Saturday, September 24, 2011

A national cuisine is a quilt, not a blanket

Countries don't spring up all assembled into a unified culture, and cuisines and habits vary according to ancient tribal borders. Some cuisines find their way across the nation, like hamburgers, I suppose, but others are ubiquitous in some places and endangered in others.

We found this out the hard way when we discovered the tomato-topped tostada (that I wrote about earlier) in Cartagena, Spain. We thought that our second-breakfast was set for the remainder of our visit. Soon after that, we left Cartagena and worked our way north. We should have seen it coming. First, the breakfast specials stopped including the tostada. They'd make one for us, if we asked. As we moved along the coast, the tomato puree would be wrong. Then the tostada disappeared.

But you always gain something (we've been gaining a bit too much all summer) when you leave one set of food customs in one region and find another in the next. For example, as we crept north, the montadito appeared. This appears to be the result of interbreeding between tapas and sandwiches. A bit of fish or cheese or meat is placed on a slice of baguette. You eat as many as you like. Often, they're impaled with sticks (for accounting purposes, apparently) and priced at something under two euros. You might take them to your table on your own, and the waiter simply has to count sticks and empty bottles to figure out what you owe (a bit too close to the honor system to work in the US.)

Montaditos appeared when we arrived in Alicante, but only in the form of "100 Montaditos", a restaurant chain that will be opening thousands of worldwide locations even in the US (called by Business Week "the Spanish Starbucks of Sandwiches".) By the time we were in Barcelona, montaditos were everywhere, and nary a franchise in sight. They're lovely to look at even only as a still life, and delightful to eat. Just don't expect to see them in Galicia.

The lesson we drew from this is that cuisines aren't national; they're very local. The folks on one side of a mountain range will eat very differently from the people over yonder. And if you really like to eat a certain local dish, get as much of it as you can in the place that it's on every menu. Because you never know if you'll see it again.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Putting the Pi in paella

One of the virtues of eating in restaurants, whether home or away, is that you can have something that you'd never make for yourself. When the local dish is complicated, or it has to be made in large quantities, or needs a pan you don't have, or it contains a lot of something that you don't normally have around the house, you should be sure to look for it when you're traveling.

In Spain, paella is that dish. Like tagine in Morocco or casserole at home, paella is named for the cooking vessel it uses. The paella pan can be as small as a stove burner and as large as 20 meters (more than 65 feet) in diameter. We know this because a paella of that size is listed in the Guinness Book of Records and fed more than 100,000 people. That's a big dish. It's often cooked outdoors, and guests have been known to eat it right out of the pan.

Though it's widely believed that paella is Spain's national dish, Spaniards associate it regionally with its birthplace in Valencia. The Valencian and therefore official version of paella contains some ingredients you might not want to ponder while you're eating this delightful dish: chicken, rabbit, and land snails, flat beans, large white beans, and other beans, and saffron, which gives it a delicate flavor and that rusty, caramelized color. Yes, there are snails in this dish, and this might explain the gigantic bags of snails that are piled on every seafood counter in Spanish markets. On the plus side, early versions of the dish contained water vole (a rodent) and eel, and lucky for us, that's not how paella is made anymore.

An alternate version of the dish uses seafood instead of meat, and is often available alongside Valencian paella in restaurants, as is shown above. Valencian paella is on the left side of this photo, and seafood paella is on the right. There's a "mixed" version that can include sausage, a variety of vegetables, and even different seasonings. You'll find that version elsewhere in Spain and around the world, but it horrifies Valencians. Somehow sausage and seafood doesn't work for them, but eel and marsh rats are a match made in heaven. In any case, I'm nearly positive I'll never cook paella. But it's a joy to let someone else do it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Marching Orders: Adjust your body clock

Let's assume that you've arrived in a very new place, and there's a time change. Everyone knows that you need to adjust your sleeping habits. But it's important to reset your meal clock as well, and not just to the new time zone. You have to adjust to the rhythms of the culture. If you don't, well, you'll be swimming upstream for your entire visit.

Spain's a great example, a place where eating matters, and restaurants abound. But Spaniards eat snacks when we eat meals, and they tend to eat meals when we're off doing something else entirely, like going to bed. On our very first arrival in Spain, we tried to conform to our own food schedule as best we could. But restaurants don't open for dinner until eight or nine in the evening, and few local people are ready for the evening meal until well after that. We'd have our noses pressed against the restaurant door waiting for them to open up at eight, and then we'd eat dinner in an empty place. Depressing.

