Some might argue that 15 is too young to have “the best food experience of your life”, before savory, sexy words like burrata and hamachi are whispered into virgin ears. But somehow Europe blurs the line between adulthood and youth and implores you to don a more mature palate, schooling you in a nuanced appreciation of subtle textures and flavors well ahead of your time.
So it was on a boiling June afternoon in Madrid, a foreign acrid air piercing all my senses indiscriminately, but nevertheless with stalwart determination to woo and court me along ancient stone corridors and the uneven cobblestones of the Plaza Mayor. Having just arrived in Spain the day prior with my mother and grandmother, my cousin and I were barely 15 (in fact, I had celebrated the occasion the previous evening in a tiny tapas bar while student minstrels, crimson brocade peeking through velvet black lapels, serenaded me with an angsty version of ‘La Paloma’, its depth far exceeding my short years on earth). On the day in question, we were lucky enough to have been placed under the local foodie tutelage of a local couple, she a fair-skinned American expat and he a mustachioed Spanish national, and we were pleased to be whisked from bar to bar, tiny tapas plates of cecida (deer) shaved thin and crusty bread smeared with queso de Cabrales or Spanish blue cheese, each containing a larger story than their “small bites” translation would imply.
But the culmination of our casual gourmand meanderings came around 2pm, during the sleepy siesta hours when most restaurants would be shuttered against the heavy and unforgiving sun. I don’t know how we were welcomed into a restaurant at such an untraditional hour – no doubt a gentle acquiescence to our American sensibilities – but right away, I knew the we were about to experience something extraordinary. Perhaps it was the novelty of the space, but in my mind, the room where we lunched appeared like that of a dining room in a private home (for all I know, it was just that, as I recall no signage on the exterior), a dark space and perhaps mildly musty, being shuttered against the baking streets. As far as I can recall, it was the only table in the room, a long Tuscan-style piece of furniture that began as an empty wooden canvas. And then how it evolved! Terra cotta skillets, ceramic platters, and tin bowls were grandly placed upon the table like splashes of paint from the artist’s palatte, skillfully delivered by a small contingent of servers who may very well have doubled as our talented chefs behind the closed doors from which they emerged and retreated with a quiet but detectable pride.
It was no surprise that the traditional paella stood out, a monstrous saffron-colored swath of color punctuated by glistening baby pink chorizo and rose-lacquered shrimp. But if my mind struggled to take in the complexity of this landscape, it nearly blew wide open as a second platter, equally grand, was placed at the other end of the table, this one as black as night, masking the razor sharp edges of mussels, slippery pieces of squid, and a sprinkling of kelly green cubanelle peppers. The first bite of the arroz negro must have been a dare, and as my cousin and I grinned at each other across the table, our teeth as black as pirates, we lasted only seconds before our teenage self-consciousness took over and we sprinted as politely as possible to los servicios for a down-and-dirty mouth scrub.
In between the more exotic dishes, familiar morsels of cebollas (onions) and Manzanillas (Spanish green olives) punctuated our rapidly diminishing canvas, all washed down by swigs of Fanta Naranja (my Sangria awakening would come only days later). When we finally emerged into the blistering sun over 2 hours later, the light seemed to penetrate every crevice and the heat exacerbated our food comas; we moved like the chalk-white living statues on the streets of many international cities, their imperceptible movements only evident in time lapse photography.
We would have dozens more opportunities to partake in traditional and sumptuous Spanish (and even Moroccan) fare during our 2-week stay on the Iberian peninsula, but this clandestine lunch would continue to surpass them all, for its quiet splendor, its mirage-like quality, and the fact that it popped my proverbial gourmet cherry, a trial-by-paella welcome into the world of Spanish cuisine and beyond.