Monday, November 28, 2011

Culinary Scorecard: France 10; Spain 3

How often have you had a hankering for a taste of España and said to your spouse/partner/friends, “Hey, let’s go out for Spanish food tonight!” Probably never, right? And that’s likely the reason I’ve seen so few Spanish restaurants outside of Spain. I’ve already written at length about all the perfectly yummy food we had all over France at fine dining restaurants and tiny bistros (thus, it scores a ten), but I find it difficult to come up with even a handful of meals we’ve had in Spain that I would label memorable. 

The first of the three points I award to Spanish dining goes to sangria. It’s always been one of my favorites (and I’m happy to report that Joe is now an aficionado) and we’ve enjoyed multiple fruit-filled pitchers of the thirst-quenching nectar over the past few weeks. Spain scores a second point for paella, although one was significantly better than the others. The best paella we enjoyed, hands-down, was for lunch in a beachside chiringuito (an informal food joint) in the town of Nerja on Playa Burriana along the Costa del Sol. It’s owned and run by an aging, pony-tailed hippie named Ayo who we first saw on an episode of Rick Steves. The eponymous, open-air restaurant’s specialty is paella, which they make over an open fire in a huge, four-foot diameter pan in view of diners in an outdoor kitchen. I’m certain our beachy surroundings added some local flavor, but our plates of saffron-infused rice were simply delicious on their own. Accompanied by a pitcher of sangria, eating our paella with our feet in the sand made for a very relaxing afternoon. The final point for Spain goes to tapas in general, but not all those we tried were uniformly appetizing. Many simply filled our stomachs but didn’t pass the we-can’t-wait-to-have-more test. We did our best to try as many typical Spanish tapas and especialidads de la casa as we could (including what Spaniards consider their beloved and very pricey jabugo jamón), but very few were notable. In Barcelona we had flash-fried artichoke shavings that were out of this world and in Sevilla, a variation of escalivada (grilled and peeled eggplant, tomatoes, onions, red peppers and garlic mixed and molded into a squat cylinder) topped with warm cod was finely prepared and filled with flavor. Also in Sevilla, we were served a bowl of salty, vinegary, very ripe olives the size of small plums that were probably the best we’ve had on our trip. Andalusian gazpacho, although more finely pureed and a bit creamier than the variety found in the states, was often offered on a tapas menu and was light, refreshing and tasty. 

So, as we move along in our travels, we’ll continue our quest for memorable local food and drink and maintain our highly subjective country-specific scorecards. So far, France is in the lead and by well more than just a head. We’ll only be in Portugal, just over the Spanish border, for a couple days – too short a time to really make an informed judgment, but we shall see. We have little idea of what to expect in Morocco, but we project that Italy will give France a run for her money. We’re headed to London for Christmas, so of course, British cuisine will likely score even lower than Spain’s. In the meantime, España can keep trying to impress us, but surely it will be too little too late. Eating at a Spanish restaurant once we get home, I’m afraid, will remain at the bottom of our dining out list – right next to going out for bangers and mash. Qué lástima!

Pictures of our adventures:

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