There were ten of them on the street. They had been led patiently, and with more than a glimmer of suspicious excitement, through the streets of Madrid’s old La Latina quarter to the location of their company Christmas meal. As they stood outside on what appeared to be a normal street of attractive old apartments it soon became quite apparent that they were not headed for a restaurant.Read More
“The World. That place you call home.”
So said the BBC advert that coolly asked the viewer to learn more about their world. But it was right. The world was the place that I called home. Of course my real home is my town. The small unimpressive town of Maidenhead that slinks off the River Thames. The house, my house, almost unchanged, for 28 years. Berkshire, my green county, stuffed with small villages, grand houses and fields and fields and fields. That is the home of my history. But maybe, Madrid is my home, or Moscow, or, as purred by the BBC, the World…Read More
An auspicious start – arrival at a charming Belgian flat and am instantly met with a chalice of dark beer. The flat had high walls and was tastefully decorated with wooden furnishings, musical posters and bottles of alcohol. Niko, the partner of Meg – a long-suffering friend of mine from my university days, but whom I hadn’t seen for five years – had been brewing his own liquors from prunes and kiwis. They sat in glass vats in a corner and looked magnificent.Read More
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.’
The Côte d’Azur. The very name of the place conjures images of wealth and luxury; of the higher echelons and their private boats bobbing up and down in a glittering Mediterranean. The French Riviera – the theme park of the rich, James Bond’s weekend away – is an area full of billboard names: Nice, Saint-Tropez, Monaco, Cannes, Marseille, Cassis. Cliffs, golden beaches, promenades rattling with sports cars, sheltered inlets called calanques, the finest restaurants, the finest prices, and a whole lot of benign weather. The Côte d’Azur: the strip of gold that forms France’s south coast. But what of inland areas? This is also Provence, not just a string of swanky resorts. Landing at Nice’s airport, hovering over the water and touching down primly and quick as if onto an aircraft carrier, I was picked up and ferried north up into the hills. I wouldn’t see the sea again.
Montauroux, perched haphazardly on the top of a verdant ridge, was to be my home for a few days. To the north, wooded hills humped away to wherever hills went to become flat again and to the south, a shallow valley, the cyan blue Saint Cassien Lake and the gentle Esterel range, which provided an aromatic and humid place for a morning jog. The village itself was a photogenic huddle of dull pastel-coloured streets (beiges and peaches, tawny and greys) enlivened by bright green and blue window frames and topped with long terracotta roof tiles. Its streets, and their ubiquitous cobbles, slinked away this way and that and you wondered how there could be so many.
Every so often a break in the line of twee three-floor apartments offered a view to the surrounding bowl of green, or to neighbouring Callian and its squat castle, or perhaps a tiny chapel sitting all by itself. More often than not Montauroux felt separate and self-contained, floating above everything and concealed by trees. An oasis of tiny squares and windows confettied with Tricolours. The village, ironically, was the antithesis to the huge French farmhouse I was staying in with its limpid infinity pool looking out across the valley.
Fayence: another little hill village scattered across another ridge to the west of Montauroux and neighbouring it the humorously named Tourettes (my host Tessa ended up in a puddle of sighs after my tenth mention of the place). It was market day and Fayence was warm and busy. The southern French sun was flowering over the region and the air was moist as a sauna. The town, in many ways – its streets, its windows, its stones – was the clone of Montauroux, just larger. Any accurate and detailed analysis of the town would be impossible however, as markets have a tendency to obliterate the attention span into a mush of food stalls, clothing stands and all manner of tat emporiums.
In the town square, curled around the base of St John the Baptist church, were myriad stalls and smells. The chocolate and pecan pastry I had bought to stave off my morning hunger – and by the by the French really do make the best pastries – was all but annulled by the onslaught of products to be bought, sampled and gawped at. A lady frying potatoes in a large pan of garlic and rosemary filled the air with scented smoke; a young and very charismatic man was selling his family’s homemade speculoos; a whole table was covered in fat purple and brown Provencal Violets (garlic); another table was loaded up with wooden bowls of olives; and yet another with local sausages and cured meats covered with spices or black pepper. My bags were heavier and my wallet was lighter and we slid out of Fayence and back to ol’ Monty.
The decision was made, without much pleading or controversy, to spend the next day – there were six in our group – lounging on deckchairs or floating in the pool with bottles of wine and Aperol nearby. I had brought cheese and hams from Spain and the concept of hunger, as gluttonous as we were being, was now nothing more than a fantastical word in some dictionary. A thunderstorm and a barbecue in the evening rounded the day off but there were still more villages out there. Despite the smoky steaks, lemon and basil chicken and endless bottles of Burgundy I still wanted more. I wanted the hattrick.
