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Spain is divided into very distinct cultural and geographic regions and we experienced three of them: Madrid, geographically in the center, culturally a mix of all other regions and the most sophisticated sector of the country; Bilbao, in the north, in Basque country, the most distinct cultural region with its own language, politics and customs; Sevilla, in the far south, the Aldelusian region, also very distinctive, but without a separate dialect, rather with distinctive regionalisms.
The foods we ate followed these regional distinctions. The were some basic similarities throughout the country in terms of the timing and manner of meals. Breakfast was always light, with a deep black coffee served either in small cups or small glasses, half coffee and half hot-steamed milk. The cafe-con-leche was very thick and was much better with a dose of sugar. Lunch was also usually a light meal, accompanied by wine, vino tinto, or beer. For us, lunch was usually a variety of tapas, or sandwiches, almost exclusively varieties of ham, usually cured. Lunch usually happened for us around 3pm, at the end of the 'lunch-hour'. The timing for dinner, took some getting used to. Formally, dinner is not served before 9pm. The times that we were hungry prior to then required having more tapas along with wine and beer.
Our last night in Madrid, we took Soledad and Jose Maria out to dinner at an up-scale restaurant of their choosing. We were leaving early the next morning, they had to go to work, and their young daughters to school, so we made reservations for 9pm. As Jose Maria predicted, we were the very first persons to arrive for dinner. He told me that the only people having dinner at that time would be english-speaking, though the restaurant was not a tourist restaurant. It is however a favorite place for Madrileanos to bring their visiting friends. The locals usually don't show up for dinner until 11pm, just about the time we were having dessert and coffee. Never-the-less, I found it difficult to accustom myself to the idea of eating a huge dinner, then going home to bed at 1:30am, only to get up at 6:00am for work. This may explain the strength of the coffee.
A few other observations on urban dining in Spain, as we experienced it on our walks through Madrid, Sevilla, Aravaca, Marchena and Bilbao. My impressions are based on the many places we went inside as well as the hundreds where I only looked in the doorway. Every neighborhood we walked through had numerous restaurants and bars located all along the streets. They all had a number of common elements, from the smallest bar serving 10 people to the largest restaurant seating a few hundred. The bar is situated at the front entrance an usually is designed only for standing. Even the small bars are extremely well stocked with varieties of liquor and wine. The service people are always well dressed in a uniform of white shirt, black pants and usually black vest. The bar counter is topped with glass cases which are either hot or cold containers displaying tapas and pinchos. The bar has at least one very elaborate tap for beer, made of highly polished metal that looks like either silver or gold, with a cast statue or elaborate eagle on the top.
The counter top and all the accompaniments are constantly cleaned and polished so that everything gleams. Posted near the doorway is an official, government stamped document listing the items generally available and their prices. Over the bar is a proliferation of hand-written signs calling attention to specialties of the house. Many places include tables near the bar, but for those, you serve yourself at the bar then take a table to sit. Many also include a more formal room for dining, separate and further to the interior. All of those places have two prices, one for the bar and another higher price for the salon. The most fancy restaurants have small, heavily wooded and brassed bars following the same setup as above, off of which is a grand dining room. Whenever we ordered a bar drink, whiskey or wine, in the bar, or on the street, the waiter would bring both glasses and bottle to our table and then pour for us at the table. Whenever I ordered whiskey, it was always served in a tall glass and amounted to at least two if not four shots. Wine was most always 50 pstas per copa, usually small, whiskey was 200 pstas per glass.
The other ubiquitous element I noticed was the leg of smoked, cured ham hanging prominently behind the bar. Small places would have one or two legs, larger places would have from ten to fifty. The legs include the hoof, the leg and the hind-quarter. The legs are the source of the thinly sliced ham served in sandwiches or in the inumerable varieties of tapas and pinchos. Every place also had a rack in which the leg is placed for carving. These varied from simple wooden devices to elaborate brass and metal contraptions by which the foot is supported on one end and the butt on the other. Very large sharp knives are used to cut the meat and the skill and attention used in the cutting reminded me of what it takes to slice a good serving of smoked nova scotia salmon in a jewish deli.
Regarding the lunch hour. It was difficult to determine exactly what time period constituted the hour, but it seemed to start around noon and continue until 3 or 4pm. What was certain was that most of the small shops and businesses closed their doors sometime between 1 and 3pm and did not open them again until 3 to 5pm. We constantly thought about going into a shop, but stopped for coffee first, only to watch them pull the shop's closed gate before we got there. Lunch-time is a serious matter for the Spaniards and seemed always to include wine, beer, liquor and coffee with liquor. I would find it hard to go back to work.
