Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

One of the pleasures of eating is knowing when to eat, as I recalled often when in Spain. By this I do not mean the time of day as such, although I doubt I could eat a lasagna for breakfast. Instead I refer to those occasions when certain foods have traditionally been available. Today, thanks to innovations such as refrigeration and transportation infrastructure, we can enjoy foods all year-round that were once considered rare treats for our ancestors. Yet there seems to me to be a greater good, beyond that of healthier ingredients or supporting local businesses, in enjoying what we eat at the time and place in which we are meant to eat it.

There is a beautiful scene in the BBC mini-series “Cranford” in which Miss Smith presents her hostesses, the spinster Jenkyns sisters, with a crate of Spanish oranges as a thank-you gift. While familiar with the fruit, its comparative rarity in early Victorian England made it such a prized commodity that, for small-town residents like the Jenkyns, hot-climate produce was viewed almost as a luxury item, reserved for the Christmas stocking or special occasions. In the film, the dour Deborah Jenkyns commands the ladies to retire to their respective rooms, in order to consume their oranges in restrained silence. The camera subsequently shows us Deborah’s younger sister, Mathilda, sucking out the juice from the fruit with childish glee. However it is Miss Deborah, a tower of almost Calvinist propriety, who ends up savoring the first slice of her orange with the kind of sensual pleasure that only a gourmand can truly recognize and appreciate.

The specialness of a food or a dish is meant to be part of the reason one consumes it, no matter how good it may taste when eaten outside of its usual context. Canelones, the rolled pasta tubes stuffed with meat and baked in a béchamel sauce, are available in Catalonia any time of year. The fancier canelones de festa major, on the other hand, were traditionally served on December 26th, St. Stephen’s Feast Day (a public holiday in Barcelona), using the leftover meat from the Christmas soup the day before, along with special ingredients such as a fine brandy or shavings of black truffles. Eventually the custom of making these slightly more special canelones spread to other feast days on the Church calendar, such as the Feast of St. Joseph. On my last night in Barcelona then, dining at the venerable 180-year-old Set Portes restaurant, I ordered canelones de festa major as one of the courses, rather than the regular canelones that were also on the menu, because it was the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a feast day which Barcelona still celebrates with great pomp and many ancient customs.

On two occasions I went outside the rules a bit by having a xató – a Catalan salad typical of the beach town of Sitges, made with escarole, tuna, anchovies, and a sauce that is roughly a variant of romesco, among other things – even though technically the season for this dish had ended the month before I arrived. The salad is cool, crisp, briny, savory, and sweet, resulting in a veritable explosion of flavors. Despite my being slightly out of season, that at the Mare Nostrum restaurant in Sitges was probably among the best I have ever eaten, while the second time I ate the salad it was fine, but nowhere near comparable.

When I arrived in Madrid, other seasonal and off-season choices awaited me. It was the beginning of cherry season, and on a scorching hot day I thoroughly enjoyed an extraordinary chilled gazpacho at the Madrid country club a few miles outside the city, where cherries were used as the base for the soup instead of the tomatoes most of my readers are probably familiar with from the Andalusian-style gazpacho. The sweet and sour soup glowed like a rich, dark ruby, albeit only for the few short moments that it glittered in my dish before I consumed all of it with gusto.  

Although the season for white asparagus had ended a few weeks before, I nevertheless still managed to savor the last of some gigantic white asparagus spears having the diameter of a bratwurst at the Cerveceria Santa Ana, a famous old brewery just across the square from one of Madrid’s most prestigious theatres. On the other hand, I had also arrived a little too late for artichoke season. Few people love an artichoke more than the Castilians; there is even a rather grand 18th century fountain in Madrid’s Retiro Park dedicated to it. It did not surprise me then, that the fried artichoke I ordered as a starter for lunch one day at a rather UHB restaurant in the north end of the city was okay, but nothing special.  

All in all my food experiences were such that, the seasonal choices were always a hit, while the off-season choices were a mixed bag. This reinforces the often-repeated concept in travel writing that eating in a traditional, seasonal fashion lends greatly to the experience of travel. By sticking to what should be eaten when he finds himself where he is, the traveler can adapt to, and hopefully better understand, the rhythms of life in the place in which he finds himself.

By the same token, whether you are a frequent flier or an armchair tourist, the foods you choose even at home have a deeper meaning than the mere consumption of calories. Without giving much thought to it, we have created a society in which foods that were once viewed as special, have lost much or all of their significance. Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong about the fact that we can go to the supermarket and pick up fruits and vegetables out of season. Nor is there any real reason why we could not cook a Thanksgiving-style turkey in April, if we really wanted to.

