A Winter Trip to Spain, Day 9: Why I was wrong about Spanish food and about kids and ketchup

Britain’s soon to be terminated membership of the European Union has not transformed international perceptions of our place in the global gastronomic pecking order.

I’ve spent much of my adult life bridling at continental serving staff presuming I will want my steak bien cuit. I can’t even escape this irritation at home on our Scottish island where a nomadic French waiter has turned up at our local restaurant to annoy me with repeated suggestions that I’d probably appreciate my Islay sirloin “meedy-yum“.

I was reminded of this while sitting in the hotel bar last night, ostensibly catching up on this blog but in reality wasting time jotting down incoherent ramblings and chucking down wine I could have done without.

Feeling peckish after the restaurant had closed, I asked if I could have some bread and ham. Thanks, I perhaps unfairly assume, to my passport (back to black in 2020 for me, oh joy), I was given this, I’m fairly sure, because of course all Brits prefer jamón de York, to the acorn-fed stuff Spain is famous for.

Bread, ham, butter and it is probably the bread that is hard to get right. I often think a simple jambon beurre is the best sandwich you can buy, provided it is on a decent baguette!

The sarnie, thanks to a thick layer of butter, was actually much nicer than it looks. It was just I’d been thinking of something closer to these jamon iberica treats I pictured in Zaragoza.

Perception is everything in the food business and one of Spain’s great successes through recent years of economic turmoil and counter-productive austerity has been in shifting the goalposts in terms of how its food and cooking are thought of internationally. This positive trend is only going to accelerate, I’d predict on the evidence of our trip. We have had many hits and zero misses so far.

Maybe Spain was under-estimated gastronomically before? Certainly it must have been by me, because fabulous food doesn’t just emerge without roots. Nor can it be rustled up in PR offices, contrary to what many in the British restaurant business seem to believe.

It was particularly nice to discover, while breaking our long trip to Granada, that the kind of food that has generated a buzz in the Basque and Catalan north is also available further south.

We had been planning to combine lunch with a quick glimpse of Murcia, another city that can trace its origins to the Moors arrival in Iberia.

But a combination of complicated roundabouts on Murcia’s periphery and Hugh spotting an IKEA store (“Is that an IKEA, can we go? I want to go. Can we go there, can we, can we …”) make us beat a hasty tactical retreat.

The next exit from the motorway plus the wisdom (sometimes great, sometimes questionable) of the TripAdvisor crowd leads us to the Alkimia New Tavern in the small town of Alcantarilla, just outside Murcia.

Flick through the food pictures below and before you get to the one of the bill, have a think about how much a lunch like this for four might cost in Britain.

A battered mussel with wakame, a sweet Japanese seaweed that our boys love thanks to Sushi Jo, our Chinese-run local when we lived in Rome.
Vietnamese duck roll: pretty well executed
The staff quickly delivered some extra wakame for the boys
Hugh can be an awful fusspot about food, constantly adding to his list of ‘don’t likes’. But there are three things he’ll scoff like a boy possessed: wakame, porridge and strawberries.
Devoured in seconds: chicken strips and home-made ketchup.

Chicken is currently on soon to be six-year-old Hugh’s ‘don’t like’ list but he made an exception for these, which the restaurant suggested the kids might like. James, his nearly four younger brother, has yet to discover fussing over food: our little Scoffalot prefers to save his meltdowns for fashion issues: he can often be found weeping inconsolably over being made to wear a short-sleeved versus a long-sleeved vest, or cords rather than his beloved tracksuit bottoms.

My eldest son Joseph, 21 this year, was raised on chicken strips not unlike those above. They were made with a parmesan/breadcrumbs mix that his late mother taught our nanny, Aida, to prepare. When he was very small we used to try and steer him away from ketchup, convinced it would give him a distorted sense of what food should taste like. I recanted that dogma after reading the American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten’s enlightening essay about the flavour enhancer MSG, “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache.”

I cannot find a link directly to the essay, which was published first in the US edition of Vogue, but here is one to the book in which I first came across it.  It was a gift, which cheers me hugely when I think of the pleasure I’ve had from it and its predecessor “The Man Who Ate Everything.”

As well as demolishing a popular myth surrounding MSG’s impact on visitors to Chinese restaurants in the West, Steingarten’s essay explores the impact the umami quality of certain foodstuffs (which is the whole point of MSG but also includes concentrated tomatoes, parmesan, porcini etc) have on how we experience both those items and other things we eat with them.

Today’s lunch is a good example of how contemporary chefs overtly focus on putting food on the table that appeals to our — apparently innate — love of umami. Breast milk is basically an umami/sugar smoothie so it is not surprising to learn that the Japanese word for this fifth taste means something akin to mouth-filling deliciousness. The science surrounding this magical quality of certain food is interesting and still a work-in-progress, but it is helping to transform what we eat when we eat out. You can read more about it in this 2005 Guardian piece by Alex Renton. 

Lomo de Bonito!
Lovely label on the local white

This was formidable: described as a Parmentier (French term for what we’d call a cottage pie and name of the man the French regard as the inventor of potatoes), it had a base of mashed spuds and a lovely stock suspending a poached egg and some fabulous chanterelles (I think).
Corvina in broth, or Corvina Soap as our waiter, battling valiantly with Google translate on his iPhone, described it. “Aha, soup,” I said when it arrived. I could not find a reliable translation for Corvina: it is often described as sea bass on bilingual menus but isn’t.
The boys found room for dessert based on different textures of chocolate: miracles will never cease, lolz!

So there you have it and here’s the bill! It seems superb value to me and I am fully aware of my privileged berk status, before anyone writes in about it.

Post-lunch, the boys snooze in the car and we roll into Granada in time for a bit of evening plaza action. Tonight, in the Albaicin, will be the first of five in a row spent with friends from my school and university days. Tomorrow we will visit the Alhambra. I feel quite chipper, all things considered.


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