Monday, June 29, 2009

Ode to the Paella Goddess

And now that I’ve opened the subject of Spain, let’s continue with the memory rush…

Mijas (pronounced mee’ – haas) is a delightfully small hilltop town in Southern Spain, in the region of Andalucia; a region marked by the utterly spectacular confluence of Spanish and Moorish cultures divinely expressed throughout its architecture, art, culture and cuisine.

Mijas, in the Moorish tradition of city planning, has quaintly beautiful whitewashed houses dizzyingly arranged around the city’s center with sweeping views of the mountain and coast below. The Moors certainly knew how to pick their settings. To meander through the streets of Mijas, is to take a little journey up in the clouds. You can spend a perfectly pleasant day enjoying the main square, scenic overlooks, and small, characteristic shops. (I love the ceramics there -- a personal obsession of mine -- with some of the best examples in all of Spain).

The first time I visited Mijas was on a brilliantly sunny day when the light made the city shine; and my friends and I immediately fell in love with it. So we decided to extend our stay with a late lunch. We had read about a little restaurant on the cliff right off the main square where the Chef was known for paella. Paella --- the king of Spanish dishes – the perfect marriage of fish and meat on a succulent bed of rice – how could we possibly resist?

The restaurant was not easy to find, hiding behind a cover of trees blocking the edge of the cliff; the only entrance forebodingly situated at the top of a steep, unmarked, and unwelcoming staircase. Thankfully, the guide book warned us of this. But the restaurant didn’t look open, so I told my friends I would brave the stairs and take a look to see what I could find.

At the top of the stairs was indeed a restaurant and the door was indeed open; but there was no one inside. Tables were arranged around the dining area, but no lights were on and there was no sign of life, until I called out, “Hello?”

First I heard the shuffle, the belabored approach of dragging feet; then around the bend, out of a Hitchcock movie, slowly and deliberately, came an old woman, small of stature with short, straight, mousy brown hair, wearing a worn house dress, white Dr. Scholl’s sandals, and a stern look on her face.

“Si?” she barked at me.

So in my rudimentary Spanish, I asked if she was open for lunch. To which she again replied, no more warmly than the first time, “Si.” I looked around a bit incredulous, given the barren dining area, and I told her I had 2 friends and that we wanted a table for 3; to which again, nothing more than, “Si.” Then I mentioned, “We would like to have your paella, would that be possible?” Now paella is not an easy dish. It takes time for the flavors to blend, and it is a labor-intensive meal with all its ingredients, so not all restaurants offer it and when they do they might not have it every day; and if they do, very few actually take the time to properly prepare it. You can find plenty of paella in Spain; but truly great paella is rare.

In response to my request, her eyes looked surreptitiously from left to right, as if checking to make sure she wasn’t heard; then she replied furtively, “Leave 10 pesos a person and come back in an hour.” At this point, I felt as if I had just asked her to reveal highly classified state secrets and I wondered if the restaurant was in fact closed and I was talking to a crazy person who sometimes stayed here; but the prospect of paella won out, so I gave her the 30 pesos and returned to my friends saying, “I’m not sure if we were just taken for a ride, but I had to leave a deposit for the meal.”

We continued to walk around for a while and came back in an hour, as instructed. Sure enough, the lady in the house dress and Dr. Scholl’s greeted us at the door – if you can call a jerk of the head in the direction of our table a greeting.

The restaurant was still completely empty, except for the 3 of us and our hostess. But there was a table at the far end of the dining room, set with glasses, fresh bread, olive oil, and that sublime variety of perfectly seasoned olives, as is customary in Spain. Situated against the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, the table opened up to a dramatic scene of the mountain descending elegantly to the sea. The view alone was already worth the 30 pesos. I was just pleased she remembered we were coming and that we were actually going to have a meal. After taking our drink orders, with as little a word as humanly possible, she retreated, shuffling her Dr. Scholl’s, back to the kitchen.

So as we indulged in the olives and bread, we took in our surroundings a bit more. My friends were delighted that I had not exaggerated in my description of the woman or the condition of the restaurant. Upon further inspection, we saw that outside was a patio that in its day must have been magnificent, complete with a pool, unfilled and disheveled, and sun-faded patio furniture. What’s the story behind the lady of the Dr. Scholl’s? But whenever we got into discussing it, she would return with her inconvenienced expression to refresh our drinks or give us yet more olives.

Finally, she returned carrying an enormous traditional paella pan, stacked high with a mountain of rice and erupting with a bounty of fishes and meats, resembling a never-ending cornucopia. We had ordered paella for 3; this could have fed a hungry family of 8. Not the lightest of fare, either. You do realize this is a rice dish, so the task set before us was a big one.

For once, her face lost its scowl as she lovingly dished out our portions onto our plates, taking great care to give the right proportion of rice, to pork, to chicken, to shellfish, to peas, to tomato, etc. etc. etc. My friends and I looked on with the patience of a starving dog seeing its long-awaited meal. For the first 10 minutes of the meal, not a word was uttered among us, except the occasional “mmmm” and “oh my God.” Then, only when coming up for air, were we able to add, “Have you tasted the clams?” “I can’t believe how tender the pork is.” “And the chicken is so moist.” “Forget the chicken, the mussels are ridiculous.” “And the peppers…”

The flavors of the shellfish blended seamlessly with the tender meats, punctuated by the occasional appearance of peas and peppers; all against the backdrop of the soft, fragrant rice that quietly reflected the mix of flavors while balancing them at the same time; a perfect expression of what paella should be, with every bite different, and yet a variation on the same delicious theme. It was and remains the best paella I have ever had.

Our stern hostess watched and listened with great satisfaction as we demolished the entire over-abundant pan to raves of enthusiasm. And like the Grinch on Christmas morning listening to the Who’s celebration, I think her heart grew a few inches that day. The next time she returned to the table, did I see an upturned mouth, albeit awkward from muscles so unused to holding that position? Did she actually smile when we told her how superb her paella was? Yes, there was a little twinkle in her eye as we asked her for the recipe and there was a lighter step in her shuffle as she went to the kitchen for a piece of paper.

Upon her triumphant return to the table, recipe proudly in hand, she was absolutely congenial as she discussed her finely-honed paella skills. “The rice must drink,” she emphasized more than once as she painstakingly explained the long process of flavoring the rice with the succulent juices of the combined ingredients. And now that she was putty in our hands, we just couldn’t resist… “So, tell us about this place?”

Our newly-socialized hostess began to talk of her father, an immigrant to Spain from Germany, who built the restaurant with his own hands – in the days when restaurants were built with your own hands. She remembered the pool, lively with customers and the dining room full with people eager for her father’s wonderful dishes. We were amazed that the daughter of immigrants would master the art of a local dish and her smile became even broader. After her father died, she kept the business going but the years were weighing upon her and so more and more it was a burden. Her fate and the restaurant’s were indelibly intertwined; as long as she continued, she would keep the restaurant going; as long as the restaurant kept going, she would continue.

We left her restaurant with the fullness and contentment that only a great meal with great company can bring. Our hostess was absolutely warm and glowing as she bid us goodbye. And I can tell you that her paella brought me back more than once to her wonderful restaurant, even on the same trip; each time happily paying my deposit.

And I have sent many a friend to Mijas, of course for its delightful atmosphere, but mostly for the paella. I would tell them that no matter what their course or purpose in Southern Spain, if they were anywhere near Mijas, they should go for the ultimate paella experience. I had friends who were going to Andalucia on a demanding business trip; one filled with bad hotels, pitiful food, and long hours. They had one break in their schedule and made it to Mijas. They saw our hostess and were happy to find that I had not exaggerated in my description of the experience or the sublime perfection of the paella. They sent a postcard in which they depicted my wonderful, reluctant hostess clad in her fabulous house dress accented by her trademark Dr. Scholl’s accoutrement. It was in this postcard that our protagonist was first and so aptly dubbed, “The Goddess of Paella.”

Just writing about her now makes me yearn to go back to her restaurant in the clouds for a taste of her ambrosianic dish; but alas, we lost our goddess to the heavens. The last time I was in Mijas, some years ago, I skipped happily up the stairway, newly renovated and trimmed, much to my surprise. I found the restaurant updated and redecorated with sturdy tables and bright, colorful tablecloths. If not for the preservation of the window overlooking the sea, I would have doubted I was in the right place. I eagerly asked for my wonderful Goddess and her unforgettable paella, wondering if I still had to make a deposit; she’s obviously doing very well. The spruced-up waiter in his crispy white shirt and perfectly ironed black pants informed me that the old woman who owned the place had passed away and that the restaurant was taken over by new management. He assured me that they served paella and that it was prepared authentically and would impress; so we gave it a shot – much to my complete disappointment. The paella was lifeless, with meats that were overcooked and dry; a Spartan array of shellfish; and rice that was thirsty and could not drink. Everybody knows, “the rice must drink.”

I write this blog as an ode to her and all great chefs in the world. Their craft is no less an art form than a great symphony or a master painting and can make for a life-changing experience. Take advantage of them while you can.

Many thanks to Peggy Bernstein, friend, blog follower, fellow Goddess worshipper, and sender of the postcard pictured above, in which she first named our Goddess.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Of Knights and Kings in Storied Segovia

There are some places that just stay with you…

Maybe they don’t come to mind every day, maybe you’ve only been there once, but the mere mention of them will inevitably bring a smile to your face and a wistful yearning to return.

This morning over coffee, my husband and I were discussing places to go this summer. As we were lost in our travel fantasy (or rather, as I was lost in my fantasy; my husband wasn’t really playing along since the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet), I brought up Spain.

Ah, Spain. Just thinking about it brought a thousand-and-one memories to mind, all calling me back: flamenco at the Moreria in Madrid where the dancers surrender to the music like loyal subjects bowing to their lord; the romance of Granada where the Sultan’s palace is enthroned among endless fragrant and exotic gardens; the crammed, winding streets and alleyways of Toledo leading to treasures around every bend; and of course, the wide, elegant avenues of Barcelona marked by the masterful creations of unending architectural revolution. Wherever the road leads in Spain, it strikes at your heart and invades your soul.

So in planning a trip to Spain, or fantasizing about one as I was doing this morning, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a trip that would eliminate any one of the country’s unique and alluring regions. But as I recounted the places I’d like to return to this summer, I found myself saying that I could not return without a visit to Segovia.

Ah, Segovia. Like many of my favorite cities, Segovia is the full embodiment of its great and storied past, starting with a beautifully and impossibly preserved Roman aqueduct, the likes of which cannot be seen in the ruins of Rome, Pompeii, or any other city of the ancient empire’s vast reach. I can still remember the first time I ever heard of an aqueduct in 4th grade history. The teacher made such a big deal about it and I just didn’t get it. ...Until I saw Segovia. Here, the structure soars over the city’s skyline with infinite and measured arches standing as a testament to engineering genius against the never-ending battle of time.

But as time marched on, so did Segovia, destined for even greater things. Once the capital of Spain, the king and queen made their grand residence in the fairytale setting of their castle here. Layered in lore of Spanish conquest, the castle is called the Alcázar for its Arab origins, adding to the myth and splendor of the place. Turreted towers; regal fireplaces; rich and elaborate décor; breathtaking views of the countryside; of course, the throne room; and even an area for a moat; are really all you need in a castle, I find.

And for those who have ever been enthralled by the Knights Templar, either before or after Dan Brown’s popular bestseller, Segovia boasts a completely intact Templar Church. It sits on a hill, ever on guard and ever vigilant of its secrets, with a rare and enigmatic 12-sided structure, and hidden meaning incorporated into every bewitching sculpture, crevice, and carving. Fittingly called the Church of Vera Cruz, or the Holy Cross, it is said that, here, the knights kept vigil over a relic of the true cross brought back from the crusades. Some say, as they are wont to do, that the Templars hid great treasure, still waiting to be claimed from somewhere within the structure's silent walls.

Surrounding this captivating city are the requisite rolling hills, for what fairy tale city doesn’t have rolling hills where knights and princes make their grand entrance? Covered in lush greenery and dotted with the also requisite medieval monastery and abbey; these hills offer the perfect backdrop from any window in the city. Add an imposing and grand Cathedral, the heart of every great city in Spain; and the wealth of local flavors that define its prized cuisine, -- roast suckling pig was perfected here and its preparation takes on the importance of religious ritual -- and Segovia completes the picture.

I have designed trips for friends going to Spain and always recommend including a visit to Segovia. On one such occasion, when my friends returned, many of them said it was their favorite place of the entire trip. One in particular was convinced she had been there before, perhaps in another life; maybe she was even queen. Or maybe, Segovia fulfilled her fantasies of how a fairy tale city should be…

Many thanks to Sue Kelby, fellow lover of Segovia, for her beautiful picture of the Aqueduct.