My sister asked me the other day, “Have you had a bad meal yet?” Shockingly, I haven’t. That doesn’t mean every meal has been transcendent, but I haven’t been served anything that I really just couldn’t eat. I have, however, had some very ill-chosen meals, through my cultural blindness to the unspoken assumptions in the Spanish menu.
It’s ironic because my food vocabulary in Spanish is much fuller than any other area. I can’t seem to keep in my head the word for grass, but I can say razor clam, mussel, baby squid, regular squid, dogfish, hake, and octopus. I’ve even picked up a few food and wine words in Catalan and Basque. But knowing the words alone never makes you fluent. Knowing that “patatas” are potatoes, and even knowing that “rioja” is a kind of red wine, didn’t enable me to know that my appetizer of ¨patatas de rioja¨ was going to be a very rich and heavy stew of potatoes, sausage, chorizo, and beef.
It was delicious, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t also ordered “entrecote con garnis.” “Entrecote” is steak, “garnis” I assumed meant some sort of vegetables would come alongside. Good Lord, the “garnis” turned out to be French fries. The phrase “meat and potatoes” took on a whole new meaning for me that day.
You know you’re having a serious fruit and vegetable deficiency when your apple tart tastes incredibly fresh and nutritious to you. It´s too bad, because the Café Iruña in Bilbao was a warm and bustling restaurant, if somewhat brisk, with an ornate mudejar interior, and all the food was very good.
The worst thing is I did it all over again the next day! I was in Gernika/Guernica, I wandered into the Jatextea Julien (“jatextea” meaning restaurant in Basque) and ordered alubias, a very typically Baque dish of beans that also turned out to be stewed with assorted meats, which I hadn’t known when I had also ordered roasted pork with French fries for my second course. (Note the enormous bowl out of which I was to serve myself, as well as the entire bottle of house red wine.) Thank God the roast pork came with a green salad, nothing more than some fresh romaine lettuce with raw white onions, but it was like manna to me.
I always make fun of the American trend of listing every ingredient and its origin on a menu but I’m starting to see there are some advantages.