I know where treasure is waiting for me.
Silver and gold in the mountains of Spain
I have to see you again and again.
We’ve just wrapped up another trip to Spain. That’s three trips for me in just a little over a year and my obsession with Iberia shows little sign of abating. On this trip we covered about 1000 miles through Andalusia, snapped about 1300 digital pics, consumed countless cañas, tintos de verano, finos, manzanillas, tapas of all stripes and saw some stunningly beautiful countryside. I probably have enough material for 15 posts over the next few weeks so prepare for NotHemingway.com to shift into serious Iberiophile mode.
As a grubby American expat living overseas, there are few trips home. They’re long, expensive journeys that seem too long when you’re planning them and too short when you get there. However, I’ve found a home away from home on the Iberian peninsula. As a matter of fact, with just one trip, you’d feel like it was home as well. The welcome is warm, the jokes are well-worn, the food is delicious and the drink is, well, El Xampanyet.
Just a few steps down the street from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona is my home away from home. It’s not much when you pass by. Just some “botes” hanging from the doorway, and a glimpse of tile and nice white marble bar. However, a cursory walk by misses what lives at the heart of El Xampanyet. It’s the soul of the family the runs it. (The owner and patriarch is pictured above.) At least three generations are there, manning the bar, serving up sardines that explode in your mouth like M-80s and delightful cherry bombs of goat cheese stuffed red peppers. The house drink is, of course, El Xampanyet (a sort of Cava-spritzer) but everything else is available with which to satisfy your thirst.
There’s rarely a place to stand and it’s even harder to find a place to sit. Crowds come in before going for the big night out. Every night. During our last trip there, we shared the area in front of the bar with everyone from trade show tourists to self proclaimed Spanish royalty. The funny thing was, they gave drinks to everyone at the same speed. They were gracious, did their best to remember our last visit, and made sure the lady with us did not go thirsty. ( Really, she tried to, but they wouldn’t have it. I’ve never seen club soda forced on anyone.)
The Spanish proverbs that hang on the wall just add to the ambiance. Loosely translated, one says, “When feeling ill, inject platelets of jamón and red wine.” Sage advice – heeded. When you’re there, you feel like an honorary Spaniard. There’s no pretense, just tons of good food, very little elbow room and a cold, glistening silver tap to make sure your caña is never empty. ¡Viva El Xampanyet!
I can’t count how many times I’ve been to Almendro 13. I can’t even count how many people I have sent there when they tell me they’re going to Madrid. You would think with all of that exposure, I’d be over it. You might never guess that I would go there twice in the course of three days with a near miss of a third time. Well, we did. It is just that good. Not only did we go there twice, we had the exact same thing twice. Manzanilla, olives, and Huevos Rotos. Simple flavors and an incredible parade of richness over the palette. The green painted interior matching the flavor of the olives, with the shiny brass fixtures highlighting the bite of the Manzanilla and the wood bar and yellow painted walls capturing the savory essence of the bright yolks of the eggs, saltiness of the jamón and perfectly cooked, just thicker than a potato chip, slices of potato.
Yes, I realize the prose is a bit heady but I think it’s befitting of a place that is so deceptively casual as to ambush your senses with color, flavor and smell and make you even consider a third visit in one short trip to Madrid. Go – and return often.
The ratty, dog-eared business card above is for the “Botifarra,” a hidden gem in the middle of ‘el Carmen’ district of Valencia. As two weary travelers, we stumbled into it at about 10:30 on a Wednesday night. Easy pickin’s by Spanish standards but akin to Magellan’s arrival at the Spice Islands for us. When we arrived we were tired, hungry and had no idea what lay ahead of us.
Luckily, it ended up being an small bistrot-type Spanish tapas bar where all of the cooking was done by the owner Jorge himself. A small stove/grill in the corner, chalkboards on the wall advertising the wine and tapas and the drool inducing bowls and shallow clay pots of sausages, peppers, and various indescribable tapas were all that stood between us and the kitchen. Well, that and a nice bottle of red wine. I have no recollection of what wine we ordered at this point but I can tell you what accompanied it. We had a delicious plate of gooey Spanish cheese (OK, I don’t remember what kind), with a tomato marmalade just sweet enough to cut the pungency of the cheese. As a second plate, we had a Roquefort-stuffed pork sausage, cooked in white wine and in a natural casing. Sublime. In fact, I recall saying that on that very night. “Just, uh, sublime.”
Indeed it was. And the conversation with Jorge and his assistant proved to be the highlight of the night. Terribly tolerant of my over-imbibed Spanish, Jorge proved to be his own version of the Valencia Chamber of Commerce.
The menu changes nightly but I can only imagine the quality and the experience is the same. Go and give Jorge a shout from the gringos who forgot cash.