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Reflections on Spain

Fresh, Local, Regional – Every Day in Spain!

A few weeks ago I sat down at a restaurant in El Puerto de Santa Maria that serves delicious fresh seafood. I ordered one of my favorites, acedias fritas, delicious tiny flounder fried to perfection. The waiter told me that it was unavailable – it was Monday after all! The fishing boats don’t head out on Sunday, and he wasn’t about to serve me two-day-old fish.

Earlier I marveled at the freshness of the fish, meats and vegetables at the local open air mercado at the center of Cadíz. Along with scores of stalls with the freshest of fruits and vegetables painstakingly displayed by the proud vendors, there must have been sixty vendors of fresh seafood. While each offered seemingly identical piles of freshly harvested merluza, chipirones and langostinos, each obviously had their own group of loyal and discerning customers. I have never seen anything fresher, even at small local seafood stores in coastal Virginia.

Why is everything so fresh in Spain? I think one reason has to do with the special regional culture of Spain. The people have a fundamental pride in the region of their birth, and it expresses itself most profoundly in how they eat. Often times we have been told that the beans, shellfish, wine, sausages, etc. of a certain location are vastly superior to those in a town that is only a few kilometers away. Sometimes it is true that there is a noticeable difference, but overall, it is an expression of pride in the local culture and traditions that span centuries.

Spaniards throughout the country are serious about what they eat. In Spain, should you choose to stop at what we would term a 'truck stop' you will find that the truck drivers are not drinking warmed-over coffee and some microwave concoction from the world of the fast and convenient. Instead of a machine of perpetually revolving hot dogs by the cash register, there will be a full menu of local cuisine. The truck drivers settle into a three-course meal with their buddies - perhaps some fresh fish or a thin solomillo steak, and ensalada mixta con atún - a hearty mixed green salad with large chunks of tuna and boiled eggs.

With the ready availability of truly fresh ingredients from the local countryside, most of the good restaurants concentrate on the local cuisine. Outside of the big cities, Spain does not have the American obsession with new flavors. It is hard to find a restaurant featuring good French or Italian food, never mind Thai, Japanese or Indian. In fact, even enjoying food at a restaurant featuring dishes from another region of Spain can be seen as a bit adventurous. Because of this, the meat, fish and vegetables are mostly sourced locally from the surrounding countryside or nearby sea.

This attention to quality is shared by all Spaniards. Whether they be customers or cooks, they learned to appreciate quality at their mother’s knee! We see it every time my wife and I take our two young daughters to a favorite local restaurant on the weekend. As a matter of course we will be seated next to a large family who are gathered around a long table. Grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins all come together on the weekend, spending hours together over great food. The sheer volume of discussions between family members is astonishing to an outsider – it seems as if everyone is talking at once! And the children and babies are included from the start, so they grow up enjoying the local cuisine and learning to discern what quality food should taste like.

Families also gather at tapas bars during the week, where a child learns that coffee does not come served in a paper cup, but rather from ceramic espresso cups, often lined up on the bar counter with a sugar envelope tucked in each saucer. When their parents order their café con leche or café cortado, the bartender swings into action in front of his elaborate espresso coffee machine. Preparing a serious cup of coffee is quite a ritual and fun to watch.

First, to prepare one cup, there is the insistent tapping out of the old grinds by the bartender, to make room for his freshly ground beans. Then there is much steaming and bubbling as the coffee is completed and milk is foamed. The carefully prepared cup of freshly ground coffee is in another class than what we in America are used to – and often the blend of beans is tailored to match the taste of the local area where it is served. No corners are cut for a good fresh cup of coffee. As with the food, the coffee is plain and simple – unadorned with foreign flavors.

Repeated visits by extended families are the lifeblood of these restaurants, and since their customers keep returning for generations, they must deliver what their clients want: fresh, local, traditional meals. I think this is the key to the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet. The vegetables are fresh and minimally prepared. The meats and seafood are cooked simply, no creamy sauces to hide old or processed ingredients.

The movement to eat locally produced, wholesome food in America has been growing recently, and this is a good thing. It seems absurd to find California peaches in Georgia during peach season or frozen shrimp from Vietnam in coastal Carolina. We have a lot to learn from Spain, where the concept of fresh, local cuisine is not a cause to join, but a fact of every day life.

