by Benjamin Davison
My first experiences in Spain came as a bit of a shock. Never having been outside of the United States before, I walked around Madrid in a mild state of shock: The history, the architecture, the people, and of course, the food were all so overwhelmingly different than home. But it didn’t take long for that pleasant consternation to turn into plain old pleasure. Once I submitted fully to the idea of this new and different landscape, my eyes were open to the wonders of Spanish culture.
One of the most recurring thoughts I had over the course of the trip was how old everything was, from the Great Mosque at Cordoba, dating back to the eighth century, to Botín, the oldest restaurant in Europe (that happens to serve some amazingly perfect suckling pig). Coming from America, a country that has been around less than two and a half centuries, I was struck by to see the remnants of a culture that has survived over the course of so many historical upheavals, and by the influence that the past has on contemporary society. Every part of the culture contains elements of history, whether it be the spectacular jamón that we tasted in virtually every city, or the incredible architecture, Gothic, Moorish, or modern.
The Spanish still adhere to so many traditions, both in their celebrations and daily life, and I was grateful to witness some examples first-hand. I learned how txakoli-makers prune their vines when we visited the Basque country, I got a chance to crush apples the old-fashioned way (with a trough and a giant wooden mallet) at a beautiful sidrería, and even rode on a fishing boat in the Txingudi Bay, on the border between Spain and France. These experiences helped me to understand what Spain and its people have to offer.
But, in looking back, I remember best the food I sampled in the different regions our group visited. Starting off in the area around Madrid, it was mostly simple, rustic dishes, served family-style, but so flavorful and evocative of the quality of the fresh ingredients. In San Sebastian, the abundance of impeccable seafood was overwhelming, and the dishes reflected the confident elegance of the philosophy of Spanish cooks. But we also experienced examples from the more modern side of Spanish cuisine at Iñigo Lavado and Ramiro’s, where the food embodied those same clean flavors, but with a style more representative of Ferran Adrià. Some of the most interesting tasting sessions, though, occurred at the markets we visited: Chamartín in Madrid, and Boquería in Barcelona. The produce was so fresh it was hard to resist buying something from every stall, but even just enjoying a few lush fruits or seafood like percebes (barnacles), was enough to feel envious of what Spanish cooks and chefs take for granted. I would never be able to find products of the same quality anywhere near my home.
Of course, no discussion of Spanish culture would be complete without mentioning the wine. in an underground cave at Protos winery, I sipped an earthy red? wine from Ribera del Duero. As we were serenaded by one of the associates at Abadía Retuerta, we got to taste an unbelievably full-bodied shiraz, redolent of coffee, and yet, tasting unlike any other Shiraz I’ve ever had. And at Dinastía Vivanco in La Rioja, one of the most high-tech wineries I’ve ever seen (and probably will ever see), I sampled an unreleased, straight-from-the-barrel tempranillo that was unforgettably lively and complex. And nothing could be more indicative of Spanish winemaking than the different kinds of sherry we were offered at Lustau and Tío Pepe, varying from sharply dry and cleansing to sticky sweet and fruity. We didn’t get through a fraction of what the world of Spanish wine has to offer, but it was one of the most intellectually rewarding portions of the trip.
While I hardly touched on so many of the places we visited and sights we saw, it suffices to say that between learning, seeing, tasting, and yes, drinking, I was able to indulge in a vast chunk of the heart of Spain’s culture, history, and gastronomy.