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品味西班牙 Strolling along Seashores: A ‘Taste’ of Spain

Take one step forward with your left foot — a small step suffices. Oh, no flip flops from this point on, please. Feel that delicate texture embracing your foot with such warmth and subtle sounds of acceptance. Another step forward with your right foot, and you experience a marvelous balance. Savour that sensation. 

 

You tilt your head slightly, feel your long hair lifting and swinging in harmony with the 7:00 AM breeze, and admire the tranquil Cádiz seashores. The sandy beaches extend their extremities there, flat, smooth, free from footprints or any other tell-tale traces of prior visitors who had claimed their own presence in the most ancient town of Western Europe over the course of centuries — as if unexplored…

 

I enjoy these early morning strolls across Victoria Beach. In fact, my favourite route is parallel to the ever-shifting intersection points — parabolas, though often much more unruly in a way that would be mathematically difficult to model, perhaps — where the ocean kisses the land. This kiss must have been planted with much anticipation, for they say that the water is relatively cold here because across the ocean, you will not find land again until you reach all the way to Antarctica. Playful yet graceful as she is, the ocean never forgets to alters her colours, getting lighter and lighter from the brilliant shades of blues to a mild form of whiteness, as she approaches the land. 

 

I. Image of the Sea: An Open Invitation

 

That precious Andalusian beach scene that I just painted for you is yearned for by many: in fact, the very image of it is gold. Yet, the picture that lingers on in my mind is a little more complex, and symbolic to a certain degree. Beaches are summer escapes, meant to be relaxing and fun: to that I concur whole-heartedly as a fan of building sand volcanoes, floating in the water while the waves push and pull me up and down with the magic of gravity, reading a book with a pair of sunglasses on, etc. 

 

Simultaneously, beaches provide a perfect setting to ruminate. After all, I was not in Spain purely for the sake of admiring its magnificent seashores this summer. Cádiz was the starting point for one of my college-funded independent academic research projects, for which I investigated the country’s gastronomic evolution in relation to its shifting regional and national identities as well as external influences such as globalisation. Sounds like quite a mouthful? Well, literally, I was there to get a ‘taste’ of Spain.

 

As I reflect on this trip and piece together memories of my three main sites (Cádiz, San Sebastián, and Barcelona: despite how different these places surely are, they share one commonality at least — the ocean) along with places I passed by but did not get to explore in more depth this time (including Valencia, Cáceres, Salamanca, and Bilbao), I saw some interesting parallels between the ocean image and my findings. Rather than debriefing everything in dry, academic writing (please don’t get me wrong here: I enjoy academic writing as well, but thanks to the nature of the Iberian Grant, I can choose the creative option here), I will be alluding to the ocean scene as a visual symbol that will guide us through this brief journey of rumination: one that reconstructs, deconstructs, and re-reconstructs the day-to-day findings that could otherwise become fleeting memories so readily. Join me in this stroll, then, along the Iberian shorelines — at our own pace.

 

II. On Slowness and Lateness, Ebbs and Flows

 

“No necesito fast, necesito food” (“I do not need fast, I need food”). Or so says the country’s official tourism promo-video, launched in 2010. A key feature of eating in contemporary Spain, indeed, is that everything is a little late (lunch would be 2pm and dinner can be served at 9pm or after that) and a little slow at once. From literary works such as “Vuelve usted mañana” (which translates directly to “Come Back Tomorrow”) to contemporary nonfictions on Spain such as A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain, slowness and lateness seem to define traditional stereotypes of Spaniards and their modern lifestyles alike. On highways, for instance, one can seldom see fast food chains in the service joints. 

 

There is a parallel between this feature of Spanishness and the evolution of food itself, almost in a way that resembles the ebbs and flows of the ocean. Like waves that come and go, there are always new ideas and innovation. Yet, they are not completely free - from tensions, resistance, and opposition. Like any other form of free discourse, the culinary arts intrinsically involve many different possible perspectives. You may advocate for change, tradition, or modernity blended with selectively restored traditional elements, etc. Spain, it seems, does not always want to compromise its original identities for the new. This is surely not to say that Spain is resistant to change, however: no — Spain is such an innovator in so many fields, such as Gaudí’s architecture, Ferran Adrià’s culinary philosophy, contemporary highstreet fashion brands (ZARA and Mango, among others), etc. The project strived to find a balance between Spain’s regional vs. national vs. international culinary identities, as well as its traditions vs. modernity.

