Monday, June 18, 2012

Collecting Calories in Spain

I knew it.

I knew that I would go crazy on food in this country. Ever since I saw the travel-documentary, “Spain...on the road again” starring Gwyneth Paltrow and chef Mario Batali who travel around Iberian peninsula in a convertible visiting sights, tasting wine and mostly, eating, I had longed to experience Spain and its splendors. No convertible or famous chef to travel with in my case but much, much better; a very knowledgeable Spanish friend and his BMW X6, swift and comfy. Travelling with a native who is proud to not only show his gorgeous country around also be able to guide me through local delicacies and delights, I am positive that the payback time (in other words; ‘Gym & Diet’) would be arduous.

Stepping into Toledo, a UNESCO world heritage site which is a mere 70km from Madrid feels eerie; almost dream-like. Built on high hills and surrounded circularly by the river Tagus, the city looks rather like an open pop-up fairytale book for children.  Walking around this picturesque ancient city and its historic sites such as the Alcazar of Toledo, once a Roman palace dating back to as early as 3rd century and the massive 13th century gothic cathedral, one could easily imagine knights in armor wielding shiny swords and the sound of galloping horses afar.  One of the most typical dishes in Toledo is stewed red-legged partridge. What is partridge? I ask of course as it sounds so foreign to me. Despite my two friends’ explanation, bewildered me could only identify it as a kind of bird. The gracious waiter in the end kindly points at the stuff animal hanging from the ceiling; a partridge! This famous restaurant called Casa Aurelio operating since1953 has a partridge specialty cooked with potatoes in gravy on their menu among other scrumptious eats. To compare the taste of it to that of chicken would be unfair because partridge’s meat has uniquely jagged texture and heavier taste. Paired with Spanish red wine, a Tempranillo from the region, my Toledo stop-over will be forever associated with this delicious bird.
Red-legged Partridge

Say “Valencia”, what immediately comes to your mind?  No. Not Valencia CF, the football team! The answer is “Paella”. Though Spaniards consider this to be a regional Valencian dish, to the world, it’s a national dish of Spain. Usually, Bomba or Calasparra rice, grown in Murcia region which is very close to Valencia, is used to make paella, saffron and olive oil being main ingredients of course. I have always been fond of this rice dish and eaten it in many places including Barcelona during my first trip to Spain. But the one I have in the city where it originated beats all previous paellas I had ever eaten and triumphantly sets a new standard. La Marcelina restaurant located right on the golden-sand Las Arenas beach and founded in 1888 is more than just a restaurant but an institute. It is incredible how their paella rice is sticky enough yet not sticking together to form a gooey soupy mess which usually happens in many paella cases. Furthermore, the rice is crisp from baking, plain yet tasty and appetizing but not filling. What I love most about their paella is that the quality of rice speaks for itself without confusing the consumer by borrowing the tastes of various sea creatures or meat. Only small shrimps can be found cooked together with rice and the fabulous aioli sauce to spice up the dish, and that’s all there is. Muy Delicioso!

We find ourselves ordering paella at a local restaurant in Jerez, a historical town in Andalusia province, just to compare notes with the one in Valencia. While I praise their paella for the generous use of seafood (Never seen that many prawns and squids in one dish in my life, I swear!), my Spanish friend refuses to call it paella but instead he graciously and generously labels it ‘Paella Jerezana’. Fair enough! Paella story continues till we get back to Mardrid. This time is at Restaurante La Albufera.  Although my Spanish friend prefers this version to what now a standard for me, Paella Valenciana, I would find it difficult to pick the winner simply because both are flawless and indescribably tasty. I for once cannot find a way to complain. This is truly a classic Asian-boy-finds-his-rice in Europe story, therefore I am in heaven although I must admit a small portion of spicy fish paste or sukiyaki sauce would have made my heaven even more festive.  As usual, I want it all.