Grasse: the Queen of the hills and the capital of perfume. Grasse was an explosion of colours a welcome attack on the senses. The walls, coloured again, were more intense: canary yellows, salmon pinks and brilliant oranges. Little alleys filtered off all places, but the elevated stature of the town allowed churches to squeeze in as well. Washing hung in a Neapolitan fashion from some windows while down below food stalls and cafes filled the streets under clouds of cooling mist emitted by the bars. Despite its natural appeal there was another reason Grasse could hold its head high: Perfume.
The fecund fields and valleys of Provence are prime flower-growing territory. Indeed, many of the balconies and windows boxes of Grasse were spilling over with daisies and geraniums. Since the end of the 18th century this little hilltop settlement has been the centre of the French perfume industry. A lot of the famous ‘noses’ trained in Grasse and tucked away down many of the lanes one can find old shops peddling their wares. The warm lands around Grasse are brimming with lavender, myrtle, jasmine, rose, orange blossom and mimosa. The region is a cocktail of aromas. Paradise for women, trickier for men. I myself went away with a small bottle of Cedrat (citron) perfume for those moments when I want to smell a little more Provençal.
Three villages of the Côte d’Azur but without the Côte. The French Riviera without the Riviera. There was no need to hug the shores and no desire rose in me to see it. It would have been nice, of course, to linger lazily at a café in Nice or swan about in Cannes pretending I had as much money as the other people there, but I didn’t care. Less than an hour inland and a world of earthly pleasures had opened itself up to me. A world of aromas and local produce, of postcard-perfect villages and sweeping vistas. A land that, with the addition of food and friends, could very much be some kind of Eden.
A lot of people put 'travelling' under their hobbies and interests. Sometimes I ask these people where they've been. They sometimes shock me with far-flung corners of the globe that I could only hope to one day be able to afford. More often they are the same wonderful but hackneyed places: Paris, Barcelona, New York, Sydney, Bangkok. Accompanying their exploits are Facebook albums of average photos often with boyfriend or girlfriend in tow in a variety of identifiable locations. Good on them, they've got out. They've had a holiday. Were they travelling? In the etymological sense, of course they were. They took a train or a bus or a plane to go somewhere. But were they really travelling because they 'love travelling' or because, more possibly, they like getting away somewhere new. Is there a distinction? Maybe not. But maybe there is. I wanted to set my mind to thinking about why we travel.
I love travelling. That same sentence proclaimed by many. And yes, sometimes I hop on a bus to the mountains near Madrid in order to escape the city – as wonderful as it is – and breathe the clear air and empty my head. But spending day after day on the beach? No. Travelling to a city to check off the monuments and galleries from the list? No. Well, maybe a couple. I like playing computer games now and then. I like to go jogging by the river. Photography is a passion of mine. I supremely enjoy reading a good book. These are all things I like to do. But none of them are so vital to me as food and travel. If I'm not travelling – wherever it may be – or sampling some new food I get restless and antsy. I start to feel trapped, the weight of life and its inherently real but unnecessary requirements covering me layer by layer. To travel is as important to me as breath. 'I love travelling'. No. I need to travel. It forms an intrinsic part of who I am and I can't live without it. To see a new city, drive though the landscapes of an unvisited country, to sample its food and its wine, especially its wine, and to let one's eyes and camera lens fall upon its people, is a happiness that I presume is only rivalled by the feeling of being in love – and I have yet to encounter that. Therefore travelling remains a sensation of utmost importance and profundity. When I say 'I love travelling', its understatement must be viewed on a galactic scale.
I work, among other ventures, as a food tour guide in the beautiful Spanish city of Madrid. The clients I receive are travelling for myriad reasons: to get away from everything; 'here on business'; honeymoons and romantic getaways; it forms part of a larger European or Spain tour; 'I always wanted to come'; 'our child is studying here'; and, with the nature of my job, the odd foodie who heard Madrid was the best in the land. These are all valid reasons. They are all different; yet at the same time the same. For whatever reason all these people have ended up in the same place, often doing the same tour with the same red-faced Englishman. No matter what the eventual reason – unless forced by one's business, really it seemed, to a greater or lesser extent, to boil down to the same thing: Wanderlust, no matter how distilled.