In Madrid, upon arriving, the first meal we had consisted of a regular evening meal, served to us by Soledad, who made plates of tapas of choriso, sliced ham, and cheeses along with breads and crackers. The main course for dinner was creamed cauliflower accompanied by lettuce salad.
The next day, in Madrid, we had tapas during the day and then that night after a late movie, we had dinner at 12:30am. For dinner, we had: papas bravas (fried potatoes with a light gravy), sopa de marisco, and a plate of various sliced ham tapas, along with green salad.
The following day, we were leaving at noon for Bilbao, so Sole made lunch of fried fish, which consisted of three kinds... small sardines, medium sized anchovies, and large sardines. Each was breaded and deep fried, but each had its own, very distinct taste. Early that same day, Sole's neighbor brought me another Madrid specialty, callos, which is the pig stomach, steamed and cooked in oil, served in a light tomato sauce. This was accompanied by a side dish made from tomato and fruit, cooked together, which had a very sweet (dulce) taste and made an excellent companion to the callos, when eaten together.
In Bilbao, our first meal was a very late supper, at 2am which was a sampling of the varieties of pinchos at the bar. These included whole segments of tuna, cooked and dried, covered with slices of boiled egg and topped with shredded and grated egg white which had the consistency of shredded coconut. We also had cold steamed shrimp served on boiled egg topped with the same egg shreds, and filets of sardine, served in oil and vinegar, which were very light, tart, and delicious.
The next day we had numerous tapas in bars along our walkway as well as more pinchos and a torte de patata, which is potato and egg cooked and baked together and served by the slice. The following day, we traveled back to Madrid, so most of our eating consisted of sandwiches we brought with us on the bus, sliced dried pork with tomato, and tapas and coffee eaten in three minutes during the mid-trip bus stop. Usually two or three buses stop at one time at the road-side cafe. Then three counter- men work vigorously to serve seventy people all crowded up against the cafe counter. We hadn't learned the routine at that point, push your way to the front and order something to take out, so we had to gulp down our coffee and food as the crowd surged back out onto the parking lot.
We left Madrid the next morning for Sevilla, again by bus, and were well prepared for the stop-overs. Madrid to Bilbao was a five our trip. It took seven hours to get to Sevilla, so the bus actually stopped twice, once for a pee-break and once for food. We took sandwiches, jamon and queso de cabra, and cold drinks with us, and got hot tortas and coffee during both stops. We arrived in Sevilla very late, so we had 'normal' dinner again, eating at 1:30am. Our dinner started with a large green salad, topped with tomato, onion and chopped eggs. The main serving was shrimp cooked in hot oil and garlic with little pieces of chopped, dried ham. Lillian had the pescado mixto-frito, which was similar to the plate that Sole had made for us, except that it included squid and a very interesting white, chewy fish, that cooked, looked like french fries. Her dish was accompanied by french fries.
In Sevilla, our days had a very similar pattern. We walked the city for nearly the entire day, usually trying to find a specific building to look at some art, and as we walked, we had tapas. In the evening we would go to the cine, usually getting out around midnight, when we would then return to our hostel for dinner. At Hostel Arenal, they served two kinds of 'daily menu', either fish or meat. The first plate was either salad or soup and the second plate was the fish or meat. During our stay, we each had varieties of both. The fish was usually the same mixto-frito and the meat was usually pork chop. Both the fish and the pork chop were accompanied by french fries. The pork chop was very light and delicate and the fish was nearly the same as the plate we got for our first meal in Sevilla. The soup was very interesting. It included chunks of dried ham, onion, boiled chopped egg, sausage and pieces of dried bread which had been soaked in a flavored oil. We usually started the meal with a light locally made wine called manzanilla, which was very dry and tart, made from apples. We were told by the patrone that the wine would not travel from Andelusia, that it would turn black and spoil as the climate and environment changed. Muy delicate, he told us.
On Saturday, we were picked up from the Hostel by Jose Antonio's father and driven 20 miles towards Granada, near Cordoba, to spend the day in their Andelusian village, Marchena, which dates back to the 11th century. It has an ancient roman and moorish legacy.
We were treated royally by Jose Antonio's family. First, his father Manuel took us to his favorite bar where we had a plate of pata negra tapas and a plate of mixed olives. In all of the bars we stopped in, drinks are accompanied by a plate of olives, either large green olives with the pits included, or small green olives with the pits removed. The olive plate here was a mix of both but also included pitted olives stuffed with anchovies, black olives, and whole capers with stems attached. The olives were served swimming in a puddle of local olive oil. Pata negra is a special black pig. The tapas plate was thin slices of cured ham, served on small slices of bread and drenched in a covering of local olive oil. We drank local manzanilla with this. Back at the house, Jose Antonio's mother had been cooking all day. First, we were served slices of toasted bread smothered in their home-made olive oil, which was very thick, dark and cloudy with the consistency of honey. It had a very distinctive, but in no way sweet, taste. Just very rich and very smooth. With the bread and oil, we drank wine from a cask which Manuel had cured over the years by treating it with various wines. At that moment, it was filled with a wine he had kept for over one year, which had the flavor of a fine sherry.
