Tapas from Peter
By Peter Ewart
Tuesday, March 17, 2009 03:45 AM
By Peter Ewart
There are many things to write about in Spain. My wife, Dawn, and I are travelling this Spring in the Central and Southern (Andalucia) regions of this remarkable and beautiful country, and, as a result, I have decided to write down some thoughts and impressions of the swirl around us of people, buildings and spectacular landscapes, that is called Espana.
In any bar in this part of Spain, you inevitably run into “tapas,” which are small (and sometimes large) dishes of any number of delectable appetizers, including fat, meaty olives, anchovies glistening in oil, hard and soft cheese, bread, “charcuteria” (cured meat), crunchy pickles, diced tomatoes, seafood, spicy chick peas, and so on. The idea is to eat and drink the night away, and have a good time, which Spaniards know how to do in high style and with gusto.
Thus, the articles I am writing also aim to provide “tapas,” but of the written kind, an array of thoughts and impressions on Spain, as well as observations on politics, economics and culture. Here is the first one.
* * *
The Oranges of Valencia
Our journey from Vancouver to Valencia (passing through the Frankfurt and Madrid airports) took 18 long hours. The plane was a gleaming new Airbus operated by the German airline Lufthansa, and everything was comfortable about the trip (even the food was not bad), except for one thing. The seats were far too cramped for such a long flight.
I have a theory, admittedly crackpot, about seating space on airlines. For the last several decades, I suspect that the airlines have been decreasing the space a little bit with the launching of each new model of plane.
Sort of like the well-known and too often-repeated frog in the water analogy. For example, if you dump a frog into a pot of boiling water, he will likely, and quite understandably, try to jump out. On the other hand, if you start with cold water and turn up the heat a little bit at a time, the frog will stay in the pot until it gives up the ghost.
So go the airlines. Every year, passengers are jammed ever more closely together. They sit claustrophobic and simmering in their seats, desperately trying to avoid the exhalations of the person beside them suffering from a bad cold.
But so far, there has been no epidemic of crazed passengers jumping out of planes (with an exception or two, such as the notorious D.B. Cooper back in 1971 who parachuted out of a Boeing 727 with $200,000 in ransom). For me, our recent Airbus experience has only further corroborated my theory of the shrinking seat space.
In any case, when we arrived in Madrid, burdened down with luggage and suffering insufferable aches and pains, we did feel like a pair of frogs, but more like ones that had been just squashed by a car on the Autovia freeway, probably by a Volkswagon or BMW, of which there seems to be many in Spain.
We arrived in Valencia and took a taxi to the hotel, only to discover that taxi drivers in Spain don’t take credit cards, nor do they think much of Canadian money, to which they give about the same value as we do to that old and worthless Confederacy money from the time of the American civil war. After much kerfuffle and a timely intervention from the infinitely helpful young hotel porter, we sorted out the problem by way of a bank machine down the street and a hefty tip.
The next morning, groggy and reeking of jet lag, we staggered into the hotel breakfast room, for a complementary breakfast. And then, lo and behold, we saw it – a great heap of bright Valencia oranges displayed on an impeccably white linen tablecloth, and, immediately adjacent, a machine that automatically extracted the sweet, oh so sweet, juice.
On still another table, platefuls of oranges peeled and cut, lying there like little slabs of sun bursting with flavour. There were lots of other delicious things to eat, but definitely the oranges were king in that room and on that morning, with hotel guests, young and old, lining up for glass after glass of the foaming juice.
If there ever were ancient Gods sitting high in the clouds somewhere, and they had varieties of fruit on their polished marble tables, surely the Valencia orange would be there to dazzle all the others, and surely Saturn, Venus and the rest of the crew of Roman gods would value this succulent fruit as sacred (Spain was once a Roman colony).
The Valencia region harvests colossal loads of oranges every year, as the climate, with its long hours of sunshine bracketed by a relatively low winter temperature, creates the conditions for an irresistible blend of sweet and sour in taste.
Needless, to see we gulped down many glasses of this tangy elixir, and slowly but surely our jet lag lifted like heavy fog in the morning. I finally had to stop chug-a-lugging the stuff, amid fears that drinking so much of it might turn my hair from white to orange, like some kind of aging punk rocker who missed the bus to the retirement home.
One last thing about the Valencia orange. The bars in the city have a potent drink that they call “Agua de Valencia” (i.e., “Water of Valencia”), and, if a person has really bad jet lag, it might just be what the doctor ordered. The concoction is made by mixing big dollops of gin, vodka, cointreau and champagne with ice cubes and freshly squeezed juice.
Being adventurous one night in a tiny tavern on a narrow cobble-stoned street (the tavern was about the size of our bathroom back home), I decided to try a swig or two (Dawn wisely declined). Luckily, when I was asked whether I wanted a small or large “Agua de Valencia”, I requested to see the glass sizes first. The waiter reached under the bar and pulled out two huge containers that were more like jugs than glasses. The small jug looked about the size of a bottle of wine, while the large one (using the old measurement standards of my youth) appeared to be in the neighborhood of a half gallon jug.
A most treacherous thing about this “Agua de Valencia” is that it tastes just like regular orange juice, with only the slightest hint of alcohol, despite the fact it is loaded with enough booze to blind a regiment. So, first lesson about bars in Valencia, unless you want to be carried home on a stretcher, do not order the large size.
All of which brings me to another topic that is not so sweet. The economy in Spain is in deep trouble. Unemployment has reached almost 15% with even more to come as the economic situation deteriorates. But more on those issues in Part 2 of “Tapas from Peter.”
Peter Ewart is a writer, instructor and community activist based in British Columbia. He can be reached at email@example.com
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