of ice cream on the way – 2 things I remembered fondly from my first trip to Madrid. Then we took a taxi back to the hotel. En route, our stomachs realized fish with vinegar and ice cream are just not meant to combine and the heart burn crept up on us. No wonder why Augusto passed on ice cream in favor of coffee. I guess there’s truth in the idea of following the local. Oh well, it was a good night and the heartburn soon faded as I fell asleep in my unfluffy Spanish bed knowing that my flight was not leaving until 12:45 and I could sleep in. Note from Spain: Apparently Spanish ham has recently been discovered by the Americans and Chinese. Since the best jamon comes from pigs who only eat the fruit from a certain tree which needs 100 years to grow and produce this fruit, the supply cannot grow to meet this new demand and prices will soon soar. Spanish pig farmers are excited for this development but the local consumer is cursing globalization.

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