Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Two Meals In Spain

After an hour's travel by car almost due south from Oloron-Sainte-Marie - or several weeks on foot if you're a pilgrim on the Compostela trail - you'll find the Spanish town of Jaca. At some point a generation or two ago a man from Oloron moved to Jaca and opened Restaurante Biarritz, where Florence and Michaëla and I ate lunch on Sunday. While both France and Spain use the euro, you certainly don't have to use as many euros to eat out in Spain, at least in my limited experience, and Florence affirmed that it's not unknown for people to cross the border just for dinner.

The restaurant was prepared for international visitors, and we were handed the French menu by a fairly bilingual waiter, who then brought us a free starter of foie gras. I wrapped my share in the decorative lettuce accents instead of spreading it on the toast points provided. I chose the 12-euro menu option and the other two splurged on the 25-euro choices which included truffled sausages and shrimp, but I was very happy with what I'd ordered: a salad of lettuce hearts topped with tuna and anchovies, and bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to splash them with; a braised lamb shank with roasted potatoes; and sliced melon (not quite in season yet, but it was still good). Florence had the gâteau Russe, the recipe for which may have also traveled south from the bakery in Oloron.
Both the 12-euro and 25-euro options were quite generous in portions, though I had no problems finishing everything (it was well after 1pm by that point, so breakfast had long since worn off). Ideally, you'd take the traditional three-hour Sunday lunch to do justice to them, but we had miles to go before we ate again, so after a quick stroll on the grounds of the Castle of San Pedro (more on that in another post), we headed east.

One of the things about Spain that both attracts and dismays me is the tradition of a ir de tapas, spending a few hours before dinner (which the Spanish apparently eat even later than the French, which amazes me) wandering from bar to bar with friends, having drinks and eating savory snacky things. It attracts me because hello, what's not to like about drinking and grazing and enjoying good conversation, but I am dismayed by the number of traditional tapas that involve bread and/or cheese. Although my knowledge of these small dishes is of course limited to what I've read about in articles and cookbooks, and probably if I went bar-hopping I'd find that there are lots of things I could eat. It was about 6pm by the time we finished wandering around Pamplona - fortunately the tourist office was open, even though it was a Sunday, so we had a map - and the bars were just starting to open, setting out their small plate selections in tempting displays.

None of us were hungry at that point, so I didn't suggest that we sample any of the many places we walked by, but now I'm very interested in making a return trip, to Pamplona or Bilbao or Barcelona, to have the tapas experience. Although it seems like going out for dim sum, in that you'd want to have at least three or four people in the group, so you could taste a little bit of many, many different selections. And if I were with friends, I wouldn't have to stand there talking to myself to satisfy the conversation requirement.

I'd pass on the cronuts, however, even if they're just like mother used to make.

We ended up in one of the many café/bar/restaurants that line the four sides of the Plaza del Castillo in the center of the old section of town and sat enjoying the sun. There were a lot of children running around, some in what looked like church clothes, with small boys in short-pant suits of blue or grey, and girls in long white lace dresses, which didn't stop them from playing soccer and tag. I watched a waiter on the next terrace over pour a woman a gin and tonic that was more than half gin, with a squeeze of lime to make it healthy. A tall man who looked to be in his thirties, and possibly from Scandinavia, walked by smiling and holding a guidebook open to a map of the city; I almost asked him if he wanted to hit some of the tapas bars with me, as he seemed like he was looking for congenial company and conversation. Not that my company wasn't congenial! But I identified with the lone traveler, even though when I'm traveling by myself I hesitate to approach people and start conversations. That's something I'd like to work on, as I look forward to starting my travels again.

We ate dinner back in France, at the home of Florence's friend Magda, who served us olives and mussels with wine for our tapas hour, at the very Spanish (and French) hour of 9pm or so. After dinner I fell asleep listening to the crackle of the wood-burning stove.
And then the next morning it was on the road again, and back into Spain for lunch - a late lunch again, this time towards 2pm, after our unscheduled side trip to Bayonne. We ate at the restaurant above the supermarket at the outlet-store/low-priced-Spanish-goods shopping plaza at Arnéguy, just over the border. Like the restaurant at Jaca, these people were prepared for French citizens making the day trip to stock up on cheap(er) food and wine and cigarettes, and the menus and waiters were bilingual at least. I decided that since I was in Spain, I'd go for the Spanish choices on the menu, and ate jambon de Serrano as my starter. "Is it better than my ham?" asked Florence. Hard to say - it definitely was milder, with a nutty flavor. The Bergeras hams are aged at least a year, and usually more like 18 months, before they're sliced and sold, so they have a more assertive YOU ARE EATING HAM NOW flavor. Which is quite good, but intense.

I continued with a serving of the restaurant's house paella, with mussels and shrimp and chicken parts (including the neck). Once again the portions were more than sufficient, and a bargain at 14 euro. I had a bit of tangerine sorbet for dessert with the last of the wine, but had to leave the lemon sorbet which I think was actually gelato, from its mouthfeel and cough-inducing creaminess. Damn these food sensitivities anyway.

Then down to the supermarket to look for the olive-oil-fried potato chips I found in Canfranc. Which I didn't find in this supermarket, though I could have bought canned mussels or octopus or squid or mackerel or sardines in all sorts of different sauces. I bought a bag of chips fried in an olive-oil and sunflower-oil blend, and some Spanish sparkling wine, and a jar of supersized capers that I think I'll add to the boxes of tomato sauce that have been sitting in the cupboard for a month or two now. I need to start using things up, now that there are only two months (!) left to my stay here. All good things come to an end - but my list of things I want to experience in the future just keeps growing. Onward to the next food adventure!

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