Polla 'Ole!' And Other Spanish Joys

HAPPY EATER HC

July 10, 1991|By ROB KASPER

What I ate on my summer vacation in Spain:

I ate grilled rabbit, which was wonderful even though I ordered it by mistake. I ate salted cod, which was also terrific and tastes much much better than it sounds.

I ate the little fish, called "pescaditos." They were whole fish about the size of anchovies, which is precisely what some of them were. They were OK. Just OK.

I ate roasted suckling pig, which was very good, but frankly not noticeably better than suckling pig at Tio Pepe's in downtown Baltimore.

The "pollo," or chicken covered with olive oil and garlic, however, was far superior to anything I have ever eaten in the land of Colonel Sanders. I didn't inquire about the upbringing of the pollo, whether it was a "haystack scratcher" allowed to roam freely, or was confined to a chicken condo. All I know is that the flavor of the meat was so full and the bird so juicy that "pollo" became a meal of choice.

I was in Barcelona, a big city, and in Calella de Palafrugell, a little town on the Mediterranean. This was northeast Spain near France, in an area of Spain that hugs the Mediterranean called Catalonia. In broad terms, Catalonia is the state, like Maryland, and Barcelona is the big city, like Baltimore. The parallel holds in many ways, the mayor of Barcelona and the leader or governor of Catalonia don't get along either. Catalonia has its own style of cooking, and even its own language, and I got the distinct impression that people here think of themselves first as Catalans, and second as Spanish.

Back to the food, especially the olives. The Spanish or Catalans or whoever have this habit of putting out a bowl of olives for you to munch on the way bars here put out peanuts. Most people eat one or two olives. I cleaned out two entire bowls.

And the bread! Spain has real bread. Thick crusty bread sold in small bakeries. My family and I made daily pilgrimages to bakeries of Palafrugell. We ate over a loaf a day.

I can also reliably report that the Burger King and McDonald's in Barcelona are similar to the ones here. I found them unbearable, too loud, too expensive, with food that offered too little flavor. We ate in them all the because the kids loved them. One notable difference: in Spain you have to ask for extra ketchup.

My wife and I took the kids along with us to Spain because . . . because . . . because we couldn't get away with not taking them.

And of course it was a "learning experience" for the children. The kids now speak some Spanish. The 10-year-old says "Coca-Cola por favor." And the 6-year-old says, "Fanta naranja." That is Spanish for, "Gimme an orange soda."

We also ordered a lot of Spanish pizza, which is thinner and a little smaller than American pizza. Spanish pizza seems to be aimed at flavor rather than total volume.

I went grocery shopping in Spain, both at the grocery stores and at the farmer's market and butcher shops of Palafrugell.

Buying produce in the farmer's market in Spain was similar to buying produce in the farmer's market in downtown Baltimore. I walked from stand to stand until I saw the green beans I liked, then I bought them. The difference was that in Spain the beans are measured in kilos, and I was never exactly sure how many coins I had to proffer

Mostly when I bought beans or produce, I just held a handful of coins in front of the farmer, and let him or her pick the correct amount. This was a small town.

I bought fish in the fish market, a tuna steak. I later learned that many Catalans prefer smaller fish. But we cooked it anyway in a sauce made of red wine, pepper, rosemary, thyme oregano and basil. We got the recipe from Colman Andrews book, "Catalan Cuisine" (Headline Books, London). And as we sat on the patio of a rented beach condo looking out on the Mediterranean, eating fresh tuna and sipping some inexpensive Spanish wine, I thought, "I could live here."

A quick word about Spanish wines: "inexpensive." I bought most of my wines at a convenience food store in town. I got some fine red Rioja's for 580 peseta, or about $5 a bottle. Similarly I could get a nice "cava," or white wine, for about $6 a bottle. When I got back to the United States I spotted a Rioja I had had in Spain. Here it cost $12.

I really liked eating at the beaches in Calella de Palafrugell for three reasons. First the beaches are beautiful, small with clear rock bottoms under the water. Secondly they have outdoor cafes right next to them, where you can sit and drink a "cerveza," beer, or a "cremant," a flaming brandy and rum coffee, and watch the waves lap at the beach. Thirdly, the Spanish don't wear very big bathing suits and some of the women don't wear tops. I had planned to do a lot of reading at the beach, but somehow never got around to it.

Finally, Spain struck me as a pepper-friendly country. The sweet red peppers are everywhere, even at breakfast. And they are much less expensive than in United States. And black peppercorns show up on many meats, including the rabbit.

The rabbit was the first meal I ate in Spain. It was at an outdoor cafe down near the Barcelona harbor. The menu was all in Spanish. About the only item I could read was one that mentioned the word "grilled." I figured that, not counting liver, I would like any dish that was "grilled." So I pointed to the item and the waiter nodded.

When he brought it to me I dug in, but still wasn't sure what I eating. It was bigger than a chicken, yet came with a carcass. After a few bites, I didn't care. It was marvelous. It was accompanied by a garlicky sauce known as allioli. Good stuff.

Later another waiter who spoke a few words of English told me my entree was rabbit.

So if you go to Spain, be sure and eat the "carnejo."

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