Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Eating Iberian

Once in a while Eating Chilean goes off subject to write about vacation food, and this is one of those occasions, so here are some highlights from a month in Spain and Portugal.

El menú del día - Cáceres

Cáceres was our first stop after leaving Madrid, where we found the food in Madrid’s touristic center unremarkable, and unfortunately the smoky bars made an evening of tapas unappealing.  Cáceres, a city of under 100,000, has a beautifully reconstructed walled old town, but it was not overrun with tourists and its restaurants serve local food to mostly local people.  As in Chile and most of Latin America the main meal is eaten in the early afternoon, and many restaurants serve a menú del día, usually a three course fixed price meal with several choices for each course, bread, wine and coffee for 8 to 16€.  

Here, at the Meson los Portales, first courses included mixed Iberian cold cuts, salad, paella, eggs with fried bread, octopus in the Galicia style, gazpacho, and melon with serrano ham.  Main courses were Iberian secret (a tender cut of pork), cuttlefish brochettes, braised pork cheeks, monkfish in green sauce, salt cod, and pork (?) filet in pastry. 

I had the octopus…. al dente chunks  with paprika and olive oil over sliced potatoes.  

And then the bacalao rebosado, the battered and fried salt cod.   

The wine, a light local red, was served chilled, accompanied by a bottle of sweetened mineral water, which local residents mixed half-and-half with the wine.  Chilled, I accept.  It was refreshing on a hot September day, and appears to be the custom throughout much of Spain. Mixed with sweetened mineral water?  No thank you.

Grilled sardines – Lisbon 

Leaving Cáceres, we took the train to Lisbon, and again found mostly unremarkable tourist food… except for the grilled sardines which were great.  Why don’t other countries (like Chile) eat fresh sardines?

Serrano ham with melon and duck confit – Ronda

This was one of the most memorable meals of the trip, a menú on a cold rainy day at Restaurante Doña Pepa on the plaza in Ronda. It included two dishes I knew about but had never eaten.  The Serrano ham, sliced very thin, was served over a piel de sapo (toad skin) melon, a melon that was also new to me.  The contrast between the salty ham and the cool succulent melon is what makes this dish a classic.

My second course was duck confit.  Confit is a method for cooking and preserving duck, goose, or turkey (usually of legs, the breasts are served in other styles) or of pork in which the meat is completely covered in its own rendered fat and cooked over low heat.  It is then allowed to cool and solidify, sealing the meat in and preserving it.  I had always wanted to try it, but never having had a gallon or so of rendered duck fat to work with, I had to wait until it appeared on a restaurant menu.  The meat was very tender, moist and flavorful; and less greasy than duck often is.  If I ever raise ducks, I’ll know what to do with the surplus.

(And as an aside, confit of chicken or duck gizzards, sliced and sautéed served over salad greens and a light vinaigrette makes a salade aux gesiers, a common and delicious first course in France.)

Berenjena con miel – Granada

A first course in a menú del día, this one at the Mesón Casa Blás (photo right) in a small square, the Placeta de San Miguel Bajo, north east of the AlhambraFirst course menu choices included fava beans sautéed with Serrano ham, which my wife ordered (very good, by the way) and a ratatouille with sea food, which I ordered.  But what came was the dish above, a purée of eggplant with tomato sauce and a sweet syrup; a surprising combination of bland rich eggplant, tart tomato sauce and sweet syrup.   As it turns out berenjena con miel is common enough that Google provided a dozen or more recipes, (one in English) all very much alike:  sliced eggplant is salted and left to drain for an hour or so, then battered and fried in olive oil and served hot with cane syrup or occasionally honey.  As you see the dish I had was a bit different, although cut from a similar mold.  I think the tart tomato sauce is a great addition…. though I haven’t tried the standard recipe yet.

And here are the fava beans (habas) with Serrano ham.  Sautéed vegetables with ham were a common first course on menus.  One of the best was tender artichoke hearts sautéed with crisp bits of ham.

Tapas del Mar – Tarragona

One evening in Tarragona we set out to find a bite to eat, and ended up (after an interminable walk) in the fisherman’s mall, at L' Àncora II, where the specialty is seafood tapas. 

