“I’m not a conservative person, am I?” I ask K.
We’re sitting in a wood panelled taberna in Madrid, towards the end of the evening. Full of tapas and perhaps a little tipsy, we haven’t ordered anything here, content to sit side by side with a glass of wine each and fill up on all the antique eye candy around us – the (inevitable) bulls’ heads, the little sign that announces the availability of snails, the dusty old bottles of sherry, the elegant, marble-topped tables.
What I thought then: not conservative. As a matter of fact I hold views which positively annoy conservatives. Actually, I consider annoying conservative types one of life’s great pleasures. More than that perhaps – a duty. It would be no surprise to run into conservatism here, given the decor, but actually the other customers look rather bohemian. We’ve been in Madrid for less than a week and we’ve seen the inside of a lot of bars.
Many, many bars.
Apart from the fact that I probably would have done that anyway, I’ve been researching for a story I want to do on the city and its tapas. K hasn’t voiced any objection to joining me, so here we are in Bar Umpteen.
Madrid is the selection pack of the tapas world. The omnibus edition. Like an anthology of tapas it brings together regional styles and variations from all over Spain. It isn’t just that it’s the capital; it’s a capital that was very deliberately placed right in the middle of the country, so with the same ease you can nibble at a pinxto from the Basque country, a bit of fried fish from Andalusia, a rice dish from Valencia, some Galician seafood and so on. It makes for a great feeling of variety and it isn’t the only thing that does.
As you would expect in any big Spanish city, there are a huge number of tapas bars in a vast range of styles. No nonsense neighbourhood places that lay out the usual fare – tortillas and ensaladillas, carnes en salsas and embutidos – alongside noble old institutions, a nose above, that might specialise in a particular dish – cod here, shrimp there. And of course you have the new: innovators who have opened bars that look like they might be design studios, serving tapas that might be considered artifacts.
Nowhere is the cross section of approaches more visible over so small a distance than it is along Calle Cava Baja in the La Latina district. To walk up one side and down the other is to move across a checkerboard of cuisines and styles, and a very strong sense can be gleaned of madrileño tastes. If you want to tempt these people away from the tried and tested, and toward the trendy, you’re going to have to be very good. By and large the busy bars are divided by empty ones, and the latter are the ones with the funny-coloured lights and minimalist décor.
Follow the crowd, they always say, where tapas are concerned, and that’s what we do. It suits my tastes anyway – I get much more excited about a well-cooked bowl of spaghetti or, in Spain, a lovingly executed tortilla de patata than I would about some foam-drizzled carpaccio of rambutan and raw shrimp in a cumin and juniper berry reduction. Or whatever.
“What is it then?” I ask her. “How come I always love the old places? Why do I love old stuff so much?”
“Ah,” she replies, sagely.
Then a pause. For effect, I assume.
Hm. I think about that one for a minute, but it doesn’t resonate any more than conservative does. I don’t think I’m particularly given to nostalgia. I never, for example, hark back to previous episodes in my own life as the good old days or the best of times. If I didn’t believe that the time of my life started today I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed.
No, not nostalgia.
I think it’s about connection; an expanded notion of community that goes beyond the physical, beyond the geographical and beyond any internet-age definition of peer group.
We had an old-school Christmas this year with my parents and of course we cooked a bird. As I carved it I thought about all the other people who were doing the same thing out there, at more or less the same time, but also about those who had gone before me, doing this same thing through time, through centuries, and I wondered if some of them had thought about me as I was thinking about them and of course, I concluded, they had. I might also hope to be spared a thought by those who come after me, who haven’t cooked their bird yet, but who might reach out while they carve it and think of me and mine; a real connection, nothing vague or abstract about it – a real togetherness, a reality shared through time as well as space by the living, the dead and the yet-to-be.
And that’s the thing about a bowl of spaghetti.
Cooked just so, in tomato sauce, laced with basil. Long time it’s been done that way. Peel your tomatoes, deseed them, cook the sauce down, serve the noodles al dente. Perfect. A flavour that was being enjoyed way before me, and will be way after. Not just yummy but yumminess shared. Innovative, artful cooking can be good, but never as good as that.
Even amongst the avante garde tapas we taste this week, my favourite is actually a celebration of an old classic. Tortilla de patatas, served in a glass. A bed of dark, caramelised onion, a layer of warm egg yolk, topped with a potato cream and served with a spoon. Inventive yes, but more specifically reinventive; respectful of its heritage.
A few weeks later and I’m in Jerez for another story. I’m being shown around one of the southern city’s newest bodegas, strolling amongst criaderas and soleras in a dim old sherry house, inhaling the toasty, dried-fruit perfume of the ageing wines. Although new, the bodega is owned by a family that goes back to year dot in the sherry world. A few years ago they found themselves out of the business, after centuries in it.
Now they’re back, in the form of this place, and a pedigree is restored. Another connection, palpable in the bricks of the bodega and in the bouquet of their lovely old oloroso and first class brandy. A line that had been broken has been retraced. Perhaps these things have become even more important to me now that I, like most people, live online as well as off. We’re all so connected; why should it be a surprise that we might look to conquer time that way, as well as space?
At any rate, walking around the bodega brings it home to me that I’m not alone with these thoughts, certainly not the first to think them and, indeed, far from the best at expressing them. Not everybody needs to harp on about it as I seem to; some people just live it, and the whole rigmarole is summed up very succinctly – and much more eloquently than my efforts – in the very name of the place.
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