Stereotypes. Whether it’s the middle-class student somehow annoyingly backpacking across South America and returning with stories of how they felt in touch with the impoverished and sporting new multicoloured linen trousers and necklaces; or the plucky pink working class bloke who has escaped to the Costa del Sol to soak up some sun with his equally sunburnt wife in Benidorm; or the young writer who quits his job in order to walk across a country, or get away from anywhere known to deeper understand a place and have fodder to scribble down; or whether it’s the honeymooners off to spend far too much money in Paris celebrating a wedding where they also spent too much money; or maybe the businessman on his boat in the Côte d'Azur or the teenagers camping in the woods in Canada. It's all different and all the same. Something in their genes, in their inherited sapiens biology is making them travel. Making them – whatever the reason they think it is - need to be on the move in some way. Rare and sad is the person who never travels, or wants to. And I genuinely pity and fail in understanding them.
Why do we travel? Maybe I haven't got an answer. I don't know; there's an answer. Or maybe it's as simple and inane as 'well, because some of us want to'. But I can't believe that. I like to think that we have to. Wanderlust: A deep desire to travel. Part of what makes Homo sapiens sapiens.
I'd coin wandermust if it didn't sound so truly awful.
Africa starts south of the Pyrenees, or so said Napoleon of Spain. Two months of hell for ten months of heaven say the locals. The sun at its summer zenith recreates that hot continent and mocks skin. The body is fraught with sensations: the air is thick and tangible and weighs heavy on arms and foreheads; the pressure is palpable and the prickles are cells cooking; the face, taking the full brunt of that cosmic heater, glows, and the eyes, resting helpless in their sockets, are dry and itchy by day but all but glued shut by morning. A natural adhesive caused by heat. That same morning, after that night where you barely slept, bereft of dreams for the rise in degrees, you feel as though you are melded to the mattress. You can never get away. You are part of it. Thoughts drift to the idea of removing one's skin to shed a layer of warmth. Alcohol will help in lieu of this. Alcohol, that gains extra potency in those African months. The mind flutters with the bees after only a couple of glasses. Amid this nuance you simply sweat. You sweat in places you never knew could sweat. Like knees.
That July and August that do their best mimicry of some Dantean circle also play havoc with everyday life. They change you. They make you reanalyse and rethink and re-plan. Any journey out of the house you hug shadows, you choose your colours wisely, you apply sun cream as a matter of routine, you slow your pace, you use any breeze possible: the passing car or the arriving train; diet changes to cold soups, the body yearns for juice and swimming pools.
General life is affected too: personal wardrobes change – the concept of trousers makes you physically sick; there is a dramatic rise in the number of opportunities to study the feet and varicose veins of other human beings; the amount of clothing worn by both men and women enjoys a distinction of being in short supply; the glad result is that the tired old eyes of men linger for longer on the exposed bodies of women. The world shines like a concussion; gleaming pastels and coloured walls instead of stars and budgies.
As you struggle to do even the most average of exercises you ponder at the disappearing act the heat haze has played on the mountains. At home you deliberate over the merits of setting the cheap fan you bought to stationary or left and right mode. You turn off electrical goods for fear their whirrings and bleepings contribute to the rise in temperature. In the streets you notice a heightening of smells, an intensity bought about by a collective of molecules trapped in an embrace of warmth. You see the dogs, too much hair for this climate, panting and with dripping tongues. Your only escape a bar, a cafe, a shopping centre, a shadow.
Madrid burns, it burns beautifully and cruelly, and you pray for Apollo to be kind.
‘…the oldest and most famous Spanish seaport on the Mediterranean, is picturesquely situated on the last spurs of the mountain-ranges…and at the foot of this hill is the beautiful harbour on which lies the city with its 12,580 inhabitants’
‘Malaga seems at first an uninviting place. It’s the second city of the south (after Seville), with a population of half a million, and is also one of the poorest. Though the clusters of high-rises look pretty grim as you approach, the city does have some compelling attractions.’
Malaga then and now. The first quote taken from my 114 yr-old Baedecker guide to Spain and Portugal and the second from a recent Rough Guide. The century that separates the books has clearly altered the city somewhat. Not only in the enormous population – modern Malaga is now forty times fuller – but also in the visual aesthetic and the city’s reputation. From the quiet old seaport that was hoping to become a winter resort to the giant Costa del Sol behemoth of today, the city has undergone a huge transformation – and not necessarily a good one.
I was unperturbed. I had been in similar cities on the coasts – Alicante, Barcelona, Cartagena – and even when the stereotypes of drunken English holidaymakers crisping under an Iberian sun whilst hunting out tapas in the form of fish and chips were present, there was always a part that forever remained Spanish. I wanted to find that in Malaga. What I discovered was that Malaga itself still remains a rather charming and well-to-do Spanish city with fine monuments, beautiful people and delightful cuisine.