 

When I was interviewing some of the most highly-regarded chefs in Cádiz, San Sebastián, and Barcelona, a focus that I chose in my questions are the plausible tensions between tradition and modernity, regional elements vs. the national and international, etc. While the restaurants I studied varied in their self-categorisations (traditional, renovated, contemporary, etc.), a common element of most replies is a desire to preserve the traditional. Managers, maîtres, and owners, including several who have worked in Michelin-recommended restaurants, often highlight that domestic and international tourists alike come to their particular region in Spain to experience local food. For this reason, they do not see much need to adapt to tourists’ tastes or to alter traditions. This is particularly true in places like Cádiz, whose residents have observed relatively few changes to the gastronomic picture at home and in restaurants/bars over the years. While some interviewees proudly highlight the growing number of foreign tourists (mostly Europeans), others underscore that Cádiz’s visitors are mostly domestic. All in all, there has certainly been some increase in the number of tourists in Cádiz over the years.

 

Perhaps the town’s most emblematic group, El Faro has restaurants in Cádiz and other parts of the province such as El Puerto de Santa María. When I interviewed Paco Marente, who works as the maître of El Faro de Cádiz, I noted that the restaurant’s marketing strategy intentionally does not differentiate between locals and tourists. Paco explains his rationale that as international tourists are increasingly more informed when they travel to Spain, there is no need to produce marketing materials that are specifically intended to appeal to international visitors. A well-researched diner would know from memory (or cheatsheets, maybe) which dishes are particularly representative of the region — in Cádiz’s case, these would include “fried little fish” (pescaditos fritos), shrimp tortillas (tortillas de camarones), stewed dishes (guisos), among others.

 

El Faro has drawn some inspiration from the Basque Country and Catalonia’s gastronomic revolution, as well as certain elements and ingredients from France and some Asian and Latin American countries. However, in the meantime, the family-owned restaurant’s own humble origin as a small fisherman’s eatery is valued and preserved with great attention. Its owner and chef Fernando Cordoba prides in the restaurant’s meticulous execution of la cocina casera and la cocina marinera, highlighting in our interview that while many restaurants are heating semi-prepared dishes after the guests order them, El Faro does everything dogmatically bit by bit. While Cordoba has been excited about the entrance of the new in Cádiz — new vegetables, new ways of cooking, new culinary ideas — he has always preserved the fundamental elements of his dishes. 

 

Maintaining the level of success of such a celebrated family-owned restaurant is surely a demanding task, but Cordoba has shared with me his deep belief that because they are a family, they will always help each other out. His sister Mayte runs the restaurant in the city of Cádiz, while he mostly stays in the El Puerto de Santa María restaurant.

 

Even in the avant-garde city of Barcelona and Spain’s culinary capital San Sebastián, changes have taken place with a relatively slow pace. While many well-acclaimed restaurants have strived to blend international ingredients and culinary philosophies in their regions’ traditional style of cooking, they simultaneously highlight a few ideas. Most chefs that I interviewed, as well as the Irizar sisters who run their father Luis Irizar (one of the founding fathers of the New Basque Cuisine revolution)’s cooking school in San Sebastián, underscore the necessity of having the local as the base and preserving local traditions. A recurrent theme among close to all my interviewees’ responses was the attention to “la cocina de mercado y de temporada”, where ingredients must be fresh from the market and typical of the specific season. Another focus, of course, would be the sheer level of pride in the slowness that goes hand in hand with the lateness in the cooking process. Chef Jordi Joan of Ca l’Isidre, a celebrated restaurant in Barcelona, sees the slow and delicate preparation process of Catalan dishes as a unique feature in which the Catalans take great pride. I may argue, however, that slowness and delicateness may form the defining feature of the gastronomic scene across various geographic regions in Spain, recalling from many a conversation with Spaniards that sound suspiciously similar: although these individuals come from different regions of Spain, they essentially are all competing for being recognised for their slowness in cooking. 

 

This slowness, when coupled with the lateness of each meal, may make the anticipating diners extra-hungry. Meanwhile, this slowness and lateness, much like the slow and deliberate ebbs and flows of the ocean waves, parallel the relative lateness and slowness of Spain’s leading chefs in embracing international influences. These two essential features of Spanish gastronomy are perhaps not going to change anytime soon. Even as figures such as Ferran Adriá daringly experiment with wild ideas with restaurants and creative culinary labs epitomised by El Bulli, other Spaniards are striving to restore the traditional, making restaurants that label their style as “tradicional renovada” and “clásico” (e.g. La Muralla and La Cepa in San Sebastián) never seem old-fashioned. After all, the Spanish word “restaurante” curiously shares the same root as the word “restaurar”, or “to restore”.

 

III. Of Needs and Pursuits

 

Let us return to Spain’s 2010 tourism promo-video again, since it reveals much about the ways in which Spain wishes to present its rebranded image as well as ways in which the world would perceive itself. While previously, Spain’s branding efforts highlight how “Spain is different”, the new marketing endeavours strive to underscore needs and desires of individuals who are attracted to the Spanish way of life. 

 

When watching this short video where Spain meticulously presents to the world to market its new brand to tourists around the globe, one would immediately notice the repeated phrases “no necesito (I do not need)” and “necesito (I need)”. Several actors from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds as well as varied age groups each lists several things that s/he does not need, and ends up saying “necesito España (I need Spain)”. 

 

Spain’s attempt here is particularly interesting in juxtaposing individual needs and pursuits and the macro nature of this marketing project in striving to establish or alter one’s perception of Spain — the country as a whole. I wondered how the government’s representation of the country would in turn shape or be reflected through everyday, micro aspects of “comer en España (eating in Spain)”.

 

In explaining my findings on this topic, I suggest going all micro in this section and start with a little story that takes place every year around the region. A little story about tunas.

 

Every year, the tuna tribes cheerfully migrate from the cold, northern Atlantic Ocean to the warm, welcoming Mediterranean Sea, partly to breed future members of the atún family. For a sizable portion of the tuna population, as you would have guessed right away, this would soon turn to be a sad story, but for those living in the region, it is wonderful, for fishing has been an important driver of the economy for many years. Along the atúns’ pathway to their desired future homes, merciless nets would spread wide, capturing many unfortunate members of the migrants destined for the lunch and/or dinner tables. Slaughtered, the now-expressionless and motionless fish would quietly await their fate at the local markets; the central market of Abastos, for instance, delightfully exhibits the huge bodies of tunas, with vendors ready to tailor them to satisfy the clients’ tastebuds any time.

 

Recall that we are going micro here. Therefore, instead of tracing the group’s whereabouts, we narrow our target down further to one location in the province of Cádiz: the celebrated restaurant El Campero in Barbate.

 

Ceviche, loin sashimi, tataki, tartare, centre of tuna belly with passion fruit cream and PX sauce, tuna cheeks stewed with amontillado and yuzu sauce, baked tuna collar with potatoes and yuzu mayonnaise…

 

Needless to say, the wide array of tuna dishes is dazzling and would certainly satisfy even the most demanding customers’ wants, desires, and pursuits of the finest regional cuisine. If we think about the marketplace, where the delicacies come from, in more metaphorical terms, we could be led to ponder about the role marketing plays to meet the client’s needs (profitably).

 

We could do so by zooming in further to examine El Campero’s interior decoration scheme as a physical form of marketing, for business theories do suggest the importance of “physical processes”, “physical evidence”, and the atmosphere in shaping and enhancing the consumer experience. Generally, the restaurant features a coherent colour — white, in both its inside and outside seating areas. This whiteness corresponds to the general colour scheme of Barbate, a fishing town that inspires a nostalgic feeling of simplicity, and that of nearby towns such as Arco de la Frontera. At the centre of the restaurant is an inviting bar area that somewhat resembles a sushi bar in my view, matching the Japanese cuisine-inspired sashimi, tempura, and tataki elements of the menu [here, interestingly, tempura actually traces its origins to the Iberian Peninsula rather than Japan, despite being most commonly associated with Japanese culinary culture — its homecoming to post-Franco Spain is perhaps seen as a circular loop]. Right next to it, we see an entire wall covered by a giant picture of an bewildered, rather innocent-looking tuna with an open mouth, staring straight ahead at the diners. On the body of the fish, are a series of phrases in Spanish that mean “Who?”, “What?”, “What do they want?” (“¿Quién?”, “¿Qué?”, and “¿Qué quiere?”), corresponding directly to my previous analysis of the Spanish government’s new tourism campaign motto that centers needs/necessities and wants/desires. 

 

At restaurants such as El Campero, individuals’ hunger for food — not just food, indeed, but also good food (recall the post-war Spanish emphasis on “comer bien”, or eating well, which escalates needs to its more luxurious form, wants) have rendered themselves as targets of the restaurants’ marketing campaigns. Similarly, in other restaurants across the country that I have studied for this project, we see much evidence of intentional endeavours of employing careful interior design schemes to cater to the consumers’ projected needs and wants. 

 

The now-international chain Sagardi, for instance, is a Basque-themed restaurant that strives to market the area’s regional identity to other parts of Spain and the world at large. Its decorations create a nostalgic atmosphere of el País Vasco, and its menus further inspire this feeling by proudly repeating the words “Basque cooking”, “Basque traditional recipe”, among others to the same effect, with images of the beautiful nature and pristine farming areas with closeup shots of animals, etc.. 

