orxatas, tapas, and pastelerías

June 3, 2011

I have this problem: it’s called me being obsessed with all things gastronomy.

Luckily, this little obsession is well-tended to in Spain.

Actually, I vaguely recall being told that the food in Spain leaves much to be desired. I find this quite far from the truth.

Granted, I haven’t yet eaten paella, and my previous experience with paella was not ideal, but I have high hopes. Particularly since I’m in the paella region of the world. And since rabbit tastes delicious. But that post is for another day.

Truth be told, my gastronomic adventures outside of the home have been limited. This is a combination of the fact that via this program, I’m given three meals a day, and also the fact that the exchange rate is terrible and I can barely afford the daily cup of coffee I order at Cuenca.

[I could, of course, not drink the coffee, but at this point it would be a disappointment to the dear women who work there and more or less start preparing my café con leche before I even have a chance to order it.]

No, I do not order the pastry on a daily basis. Usually I just mooch off of Zach.

But over the course of the past few days, I’ve become more exposed to the gastronomic culture of Spain. Zach and I have begun walking back towards our apartments during our 3-hour lunch break after our Cuenca coffee and pastry [mainly because the WiFi in the building is so terrible and there’s little else to do], and along the way stop and explore. A few days ago, we were doing just that when we decided to enter the Mercat Ruzafa, which, much to my elation, is more or less an enormous, indoor market.

Imagine: rows upon rows of street vendors chatting and bagging produce for busy mothers; a rainbow of color dancing along your line of sight from bright red strawberries to glistening heads of lettuce, and everything in between; smells of freshly baked breads and pastries warming the air in the most enticing manner; crates full of every nut and dried fruit you could imagine; meat and fish lining glass cases, waiting to be bought and cooked. And all of this lies hardly a quarter of a mile away from where I’m living.

The amount that I wish I had a kitchen to my disposal is almost physically painful.

But the idea of being able to visit and walk around whenever I’d like is enough for now.

An epic fail of a photo awesome shot of the market taken creepily, albeit subtly, with the iPod.

Today was also a good day for food [not that every day isn’t a good day for food]. On our [now] usual noon walk through the city, Zach and I stopped in a tienda de gastronomía, literally a “shop of gastronomy.” They are actually pretty common around where I live, though I had never stepped foot in one until today [when I visited about four].

Interestingly, many of them specialize in Italian food. By this I mean uncooked pasta in all shapes and sizes, jars of truffles and marinades, and honey. Now, when I visited Italy 3 years ago, I bought some honey to bring home. Let me just tell you, it was the best damn honey I have eaten to this day.

Needless to say, I will be buying another enormous jar to bring home with me. As well as Spanish honey, which I’ve never had before [there is a store that sells only Spanish honey about half a mile from me, which is supposed to be quite renowned; I’m bursting with excitement to try some].

In the final store we visited, I caved. Walked around the small shop for about ten minutes, probably literally picked up every single jar to scrutinize, and eventually decided to purchase peach marmalade and a can of fleur de sel [called flor de sal here]. However, I think the shop owner was pretty baffled by my enormous interest in food items [I can’t imagine he has too many college-aged students visiting his store to buy things like homemade marmalade or fleur de sel], so we chatted some. I told him about how I’m here on study-abroad, trying to improve my broken Spanish, that I’m visiting from good old Va, etc. It was a very lovely conversation; he was the sweetest man.

And then he told me to grab a few baby jars of marmalade gratis.

And so I did. Valencian orange and more peach, to be precise.

And now I am basically in love with this man and plan on visiting him every morning on my way to school to say hello and [hopefully] be offered more free goodies like truffles and artisan cheese.

Word of advice to all foodie travelers: if you look at all anomalous in a gastronomic shop and speak the country’s native tongue in such a broken manner that appears somewhat charming, you too could walk away with free goodies.

Our next gastronomic adventure of the day was to go by a cafe close to Zach’s apartment for some orxataOrxata is basically the Valencian version of horchata, which, though I’m sure many of you have heard the name courtesy of Vampire Weekend (which is actually how I first heard the name, sad to admit), is a drink traditionally made from ground almonds, rice milk, sugar, and cinnamon. Valencian orxata is made from chufa nuts [tiger nuts] rather than almonds, and lacks the cinnamon.

[Also, the spelling variation is due to the fact that the street language here (by that I mean the language almost all street signs are written in) is Valencian, rather than Spanish. Never mind the fact that Valencian is more or less equivalent with Catalán, but regionalism is pretty big here in Spain.]

It’s quite a good drink, but I’m not too keen on the intense quantities of nut flavor that you get with orxata. I actually think I would prefer the Mexican version [made with the almonds and cinnamon], but this one is surprisingly refreshing as well. Today I drank my third one of the trip, and I think I may have fulfilled my orxata fix at this point.

Nonetheless, I was happy to cross it off my list.

And our final adventure of the day was to hit up a tapas bar. I very much enjoy the concept of tapas. For the longest time, I just thought it was a small, family-style meal; a variety of little plates ordered and shared amongst friends. The concept in reality is more or less just this, but the point of tapas, really, is to prevent oneself from getting too drunk. This is why they’re eaten alongside copas, or small glasses of alcohol. A pretty clever idea, I’d say.

[And not in the least bit surprising that the Spaniards would be the ones to come up with it.]

The tapas that we had were pretty delicious: stuffed peppers, bacalau [fish in a spiced sauce], fresh bread, some pork items that I did not partake in [though which smelled heavenly], and Liz enjoyed some red wine while Zach and I had water. Good food, good talk, a perfect outing for tapas.

I appreciate the Spanish appreciation for passing the time away in this manner.

In other related news, the Spaniards are quite keen on the carbohydrates. Bread with every meal, which itself often centers on rice or pasta [Italian food is strangely popular here], and not as many veggies as I’d typically enjoy. I can’t complain too much, although my jeans may start protesting quite soon. But I have grown to love small, pre-meal salads: lettuce and sliced tomatoes dressed with a generous drizzle of olive oil, salt, and oregano flakes. Definitely something I plan on making a routine when I go back home.

Simple and delicious. Just as all meals should be.

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