… falls mainly when it’s cold outside. Like, freezing cold. Hailing, in fact. We find this out on a particularly ornery stretch of road, searching for our van, stranded in what appears to be a residential neighborhood not far from what we will discover to be the main sprawl of Santiago de Compostela: our ultimate destination.
We have been walking the Camino de Santiago for the past two weeks, starting at Rochesvalles, when our feet felt brand-new and the weather was a relatively balmy 15 degrees. Our days were either dictated by our guides — a rotating roster of Bruno, Jorge and/or Guillermo — the mercurial weather, or our laziness. Some walks, much like life itself, were breezy: 8 km over gently rolling terrain in sunshine. Others, like the 16 km that ended up being 22 in biting hail that blew sideways, were not as easy.
The only constant is the food. Obviously, there are tapas, served in bars that look like the best places on earth. Toothpicks at attention like little soldiers on bar-tops; more complicated bites set up like jewelry in glass cases below; the wine and beer flowing freely; everyone — tourist and Spaniard alike — stuffing their faces. What’s not to like?
We see countless iterations of these ubiquitous tapas: tuna-stuffed empanadas, grilled slices of chorizo, creamy crispy croquettes, potato-rich tortillas speared with mini-forks and plopped onto a slice of white bread. Out of this dazzling litany of finger foods, my favorite? Freshly marinated sardines, meaty, slick and tart, on top of the Catalan tomato-scrubbed bread that, to me, represents the best characteristics of Spanish food: fresh, tasty, simple.
But that simplicity and devotion to purity doesn’t just describe tapas. It’s in every aspect of the food, as hulking and magnanimous as it can be. It’s not just big, like burrito-at-the- Cheesecake-Factory big; it’s sincere and made with attention and care. There’s just so, well, much of it. And it’s all simply prepared — slow-cooked in salt and water and maybe some frou-frou olive oil if you insist, fancypants tourists. Chicken, beef, baby goat, all are fodder for this treatment. Rubbed in more salt, treated by the Spaniards as Thais like to treat chilies.
Sounds great, you say. And it is. But there is this strange Spanish mistrust of herbs, much like the way old ladies view red shoes. I find out as we snake our way through the rolling hills around Pamplona, before heading into the strangely ugly flat wine country of Rioja. Along the way, thyme, chervil, fennel and mint grow in profusion. Jorge tells me “only the gypsies” use the stuff.
“It took my father a long time to accept oregano,” he says, as though “oregano” is a euphemism for, say, electronic dance music. “He would try something and say, ‘What is this?'”
Then there are the rules. I find out when I am professing my love of chorizo, and it is a true and abiding love, for a sausage that is sold all over the world, but is nowhere near as good as it is on its home turf. You can stuff an empanada with it, I say. Or put it in a tortilla, or a pasta dish. These suggestions are met with derisive snorts, from the people who routinely cook a handful of pasta for 30 minutes.
“That’s so weird!” says Jorge. “Next you will suggest something like pairing chorizo with fish!”
“Haha,” chortles Guillermo, aka Spanish Chris Evans. “Or putting yogurt on meat!” (Note: I have done both of those things in the past year).
What we can both agree on: Spain’s most famous dishes are deservedly so. Paella, that wondrous mix of starch, meat and broth, kissed by fire to make a grand crust and touched with the slight tang of lemon at the very end, might be the best thing to come out of Spain since, oh, pata negra ham and cava and some of the Rioja wines and … well, you get the picture. Luckily Spain has many variations, from the popular seafood one …
.. to squid ink to noodles, or fideua, apparently a specialty of Valencia. One can go very wrong with this dish, but when it is good, it is extremely so.
At the very beginning of the trip, Bruno asks me what pulls me through the final few kilometers, when my body is weary and I am in desperate need of a bath. He tells me he remembers the incredible stories of perseverance and strength he has read, of people stranded in the mountainous Andes, or stuck in the middle of an ocean, and how they pulled through, and how our puny troubles are nothing compared to theirs.
I tell him, and he is disappointed. But I’m no liar. The answer: it’s lunch, and then dinner, that pull me through. Every step bringing me closer to sardines and creamed mushrooms and chargrilled steak, rubbed in salt, and maybe a salad, without the tuna and white asparagus this time. A step closer to eggs scrambled with shrimp and green garlic, or fried simply with a coil of chorizo and a platter of fries. And, of course, closer to the pitcher of wine. We can never forget the wine.