19 February 2008

Weekend Away: Valencia

Valencia was fantastic. Every weather website told us that it would rain all weekend. Maybe we should be thankful for these horribly inaccurate predictions, because the beautiful sunshine we basked in was probably made even more enjoyable by the fact that we were prepared for constant downpour.

My Junior High and High School Spanish teachers would have been so proud of me this weekend. When we went for dinner on Saturday night (and I do mean night: we didn’t leave for dinner until about 21:30), there was no English to be heard in the entire restaurant. There were no seats or menus either. Everyone was standing, elbow-to-elbow, crammed as tightly as possible into the small space at Tasca Angel. We walked into the one-room restaurant and slithered to the back, where we tried to figure out the procedures for eating. After understanding every fourth or fifth word coming out of the proprietor’s mouth, we figured out that he was putting everyone into groups of five or six. N & I were grouped with a local family.

As I already mentioned, there were no menus. Instead, the chef picked out the best he could find at the market that morning and served the dishes one-at-a-time to each group of diners. To get the attention of the groups as they ate, the chef let out a whistle and waved his hands furiously. The first course to come out was a kebab of pork loin with onions, red peppers, and a wonderful piece of chorizo at the bottom. After the pork came a plate of mushrooms and roasted peppers doused in a garlicky olive oil. By this point, we were just starting to get full. But the food wasn’t going to stop. We heard the chef whistle and saw him wave his arms, and were soon enjoying the next dish: sardine fillets that were perfectly grilled and covered with olive oil, garlic, and parsley. Finally, a small bowl of grilled squid came out, also with that garlic and oil that we’d come to love. The others in our group told us that to eat like locals, we should sop our bread in this garlic oil. What a great suggestion that turned out to be. This meal, washed down with a local, white wine, made it on to my top ten list of all time. And even though the food was fantastic, the experience is what put it over the top. Here we were, two guys who spoke almost no Spanish, surrounded by locals and being screamed and whistled at by a chef who picked out the ingredients for our meal just a few hours prior.

Earlier Saturday, we had a chance to have authentic paella by the sea. I’d never had paella before (let alone authentic paella from its birthplace). It starts as a soupy concoction in a giant cast iron pan. Depending on the chef, there might be chorizo, chicken, other meats, and sometimes even seafood. It reduces and reduces until the rice soaks up all of the liquid and becomes firm.

I just realized that almost all of the high points of the weekend seem to have been culinary. I think that’s because the food we enjoyed was the product of shorter supply chains. The chef at Tasca Angel bought his peppers, mushrooms, onions, and garlic from a produce dealer at the Mercado Central, and his pork loin and chorizo from a butcher, and his sardines and squid from a fishmonger at the same market. There wasn’t a Sysco truck delivering canned, frozen, or prepackaged anything. And, above all else, the chef clearly cared that the food coming from the market, through his kitchen, and into our mouths was the best it could possibly be, whether those mouths belonged to regular customers or to a couple of non-Spanish-speaking students from London.

On Sunday morning we woke up and headed to the Plaza de la Virgen. As we stood in the plaza N observed that within 300 meters of each other were a modern art installation of clothes drying machines retrofitted with musical instruments playing a symphony, a demonstration of traditional Spanish dance complete with authentic costuming in the plaza, and a mass in progress at the basilica with priests hearing confessions scattered about the basilica’s halls.

It was a fantastic weekend away.

No comments: