Nobody is really sure how things got so out of control that night. Who is to blame is a moot question. Assigning guilt would imply that there was premeditation or gross negligence involved. It was more an accident than anything else. ‘Who was liable?’ is probably the right question to ask as I reflect back about the looks on our faces when we were confronted with the consequences of our behavior.
What was supposed to be a ten day Father-Son-Son road trip across Europe of three responsible adults searching out rest, relaxation and winter sunshine, descended quickly into a unsupervised all-you-can-eat, off season, deep fry smorgasbord with too many mixed drinks and saturated fats to be good for any of us.
The first signs were already visible on the drive through France. Halfway to Catalonia along the famous “Rue de Soleil” we stopped for fuel just north of Lyon.
“How can gas station food taste this good?”
“I mean…this is really good!”
Our days had been planned full with outdoor activities. Several coastal hikes along the Costa Brava had been selected to get our hearts pumping, our shoulders loosened up and fresh sea air in our lungs. The morning mist and clear, crisp autumn afternoons created the perfect temperatures for rigorous walking and climbing along the sea cliffs. The mild sea breeze coming off the green Mediterranean Sea was enough to restore the homeostasis of any overworked and underpaid modern professional.
After a long hike on our first day, up and down the coastal hills, around bays and coves and out to sea again, the ever elusive lighthouse on the point became more a source of annoyance than motivation. Worn out, we turned around and went to find something to eat.
“I’ll have one of with mushrooms, one with bacon and one with chicken.”
“Una de cada? One of each?” the waiter confirmed.
“Si. Perfecto. Gracias.”
“Would everybody like to sample the croquetes?”
In the village center of the seaside town of Begur, in a low key sports bar called Tot Hora (Every Hour) we sat on the bohemian terrace with our feet up, in the falling afternoon sunshine, drinking ice cold cola from tall glasses with large ice cubes. What more could we want?
It had been a great first day, we were content until the first batch of croquetes were served, hot, lightly crispy and gorgeous. With one bite we all realized that a sampling, “una de cada”, was not going to be enough. With ‘one of each’ gone we ordered more; more with the bacon, more of the mushroom ones, and certainly more of that pollo loco! With those three handmade and lightly deep fried croquetes the entire purpose of our vacation was redefined. We ordered again and again and again. The colas came as fast as each batch of croquetes were inhaled.
After the binge in Begur we resolved to be more moderate, to eat healthier. We decided to cook in to clear our collective conscience and to keep our costs and blood pressure under control. Rustic autumn produce and fresh tropical fruits from Andalucia were in good supply at the Supermercat just outside of Begur where we had rented a house. It’s just too bad we didn’t buy any.
“My doctor told me I should avoid caffeine for a while,” son number one said evaluating the choices of soft drinks, an aisle long and two meters high.
“This is Coke Zero Zero. No sugar. No caffeine.” son number two said holding up a twelve pack.
“I can’t stand the taste of that diet crap.” Father said screwing up his face.
“How about we mix it with the limes on the tree in the garden?” son number two aske
“That might work!” all agreed.
Breakfast was scrambled eggs with chorizo, washed down with Coke and Lime. For dinner we cooked charbroiled hamburgers in the barbeque pit…in November.
“The beef tastes so much better here!” Father exclaimed, his mouth half full wiping his chin with his hand.
“Happy cows, happy beef! No feedlots here. They must be wild grazing cattle.”
“…those limes, they are so zesty. It’s like liquified sunshine!” son number two said gazing at his fizzing, sweating glass.
“Yeah, that Coke Zero is just the neutral delivery agent for the lime juice anymore. Keep it coming!”
Empty cans and spent lime rinds filled the garbage can in the kitchen to overflowing.
Catalonia is arguably the culinary capital of all of Iberia. In Barcelona one can sample offerings from every culture on the peninsula in just one afternoon, hopping from one tapas bar to another, eating here a little and there a little. In these chic bars and ethnically themed restaurants on the wide, tree lined thoroughfare of Passeig de Gracia, traditional cultural norms of strict meal times are blurred beyond recognition. One can eat at any time of the day.
At Txapela on the wide, sunny thoroughfare of Passeig de Gracia just off of Placa de Catalunya in the middle of the afternoon,
we discovered the Basque equivalent of tapas, called pintxos. As with the croquettes in Begur, which was just a warm up round, grilled gambas on skewers, mushrooms, wrapped in bacon, doused in herbed olive oil were too tempting to withstand.
After quickly dismissing everything else we sampled, I was surprised that the waitress didn’t ask to see our money before she left a plate of twelve more skewers on the table and walked back to the kitchen with an order for twelve more. Like sharks in a feeding frenzy, we closed our eyes and just kept on eating and didn’t come up for air for twenty minutes. As bad as all this was, the worst was still to come.
Hidden in the labyrinth of the the narrow alleys of Barcelona’s Bari Gotic, a subdued but iconic cafe, the 4 Gats (4 Cats) preserves an historic Catalan cafe tradition made famous to the modern world in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Here the intellectuals of the day would gather to discuss literature, politics and the Catalan cause. Here only the best and most creative and the highest quality of Catalan foods are served along with, much to our delight, Coca-Cola with Lime.
What happened at Txapela a few days earlier should have been a red flag for us. We should have exercised more caution. Like a problem gambler in a casino, we should never have taken our credit cards with us to the table.
“Ohhhh…they serve croquettes with pernil,” son number two said studying the menu.
“What is pernil?”
“The best, the most flavorful jamon, but Catalan style.”
By the end of the night we had consumed three platters full (€ 24.54)
We ordered a plate of pernil and a platter of ‘pan amb tomaquet’; roasted garlic bread with freshly squeezed tomato pulp to serve up the thin, nearly transparent, strips of pernil. The sweet tomato, the savory garlic and the cured meat filled our souls with joy and wonder. What sharpness against the silky smooth olive oil. True Spanish flavor. (€ 26.36)
“Are we going to have dinner after this tonight?”
“I thought this was dinner.”
“If this is dinner, I’ll need another Coke. One for everybody?”
Next came the Patatas Bravas. This was no sweet Yoopi sauce that beach side cafes slather on quickly fried potatoes served to German tourists. It was the pithy, spicy stuff on the perfectly roasted potato wedges that caused the mouth to burn just ever so slightly. (€7.27, but who was actually keeping track?)
Before the Patatas had been finished a full platter of Selecio D’Iberics, various Iberian cured meats, arrived (€14.55) together with a second platter of garlic bread with tomato and the third plate of croquetes de pernil, and a last round of colas. As the table was filled again with a second round of the best of everything, unable to take it all in, Father declared, “Muy Tapas!”
And for dessert? White…Chocolate…Soup. What else? I mean, when are you going to be in Barcelona again, right?
After the food was all gone and we were all looking helplessly for someplace to lay down, the waitress, who had been so friendly, encouraging and delighted by our delight, put an end to our reverie in a cruel and heartless way. Without a word, without a smile she slapped a small plastic tray on to the table with our check clipped to it and walked away …taking our empty Coke bottles with her.
Our shock was sincere, but to this day, even still, we are unrepentant and if given the chance would do it all over again!