gambas a la plancha
from the 4am coolness of london we spilled out into the midday andalucian sun. pale, tired and shrinking from the sun we stumbled around the airport looking for our friends. out of the bright light appeared fernando and valerie; tanned, tall and healthy after a week scuba diving in san jose. they led us by the hand to their car. they had suggested that we stop over for an evening and go for some mariscos (shellfish) by the sea upon arriving. this wasn't merely food, this was a mission of mercy.
there are meals that are emblematic of a place, it becomes impossible to think of one without the other. i think of new year 2004 and oysters from the english market in cork, a yuacatan road cafe for empanadas and eating sukiyaki with taro's family in tohyama. this lunch has entered the list as representative not only of great food, but also of southern spain. we went to alquean (el merendero de la playa) [note: i'm not all that sure if this was truly the name of the restaurant. in fact, in the spanish way, i'm not sure if it even has a name. it could have been valerie just appeasing my anal city need for details and names]. to call it a restaurant is probably an overstatement, it is more of a surf shop from the outside. along the seafront is a thin line of fishermen boats. the owners will go out every morning to catch the days fish. these are served throughout the day only 20m away in the merendero. food doesn't come any fresher than this.
you enter the restaurant through a plastic covered outdoor section. a dark bar leads you to the fish counter. from here you choose the fish that you wish to eat. considering our state of sunshock, fernando and valerie took the initiative and ordered a suitable range of shellfish; gambas (shrimp), cegala (see below ... it is a crustacean; shrimp on steroids), concha dulce (similar to clams), pulpito (octopus), huevas de pescado (deep fried fish eggs), boquerones fritos (deep fried anchovies). the suitably crusty cook / waiter / owner (?) willingly took the order and gave us a ticket to claim our food.
we quickly moved to the table, all of the usual icons of spanish seafront dining were present; paper tablecloth, napkins in alcohol sponsored plastic dispenser, ashtrays and lemon wipes. we quickly added the obvious ones; basket of bread, borrowed cigarette, bottles of beer. at this point fernando was probably surprised that i started photographing the most unusual things. considering the beautiful surroundings, i seemed intent on photographing only the food that was served to us. in addition to this, i was still hungover from the preceding night and still don't speak excellent spanish, this has all probably reinforced the impression of me as being a bit of a simpleton ... well you have to admit that some meanings cross cultural boudaries with amazing clarity.
we started with an typical andaluz dish; migas. this consists of breadcrumbs fried with chorizo sausage. it's been a favourite of mine since i first stated going to the south.
next came the gambas rojas (red shrimp). there are many different ways to cook shrimp; boiling and frying among the favourites. despite the fact that blanca has a massive amount of spanish cook books, it is amazing how little reference there is to this most traditional dish.
i found some interesting information at grupo gastronomico gaditano (a cadiz based site). this site has a particulary nice scientific approach:
- it recommends shellfish outside of the months may to august (the month with R rule) during which the reproductive cycle takes place. shrimp will lose their weight, flavour, texture
- boiling is recognised as the best form of cooking with some "simple techniques" required...
- the water used to boil should be at the salinity of the sea.
- most interestingly (really only applying to the larger crustaceans), as a rule, add live shellfish to cold water and bring to the boil. add dead shellfish to boiling water. this fairly cruel approach ensures that the shellfish do not "release their legs", meaning that they will actually loose their legs and hence flavour / meat (this took some time to translate; the only other similar quote on the web relates to jumping kangaroo, but i don't think the spanish typically cook this on the seafront in salted water)
- for duration, it recommends that gambas are put into boiling water and once it returns to the boil they are ready.
... ironically and perhaps to the disgust of the good people of cadiz, we had gambas a la plancha (literally on the iron) with salt. they are fried in olive oil and salt for about 2-3 minutes. valerie taught us how to eat shrimp heads with style.
and ... excuse the pun; just when i thought it was safe to get back in the water, came another gastro mystery ... the next dish came; cigala; impressive, but slightly overcooked. after quite some time searching i eventually found a translation ... cigala meaning crayfish in english. blanca wasn't convinced and whilst the wikepedia photo seemed like a good match, she recommended that i consult the oracle of all things fishy; alan davidson's north atlantic seafood.
a cigala realises that i can't translate its and decides to made a bid for freedom ...
he settled the debate in favour of, oddly enough, the dublin bay prawn. in appearance this matches the cigala from spain; the crayfish, or spiny lobster, does not have the large front claws of our cigala (wikepedia has the wrong photo) ... alan mentions that the dublin bay prawn gets its name from the fact that irish fishermen, having accidentally caught the prawn, would sell these on the black market (not being regulated like normal fish) to vendors such as molly malone ... say no more.
last came the house specialty; deep fried anchovies (boquerones fritos). these were excellent and we agreed the best dish of the day. most simply brushed with lemon juice and dusted with flour. fried for a couple of minutes until well golden.