It had been a while since I had last slipped off those sensual shackles of Madrid and got out into my beloved Spain and dipped my toes into some new waters; in this new case, quite literally. The autumn had been long and busy. Equal parts off-duty tour guide as visitors waded into my personal paradise and equal parts on-duty tour guide and translator. Every waking hour was filled with working, writing, word-searching, light alcoholism and a certain gleeful and definitive gluttony. Sure, there were day trips wedged in there: a soggy afternoon in Aranjuez with my brother and a fiercely cold and blue day hunting giant steaks in the walled city of Ávila, but in general Madrid was my pretty cage. Then a winter opportunity to flee. A boys’ away trip converted into an excuse to provide our soon-to-be-wed friend with a stag do. The location? My old stomping ground of six months: Alicante.
I had lived there back in 2008 as part of my Erasmus and then had returned for a couple of days in 2010 as part of my first book project ‘The Sun Struck Upwards’, but neither time had I got to grips with its food. The first period passed by in a blur of ignorant partying, friendship building and studying. The second was more an opportunity to catch up with my old housemate and remember how the streets huddled together.
I consulted my trusty 100-yr old Baedecker. On Alicante it had a couple of interesting comments:
‘Its sheltered position and mild, dry climate make Alicante a favourable winter residence for invalids.’
(referring to the harbour wharf) ‘The view of the town from this point, with its white, flat-roofed houses, its palms, and the bare and tawny cliffs of the castle-hill, has probably no parallel in Europe.’
The latter part is no longer true as the city has bolstered itself over the years and has expanded its height. A few fine buildings dot a view that is mostly lined with unexciting apartment blocks whose awnings were blocking the afternoon sun. The castle, however, still does sail above everything and the absurd blueness of both the warm winter sky and the Mediterranean does lends a sense of the sublime. As far as invalids go, we would have to wait until we had had our fill of local wines.
The weather, at the end of November, was aimed at the t-shirt and jeans crowd. People sat out on the terraces in the sunshine on the beach promenade. The soft sands of the Postiguet were crawling with walkers and sunbathers and even some swimmers doing their best to remove sand from their wet skin. On the railings a man in sunglasses played a Spanish guitar with a dexterity that was nothing short of inspiring; his guitar bag contained a few coins and the customary CD of home recordings. Out dancing on the milky horizon were small boats with big white sails; people ignoring the idea of winter.
Then the time for food came. Even when I lived in Alicante I wasn’t aware of its tapas-scene much, though I knew - this being Spain - that there had to be places to eat. Night one we found two.
The first was after scouring the Internet for an age. Ceverceria Sento which served highly creative tapas that made us ooh and ahh and groan and was so good that we returned two days later. Meatballs served on sticks with a sweet peanut sauce and roasted pine nuts; plates of grilled chicken covered in balsamic glaze and shaved parmesan; and our favourite - the piruletas - strips of soft pork-meat twirled into lollipops, grilled, and coated in a blow-torched jam. Then, with our bellies yearning for more we weaved around two or three streets and found Chico Calla! upon where we ordered some fried aubergines loaded up with feta cheese, balsamic again, and some crispy onion bits; as well as some cheesy potatoes on meat and potato chips with a homemade tomato sauce. As you can see, my descriptions started to lose clarity. Then reckless abandon, drinks upon drinks, jubilance and bed.
The following day, another broad sky where the sun offered us temperatures towards twenty degrees, it was of course time for more food. After a complicated taxi-based method of transporting a group of seven fairly sore-headed Brits, one American and one Spaniard to a specific point away from the centre, we arrived at the beach neighbourhood of San Juan. The town itself was not particularly pretty, but did consist of a few interestingly creative flats that seemed to have been designed by some 1970s architect who got the chance to play about a bit with his creations. We were here for one thing and one thing only. To eat. To eat rice.
Casa Pepe - owned by the present and very friendly Pepe - was to be our home for the next couple of hours as we gnashed, burped and gulped our through various starters and three separate and quite enormous pans of rice.
Datiles de Elche (local dates wrapped in bacon)
Croquetas de jamón (ham croquettes)
Calamares rellenos de la abuela (stuffed calamari)
Sepia, alcachofas y gambas (cuttlefish, artichoke and prawns)
Marisco y pollo (seafood and chicken)
Fidegua (soupy noodle dish with seafood)
So much food. So much happiness. The dates were fun, the croquetas some of the best I’ve ever had and the rices were all delightful. It was, quite necessarily you must know, washed down with a few bottles of white wine and we were given complimentary biscuits and sweet wine after.
As I belched my way out of my chair, I shook Pepe’s hand and told him how nice it was to have finally found a good paella after so many failures.
‘Well, we are proud of our ingredients; the freshness and the quality. I mean, it all comes from around here.’
And that is, in a nutshell, Spain and its food.
A walk on the sunset-lit beach. Another night out, more tapas, more wine and then a warm Sunday spent milling around the battlements of the centuries-old castle brought the weekend to a close. Much like similar towns recently visited like Malaga, the city once called the ‘City of Light’ by the Romans, Lucentum, or Alicante, is certainly an ideal place to spend a weekend. I'm yearning for more piruletas...