Spain, Old and New

Don Harris | January 2018

Several years ago, I was strolling with friends along the narrow cobblestoned streets of the Santa Cruz barrio of Sevilla when we happened to walk past a magnificent stone church with a tall bell tower. I paused to admire its beauty but one of my companions, a local priest, waved his hand in dismissal and said he preferred the old church down the street. As I looked more closely at its architecture and construction materials, I thought to myself that this "new" church must have been built in the 1600s! The very oldest churches in America are barely older than that "modern" church on the corner. The two of us had different ideas of what we thought of as new and old.

Spain is an ancient land full of reminders of the past: the salt flats of the Bay of San Fernando were constructed by the Phoenicians over 3,000 years ago. The people of the neighboring city of Cádiz claimed their walled city was built by Hercules! And to think 75-year-old Fenway Park, where the Red Sox play in Boston, is designated a national monument.

Remnants of Roman amphitheaters and the amazing network of roads they built, some still functional, are part of the landscape. The invading Arabs and Berbers from North Africa were in Spain for over 700 years. Think of it. Towering Moorish fortresses and castles dot the landscape next to medieval Romanesque and Gothic churches. 

I rather enjoy the astonishing juxtaposition of this timeless culture with the very modern country that is Spain in the 21st century. Castles and Roman aqueducts share space with bullet trains, avant-garde bridges and towering skyscrapers. Many of the monasteries and palaces of old are now converted to hotels with air-conditioned splendor and free Wi-Fi!

I remember a great example of the contrast between new and old Spain. On a recent visit, I was hurtling towards Córdoba from Seville on the AVE train at 250km per hour. The ride was smooth, and the attendants offered us coffee and hot 'chocolate a la taza.' A few miles outside of Cordoba we passed right under an imposing outcropping. Built atop the rocks is the Castillo de Almodóvar del Río, a stunning castle built by the Moors. Here a princess named Ziada was imprisoned in a tower and died there waiting for her love, Prince Al Mamum, to rescue her. I could barely begin to contemplate the massive castle before I glided smoothly into the Córdoba station and exited the train.

Another example is the Puente de Alamillo, a strikingly modern suspension bridge crossing the Guadalquivir River, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Built before the Expo 1992, it spans the Canal de Alfonso XIII, the waterway where, centuries ago, ships from the New World unloaded their treasures and where the ancient watchtower, the Torre del Oro, still stands protecting the ancient city.

This mix of ancient and modern reaches far beyond architecture. For instance, Spain has a wealth of food traditions, many started even before the Romans arrived over 2,000 years ago. The Spanish people lovingly preserve these food ways and are famously demanding when it comes to quality.

I remember standing on the seashore of a fishing village in Galicia, watching a man raking under the water to harvest fresh clams. I later learned that the underwater area of the inlet actually was divided into small plots within which several families seeded and harvested the famous shellfish of the area. For centuries, the community has worked together in order to maintain this precious harvest.

Because Spain has preserved the ancient food traditions, the abundance of quality products has enabled Spain to become the home to the world's most cutting-edge restaurants. This partnership of the traditional with the contemporary has created a modern cuisine unlike any other in the world.

Over twenty years ago, Chef Ferran Adrià created the groundbreaking elBulli restaurant in Catalunya, named the best restaurant in the world a record 5 times. With his brother, he invented molecular gastronomy, where the essences of different foods were transformed in surprising ways. Perhaps his most famous dish was the "liquid olives" which looked solid but dissolved into refreshing olive brine when eaten. Another foray into modern Spain is in San Sebastian in the Basque Country. There you can visit Arzak and order a Red Space Egg, where pigs feet, mushrooms and sea bass are encased in an "egg shell" made of red peppers and served on a tablet showing a video of sea life swimming below your meal.

While some of these food concepts can seem a little frivolous or silly, chefs like Adrià and Arzak are channeling a profound appreciation for the simple, pure flavors of Spain's cuisine. In fact, they strive to rejuvenate the fundamental flavors of Spain's iconic foods by molding them into new forms and expressions. In many ways their work mirrors the creative tension between the new and the ancient that displays itself across Spain in everyday life.