Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Once upon a time in Spain.

I'd been walking all morning, down from the mountains, and I crept up on a town built on the side of a hill crowned by a cathedral.

It was close to midday, and bright and hot, and the streets were empty. I opened a heavy door in the cathedral. Inside, it was dim and cool and lonely. I stayed long enough to cool down, and went out again into the harsh light.

I walked on. The claustrophobic streets were confusing, winding back on themselves and lined with tall, narrow houses. From some, laundry hung out over the street, high up. Caged birds twittered from open windows. Dark doorways lay open to allow the passage of air. I passed them. Every now and then an escalier – or whatever the Spanish call those narrow stairways that connect streets at different levels – ran upwards or downwards, scores of steps disappearing in the blinding midday sun. I followed one down. I was lost, but I didn’t care. I had all day; all week in fact. I was free that year. I was also hungry.

The descent ended at a narrow street beneath an overhanging wall that ran its length, over which grew vast hedged shrubs. Their foliage hung down almost to the tops of the doors. Between two vast whitewashed buildings, an old wrought iron sign that read Cantina Zafra hung from a portico. There was no mistaking the aroma of fish, garlic and herbs. I pushed the door open and went in.

The place was small and dark but still managed to hold a dozen or so dark timber tables, several of which were occupied. These were obviously locals and not tourists, their expressions betraying a kind of bored familiarity; a boredom more related to serenity than to any get-me-the-bill haste.

A small blackboard by the kitchen had one word chalked on it: soup, in Spanish, of course. That one word represented a now long-lost minimalism, serving both to inform the customer and to save work. In any case, there was no space on the board for a raw tuna salad with lemon foam and warm hints of wasabi - even had the waiter wanted to write out such nonsense. (The loss of minimalism has also seen the introduction of the indefinite article in menu descriptions. Whoever heard of a soup? But I digress.)

A waiter, who was probably the patron, materialised. He was small, like a jockey. He wore a leather apron over a white shirt and black trousers. I didn’t know if he was Zafra or just the hired help. He said nothing. I pointed to the menu. He went away. The room was silent apart from an occasional word or two uttered between the locals. Minimalism even in the conversation. And no phones.

A few minutes later the patron materialised again and put a glass of white wine on my table. Then a bowl of soup. The bowl was large. The soup was like a kind of stew. The soup itself – meaning the fluid essence in the bowl – was a sea rich with garlic and onion and saltiness. That's what I had picked up on the air outside. In the middle of the sea was a large mound of caramelised onions that tasted like they had been cooked for hours with herbs of some, or many, kinds. There was something warm, like paprika, or cumin, but I could not be sure. On the shores of the caramelised onion island sat large rounds of sausage that had been fried crisp on the outside. It was similar to, but not the same as, what we know as the clich├ęd chorizo. I hadn’t known whether to start with the fork or the spoon, and then the waiter had come back yet again, this time with a small basket of hard-crust bread in one hand, and a glass of water in the other. That was all. Barely a word had been exchanged between us. I ate and drank. Some more locals came in, and a couple left.

Later, the sun almost blinded me when I went outside after paying the bill. I took an hour or more to find my way out of the maze of streets to the other side of the town, but I wasn’t really trying. The soup kept me going until dusk.

1 comment:

jo said...

I adore these little scenes.