The selection is remarkable. Translated  from top to bottom: seafood paella, black rice (with squid ink), rice with lobster, green salad, monkfish salad, octopus salad, salmon carpaccio, cod carpaccio, stuffed mussels, steamed mussels, mussels marinara, fried small squid, small squid a la Romana, fried small prawns, clams marinara, grilled clams, grilled razor clams, grilled large prawns,  grilled cuttlefish, octopus with onions, spicy potatoes, salt codfish fritters, monkfish and hake croquettes,  grouper trunk (?), salt cod salad (escaixada), anchovies, eggplant, onion, peppers, and tomato on toast,  prawn cocktail, and anchovies in vinegar. 

And more…   I’m guessing about what the pictures include: croquets, mussels marinara,
small prawns, octopus, 


large prawns, seafood salad, anchovies, peppers and etc. on toast, anchovies in vinegar….

seafood salads (octopus, imitation crab meat, mussels, and ?)

…and sardines in marinara sauce ?

We had salt cod fritters, grilled peppers, fried eggplant and a bottle of local wine.  And wanted more, but a large mid day meal and good judgment restrained my wife… and she restrained me.


These crisp tender fingerlings were one of the choices for a first course on the menú del día at the Restaurante Barkeno near the Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona.  I was surprised to discover that boquerones are anchovies, for the fish were very mild with little fishy anchovy flavor.  Simply rolled lightly in flour and fried, we ate them whole, tender bones and all.  Delicious.

Breakfast - Everywhere

Café con leche, buttered toast and jam was our usual breakfast, but these sandwiches, were a great change. Hotel breakfast buffets, at 4.50 to 9.00 €, ranged from OK to good, but local cafes always had better coffee and fresh toast for half the price or less.

Pan con tomate - Everywhere

From the first day in Madrid to Barcelona, a month later, pan con tomate (bread with tomato) was everywhere, including breakfast; alone, with other tapas, or as a base for a sandwich. The recipe couldn’t be simpler: lightly toasted or grilled bread is rubbed with garlic and ripe tomato, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. (For a heaver coating of tomato, grate the tomato and spread on the bread.) In a Dunkin’ Donut in Granada, we even found the factory-food version: the oil and tomato each came sealed in little cups like artificial cream for coffee—and equally far from the original.

Fast food paella – Everywhere (Unfortunately)

We first experienced fast food paella in a Lisbon mall… the menu pictures looked tempting, but better judgment prevailed and we soon discovered that this was McPaella, factory made, frozen and microwave ready, and not cheap.  Is it good?  I don’t know, but I do know that it’s not what I went to Spain to eat.

The distributor is Paellador,  the 352nd largest franchise in Europe with 2000 outlets internationally.[1] They also make frozen pizza, sandwiches, tapas, and Italian food.  And they have outlets the US, Mexico, Venezuela and Chile, in Las Condes.  You can try it for yourself. Yum.


[1] Paellador introduce su franquicia en México.  On line at and Franchise Europe Top 500: Paellador. On line at


  1. Jim,
    Que lindas vacaciones, nosotros tuvimos la misma experiencia en España hace años, nada memorable en Madrid, pero después fuimos al país vasco y todo lo que comimos estupendo.
    Una preguntas sabes si existen las machas acá en USA?

  2. Pilar,

    Tenemos que esperar hasta el próximo viaje para el país vasco y Galicia, pero el sur fue bastante interesante… y con comida rica.

    No creo que machas existan en USA, pero hay importadas chilenas en taro. En ingles se llama “Pink clams” y si googleas esto, las encuentras. Y para algo parecido, buscas una receta para “clams casino.”

    Saludos - Jim

  3. qué bonito web-site!
    Me divierto mucho leerlo antes de nuestro viaje a España (el viernes que viene) Lo mismo con el blog de La Alhambra y Sevilla.
    Hasta pronto (espero...)
    Louise to you :)

  4. Thank you Louise. Espero que tengan un buen viaje; and be sure to have the confit de pato en Ronda.

    See you in June.


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