How do they wait for such a late dinner? By eating lunch at about three or four in the afternoon. How can they wait that long for lunch? They eat breakfast when we do. But they have a snack at about noon.

We often have what we call "second breakfast" when we're traveling. It's normally a cup of coffee and a pastry mid-morning. It's handy if you're running around ancient sites or you've just absorbed a museum, or if you just want an excuse to sit at a table portside. And face it, pastry is delicious. But our conventional second breakfast is too early (and probably too empty) to sustain us until lunch in mid-afternoon. So while we're in Spain, we have adjusted to a noon snack, and we're doing what we see around us.

Here's a tostada, with café con leche and fresh orange juice (normally, you'd get one or the other of these beverages.) This happens to be pan intégrale (whole-grain bread), but there's a white toast version of this as well. You can ask for a variety of toppings, but if you don't specify, you'll often get pureed tomatoes and a large drizzle of olive oil.

You might as well adapt. If you don't, you'll limit the number and type of places that will be open when you're hungry, you'll limit your ordering options, and worst of all, you'll be missing life abroad.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Crunch Senhor

Well, I really couldn't find a way to translate the term croque monsieur from French to Portuguese. But I'd like to make the case that the sandwich itself, while delicious, has lost something in the translation as well.

The sandwich known in Portugal as Francesinha (or "little frenchie" or "little French girl") originated in Porto, in Portugal's north. It's said that a French/Belgian immigrant wanted to adapt the French croque monsieur to the Portuguese palate. This is the result, a sandwich of ham, pork and beef slices on thick bread, swathed in cheese and a spicy tomato and beer sauce and served hot.

Most Francesinha sandwiches arrive with French fries, somewhat drowned in the sauce. Often, there's a fried egg on top of the whole creation. The only ingredient common to all versions of this dish is beer.

We had our first Francesinha in Porto, its home town. Though the sandwich itself and especially the sauce can vary from town to town and from interpretation to interpretation, this sandwich does not at all make me think of France. No, I think of the diners and delis of my youth, the open-face roast beef or turkey sandwiches, covering a plate in the shape and size of a serving dish, brimming with sauce, and combining into a molten embrace of home cooking. Fries alongside were immersed in the gravy just like in the Francesinha, or the whole thing was plopped onto a mound of mashed potatoes.

This is the memory that is evoked by the Francesinha. The beer matures it up, and the spice provides some adult zing. But this takes me back like no croque monsieur ever did.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sardines for Saint Anthony

The Saint Anthony festival is the midsummer celebration in Portugal. Like most other midsummer celebrations (such as Midsommer in Scandinavia and St. John's Eve in Greece), midsummer happens before or on the actual arrival of summer. For some reason that eludes me, midsummer celebrations often involve jumping over a roaring bonfire.

In Portugal, and especially in the Alfama section of Lisbon, this is one of the biggest parties of the year. The midsummer holiday happens in mid-June and honors St. Anthony, who's associated with matchmaking. So this holiday is something like Valentine's Day. Shy suitors can take the opportunity to win over hearts with romance in large doses. But this holiday isn't about chocolate; you give your lover a potted herb called manjerico. This plant is a sort of basil, with tiny delicate leaves, and groomed into a round bush. It's decorated with a small paper with a verse on it; what's romance without poetry?

But you can't make a meal of basil and love, so grilled sardines are also on the menu. They're a common starter or main dish in most restaurants at all times, but St. Anthony's Festival provides them a grand stage. They're associated with this saint, who was not only a great romantic, but was apparently able to converse with fish. Why this means that we should grill them is beyond me, but they are delicious.

It took some persuasion for us to get the sardine-seller to provide any plastic utensils. We watched people eat them and understood why. Each sardine is about the length of an unsharpened pencil, so they’re too big to eat whole. In fact, people don’t eat the bones of these. Instead, they plop the fish onto a slice of bread, where it hangs over the sides. Then they pick at it with their fingers, pulling the meat away from the skeleton and eating it, leaving a skeleton that looks like something you'd see in a Popeye cartoon. And then you eat the fishy bread.

