Food and the brown paper bag

There is one thing that I have found that I simply cannot agree with Nina on. Spanish food. Nina seems to loathe it. Perhaps it is because Nina travelled during such impoverished times for the people of Spain. Nina was travelling through Spain at the end of the Great Depression and in the lead up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.  Perhaps it was that she was travelling before the proliferation of cafes and restaurants that modern living demands. It may simply be that Spanish food has improved over the past 80 years – or all of these reasons. Poor Nina , she described Spanish cooking as “To fry, to stew to shreds, to serve in tomato sauce, to flavour with a little garlic, and to drown in oil, are the principles of Spanish cooking”. She goes on to say that cocido madrileno – a particular favourite of mine – is a hodge-podge of boiled meats; bacon fat; cabbage; small, round, white, floury lentils and a potato or two. I know cocido as a one-pot slow cooked meal that gives you an entrée and a main and leaves you sitting on a comfy couch for an hour or so after.

Paella fares slightly better as Nina proclaims Arroz a la Valencia as a ‘good dish” and Spanish omelette (tortilla) as “unusual … Omelette with junks of yesterday’s potatoes in its pouch!” I have loved Spanish food from the moment I first tasted it as a nineteen year old. One of my favourite things in Spain is to wander about at ‘happy hour’ between 7:00pm and 9:00pm and have a little drink at a few bars. Most bars will give you a free tapa, to try. Some are amazing, some are just olives or mixed nuts. This is a chance to read the menu, view the tapas on display and see who is eating there. Tourists or locals? Nina, however, did not have such luxury, she would usually eat in the hotel where she was staying. If catching a train, without a dining car, the hotel would pack a lunch. I found this out by reading her account of food on May Day. The Spanish did then and still do observe the workers holiday. In 1934 when Nina was in Granada, the hotel announced it would breakfast coffee would be taken in the guests rooms between 7:00 am and 9:00 am. The other two meals would be delivered by the Chamber maid and should be eaten by guests in their rooms. Nothing hot would be obtainable until 2 May. Lunch and dinner would be delivered in a paper bag.

“At a quarter to one the chambermaid reappeared triumphantly with one of those brown-paper bags, bearing the hotel’s name in large letters, that you take when you have to travel by a train which has no restaurant car. She had no sooner gone that I must pounce upon the bag out of sheer

2 unbuttered rolls. 2 hard-boilled eggs. 4 pieces of cold fried fish (also suspect). A large cold meat fritter. A slab of cold omelette with junks of potato in it. A chocolate éclair. A custard horn. 2 oranges. 2 bananas.

“One glance at the fish and the sausage and back they went into the bag!

“Have you ever tried to eat cold omelette with yesterday’s cold potatoes lurking in lumps in its inside? One bite, and it joined the fish and the sausage!

“The meat fritter was not so bad. I had that for lunch with a dry roll, saving the eggs and other roll for the evening meal. But I no longer felt festive – not until I had taken the toothpicks and fixed them as horns on the forehead of the bright-yellow custard thing and made it walk into the bag after the fish, the sausage, and the potato omelette.”

Again, poor Nina! Perhaps a victim of her time.

Today, there are still some problems with Spanish food. I have heard many people complain about the lack of vegetables served with Spanish meals. It is true that the ‘side’ with most dishes in Spain is chips. You certainly don’t get meat and three veg when you order a full meal. Tapas can be worked around but most bars will have it own speciality when it comes to tapas. I met a couple from Melbourne last night in a restaurant with really good food, who lamented this to me that the food was great, but no vegetables. The secret, I told them, is to start with a salad first.

My personal tip, if you want to eat really good food in Spain – eat where the bullfighters eat.


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