The Aqueduct of Segovia

When you drive 90km north of Madrid, you will find yourself in an enchanting old city called Segovia, “City of the victory”. I am confident to say that it is not the awe-inspiring Roman Aqueduct in which 25,000 granite blocks are set with neither mortar nor cement or the 11th century Sleeping Beauty castle, otherwise known as “The Alcazar of Segovia”; it is in fact “Cochinillo”, the suckling pig dish that will knock your socks off. Living on an island called Bali, suckling pig, ‘Babi Guling” in Balinese, is a common everyday meal. Although I have come to like many Indonesian cuisines, I have never been a fan of Babi Guling as I find it rather soggy, cold and unappealing plus the thought of eating babies makes me shudder.  But my Spanish friend drags me to Paradores de Segovia, one of the luxury hotels set in a perfect location in true Parador Hotels style; with the entire city before us and orders “Cochinillo”. Let me tell you, the crispy external layer of pork crumbles like biscuits only to expose the tender juicy flesh underneath. The dish is served simple; just as it is. When a dish is cooked as proper as this, it does not need to sit on a puree of potatoes or seek help from sautéed vegetables. The dish can independently declare its worth loud and proud.  This is one rare occasion where I silently sit and eat.

The view from the restaurant at Paradores de Segovia

Why haven’t I been talking about seafood in Spain? You might ask.  Sure, here it comes.  Spain is blessed with over 5000 miles of coastline and that can only mean one thing; incredible seafood.  Apart from the orgasmic paella, Valencia also offers lovely seafood options but I can never forget this restaurant in Madrid called “O’pazo”.  Once again, this Garlician restaurant, considered one of the best seafood restaurants in the world and rewarded with a Michelin Red Guide Star, was opened a long time ago, to be exact, in 1969. I am proud to say that this is where I first experience my ‘Percebes’, in English, loosely translated as ‘goose barnacles’. 

It is a sea creature somewhat related to crabs and lobsters and also one of the tastiest and most sought after delicacies in Spain. Being one of the most expensive seafood because harvesting them from the rocky shores is extremely dangerous and many fishermen die while cutting them away from wave-battered rocks, a plate of ‘Percebes’ can cost up to 100 Euros per kilo. It is like eating oysters. The unique taste comes from its freshness and raw texture. I can’t quite describe it or compare it to any other seafood for it is impossible. (C’mon, It has got to be good if you pay that much, right? Let’s just put it that way).  In addition to ‘Percebes’, the spider crab, ‘Centollo’ and “Gambas”, the prawns are also on the table, either steamed or lightly pan-fried with garlic in order to pave way for their natural flavors to stand out. By the time the buttered stingray arrives, I must have uttered “I love my life” five times already. Like Cochinillo, the cooking is uncomplicated. The taste of moist and silky textured fish pretty much takes the cake while the top-end quality butter supports. All that seafood paired with the crisp, elegant and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc from Marqués de Riscal, we are definitely living la vida bella.

Madrid’s gastronomic scene is as electrifying as its vibrant metropolis. There is something for every taste bud. Not only seafood, for those who also take pleasure in red meat every now and then, there is “La Tahona” which has many outlets around the country and their specialty, roast lamb cooked in a clay oven. I get skeptical when it comes to lamb as it has strong smell unlike beef but given our track record with consistently brilliant food handpicked by my Spanish friend, I am certain that am in good hands. As I watch the waiter skillfully cut and prepare the lamb freshly out of the oven for our table, I notice how lamb’s crunchy skin resembles a paper, soaked in oil, transparent and golden brown, with its juicy flesh underneath steaming hot and meltingly tender. When ingredients are fresh and authentic, simple cooking technique and the use of salt and pepper alone can make a delightful dish. That’s exactly what La Tahona’s lamb is all about.

Honestly, it sure is comfortable eating away days and nights like this in Spain. Comfortable? Yes, an underrated adjective for such a whirlwind food adventure, maybe! Yet the power of comfort, especially when it comes to food, is undeniably alluring. In the meantime, the thought of befriending plain salad and climbing the X-machine in gym aggressively upon my return is frightening. Well, that’s not at least happening just yet. So I reckon I should just, as they say, live a little. 

Only that I know I have lived a little… too much.  

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