In Spain, bacon can cost you $90 per pound. OK, that’s an approximation based on my imperfect conversions of euros to dollars and kilos to pounds, but you get the picture.
Also, it’s not quite fair to call the Spanish meat “bacon” per se, even though it is essentially cured pork. While our American pigs live humiliating lives and die unconscionable deaths, pigs in Spain are treated as royalty, like they deserve. They loll about, free-ranging in pleasant woods, noshing on acorns, truffles, and other sundry delectables. They are not “slopped” nor are they resigned to wallow in their own excrement. Think about that next time you pick up a package of Hormel Black Label at the SuperMegaWalCo Foods.
The above paragraph notwithstanding, I have nothing against American bacon. In fact, the Hempler family in Bellingham, Washington, cures a righteous pork product. I am proud to have shaken hands with Richard Hempler, whose paws resemble considerable hocks, evincing a lifetime of admirable physical labor.
Still, the Spanish pork product is a wonder to behold – which, at those prices, you have every reason to expect. Consuming Iberian jamon is a lesson in restraint. First, to eat much more than an ounce of this delectable delight would be decadent. It arrives on your small tapas plate shaven as delicately as a Brazilian model, see-through slices measured more in molecules than millimeters. The aroma rises from the table as you hold a paper-thin slice in trembling fingers, first rubbing the fatty bits against your lips, then licking them clean before savoring the delicioso that verily melts in your mouth. Eating my first Iberian jamon, I felt like Snuffles, the biscuit-loving hound dog on Quick Draw McGraw.
If you follow business or even popular media, you are well aware that Spain – along with its PIG-gy cohorts, Portugal, Italy and Greece – gets verily slaughtered in the press these days. These people are, if you believe half of what you read, indolent layabouts, slothful loafers who make the French look like eager beavers in comparison. Still, it’s quite clear that money isn’t everything, as the Black Friday lines at your local Walmart might suggest. Me, I find the Spaniards (not to mention the Portuguese, Italians and Greeks) and their lifestyle perfectly charming. These are a handsome people with beach-ready bodies, who live their lives out and about in a perpetual communal party, rather than aspiring to a life sequestered in McVillas set side-by-side in a former pasture. Their architecture is ingenious, their artists astounding, their seas a comfort. And the food is peerless.
Look. These are people who work for four hours, break at midday for a large and delightful meal, go home, have sex, and take a long nap. Refreshed and reconstituted, they go back to work at four o’clock, snap off at eight, and go have a few glasses of wine and some tapas with friends. They chatter outside in the warm night at cafés until all hours and eventually amble home. They are not concerned about DVR conflicts. This is not a life specific to Spain; it is well-practiced throughout the Mediterranean.
I went to Spain three years ago, and in the course of two weeks fell in love in the most unexpected way. My agenda going in focused on finding the perfect paella, a dish that I always thought I should love, as I adore each ingredient. However, my experience with this signature Spanish dish had always left me with a major case of the “mehs,” the sum being decidedly less than the parts. Certainly in Spain I would find the perfect paella: the essential fusion of saffron, rice, sausage, seafood, and meats that would transcend. To my surprise, this I did not find – not that I didn’t try.
Instead, I found squid baked in its own ink, hake, grilled sardines, pulpo, cuttlefish, pickled peppers, and the most amazing pan-roasted chicken served in a sauce of wine and its own juices that you could ever hope to have pass by your lips. I ate snails and cockles, fidelos and braised boar. I had duck breast in red wine and juniper berries, so full of flavor it nearly made me weep. In San Sebastian, I learned about pintxos, the Basque version of tapas that deserves not just its own column or book but a Nathan Myhrvold-esque multi-volume text. And I drank wine – lots of wine. Some pricey and explosive, but most of it humble, subtle, delicious, and impossibly inexpensive.
Sad to say, much of Spain stays in Spain. The tastes, the flavors, are like the air: it does not travel. The air you breathe there is simply different than it is here. I can get Iberico jamon here in Tacoma at my local Metropolitan Market; however, it is encased in plastic rather than carved from a whole hanging leg. While it is just as expensive, it does not taste the same as it does at a café a couple blocks off Las Ramblas in Barcelona, served with a small glass of tinto. Accuse the Spanish and their fellow PIGs of all manner of economic misdeeds if you wish, but you can’t export their precious essence.
Still, you carry with you what you can. I have not yet managed to convince my employer of the considerable virtues of siesta, but I can recreate a few flavors that take me back to that place. One of my favorites is the sauce romesco, a creation from the Mediterranean fishing town of Tarragona, just south of Barcelona. Ideal with the oily fish they catch there (like grilled mackerel or sardines), romesco is unique in that it seems to complement virtually any dish. It is made from roasted red peppers (preferably piquillos), tomatoes, garlic, ground almond, vinegar jerez, and oddly, day-old toasted bread crumbs. Whirl these in a food processor and you have a piquant sauce, layered in flavor and perfectly balanced with sweet, sour, salt, and savory. I serve it with all manner of fish, beef, grilled pork loin, shellfish, pasta and potatoes (patatas bravas in Spain). It is that rarity in twenty-first century cuisine: the all-purpose sauce in a world of culinary specialization. It is Spanish ketchup, albeit one you would never buy but only make yourself, adjusting seasonings to your specific taste.
My predilection for all things Spanish may well have been molded early in life when my darling mother read me the story of Ferdinand the Bull. Rather than butting heads with his fellow bulls that aspired to fight a matador, Ferdinand preferred to sit under his favorite cork tree smelling flowers. What his fellow bulls did not understand, of course, was that bullfights seldom end well for the bull. While it is legitimate to question whether the author of The Story of Ferdinand intentionally foreshadowed today’s tight-panted Wall Street peccadilloes, the tale certainly functions effectively as a current-day cautionary metaphor.
My great-uncle Linnaeus was fond of saying that while you can’t take it with you, you can’t go anywhere without it. Certainly, $90-per-pound jamon is reserved for those who have attained a modicum of prosperity. Still, there is much to be said for finding the shade of your own cork tree. Mine hangs over a quiet sidewalk café in Barcelona’s El Born, a warm Mediterranean breeze blowing in offshore, a cold glass of Albariño and a plate of cuttlefish with romesco to calm my jangling nerves. And that’s no bull.
3 roasted red peppers (piquillo, if you can get them)
6 plum tomatoes, halved and seeded
Half of a large sweet onion (Walla Walla or Vidalia)
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 two-inch cubes of good toasted bread
¼ cup slivered toasted almonds
2 Tbs. good quality sherry vinegar (Spanish jerez, if you can get it)
1 tsp. sweet paprika
Roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a 350° oven for an hour. Slip off the skins from the tomatoes. Place the roasted vegetables and the remaining ingredients in a food processor and pulse until well ground. The sauce should have the consistency of a heavy paste. Serve warm, cold, or at room temperature with virtually anything.