Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Day 3 in Madrid: One needs friends, even in hell (uno necessita a amigos incluso en el inferno)

Before leaving the States, I had arranged to do a cooking class with Gabriela Llamas, a well-known chef and authority on the history of Spanish food. I thoroughly embarrassed myself by oversleeping (see the previous post) and then waking to a call from the front desk informing me that Gabriela was waiting downstairs. Mortified, I flew out of bed, somewhat worse for wear, threw on jeans and a sweater, and ran downstairs, sputtering apologies and explanations. Gabriela was nonplussed and amused. "You will turn into a Madrid gato, if you don't watch out," she joked, using the slang that best expresses the propensity of the city's residents to prowl the bars and streets until all hours.

As we left the hotel, Gabriela sized up my sorry state and declared that I needed some caffeine "or you will die." We walked to a traditional coffee bar where I had cafe con leche and churros, and I did indeed feel better. We then hiked over to an old-fashioned market and selected various ingredients for the lunch we would cook together. Gabriela lives in a wonderful neighborhood near the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns (Monasterios de las Descalzas Reales), also close to the palace, where she keeps a flat and, two blocks away, another space that she uses for cooking demonstrations and classes. Beautifully outfitted with a great kitchen and study, it has additional office space on the second level. We got to work around 11.00 a.m., and I staggered back to my hotel--MadrileƱos clearly do not believe in restraint--at 6.00 p.m., glutted and happy.

We made a "historical" Spanish meal comprised of a chicken in an almond and saffron sauce (it's mentioned in Don Quixote), pan-roasted vegetables, and rice. Dessert was the most intriguing of all, a chocolate mousse prepared with olive oil, not butter or cream. I was skeptical, but it turned out to be delicious and much lighter than the traditional French version (and much healthier). Gabriela explained this variation on mousse was invented by Sephardic Jews who were not permitted to mix dairy with meat; indeed, as she lectured throughout the cooking demonstration, I learned an enormous amount about the intermingling of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian culinary customs through the centuries.

We sat down to enjoy our meal with a light crisp white wine and talked for hours. We discovered a shared affinity for food, history, art, literature, and culture, and Gabriela regaled me with stories of her wild and fascinating family, ranging from a 90-year-old aunt (still going strong), who refused to marry, preferring instead to gamble and invest her way around the world, to her brother-in-law Ruggero Raimondi, the opera singer. We liked each other so much that we agreed to meet up again tomorrow. I plan to take Gabriela and her mother in the afternoon for tapas at the famous bar up the street from her flat. Francis Ford Coppola goes there whenever he is in town, and the chef is supposed to be a total character (as if there is anything else in Madrid).

Walking home I passed through the Plaza del Sol and stopped to listen to a jazz ensemble. The weather, now sunny and mild, reminded me of L.A., and I realized that happiness unexpectedly had me in its embrace. Yesterday I fled in tears from a room of religious paintings in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, where a picture of the risen Christ by Bramantino reminded me of Rod in his final hours, so eerily similar was the waxen complexion, the starved frame, and the unseeing eyes. I wept uncontrollably in the ladies room to the consternation of several Spanish women, one of whom offered to fetch a doctor until I explained my dilemma in halting Spanish. "Ah, quƩ pena," they murmured, bobbing their heads in sympathy. This afternoon I realized that new friends, new experiences, and a new life await me, thanks to crazy radicals, a worldly chef, and chicken in almond-saffron sauce.

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