Yet as these sorts of things are so often of a piece in our society, I do wonder whether making all kinds of foods and dishes available all year round is a reflection of the way in which we have come to avoid the seasonality of life, including our own. The natural world, in which we ourselves must be included, has an inescapable structure and pattern to it, from birth to growth, maturity to death. When something created is no longer considered to be something special, we risk not only becoming ungrateful for the bounty of Creation itself, but of imagining that we ourselves exist outside of it.

One hallmark of a true appreciation of the life we have been given can be found in those fleeting moments of pleasure that we all find in eating good food enjoyed in its proper season. By trying to live more in the place and time in which we find ourselves, we have a better chance of savoring a hint of the goodness of what Creation was originally intended to be, and what we believe it will be again one day. Until that day let us feast as best we may, but always in due season.

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Lidia Cooks, Pope Francis Eats: The Papacy And Food

You may have missed the news – as did I – that while he was in New York, Pope Francis’ meals were prepared by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, famous to TV watchers from her many series on PBS over the past two decades. Lidia is a refugee immigrant to America who was born in Pola, a seaport which was once part of Italy; the city was given to Yugoslavia after the war, and is now a part of Croatia. She is what we non-Italians would imagine our Italian “nonna” (grandmother) to be, if we had one: a robust, cheerful, colorful lady, with a gusto for preparing you mountains of good food. If you have never watched one of her programs, I dare you not to grow hungry as you watch how she prepares and then REALLY enjoys tasting that plate of gnocchi or ossobuco that she’s just thrown together, in her beautiful kitchen full of copper pots and majolica platters.

“What an extraordinary honor this is,” she observed, about being asked to cook for Pope Francis. “For me, cooking for the Pope is special because, not only am I Catholic, but I came to this country in 1958 as a refugee from communist Yugoslavia and was cared for by Catholic Relief Services. They did so much to give me a start in America, so I am very proud to give back through what is most dear to me on this Earth: food and my family.”

As it happens, this is not the first time that Lidia has cooked for a pontiff. When Pope Benedict was in New York several years ago, she was asked to cook for him, as well. While Pope Francis has certain dietary restrictions based on his doctor’s advice, Pope Benedict’s own mother was a hotel chef, and so the pressure was on. After the final dinner she prepared for him, Pope Benedict praised the goulash Lidia had made that evening, saying that it was so close to that of his childhood, that “these are my mother’s flavors.” Naturally Lidia got a little teary-eyed at the compliment.

There is an interesting and bizarre history of Papal chefs down the centuries, and as one might expect some of it is quite unseemly to read. The Church hasn’t survived for 2,000 years because of uniformly good Papal behavior, but oftentimes in spite of it. If you’ve ever looked at a list of all the popes, you will see a noticeable gap of several centuries where there were hardly any saintly popes at all.

However one of my favorite tales comes from the reign of a very holy pope, Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572). The third pope to come from the Dominican Order, Pius V was an ascetic, in deliberate contrast to the excesses of many of the Renaissance popes. He fasted and prayed so much that he would forget to eat, and when he did eat it was often nothing more than a bowl of broth and some bread.

Apparently on one occasion, someone suggested to Pope Pius that his daily soup should be fortified with more ingredients. There were concerns that he was doing too much, and that he ought to be eating more to keep up his strength. In response, the Pontiff threatened to excommunicate anyone who altered his meals from exactly how he wanted them prepared.

Now while I may not want that’s the sort of thing I can raise a glass to, and I suspect Lidia would, too.

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Chef Lidia Bastianich

Review: Chartreuse Bistro, Norfolk

Restaurant reviews are a bit of a specialty genre when it comes to writing. For those who are not particularly interested in the often cultish aspects of foodie-ism, they are a slog to read, let alone to write. For those who pride themselves on being able to distinguish twenty different types of saffron – the only sort you need to know is La Mancha from Spain, BTW – any such writing will be a vessel into which copious amounts of scorn may be poured. Suffice to say then, for both groups, that all you need to know is that Chartreuse Bistro in downtown Norfolk, Virginia is very, very good. For those who wish to know more, let us press on.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of dining at Chartreuse with this fellow and his gracious lady wife, who were kind enough to have me down to stay with them over the long holiday weekend. The philosophy at Chartreuse is one combining “new” elements of cooking, i.e. focusing on local, organic ingredients, but making use of many traditional Continental and American cooking techniques. There is no fixed menu, as the owners decide on the day what they are going to be cooking, based on what is fresh and available. There are also house specialty drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, as well as a cocktail and wine menu, with options for every taste.

