About this time ten years ago I had little stickers all over my house giving the Spanish word for various things such as lamps, tables, and the toilet. By far, though, the preponderance of stickers were in the kitchen labeling such things as pasta, canned tomatoes, pork chops, and shrimp. Each evening I’d spend some time reading travel books and making notes on places to see. I was going to be in Spain for two weeks, celebrating my parent’s 50th anniversary, and I planned to absorb every ounce of the experience – and the food.
My sister, parents, and I flew over on the same plane, but my sister was in coach, I was in business, and my parents were in first class so we didn’t really get together until we reached Madrid. On arrival we picked up a rental van, checked into a hotel, and crashed. We didn’t feel like going out for dinner that night, so supper was an impromptu picnic of cheese, bread, sausage, fruit, and wine that we bought at a market and ate sitting on the beds in my parent’s room
The next day we drove south to the villa we’d rented on a mountainside overlooking the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean – arriving some eight hours later in a pouring rain. For supper that night I made a tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelet) and baked some baby artichokes. We ate them in front of a fire in the sitting room. We had set two of the food themes for our visit – picnics and home cooking using brilliantly fresh and flavorful Spanish foods and recipes.
To our great surprise and delight, the kitchen in the villa was adequately equipped with cooking gear. Even better, the villa boasted an herb garden – rosemary, marjoram, mint, chives, sage – and a pair of lemon trees. We all took turns making lunches and dinners on the days we didn’t go out exploring. A few days later one of my brothers and his wife joined us, and several friends of my parents came for a few days here and there. Everyone had a chance to cook and we had some amazing, creative meals.
On the days we played tourist we usually had a picnic lunch in an olive or cork grove, or near a ruined castle, or at the base of a coastal watch tower. Dinner (and sometimes lunch) we’d eat at a restaurant. These restaurant meals were almost never fancy, we’d just stop into roadside tavernas when we got hungry, but they were often astoundingly good.
I think the best meal I’ve ever had was in the touristy town of Rhonda where we had lunch at a café hanging over the gorge. I had slow-roasted piglet that took pork to a level I hadn’t even imagined could exist in an equally stunning setting.
The trip wasn’t purely about food. We did make that visit to Rhonda. We also drove up to tour the Alhambra palace one day – a stunning piece of architecture – and visited a cave featuring some of the oldest Paleolithic art in Europe. We saw our share of Roman ruins, great cathedrals, castles, and famous art.
But the part of the trip I enjoyed most were the days we spent at the villa between site-seeing forays. We’d begin such days with a bit of bread, cheese, fruit, and coffee on the patio – each according to his or her own schedule. Then a few of us might make a quick trip down the hillside to the city markets or up the hillside to the village market. If it rained (as it often did) we’d read or play games inside and if it was sunny we’d read or play games lounging by the small swimming pool or on the patio under it’s arbor of grapes looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. Around four on these days we’d open a couple of bottles of wine and put together a collection of tapas and gather on the patio. Eventually someone would start cooking supper, which we’d eat on the patio.
There was almost never any hurry, and although all families have their frictions, ours only became unpleasant when we were packed in the van. And even then a glass of wine and handful of olives at the end of the day did much assuage hurt feelings and remind us that, at least for now, all was right with the world.