 

Taking these more micro scenes and elements to a more macro level, then, is Spain’s overall effort to build and spread an image for itself, where the country is a provider of tangible and intangible experiences alike to satiate individuals’ needs and wants.

 

III. Building Edible Sandcastles

 

Along this stroll along seashores, I have learnt. I have explored. And I have dreamt.

 

Sometimes, as I sat on the sandy beaches, ruminating and piecing my findings together, my fingers could not resist the temptation of feeling the texture of the sand around me. And so I continued a childhood passion — that of building sand volcanoes instead of typical sand castles. But of course, on my mind, are the keywords that I had been thinking much about: gastronomy, regionalism, nationalism, … In general, food. And its implications. A little bit of role playing allowed me to shift my perspectives and for a moment, I indulged in the idea of role-playing a soon-to-be Michelin master chef, despite my terrible cooking skills in real life, especially when contrasted with those of my Luis Irizar cooking school (a key player in moulding the identity of the region and country’s future gastronomic pioneers) classmates, some of whom are actually chefs in local restaurants or aspiring ones looking to gain admission to this prestigious cooking school’s tuition-free two-year programme. If I were to use sand as my ingredient in an abstract sense, what would I do? What if there were no constraints to start with, in my hypothetical scenario? How would I innovate? Could I improvise, regarding the entire cooking process as a show? … These intriguing questions would then bring me back to reality, as I try to grasp ways in which human ingenuity could create products so remarkable as creative pinchos/pintxos —- “alta cocina en miniatura” (high cuisine/cooking in miniature).

 

As I moulded my sand volcanoes, I considered the more general abstract idea of moulding identities. Food and gastronomy, as we have already discovered thus far in this debriefing piece, are so much more than the mundane and are actually worthy subjects of years of serious academic research and reflection through writing and potentially other more creative forms. My summer of desktop research that had centered the near-monthlong field research phase was surely a long way from a sufficient time frame, but I will refrain from whining about time, for the very interest of time. While there are certainly ways to delve into greater depth in drawing more conclusions and bringing more contributions to the field, I did experience firsthand the integral role that food plays both as a manifestation of modern Spain’s national identity and its often-existing tensions with local/regional ones in the era of globalisation, and as a way of further moulding identities. 

 

IV. Resonances from the Seashells

 

Pick up a seashell and listen to what it has to say. Perhaps… Perhaps, it is telling us to piece everything together, to hear the resonances and echoes of time, to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct… If so, what parallels and conclusions can we draw from our strolls along the seashores of España? Let us reconstruct what we have just constructed and deconstructed by analysing that metaphoric image in relation to the gastronomic evolution in Spain.

 

Hints

1. “Taking steps forward”: avant-garde culinary movements, New Basque Cuisine (shaped by the French nouvelle cuisine movement), molecular gastronomy (e.g. El Bulli), etc.

2. “No flip flops”: for a moment, one can let go of some traditions and step out of the comfort zone

3. “Feeling the marvelous balance”: reaching a perfect equilibrium between tradition and innovation is demanding, but once you do, you would feel fantastic

4. “Acceptance”: historically, Spain is not exactly known for embracing diversity, but modern Spain cannot resist the strong forces of globalisation. Yet, while gradually accepting elements of foreign influence and cultural diversity, many regions in Spain stick to regional traditional gastronomies and take much pride in tradition instead of modernity.

5. “Unexplored land” vs. “prior visitors” vs. “new footprints” vs. “nostalgic waves”: waves push and pull, leave and return, and continues this cycle again. Ultimately, there is a great deal of a desire to preserve traditions in various parts of Spain. Many chefs, while happy to seek some foreign triggers of creativity and culinary ingredients, see their regional cuisines as fundamental roots and traditions that need to be conserved actively. In Spanish regional and national gastronomies, we see a recent trend of innovation and the impacts of external forces, but there is surely a cycle of going back and forth between tradition and modernity, internal and external influences, etc.

 

*Granted, our syntheses and takeaways may look different. Nevertheless, ruminating about life requires different angles and perspectives. Ultimately, my wish is that this journey has been an enjoyable one for you. Well, it certainly has been for me.

 

Tilt your head a little more, so that your peripheral vision captures the stunning seashores and the golden beaches concurrently. By slightly altering the angle of your head, you can readily see how the sandy beaches are now featuring a few other early birds’ footprints while the old ones get slowly washed away by the nostalgic waves…

 

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