Nothing matters, nothing, except the taste of the food.
I’ve proclaimed so many times that a meal isn’t truly good unless it’d also be just as good wrapped in foil, leaking onto my hand, with my butt planted on a curb in a soulless suburban parking lot. I viewed any attention paid to plating - drizzling sauce in whimsical patterns, striping fruit slices like bright zebras, any grill markings not branded organically - as wasted. Same with cushions, lighting, wall hangings, deliberate acoustics, or attempts to recreate the atmosphere of either home or foreign countries (or jazz clubs, or rustic country inns, or…)
In Spain, though, I found myself charmed by something that was not the taste of the food. It was also not any of the other things I claim(ed?) to not care about. It was the almost aggressively casual attitude towards eating. People draped themselves all over patio chairs at 3PM like they were in their living room, draining endless beers, occasionally ordering some food, and feeding their dogs on the ground next to them. People packed themselves into tiny, earsplittingly loud bars starting at what in the States would be considered embarrassingly-early-o’clock to drink wine and stagger around with skewers of seafood and ham piled on top of bread. At all hours, windows opened in walls so cooks could hand through cheap kabob wraps.
There was this wonderful freeing feeling like there was no wrong way to eat, and that made the food taste better than it actually was.
I don’t often feel that way - like there’s no wrong way to eat - so this feeling was like letting out a long-held breath. In my life in the States, I pretty much always feel like people think I’m eating wrong. I don’t order wine in fancy restaurants - or ever - and that’s weird. I can’t finish a lot of food in one sitting, which means I have to either not order that much of it or share small portions with companions. That’s sometimes just weird, but other times actively not allowed: some restaurants have a minimum-order-per-person rule.
Not in Spain. Two of us could walk into any open restaurant at any time of day, order a small dish, share it, and walk out. It could be 3 in the afternoon, purportedly siesta time. The dish could cost €2. We could be in a bar, and ignore all offerings of alcohol. We could linger for hours nursing tap water and one stick of delicious grilled squid, and nobody would blink an eye. They’d come back to give us our bill when summoned, and not a minute before.
I remember us walking straight into a wall of sound, a tiny Basque tapas bar stuffed with screaming drunk people (it was perhaps 7pm) wobbling around these tiny standing tables sticking out of the walls. There was no room for the bar to store its wines aboveground, so there was a hole in the floor behind the bar with a ladder sticking out of it and waitresses periodically going down there to grab bottles. We sidled up to the last two seats at the bar and ordered a cod omelette, a skewer of shrimp and potato, and one piece of squid. This totaled less than €10. There was no change of expression on the bartender’s face indicating that this might be odd.
Had I approached my summary of Spanish eating simply by looking at the raw ingredients, it would have gone something like this:
I never want to eat bread again.
Spaniards put bread under EVERYTHING. Ham and cheese? Bread. OK, that’s understandable. Blood sausage, pimiento, and quail egg? Bread. O…K, that’s, I guess, at least a platform for it. Smoked salmon with roe and cream cheese? Bread. Well, I wish it were a bagel, but fine. Shrimp, artichoke, and sesame sauce skewer? Bread. Why? A perfectly grilled squid tender enough to melt into a bite and needing no accompaniment, especially not bread?
Spain is amazing at seafood, especially the touchy, leaning-towards-tough types like octopus and squid. Every single tentacle I found on a skewer or sliced in rounds was tender, with the precious, necessary layer of fat between the flesh and the slippery skin intact. That fat provides the oil needed to soften the rest of it. Galician-style octopus, for example, is just sliced tentacles with oil, salt, and hot paprika - but what wonderful little oily coins! At a highly lauded Basque tapas bar in San Sebastian, we tried overwrought, fusiony dishes like sea urchin cream in a shell, whitefish pepper salad with a bizarre dissolving cracker, and a mushroom tower held together with aspic, but the only things we really wanted to order again were the octopus and squid skewers.
All that is fine and good and even accurate, but it doesn’t capture how at ease I felt wandering in and out of open-sided restaurants, in and out of grocery/marketplace/food stall/bar hybrids, eating exactly how and where and how quickly and how much I wanted. When I want to go back, when I have brief dreams of up and moving there, it’s because of that feeling. Eating doesn’t have to be an inherently judgmental experience or a big production or even a prenatal Yelp review.
That, and the markets are so sprawling and so full of fresh and novel ingredients that I know I’ll never understand the cuisine until I have a home with a kitchen.