Charetreuse is located in a storefront in downtown Norfolk which, according to my hosts, has housed several informal restaurants over the years, but nothing like the current incarnation of the space. Very simple colors of black, gray, and white, low lighting, high ceilings, and streamlined modern furniture mask the fact that this is a very, very small dining room. There are a few seats at the bar counter, which gives onto the kitchen, and less than a dozen tables spread around the periphery. The tables themselves reminded us of the heavy, waxed concrete and stainless steel lab tables from high school chemistry class.

Scattered here and there are touches of color in the form of flowers and accessories. I pointed out to our server that we were fortunate enough to have Mr. Squirrel, a squirrel-shaped votive candle holder, at our table, someone whose presence had been noted online by previous reviewers of the restaurant.  Her reply was that the bistro was indeed full of “woodland creatures”, a remark confirmed upon closer examination of the rest of the dining room, and indeed of the facilities.

I observed people as they came and went during the humid, rainy evening, only occasionally overhearing snippits of lively conversation about bourbon or the theatre, but the vibe at Chartreuse is definitely one of a chill, local favorite. It’s as if you were invited to a party at the very chic flat of someone whom you do not know very well, and are surprised to immediately find that you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself. While not stuffy or formal, this is definitely a place to enjoy being a grown-up.

For cocktails, our server very graciously took my instructions on how to make the classic Andalusian warm weather rebujito, after my having seen a good, dry sherry listed on the drinks menu. Being in the South, I should perhaps have gone with something local. However this kickoff and the bottle of cava from a good Catalan cellar which we enjoyed with dinner, led to a meal fusing together of Mediterranean bistro cuisine with touches that speak to local, Tidewater ingredients and cooking.

My starter was an eggplant napoleon, comprised of layers of roasted eggplant, onion, mozzarella, and heirloom tomato stacked atop each other, acoompanied by both an olive tapenade and a wonderfully smoky vinagrette:

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Charetreuse obtains their organic foods locally whenever possible, as part of the farm-to-table concept, and that earthy freshness came through in the dish. The combination of sweet, bitter, salty, and savory, made what could otherwise have just been a bland collection of normally fairly mild ingredients really shine. Moreover, as would become apparent with the main course, the chef really knows his business when it comes to things like dressings and sauces.   

My main was a pasta dish featuring homemade fettuccini, wild mushrooms, Idiazabal (a cheese from the Basque Country in Spain), parsley, and okra:

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Now okra is one of those ingredients in Southern cooking which, as a general rule, one either loves or hates – like collards, grits, and so on. Personally, I have always hated it, finding the texture too slimy and reminiscent of what happens when you leave cut flowers in a vase too long without trimming the ends. Our server assured me that this was not the gooey, grungy okra I had tasted previously to my infinite regret, and so I agreed to take a chance. Surprisingly, rather than something from the mind of Guillermo del Toro, the okra was a terrific touch, crisp and green, reminiscent of asparagus but without the assertiveness of that vegetable.

And then there was the sauce.

There are various theories as to what makes someone a good chef: being able to cook a perfect omelete, swift and skillful preparation technique, etc. For me, the mark of someone who knows their way around the kitchen is in their sauce-making. Whether brought together as part of the cooking process, or prepared separately and added to the final dish, a good sauce tells me that the person standing at the stove knows what he’s doing. So if I tell you that upon finishing my main course at Chartreuse, I wanted to sneak outside with the bowl and lick it clean, that should give you some indication of the level of skill involved in this particular kitchen.

My dining companions seemed equally pleased with their food choices. Of particular note, the roasted corn and tomato soup had a wonderfully complex perfume despite its apparent simplicity, and the tiny bit of beef tenderloin I sampled was probably the best I have ever eaten, perfectly cooked, with a wonderfully unctuous, buttery quality. Sadly, having gorged ourselves, none of us were up for dessert, but Chartreuse  provides dessert choices that in their flavors would complement, rather than overwhelm, any of the dinner combinations.

Should you find yourself in the Tidewater region then yes – by all means go enjoy things like Brunswick stew and Smithfield ham at a reputable local tavern. However if you want something a bit more special, then do make the effort to visit Chartreuse Bistro. I am already anticipating my next visit.