Don't ever put your nose to the manjerico. The right way to do it is to touch the leaves with your hand, and then smell your hand. But do this before you go after the sardines.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Blowing your cover with a charge in Portugal

There's an undercover cost to meals and snacks in Portugal. It's called the couvert, or "cover". This sort of thing works differently in different countries. In some places, there's a cover charge that generally just pays for table service. In those places, it's not optional. In Portugal, it is optional, but you have to pay attention.

Portuguese menus have a section called "couvert". In that section are items such as bread, cheese, olives, and the like. You don't need to order some of them; they're placed on your table, the way you'd just get a bread basket in America or other places. If you eat it, or any of it, you're charged the cover price. Here's a sampling of the unrequested cover hospitality, local cheese, olives, and bread:

But the prices vary. The bread and the olives cost less than a euro. That little plate of cheese, though, is typically four euros (about six dollars right now). And it isn't pro-rated. You eat one slice; you're buying the plate of it. In Portugal, restaurants are affordable and portions are generous. But getting the bill is a happier occasion if you know the rules.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The cheese stands alone

Galicia comprises the northwestern corner of Spain. It's visited for its plentiful seafood and its pristine beaches. It's also the home of Santiago de Compostela, the third most important pilgrimage site in Christianity, behind Rome and Jerusalem. The Cathedral's stone carvings pay homage to many a Bible character, including one woman, most likely Queen Esther. She has a front-row spot on the Portico de la Gloria, a sculpted facade considered one of the most striking in the world. And she's the one who inspired Galicia's most titillating cheese.

According to local lore, the cathedral's original carving of Queen Esther was well endowed, in her place among the apostles and prophets. Nearby, a carved Daniel was smiling in her direction a bit too broadly, and rumors began to emerge of romance between these two stoners. Local elders were not pleased, and they ordered what amounted to breast reduction surgery, with a chisel.

Now, the citizenry did not receive this news well, and retaliated. A new cheese shape came into fashion, the tetilla, which translates to "small breast." So one of the regional dishes is basically "titty cheese." As a political statement, people would leave this breast-shaped cheese as an offering at the statue. The cheese is still sold everywhere. Nobody leaves it lying around, though. It's too delicious to part with. Got milk?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The breakfast of couch potatoes

In Noia, Galicia, Spain, there's a stand that makes nothing but churros. There's always a large bowl of the most-recent batch of sizzling dough.

Churros y chocolate might actually be less healthy than a big bowl of Count Chocula. This breakfast favorite is constructed from a paste of flour and sugar that is deep-fried in oil. So far, it's just junk food, right?

Then it's served with what you'd think is hot chocolate, since it's hot, and it's chocolate, and it's served in a cup. And though it's treated as a dunking beverage for the churros, it's less a drink and more a sauce. It's thick, and dark, and it wouldn't be out of place drizzled on a hot fudge sundae.

If the fried dough and the sugar dunk aren't diet-busting enough, the portions will do you in. The donut portion of the dish is equivalent to about three unraveled fried crullers. The chocolate portion would cover a prize-winning banana split. All to get your day going.

It all tastes yummy, though, and you get a perverse pleasure out of not cleaning your plate. You simply can't.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nibbling at the Death Coast

The northwestern corner of Spain is known as the Costa de Morte, or Death Coast, in the region of Galicia. This rocky shore of the Atlantic has swallowed up many fishing vessels over the centuries. It's appropriate we do some swallowing in return.

Galicia's many treasures include octopus, which is tenderized and cooked, then seasoned with olive oil, salt and paprika. It's called pulpo a fiera, but it really isn't spicy. The other dish here is razor clams, called navajas.

Many eateries offer a course called rationes, which roughly means portions. The conventional tapas constitute smaller portions of these dishes.

We expected that these dishes would simply have been an afternoon snack, but this twilight interlude made it largely possible to circumvent dinner altogether that night.

There are about a dozen dishes that show up on the rationes menus in most places, and our plan is to run out of species of fish before we run out of Death Coast.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The wedding is over. Let’s eat.

Our return to the UK wasn’t predicated upon the royal calendar, just on the arrival of the merry month of May. After a restless overnight flight, your body simply doesn’t know what meal makes sense. For me, that’s a great time for sausages, which work any time of day.

What struck me about this pub dish was the presentation. First, the notion of making the dish attractive – for the poster child of pub grub – was a surprise. And the presentation was appealing, even to my half-closed eyes. Second, I just don’t imagine cabbage to be a garnish on a lovely dish, but there it is.

Fit for a future king. Now get some sleep.