The old town was singularly charming, well kept and full of welcoming
and restaurants. The streets curled away from the bay through warm early-summer corners that would often lap the shores of ancient buildings or flirt with the ugly new town. Fine town flats with embossed glass balconies shone under a cloudless sky and yanked the viewer’s eyes here, to the vast and imposing but unfinished cathedral, and there, to a mossy mountain at whose base was a Roman theatre and at whose middle and top were Moorish fortress and castles.
Palm trees lined the promenades and seafront where wealthy locals and tourists sauntered, stopping now and again to admire a colourful nook or an extravagant square. A flurry of photogenic streets than knotted behind the Picasso Museum also hid some wonderful food and cutesy tapas bars. This was not the grim and depressing pub-ridden Costa del Sol I had been expecting. But I was here to eat. What of the food?
Three gastronomic moments endeared Malaga to me in a way that only food can. Food, that universal peacemaker, that instigator of human evolution, always helped lift any place to a position higher than it may have otherwise have deserved.
Malaga wine at Casa de la Antigua Guardia
– sat on a main thoroughfare, though inconspicuous with its simple wooden front door, this little bar was the type of place that always called out to me. The oldest tavern in Malaga; a headline I couldn’t ignore. Opened in 1840 they have been serving sweet Malaga wines at knock down prices ever since. Inside was a long wooden counter behind which, and along whose length, numerous rotund barrels ran. The place was musty with the smell of wine and oak and it was narrow. A couple of glasses of
were ordered and the old boy in his white shirt clipped a ‘
’ and about turned to twist the little tap on one of the barrels. Golden, tart, slightly fiery but with an inescapable sweetness, this was a wine to make good friends with. He wrote the order down on the counter with an old piece of chalk. I smiled and ordered another. I would have been very happy to have tried each one of the many wines, or at the very least have had a stab at finishing a barrel, but the call of the
stole me away.
Malaga Feria de Tapas
– There is nothing I like more than when a city gets together with a regional beer and promotes local produce and bars with appealing prices at a tapas festival. Fun and financially viable. Under a large tent in the handsome old bullring the San Miguel beer company was plugging its drink as well as the city’s food. Around 25 bars were present fr
. The way Spain rallies around its cuisine at every given moment is something the rest of world needs to pay attention to. A local is never prouder than when exalting his gastronomy.
om around town, each offering a variety of three tasty morsels. The range was bewildering and intoxicating. I settled – for the sake of my ever-waxing belly – on a small plate of slow cooked pork cheek in red wine and a green gazpacho served with melon caviar, Malaga cheese with
Seafood at Pedregalejo
– A day that initially started as an attempt to escape the city to a suburb village and sit on the beach quickly descended into a hedonistic afternoon of consuming quite the finest seafood, drinking an unnecessary amount of wine and gawping dumbly at both the women and the natural, and base, beauty of the moment we were sharing. Once an unassuming fishing village Pedregalejo has long since been consumed by the broad arms of Malaga, yet it is still distant enough to have retained its feel of separateness. In essence it is a long and unbroken stretch of small square houses that comprise dinky little flats. All the doors are different colours and the walls are a limited range of hues from peaches to lemons and whites. Where there isn’t a flat there is a restaurant. These dribble out from the buildings, onto the promenade’s terraces and then often over onto the sand itself.
We chose one where the far off rises of the Sierra de Mijas could be seen shimmering under a hot sky, wedged between the duck-egg blue of the heavens and the glittering turquoise of the Mediterranean. Between us and the sea and sands was something particular to the region – an
. Under a little hut providing shade was an old propped up rowing boat; the kind you’d find in a boating lake. It was filled to the brim with sand and on it was a fire with lots of ash. A man, dressed as they always are in Spain in a smart white shirt, was taking fresh fish and skewering them. He then stuck the skewers into the sand upright and roasted the fish on either side.
-cooked sardines were perfect; juicy and smoky and with that always-welcome factor that you
it was just cooked fresh for you. Next came plates loaded with breaded
rosada en adobo
– the former being pleasingly muscly rings of fried squid and the latter being small chunks of kingklip marinated in a sweet vinegar with cumin and paprika, breaded and fried. Another glass of white Barbadillo wine. Then a dish of
– absurdly delicious and sweet-fleshed little red mullets, cooked whole like the sardines; followed by another plate of
- tiny little whitebait that were deep-fried and eaten by the handful. Another glass of white wine. And a coffee. Paradise, I decided right there and then, is a beach under the sun with a selection of marine life cooked quick and shovelled into the face with something alcoholic in a glass.
Malaga had won me over. The Costa del Sol’s largest city still acted like an old Spanish town.