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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Els Nostres Menjars (continued)

When Valencianos speak about “their” food, they are speaking in a very literal sense. Everything (almost everything) they eat they either farm,, fish, raise, hunt, or forage themselves. Of course, this is easier to do when you live in one of the most bountiful regions in the world. It would be difficult for me to imagine any other area that has such a wide variety of food coupled with an excellent climate.

Valencia is known as the breadbasket of Spain. Just take a walk through one of the markets in town and this will be pretty obvious. There is a smaller version of the Mercado Central near where I live in the tiny Plaza San Felipe Neri called Mercat Alguiros. I am gradually working up the nerve to shop here more often. Not only am I battling a bit of a language barrier but also a lot of little old Spanish ladies who don’t have time for some thumb-sucking, bed-wetting American who can’t decide on what kind of olives he wants. My favorite strategy is to wait in line and listen to the person in front of me. When my time comes I just parrot what they ordered. The first time I did this I ended up buying a kilo of pork—a lot for one person and probably more than my heart can handle since I don’t have a bicycle right now to help keep all the valves open and running.

And speaking of breadbaskets, you are rarely of of sight of bakeries in Valencia. My favorite bread is a loaf called and aldeano (village) that I buy from the bakery below my apartment. If that place is closed (and it almost always is closed) I walk over to the corner and get a regular loaf (barra). I found a place in the neighborhood that is open on Sundays so now my biggest challenge is not eating bread. This is difficult to do when you are also ingesting upwards of two quarts of olive oil every day.

In other parts of Spain I remember the bread being almost universally bad; this was also the case in Greece. Bread in these places was hit or miss with a lot of misses. Getting bad bread in Valencia is even rarer than drinking a bad glass of wine. I have yet to complain about the wine and I almost always praise the bread.

I remember back in leaner times when I would go without all but the most basic of spices. With a medicine-size bottle of cumin costing almost five dollars, sometimes the chili would have to be a little bland. Even though I arrived here on a very strict budget, my kitchen is already up-and-running with every spice that I can think of, and many more I didn’t even know existed until I learned their names in Spanish. All of those same small bottles now cost less than one dollar each.

In all of the places that sell kitchen supplies there are condiment containers with the names written on them. I bought a thing for azúcar or a sugar bowl. Like most of the others for sale, it is a modest little affair that holds about a half a cup. I guess you don’t need a lot of sugar close at hand when you drink such tiny little cups of coffee. Salt is a completely different story. Most of the countertop containers for keeping salt handy when you cook hold about two cups of this condiment, called the flavor of flavors over here. Forget about salt shakers, they are too wimpy for kitchen use.

At the little Indian bodega in my neighborhood I can buy a huge thing of chili powder for 1€, whole coriander seeds, turmeric, and curry powder. I buy stuff here that I may never use just because I can and it makes me feel more like a well-rounded cook for doing it.

In his book Dictionnaire amoureux de la cuisine, Alain Ducasse calls olive oil the most beautiful of his culinary tools. Olive oils are like wines in their complexity and how they give testament to the soil and the regions that produce them. Once again, this kitchen condiment is like a Spanish birthright. It is inexpensive and plentiful. I bought a one liter bottle of extra virgin olive oil for 2.65€. I don’t know whether olive oil is inexpensive in Spain because they use so much of it or they use so much of it because it is inexpensive, but they use a lot of it. You will be hard-pressed to find a dish in which it isn’t used with extreme liberty. In even the most prosaic circumstances, the Spanish will use to verb Untar (to anoint) when describing how they use this essential ingredient.

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