Thursday, October 30, 2014

Blissful Simplicity

Sandwich, deconstructed?

We arrived to Madrid just as the sun was beginning to set, which is the absolute perfect time to arrive to any place after a long journey, as far as I'm concerned. It gives you the full sense that your travel is done for the day, but you still get a little sliver of daylight to enjoy your new surroundings. After checking in to our hotel, we had the singular mission of finding some excellent food to bring back to our room for a little picnic before the need to sleep completely overtook us.

We struck out with nothing particular in mind, but knowing that we would not be satisfied with mediocrity. After all, this adventure is (almost entirely) about eating, so settling just wouldn't be in the cards for us. We passed a few pintxo bars, just starting to become populated with 8pm early birds munching on anchovy toast and sipping Rioja. While some of the offerings looked tasty, we knew that in our jet-lagged and sleep-deprived state, sitting in a smoky bar was miles from where we wanted to be.

An indoor marketplace caught our eye as we passed. It wasn't flashy or packed or anything of that nature; frankly, it looked pretty commonplace. But Julia and I have learned, especially when traveling together, to trust our guts and follow our noses (figuratively and literally) when it comes to finding food. For some reason, this little alley, with a mere half-dozen stalls, beckoned to us. As we wandered in,  our first encounter was with a vendor boasting all of the sexiest cured meats and salumerie. We perused his selections for a few moments and I was ready to buy the first slices of Jamon Iberico my eyes fell upon. Fortunately for us, my lovely wife insisted we browse a bit more before committing to anything.

At the end of the alley we found another purveyor of charcuterie, this one with with a bit more to offer. Difficult as it was to choose, we knew that everything was likely to be bangarang, and we went with freshly sliced Jamon Serrano. As the man sliced, we chatted with him, fully geeking out at the fact that we were putting together what would would be a rustic but exquisite hotel picnic made up of all the things that we love. The ease and joy of a trip to seek food in Madrid eclipsed any feelings of jet-lag or trouble acclimating: this is what we do.

We also selected a Manchego-esque sheep cheese (whose name, beginning with 'R,' I can neither recall nor locate via google but I will track down) that our new friend agreed would complement our Jamon, and a slab of membrillo. Heading back toward the exit, we grabbed some grapes from a fruit vendor and a loaf of bread from a bakery. The bread had a taste and texture that I recognized as distinctly Spanish. The crumb is moister and denser than French-style baguettes, and there is a flavor to the flour that I cannot describe comparatively or descriptively, other than to say it tastes like... Spanish bread.

Bread by any other name...

Meat, cheese, bread, fruit: as far as Spain was concerned (and we were in no position to argue), we had our dinner.

A few doors down from the market, we found a wine shop. Bottles lined its walls, but the very first my eyes found was a Toro. I was first introduced to wine from the tiny Toro region at a meal in San Sebastian on my last trip to Spain, and I immediately fell in love with it. Since then, I have sought it out, but it's often hard to come by in the states. I was floored to have fate throw it at me right away, and I grabbed a bottle. A stop at a hardware store on the way home for a cheese knife and a wine key and we were all set.

We laid out our spread on the paper in which it was wrapped, poured our wine, and beamed with joy and excitement. There was nothing fancy at all in front of us: some cured ham, inexpensive cheese, fruit paste, and wine. It was absolutely perfect. Spain, at its heart, is rustic but rich with character; this is reflected in its people, its architecture, and, naturally, its food. For this reason, we could not have picked a better culinary 'hello' to Spain, nor one more quintessentially Spanish. From the salt and delicate nuttiness of the meat, to the buttery cheese with a hint of tang, to the robust grapes and the sweet, creamy quince paste: there was balance, satisfaction, and rustic beauty. Nothing else would have hit the spot better.

We fell into bed less than an hour later, satiated, smiling, and sleepy. We'd been in Europe less than 12 hours and already we'd set the culinary bar high, after nothing more than a trip to a market up the street! But the delicious adventures were just getting started…

Membrillo: because cheese needs friends too.

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