He decanted some from the cask into a clay pitcher and in the glass it had a very golden and delicate shine. This was followed by mid-day dinner, in our honor. Jose Antonio's sister Jesus Angelina, her husband Manolo, their son Manolito, and daughters Angelina and Maria were with us for lunch which started with tapas plates of cured ham, more pata negra, chorizo, and delicately steamed shrimps, cooked in the shell with the heads and antennea attached. The second plate was a stewed version of pata negra, cooked so finely and so lightly that it melted tenderly in your mouth. This was accompanied by chunked fried potatoes and side dishes of a slaw-like salad of apples, onions, shredded lettuce and carrots mixed in a fresh mayonaise, and a second salad of orange pieces mixed with boiled egg and served in a garlic wine and oil dressing. Dinner was served with Rioja from a local winery, brought by the son-in-law, Manolo, and was followed by another fine wine, which Manuel had been saving. It was fifteen years old and the label had a special marking on top with the letters P.X., which we were told represented a special designation. The wine was almost black in color, was quite thick, and was very dry with no hint of sweetness in the taste. We ended the meal with coffee and cheese slices.
Later in the day, we toured of the local iglesia, where Manuel is the custodian of the church's historic relics, which he showed us in great detail. These included many gold and silver objects, tapestries woven with gold and silver threads, and hand-made books of hymns, inscribed by monks on pages made from animal hides. These books were dated late 1400's and early 1500's. We paged through most of them looking at the latin, the musical notation and the illuminations. Afterwards, we went to a pastrillia and bought a dozen mixed pastries and sweets which we then ate at the house, when the priest came by for a late afternoon visit.
Our last day in Sevilla, we missed four buses, as they were all over- subscribed, so with four hours to kill, we went to the cine, again, this time to watch an Italian science-fiction film called 'Nirvana'. We then went out to the most upscale restaurant of our stay in Sevilla for a Sunday afternoon lunch, at 2pm. This time, our timing was right, as many Sevillanos take a long lunch on Sunday. Our table was covered in pink linen and was set with multiple glasses and silverware settings. We started with Manzenilla and for first plate shared a shrimp paella which included dried ham, peas and beans, onions, shallots, bits of boiled egg and capers. Lillian chose pork chops, which were very thin sliced and delicately cooked, served in light, white wine and cream sauce and accompanied by french fries. I chose the fish, which was a light, white fish which had been steamed and was also served in a light wine and cream sauce. It was served in a fine china bowl and included french fried potatoes in the mixture. Both dishes were very delicious.
Returning to Madrid required another seven hours on the bus and meals of serranito sandwiches which we brought with us on the bus. Serranito is thin sliced cured ham, and thin, pan-fried pork chop served with a whole filleted oil-fried green pepper. The rest of our food for that day was tapas at the bus-stops and quickly consumed glasses of cafe-con-leche.
Our day in Madrid included another train ride into the city and a long walk through many neighborhoods. We ended up at 3pm in a local cervezaria where we shared the two parts of the 'meal of the day' for lunch. Plate one was a salad of greens, shredded chicken, onions, boiled chopped egg, and tomato. Plate two was a soup de caldo. It had a light broth which contained lima beans, pinto beans, red beans, chunks of dried ham, chorizo, and some kind of intestinal thickener. It had a raw egg added and stirred into it which cooked lightly in the hotness of the soup broth. We drank beer for lunch.
Our last night in Madrid, was the afore-mentioned dinner treat that we made for our hosts. This dinner, since there were four of us, started with four appetizer plates which included: congrejo del rio (crabs of the river, which I assumed were crawfish), they were lightly steamed and served on a bed of seasoned rice mixed with chopped onions, carrots and shallots; steamed shrimp served in a light oil and vinegar; blood sausage mixed with scrambled eggs and a black bean sauce; and eggplant, sliced and served on slices of tomato and covered with a dark black spiced sauce. Our second plates included smoked salmon served on tomato slices, covered with a light green wine and cream sauce; venison, cooked in a stew of prunes and apples; and two servings (Jose Maria and me) of ocean-crab which had been dug out of the shell, pureed and mixed with seasonings and stuffed back into the shell and baked. This dinner was by far our most expensive, costing us, for four people, the equivalent of four nights lodging in Sevilla, where we paid 3000 pesetas per night, tax and tip included. But, it was also the most exotic and (as the restaurant billed itself) imaginative meal of our trip.