Humans have some funny customs when it comes to food and drinks. For me, the challenges are the food being served (e.g. “What the hell does that word mean?”) and how quickly transactions are accomplished in a busy café, cafeteria, or restaurant (e.g. “What the hell did she just say?”). However, once I explain that I am learning Spanish, most people warm up a little, slow down a little, and are a bit more patient as I gracelessly butcher at least one noble language.
What ends up happening is that one of the parties doesn’t fit in. Typically, it is the person asking for the service that must somehow overcome the reality that their habits throw the rhythm of the ordering off. Very strange, indeed. Imagine if you were to try to pay for something in chickens, not cash. You are still talking with the other person about paying, just with a new set of expectations that either you, or the other person, did not expect.
Ah, well, I think that is the price of exploring a new culture and a new language simultaneously. I occasionally think I am paying with chickens, but that happens in the United States, too.
For example, I visited a small restaurant called La Lluna in a small street near the Museum of Modern Art in Valencia. The place is small, with only eight tables or so, and is pleasantly tiled throughout. On the cold and windy night that I visited, only two of the other tables were being used. Almost surreally, Willie Nelson was playing on the radio, and the menu was pretty much words that I know. I chose to start with a vegetable consomme, which was served with a delicious pumpkin-colored bread with nuts embedded in the loaf for a great texture. Simple and delicious, and with a squeeze of lemon, the flavor was complete. On the recommendations of the waiter, I ordered the vegetable croquettes, which are usually filled with ham and cheese pretty much everywhere in Spain. What I received was a plate including a small salad, aoli, and three sausage-shaped croquettes.
After dinner, I chose the “tarta de manzana,” or apple tart, which was more like a bread pudding or custard and drizzled with a light cream and butter sauce. Oh, I also ordered a cup of jet fuel coffee. The smoothness of the dessert complemented the coffee perfectly.
By the time I left the restaurant, I think I had two new best friends (the cook and the waiter) and I promised to come back to the restaurant during “Mexican Week” next week to see how they interpret one of my food favorites.
Imagine a Panera Bread Company or an Atlanta Bread Company (in the southeast US), and you will have a starting point to this particular bakery. In a corner of a building surrounded by windows, Panaria (on Calle Ángel Guimerá) was bright, inviting, and smelled, well, like something good was baking. As is my standard custom now, I start by explaining that I am a vegetarian and that I need recommendations. Almost always, I am asked if I eat fish, or eggs, or cheese, and this little ritual was played out again in Panaria. What I did get was an incredible salad and Brie sandwich on the recommendation of the person working there. She did not steer me wrong (and I left with a loaf of olive-studded bread and a long baguette-type whole grain bread). The salad was colorful and beautifully arranged, and the sandwich was just warm enough to soften the Brie but not make it squishy.
Yeah, I had liquid energy coffee with that meal, too.
San Agustin Cafe
I would be remiss if I did not mention the staple of many Spanish neighborhoods, the corner cafes. I don’t know if these places are like the diners that have slowly declined in the United States, but I do know that I don’t receive the normal, “….. only one of you?” look in a cafe. One of the Spanish national dishes is the Tortilla Espanola, which is a frittata in America. In the Cafe de San Agustin, I ordered the vegetable tortilla and (surprise!) coffee.
For those of you who have eaten breakfast with me, you know I dig some sweet deliciousness. However, the breakfasts here are much more savory. This tortilla was filled with mushrooms, olives, and tomatoes, and was pleasantly seasoned. The toast served with the tortilla was grilled, with butter on one piece and tomato jam on the other. Not an American flavor at all, to be sure!
Feeling large and in charge, I decided to throw caution to the wind and order a glass of Valencia orange juice. Freshly squeezed, this stuff is magnificent. Trust me on this one: I heard angels sing.