How far would you go just for the memory of food?
How much would you spend?
Is it worth trying to reconnect with that meal or let the tastes disappear into history?
I have never been to a Michelin Star restaurant; at least not knowingly or that I knew about. Yes, I have had great meals – including some which tipped into words like ‘fancy’ or ‘pretentious’. Few of them have been of a quality or showmanship that really stayed with me.
I was, and am, lucky to have parents who both enjoy food, who cook it, and value the important and tasty role it serves in society and among friends. If I have ever been at a fancy restaurant it would have been with them. I may well have had some perfectly cooked medallion of steak with a fine port reduction served on a bed of something or other, but I never had a foam. Worryingly few of these have ever seared – or flash-fried – themselves into my memory banks. If going to restaurants gave me an appreciation of food, then watching my mother cook stirred my imagination.
As it stands I can hold my own in the kitchen and I do derive a focussed zen when I cook. Living alone does also means that I all too often resort to simple salads or ‘throw in whatever is in the fridge’ pastas. But still, the act of preparation is key. The process of turning raw into cooked. It’s magic as far as I’m concerned; even though it’s chemistry.
As was the case when I was small, restaurants themselves rarely stick in my mind. The food, yes, the place, no. Restaurants and bars must work hard to earn a place in my heart. There is a silent list of requisites.
- Food quality – paramount
- Price to quantity ratio – important for a glutton such as myself
- Atmosphere and design – it has to have character
- Capturing a moment
That last is – perhaps unfairly – the hardest to fulfil. When everything falls into place and you get that happy tingle that there, in that moment and in that restaurant, the world is perfect. Nothing could be improved. Like a BBQ with friends on a sunny summer’s day in a flowery English garden or a perfect tapas bar with friends in the throbbing heart of a Spanish city’s historic quarter. Having friends there is a must. For without them what’s the point? The food itself tastes lonely.
I’ve had a few such moments:
- Any Christmas Day lunch at home
- A rustic Galician seafood restaurant in Madrid – plates of shellfish finished with a queimada: a large bowl of coffee and alcohol set on fire and poured from a height
- A paella eaten at the little village of El Palmar, near Valencia, on the Albufera lake bursting with rice paddies
- My first currywurst in a little tavern in Hamburg when visiting my German cousins
- Pie ‘n’ mash and ale at The Raven in Bath on a snowy day with my university colleagues (the whole pub smelled of damp socks and gravy)
- A bizarre all-you-eat Brazilian buffet during the height of summer in Singapore
- A gorgonzola and speck pizza in the tiny Piemonte village of Grinzane Cavour at the end of a week of filming
Not so many. One recently stuck with me.
Segovia – that UNESCO riddled Roman city of Spain – has long drawn my affections, with its grand monuments linked together with that usual web of winding streets all seemingly hewn out of honey. Three years ago I went there with two friends. An innocent and uncomplicated enough premise. After gorging on the sights it was time to do the same but with food. Along some tiny street we found an unassuming place – despite its varied selection of award-winning tapas – with a few tables outside it. Lunch was eaten, happiness was fostered, and that was that.
I had been back to Segovia a couple of times but had never been able to relocate the restaurant, nor could I recall its name. A few weeks ago I was visited by my friend Ken – a brilliant social entrepreneur trying to essentially solve Africa by utilising young African businessmen and women. Our relationship has been marked by sporadic meetings usually occurring every couple of years. Houston Airport, Lago Atitlán in Guatemala, Barcelona, Bath, Westminster Palace – it reads like the filming locations for a James Bond film. And so the time came for Madrid and the obligatory day tip. Segovia.
I was determined to get back to that damned restaurant once and for all. Cutting a very tedious story very short, after extensive use of Google streetview I managed – even though it was half cut off by the camera and blurry – to locate it.
El Fogón Sefardí – Calle de la Juderia Vieja, 17
I was elated. Ken was hungry. And my little food memory didn’t disappoint. It excelled itself. Opposite the facade of the bar – an uncomplicated red awning protecting tartan tablecloths – a small street descended to a view of the horizon. Segovia is built on a bluff so its flanks open to sweeping vistas. At the bottom of the street was a little arch leading out of the city. The view’s foreground was taken up by a small hill topped with a little white chapel and some Calvaryesque crosses. Behind that, the gentle humps of the ancient Guadarrama Mountains. This is what you have while you eat.
And the food? Well Ken and I ordered the same from a typical set menu of 11.90€. I wasn’t sure but the result was astonishing.
Starter: Milhoja de Berenjena con Cordero al Curry y Verduritas de la Huerta del Puente de la Estrella – a 2008 award-winning open sandwich of aubergine mille feuille with curried lamb and vegetables from the palace gardens. It was a sensation and seemed to have a kind of delightfully sticky apricot reduction over the top. This came with my carafe of wine.
Main course: Añojo de Choto Asado con salsa Pedro Ximénez y con flores de patatas – Roast veal with a Pedro Ximénez sauce and potato flowers. A generous number of slices of meat covered in that sweet and smoky sauce complemented unfussily with little mini jacket potatoes. It was flawless.
Desert: Tarta Charlota. A huge slab of sweet and bouncy sponge cake topped with a raspberry coulis and a slightly overt quantity of Chantilly cream.
Was it food heaven? Perhaps not. But the sheer audacity of the place to offer so much for so little, the presence of Ken, the jug of wine…and that view made sure it easily garnered a place on my list.
I don’t do restaurant reviews but sometimes one has to say something. If you go to Segovia go to El Fogón Sefardí. Go.
It was only after this little memory jogging food trip that my friend from that jaunt three years ago said to me quite casually ‘yeah, I remember where that is. You could have just asked me.’