¡Buen provecho!

Jonathan Harris


This month's guest writer is Jonathan Harris, who is spending six months visiting vendors and exploring Spain. He is a co-owner and son of Don Harris.

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COMMENTS

"I was thrilled to you article about one of my favorite restaurants in the world. The food is truly amazing"
JOHN ROYAL, GROTON, CT USA

"Well said, Jonathan. While I loved in Spain I came to love the simplicity of food preparation and the absolute insistence of the Spanish consumers for freshness. I do so miss living there. Thanks for your site and the remembrances."
Glen, Austin, Texas, USA

"I find it so refreshing, that a whole american family, is propagating and keeping, the spanish way of healthy, wholesome eating, along with the culture.More power to you all.God bless you.I do so enjoy reading your articles.keep them coming! carmen"
Carmen Gomez, Wollongong Australia

"Thank you for taking the time to write, and for your words of encouragement. My wife Ruth and I just returned from experiencing Semana Santa in Cuenca and exploring the "Ruta de los tambores" -- hundreds of drums playing in unison in several villages! Then we spent a week in Andalucía. Our spirits are refreshed!! -Don"

"I absolutly adore the way you write about your experiences of Spain.I wish somebody on the Embassy in Washington D.C.will honor your love for our country.Marie Carmen Brzezinski"
Marie Brzezinski, Warminster, Pa.

"Dear Maria Carmen, Thanks for your kind words! We have lots of friends in the Spanish embassy and enjoy their company. Just yesterday four bright men from the embassy visited La Tienda. It was fun to be with them. Abrazos, Don "

"I have only been traveling to Spain since 2004. I can attest to everything you have said in this article. I am going back to Andalucia the 23rd of May, and I will be in Huelva, one fine little city, full of smells and flavors, only one hour from Seville. Tapas anyone?...Salud! "
Andres Barrales, Grassy Key Fla. USA

"Two years ago I had the privilege of spending time in Spain. My son was stationed in Rota, Spain. I can attest to the freshness of the cuisine in the restaurants and the homes. I was there during the Ferria and tasted many of the local dishes. I plan to revisit very soon. I am in the process of ordering some spanish Chorizo and other delicious foods especially the cheeses."
Andrea, Fresno,USA

"The freshness of the produce and the fish is extraordinary, isn't it? One of my favorite places to go is the municipal market in Cádiz where they have aisles of amazingly fresh seafood ans well as creatures of the deep that i had never imagined. Don"



Reflexiones en Español

Read in English
Fresco, Local, Regional - Todos los Días en España!

Hace unas semanas me senté a la mesa en un restaurante del El Puerto de Santa María en cuya carta se incluyen exquisitos pescados y mariscos. Pedí uno de mis platos favoritos, deliciosas acedías fritas. El camarero me contestó que ese día no las tenía, ¡que era lunes! Los barcos pesqueros no salen a faenar los domingos y no quería servirme pescado de hacía dos días.

Unos días atrás me había deleitado con la frescura del pescado, las carnes y verduras del mercado público al aire libre en el casco antiguo de Cádiz. Junto a multitud de puestos en los que se ofrecía la más fresca fruta y verdura cuidadosamente dispuesta para su venta, debía de haber unos sesenta puestos de pescado y marisco. Aunque los puestos parecían ofrecer la misma merluza fresca, chipirones y langostinos estaba claro que cada uno de los pescaderos contaba con un nutrido grupo de fieles clientes muy entendidos. Nunca había visto pescado tan fresco, ni siquiera en las pequeñas pescaderías de la costa de Virginia.

¿Por qué todos los productos son tan frescos en España? Creo que el motivo en parte tiene que ver con la cultura regional de España. La gente se enorgullece profundamente de su lugar de origen, y esto lo expresa en su forma de alimentarse. En muchas ocasiones hemos oído que las legumbres, moluscos, vinos, embutidos, etc. de una localidad en particular superan en mucho la calidad de otros que se encuentra sólo a unos kilómetros de distancia. A veces es cierto que existe una diferencia notable, pero en la mayoría de los casos se trata de la expresión de su orgullo por la cultura y tradición local que viene de siglos atrás.

