They have been there since the middle of January. I pass them each day as I walk up the main street on my way to the bus stop. On a corner outside a bar and on the corner opposite as if the same intersection is used by arrangement every year.
I’ve only been in that bar once, when I was new here at the tail end of last summer. It looked intriguing to me in a shabby, down to earth way. Ugly but lively. I ordered a beer and scanned the bar for evidence of anything edible.
I didn’t go again. For want of tapas and a friendly reception I took my one man show (eating, drinking, staring into the middle distance…) on a tour of Tarifa‘s many other bars till K arrived and we settled on a few favourites. Still, I’ve passed by often and seen very decent raciones getting dished out. Lamb chops – piles of the chewed bones being cleared from the chrome tables on the pavement, or not being cleared and left there to taunt me.
Heaped on trollies on either corner; one in the sun, one in the shade – I have passed by each day for a month and told myself I would pick some up the following morning. But I haven’t. I haven’t picked any up and I haven’t faced the truth.
The truth is I’ve been too scared.
Till today. After a long walk on a windy beach I tell myself I can do it. I brace myself and return home via the vendors. Having handed over a couple of euros I walk to the apartment with a carrier bag full of the little creatures; erizos (sea urchins), covered in the kind of spines you definitely don’t want in the sole of your foot.
I hadn’t even known you could eat them till I was told a month ago. A delicacy apparently and available here only during the winter months; there won’t be any left soon so it’s now or never. In the kitchen I turn one of them over in my hands – brittle and spiny, cold to the touch; it certainly doesn’t look edible.
I take a scissors to it, cutting through the tough membrane and splitting it roughly in two. Each half is water filled and an ozone scent rises – the first time it has smelled of anything. In the waters of one half an alien-like structure, intricate symmetries in cartilage draped in a dark green residue.
In the other half a red star – the five pronged assembly of sea urchin roe that is so sought after. It is draped in dark threads of what looks like muscle tissue, that I have to carefully remove before scooping some of the red-orange roe onto my fork; cold, wet and gelatinous.
I take the tiny tongue-like morsel onto my own tongue. The first hit of flavour is generic – precisely what you would expect roe to taste of – salt, the ocean. As it spreads across the palate however it distinguishes itself from anything I have eaten before – a deep, rusty and satisfying flavour that excites. Delicious!
I am proud of myself! I feel I have been very brave! In the evening I regale K with an account of my adventure.
“You disgust me”.
“Why?! They’re a delicacy around here. Domingo recommended them”.
“Please never mention them to me again. How do you cook those things anyway? I can’t believe you ate a sea urchin”.
“Not a sea urchin – its eggs, and you don’t cook them you eat them raw from the shell”.
“It makes me love you less, to hear you say these things…”
It’s been an interesting week for food. In Antequera, a town they call “the heart of Andalucia”, I sample the local porra – served with tuna, egg and sliced tomato. Porra is a thicker relative of gazpacho and is a staple here in Antequera, especially during the summer months when the notion of a bowl of cold soup actually sounds tempting.
When I am finished I am brought the tail of a bull. Not quite as alien as the erizos and not new to me – an old favourite in fact – but still, something to behold on a plate. Slow cooked meat that falls from the bone in a sauce so rich it could knock a horse off its feet. I might have had conejo ajillo but declined for obvious reasons and just as well, given the turn the conversation takes over lunch.
K wants another lagomorph. I don’t share her sense of timing but I don’t believe this is a thing that I can stop. I’ll go further; I believe this is a thing that I can’t stop. It seems we are not meant to be a unit of two – when we are we tend to anthropomorphise cars and radiators and so on to bump the numbers up.
We will always, I think, be taking something in, some waif or stray. A unit of three, or four, or five. So we will find ourselves in a pet shop soon, or an animal shelter, or some place where little creatures that have no home can be rescued and where K can assuage her need to look after one of them.
That’ll make it four, not three: we’re in Antequera to adopt. A little red car that we drive – over cautiously – back to Tarifa and park where her predecessor used to sit. She is christened with a few drops of beer on her bonnet and left to settle in for her first night in her new home.
We call her Polly.