Friday, June 06, 2014

Spain: A sort of homecoming

A faltering economy, nobody buying mix CDs out of Ibiza (Eye-bee-tha if you're a Brit) anymore, four years removed from its World Cup championship… Outside of my hardcore food/hospitality friends, it seems nobody talks about Spain these days – and even then half the time is spent mourning El Bulli, or rather how none of us ever got to eat there. These days, France is kinda cool again in that self-centered-ugly-people-being-cool kind of way led by hipsters. Scandinavia is white hot, whether it's dining, happiness indexes or inspiring Disney animated features. And no traveler worth his or her salt calls themselves a traveler without spending at least a month in Asia. But Spain is just sort of… there.

Me, I've always loved Spain. I blabbed on about it around Christmas 2006 and New Year's 2007, and somewhere on the Interwebs there are photos of me horribly inebriated with German and Dutch backpackers around Catalunya in 2003. Over a decade later, much has changed, and much hasn't. Back in Andalucía… Racking up kilometers in a tiny rental car… Eating and drinking through anything that might be in my way.

I've certainly upgraded the lodging situation.

And have a more permanent travel companion.

But blissfully some things are best not changing at all, like Bodegas Obregon in El Puerto de Santa Maria, the oldest sherry bodega in Jerez province, from which we get the name sherry (or Xérès if you're Frenchy).

Obregon was half of everything I love about Spain rolled up into one place – old as time, titillating to the senses, and – compared to much of where I go nowadays – ridiculously cheap. It's the kind of place a lot of old folk, and quite a few young folk, can have a pre-prandial glass or two or three of sherry at around a euro a copa.

The other side of Spain that I love was just a five minute walk away: The pioneering, fear-nothing, get-the-fuck-out-of-your-comfort-zone avant garde-ism that brought us Picasso, Almodovar, and Adria. That was at Aponiente, the all-seafood restaurant from "chef del mar" Angel Leon where products from the waters that surround the Iberian peninsula are transformed into sausages, or crackers, or ham, or creamy egg-like substances, or even bread.


Aponiente is a bit fancy, but it's fun. It's classy, but it's humble. The waiter practically apologized for serving langoustine, saying it was added to the menu to accommodate people's demands for more luxurious food when in a fine dining setting. The modernist play on familiar, pure, primordial flavors through the 20 other, non-luxury-ingredient courses of tuna, mussels, razor clams, and even plankton is deeply delicious, intellectually challenging, but never intimidating – reflecting in a way how I feel about Spain and its contradictions.

Spain, to me, is simple, but full of variety. Uncomplicated but mired in subtleties. It's an interplay I enjoy. I see it when ordering gin & tonic at a bar, where there are 1000 different ways they can pour it, but they'll only pour it their way unless you specify otherwise, which they are more than happy to accommodate, no questions asked… I see it at the supermarket, which are American in size and scope but where the produce is limited to what's local (short of a few tropical fruits) yet the word "organic" seems not to exist… I see it in the waiters who are almost invariably dressed in pressed pants and white shirts and attentive to your every need, but so informal as to say "tu" instead of "usted" and apologize if there's even the slightest misstep. (Living in France has skewed this last one to be very impressive to me.)

And, of course, I see it in every chiringuito where I can have my insanely fresh fish grilled whole, or fried in chunks, or fileted and pan-fried restaurant style… (Again, living in France has rendered any choice in how I would like my fish prepared a total anomaly.)


Coming back to Andalucía was not unlike a homecoming. The decision to come was simple: My cousin Ali, who grew up in London, was to marry Erin, who grew up in Australia, and while southern Spain is by no means in between, it made for a nice wedding destination. And thus the main event was an emotional epicenter – an opportunity for me to see family I hadn't seen in over 20 years, to meet all-new family, and to introduce them all to Alannah. The world may be getting smaller but our lives only get busier, so we had to take advantage of this occasion to come together.

…and have an excuse to take a break!

Spain was not only one of my early travel destinations, but Alannah's as well, though we'd never come here together before. So it was also our chance to indulge in copious amounts of tapas…

(If ever you're near Torreguidaro, make a point of going to Pura Tapa, camp out, and make your way through as much of the menu as you can.)

Listen to and watch some flamenco…


Eat our weight in churros y chocolate


And spend our last moments as a childless couple doing things no responsible parent should ever do, like pose for a photo on a live runway in Gibraltar.


My own parents actually drove along the Costa del Sol of Andalucía (and beyond, all the way through to Iran via Turkey!) when I was but a little thing in the womb, so it's only appropriate that we plant the same travel bug in our child-to-be. Circle of life. Hakuna matata. As they say in the old country… a luego*.

A ton more photos – mostly of food and pregnant bellies – are available in this Flickr set.

*I was totally caught off-guard by this. When saying goodbye in (Mexican) Spanish in California it's always hasta luego, but every single time, I only heard a luego on this trip.