Los españoles a lo largo y ancho de la geografía nacional se toman muy en serio su alimentación. En España incluso si se decide hacer una parada en una venta de carretera, se verá que los camioneros no beben café recalentado y algún plato rápido preparado y calentado al microondas. En vez de la vieja máquina que junto a la cajera hace girar las salchichas en eterno movimiento, encontramos una completa carta de comidas caseras. Los camioneros se sientan para disfrutar una comida con primero, segundo plato y postre con sus amigos: pescado fresco o filete de solomillo y ensalada mixta con atún- lechuga con consistentes trozos de atún y huevo duro.

Con esta disponibilidad de ingredientes realmente frescos y regionales, la mayoría de los restaurantes se especializan en comida regional. Fuera de las grandes ciudades, España no comparte la obsesión americana de experimentar nuevos sabores. Es difícil encontrar buenos restaurantes especializados en comida francesa o italiana, y más aún de comida tailandesa, japonesa o india. De hecho, incluso el deseo de disfrutar en un restaurante de comidas de otras regiones de España puede resultar algo difícil. Por ello tanto las carnes como el pescado y las verduras son traídos en su mayoría de los campos, playas y huertas de la zona.

La atención a la calidad de los productos de alimentación es algo que comparten todos los españoles en general, ya sean clientes o cocineros, puesto que han aprendido a apreciar la calidad desde su más tierna infancia. Lo vemos cada domingo cuando mi esposa y yo llevamos a nuestras hijas a uno de nuestros restaurantes preferidos. Sin duda nos sentaremos junto a una gran familia reunida alrededor de una mesa bien alargada. Abuelos, padres, hijos, tías, tíos y primos se reúnen el fin de semana, pasan unas horas juntos y disfrutan de una buena comida. El volumen que sus discusiones adquieren resulta impresionante a un extraño, ¡parece que todos hablen a la vez! Y los niños y los bebés están involucrados desde el primer momento, así crecen disfrutando de la cocina local y aprenden a discernir los sabores de una buena comida.

Las familias también van de tapas a un bar los días entre semana, situación en la que los niños aprenden que el café no se sirve en un vaso de papel sino en pequeñas tazas de cerámica. Estas tazas y sus platillos a menudo están alineados en la barra con los respectivos sobrecitos de azúcar bajo la cucharilla. Mientras los padres se piden un café con leche o un cortado, el camarero se mueve con destreza delante de su complicada máquina de café. Preparar una buena taza de café es todo un ritual digno de presenciar.

Primero, para preparar una taza el camarero tiene que golpear ruidosamente el filtro varias veces para librarse del café ya usado y reemplazarlo con nuevos granos de café. Le sigue gran cantidad de ebullición y gorgoteo mientras se hace el café y se espuma la leche. La esmerada forma en que preparan una taza de café está a otro nivel del que los americanos estamos acostumbrados, y en muchas ocasiones la mezcla de granos de café está precisamente estudiada para deleitar el paladar de la zona. No se toma ningún atajo para hacer café. Tanto como la comida, el café es sencillo: sin adornos ni sabores extraños.

Las repetidas visitas de estas grandes familias dan la vida a estos restaurantes, y puesto que sus clientes regresan una y otra vez durante generaciones, deben servir lo que sus clientes piden: comidas caseras con productos frescos y tradicionales. Yo diría que en esto se basa la saludable dieta mediterránea. Las verduras son frescas y escuetamente cocinadas. Las carnes y los pescados se preparan de forma sencilla, sin cremosas salsas que oculten sabores rancios o procesados.

La necesidad de consumir productos más naturales y de la zona ha ido creciendo en América últimamente y ésta es una buena señal. Es algo absurdo encontrar melocotones de California en Georgia en época de melocotón o marisco congelado procedente de Vietnam en la costa de Carolina. Tenemos mucho que aprender de España, donde el concepto de cocina con productos frescos y de la zona no es una tendencia a la que unirse sino una realidad del día a día.

¡Buen provecho!

Jonathan

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