Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 8 in Vejer de la Frontera: They that sleep, catch no fish (Los sue duermen, atrapar ningún pez)

"You can have a dry sherry after you've gutted several sardines."

I looked down at the bowl of fresh sardines, thought about that glass of Jerez, overcame my revulsion, and reached in for one of the silvery little fish. I snapped off the head as Nikki had shown me, sliding my fingernail along the belly to open it. The spine and guts lift out easily if the fish is very fresh, as these were. The first two were challenging--I've never gutted fish with my fingers before--but I quickly got the hang of it. My initial queasiness rapidly disappeared.

Task done, I earned my reward, and Nikki and I sat down to enjoy the sherry with a little snack of sardines macerated in sherry vinegar and a bit of garlic before proceeding to the rest of our afternoon of cooking.

The intrepid Roger had met me at 8.00 a.m., and we drove southward beyond Cadiz toward Barbate, a small fishing village known for the tuna that is caught in the waters between Spain and Morocco. There we rendezvoused with Nikki, a local chef, who took me to the local fish market, where I was something of a curiosity: not many tourists come to these parts. We wandered through the stalls, Nikki humorously sparring with the sellers about the quality of the fish, and poking at fruits and vegetables expertly like an old Mediterranean grandmother. She's actually fairly young, and like many people in Spain, learning to survive in a broken economy through innovation; those who can't develop marketable skills (such as teaching cooking classes to foreigners) join the ranks of the unemployed. I was told that roughly 40-45% of young people in southernmost Spain cannot find work.

Before leaving Barbate, I walked briefly on the beach of velvety sand. The Atlantic here is bluer than what we see from the East Coast, and on a cloudless day, one can glimpse Morocco across the water. We then drove up a steep winding road to Vejer de la Frontera, a stunning whitewashed town of cobblestone streets and Moorish-influenced buildings. The sky was a blinding blue, the temperature perfect, and the strong breeze scented by lemon and orange trees. Perfection yet again.

We unpacked groceries at the house that doubles as a dwelling for Nikki's business partner and the cooking school; shortly thereafter, I found myself gutting sardines. We cooked and chatted easily for several hours, moving in the leisurely but efficient manner that seems to characterize much Spanish life. I learned that gazpacho as we normally make it--a cold chunky soup--is a touristy invention and not at all what people in the south of Spain consume. Instead, one presses the tomatoes and vegetables through a sieve to release the juice, creating a gourmet version of V-8. This is drunk as an accompaniment to a big afternoon lunch. We then moved on to make a salsa verde that would dress our fish; we also prepared for dessert an orange and almond torte, a simple combination of boiled orange (run through a blender), eggs, ground almonds, a bit of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of baking power. Then I was taught how to pack a whole fish in salt. We took the gorgeous sea bass Nikki had bought in Barbate, cleaned it, and put it atop a bed of sea salt. More is packed around the fish, with only the eye and the gill fin showing to check for doneness. Asparagus was prepared for roasting, and little prawns boiled in water to have with a dipping sauce.

Around 2.30 we sat down for our glorious meal: you can see some of our feast in the photo. Everything was superb, and the fish a revelation. The salt seals in the juice, resulting in some of the best fish I have ever eaten. Of course, the fact it had been caught early that morning helped too. The salsa verde was splendid--I could eat it by spoonfuls--and the orange/almond torte tasty without being overly rich or sweet. This sort of food is more to my liking than the meat-heavy diet of Madrid.

Roger met us at 4.30. I said good-bye to Nikki and agreed to Roger's suggestion of another hike. Glutted yet again, I needed the exercise. We drove to Medina Sidonia, another stunning little town nestled on a hilltop. It's one of those places of which there are many in southern Spain, with the fingerprint of various cultures everywhere evident. Roman walls and part of a road still exist, as do Moorish gates. Even the Gothic church has Moorish decorations interspersed among the saints and side chapels. We climbed the bell tower, a hearty workout, so I could see the plains below, a vista that unfolded for miles. Roger dragged me into a local bakery--and I mean dragged--and despite my protestations against more food, insisted I try a mouthful of a delicacy made only in this town, a pastry filled with an unusual blend of almond paste, cloves, and cilantro. It was admittedly delicious. I have been struck by how much local customs still dominate these small towns and villages, many of which feature pastries or recipes unique to their food history.

From Medina Sidonia, Roger drove me back to Seville. We parted, good friends after two days of nattering about everything from cuisine to politics to literature, and I waddled back to my room, content and sated. Tomorrow, la conferencia!

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