Mem­o­ries of meals gone by

A world-fa­mous chef re­flects on less com­pli­cated Span­ish flavours

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - RICK STEIN

IF you go to La Coruna, there’s a place I think you should visit. It won’t fill you with a sense of mod­ern Spain, the coun­try that daz­zles the eye with its forests of elec­tric­ity-gen­er­at­ing wind­mills on the tops of hills, its new mo­tor­ways with dark blue crash­bar­ri­ers and dizzy­ing spaghetti in­ter­sec­tions with just-com­pleted roads that some­times seem to be go­ing nowhere.

Nei­ther will it give you a shred of in­for­ma­tion about the new Span­ish cook­ing, with its emul­sions of roasted piquillo pep­pers and foams of lan­goustines. This place does oc­to­pus and, not un­nat­u­rally, it’s called Me­son do Pulpo; it’s in the Calle de la Franja, a nar­row street packed with lit­tle seafood restau­rants whose names hardly seem to mat­ter, though if you’re do­ing a bit of a tapas trek, there’s an­other one called Me­son O Galego, which has very wob­bly ta­bles and is rated by the lo­cals as the best in Gali­cia.

Do Pulpo spe­cialises in pulpo a la fe­ria, slices of ten­der oc­to­pus boiled in salted wa­ter and served on a pine plat­ter sprin­kled with ex­tra vir­gin olive oil, sea salt and pi­men­ton, the smoky pa­prika from La Vera in Ex­tremadura, which is the most dis­tinc­tive flavour of Span­ish food. I can’t think of any dish in Spain I en­joy more, es­pe­cially with a glass of al­barino wine.

I might also have men­tioned a tapas bar a few streets away called La Traida. It was run by two sis­ters in their 70s, Sisa and Mari Car­men. They took over when their fa­ther died and ran it for 50 years. I went there last Fe­bru­ary. Now it’s gone.

As is of­ten the way in such old bars, the floors were un­even flag­stones and the walls adorned with pic­tures of Gali­cian rias, sunken val­leys flooded by the sea where a lot of Gali­cian seafood is caught or farmed. There were pic­tures of King Car­los and Queen Sofia, and lots more of their own, muchloved fa­ther. Such places are go­ing fast, re­placed by mod­ern bars or clothes shops.

My Spain is fixed in those older places. I first went there in 1955, to Cantabria; the civil war had fin­ished only 16 years ear­lier. Child­hood mem­o­ries are so strong. I re­mem­ber the poverty, the shock of see­ing that the fish­er­men had no toi­lets. And the Guardia Civil, the na­tional po­lice, were ev­ery­where in the coun­try­side, stand­ing mo­tion­less, watch­ing the roads, in their grey uni­form and dis­tinc­tive black two-cor­nered hats.

One of them roughly pushed me back into the crowd at the Battle of the Flow­ers in the fish­ing port of Laredo where we were staying, and that, and the dark­ness of Bur­gos Cathe­dral, seems like yes­ter­day. I can still see the fright­en­ingly life­like im­ages of Je­sus bat­tered on the cross, the gal­lop­ing statue of El Cid out­side with sword out­stretched, and his cof­fin high on the wall in­side. Onthe way back from Bur­gos to Laredo there were grif­fon vul­tures cir­cling high above the moun­tains. All formed a slightly grim but ro­man­tic view of Spain that I can’t shake off.

It was a world that the English au­thor Laurie Lee walked into one mid­sum­mer’s morn­ing in 1934 and found a poor but beau­ti­ful coun­try, ‘‘a land­scape pure as the sea, an­cient, wind-rav­aged and bare’’, iso­lated from the rest of Europe by the Pyre­nees and a his­tory of ar­dent Catholi­cism brought about by a fa­nat­i­cal de­sire to build a Chris­tian nation af­ter 800 years of Moor­ish rule.

This in­flu­ence of the church, and the riches and pro­duce from the Amer­i­cas — pota­toes, toma­toes, chill­ies, to­bacco — were what made Spain what it was, so well per­son­i­fied in the char­ac­ter of Don Quixote. For al­though Cer­vantes wrote the book in the 16th cen­tury, not much changed un­til the civil war. Quixote, the ide­al­ist, a man of qual­ity but des­per­ately poor, think­ing of food all the time and dream­ing of times past when knights per­formed daz­zling acts of chivalry, set­ting out to put a baf­fling world to rights: this seems to me to be how Spain was.

Since Gen­eral Franco died in 1975, Spain has be­come a com­pletely dif­fer­ent coun­try, pros­per­ous, sexy even, and con­fi­dent. Cities like Barcelona and Va­len­cia are ex­cit­ing places with en­ter­tain­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, like the all-glass Gas Nat­u­ral build­ing by the sea in Barcelona, which has part of its com­pli­cated mir­ror-like el­e­va­tions built as though it has had a gi­gan­tic bite taken out of it by a shark. A marine theme re­sults in the shim­mer­ing sil­ver scales of the Guggen­heim Mu­seum in Bil­bao, too, which has trans­formed a rather grey north­ern in­dus­trial city in the Basque coun­try into some­where stylish. Both build­ings en­gage the viewer and give a sense of op­ti­mism and hope.

My prob­lem is not that I don’t en­joy this new Spain, it’s just that I’m still im­bued with mem­o­ries of Spain over my life­time. As an eight-year-old I had cut­tle­fish stewed in its own ink with gar­lic and tomato and I still re­mem­ber it.

Span­ish cook­ing has been for me over the years a mem­ory of sim­ple but com­pletely sat­is­fy­ing flavours. In the north, in what they call Green Spain, I think of the white thick­ness of a fil­let of hake cooked in al­barino wine with peas and as­para­gus, or the cheer­ful acid­ity of As­turian cider, freshly aer­ated from be­ing poured into a glass from a great height, and served with a tapas of fresh slices of monk­fish, deep-fried in egg bat­ter.

In the Basque coun­try, I love the scent of char­coal on the rib of beef chops they grill rare and slice for you. I yearn for the plates of wild mush­rooms quickly fried in olive oil, then served with an egg yolk to stir in as a sauce in a pin­txos bar in San Se­bas­tian.

In con­trast, in the hot and dry south, there are the reds and yel­lows of the Span­ish flag ev­ery­where: the strong red wine from Ri­oja, the warm smoky red of pi­men­ton, sweet toma­toes, the deep red of Ibe­rian ham with its melt­ing fat, and the flecked lean with its slight grit­ti­ness and tart­ness, the or­angey-red of spicy chori­zos with yel­low chick­peas or but­ter beans, and the colour of saf­fron and lemon, golden gar­lic and eggs. Eggs in tor­tillas, in soups and scram­bled with as­para­gus, aubergine, tomato and cour­gette.

With the slip­pery green of pep­pery olive oil and the scent of orange and orange blos­som, you re­alise that the heart of Span­ish food lies in the sim­plic­ity of the cook­ing and their be­lief in the qual­ity of raw ma­te­ri­als. Food for me is a mem­ory of happy times in Spain tied in with thoughts of old musty cathe­drals, vast hori­zons and fish­ing boats some­where in the Mediter­ranean un­load­ing wooden boxes of dark red prawns, a scent of fish scales, black to­bacco and diesel in the air. This is an edited ex­tract from Rick Stein’s Spain (Ran­dom House Aus­tralia, $49.95).

Bri­tish chef Rick Stein first vis­ited Spain as a boy in 1955

A dish of ten­der pulpo

A lo­cally fished oc­to­pus

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