Monday, October 29, 2007

Gracias, Jaime, gracias

Córdoba was an easy trip from Sevilla, a short train ride that deposited us quickly near the winding, narrow alleyways of the historic center, where the tourist-to-local ratio feels like it’s 10 to 1. But when we went just a few blocks beyond the Mezquita, the justly famous mosque, we found quiet streets lined with white buildings and colorful flowerpots hanging on the walls. Our favorite restaurant turned out to be just outside the old city walls.

We had already had an afternoon snack at El Olivo, two glasses of manzanilla, the slightly salty yet appealing sherry so popular in Andalucia, and a plate of fried calamari, but we went back for dinner because of Jaime, the tour guide at Casa de Sefarad a museum devoted to the history of Sephardic Jews in Spain.

Jaime will probably be one of my favorite memories of Spain, rivaling the sight of Becca whizzing around the Mezquita in a wheelchair to rest her lame foot. The museum is located close to the one synagogue that wasn’t destroyed in Córdoba, and although it’s very small, really just 5 or 6 rooms, Jaime has so much to say, you can’t help but leave feeling a bit heady. He’s a classic nerd, so intensely interested in his subject that he draws everyone in, like a black hole. But he’s not at all the shy, retiring kind of nerd. He’s more like the arrogant professor who’s well-aware that he knows a lot, and although that would be annoying in a friend, it’s quite ideal in a tour guide.

We learned from Jaime how the Spanish love of jamon and all pork products comes, in part, from the Spanish desire to distinguish themselves from Jews or, in the case of the convertidos, to prove that they were no longer Jews after their expulsion in 1492. He also told us how at the same time, many of Spain’s most beloved dishes have Jewish origins. He talked about Maimonides, about families buying documents to hide their Jewish origins, and about how expelled Sephardic families sought to preserve their memories of their lives in Spain. Whenever he asked if there were any questions, he was met by a stunned, yet gratified silence.

In the end, though, Becca had a question. After all the other tourists had left and we were chatting with him about menorahs in the gift shop, she asked for a restaurant recommendation, a place that was good but “informal.” “¡Informal!” he exclaimed. “Quel horreur!” (He literally said that in French.)

After we stopped laughing, he did recommend “El Olivo,” and thus cemented his place in my memories as a most knowledgeable person. The plaza, which had been sunny and pleasant earlier, was now golden with the light reflecting off the stone of the city walls. It was mid-October and we were sitting outside in weather that felt like the best of New York’s summer nights.

Becca loved her pisto, which turned out to be a Spanish version of ratatouille served with two fried eggs. There were plenty of tomatoes to make it sweet and lovable.

And I, I adored my chuletitas de cordero, or grilled baby lamp chops liberally salted with coarse sea salt. They were possibly in the top 5 favorite things I’ve eaten in Spain, so simple and so good. I could have eaten 10 more. (It also felt right to eat lamb after feeding murcillo or blood sausage to Becca earlier that day.)

When it was time to order dessert, I insisted we order two. I thought Becca’s choice of pears poached in red wine was boring and got tarta de queso, or Spanish cheesecake, instead. They were both good but the pears put Becca over the edge. I had to admit I’d never had poached pears so smoothly delicious, like eating pear mousse. I accused Becca, “I thought you didn’t like soft desserts!” to which she retorted, “I do when they’re this good.”

And then the kind old waiter brought us, on the house, glasses of ice-cold sweet lemony liqueur.

As Becca put it, “If I were Spanish, I would never leave Spain.”

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