on vegetables in spain

July 26, 2017

It was around day three that the bread fatigue set in, but there wasn’t a cure in sight—and wouldn’t be until I’d crossed the border back to France, a request for a salade verte and some haricots verts  and anything with “vert” in it filed in advance.

Our first night in Barcelona, we went to the beach. At L’escamarla, at the Port Olimpic, just a stone’s throw from the surf, we shared a seafood paella dotted with the occasional pea. We ordered an undressed salad of iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, and a plate of oil-bathed pimientos de padron studded with flakes of salt. We didn’t finish the peppers. At the time, we didn’t know they were the last green thing we’d see for days.

With limited time in Barcelona and a lot to accomplish, our days revolved around a strict sightseeing regimen. This wasn’t a vacation of long lunches and lazy naps in the sun—we were here to get it done, and we weren’t above the inauthentic expediency of an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts in a pinch. Food stops were less researched and more impromptu—with some advance planning, I’m very willing to concede that our experiences might have been different—but we had things to do. We traipsed from the luminous nave of the Sagrada Familia to the bony rooftop of La Pedrera, peering at the organic shapes of the stairwells and the patterns of the parquet flooring as our audio-guide instructed us to, and, in between visits, we ate at times that were odd: breakfast at noon, lunch at three, wine starting basically then and continuing into the wee hours.

But tapas are everywhere and they are an anytime food. They can be small as a snack or substantial as a meal, and when we sat down at the bar at El Nacional—a fern- and light-filled modernist space with a collection of associated eateries all under one soaring glass roof—we were ready to order up an array. Pan con tomate—that Catalan essential of grilled bread rubbed with tomato and garlic—and a plate of parchment-thin Iberian ham were set before us, along with a glass of vino rosado for me and a  20 cl jar (caña-sized) of fizzy Estrella beer for Jill. They had pintxos, too, which on paper sounded like they might actually contain vegetables (I saw a word that I knew meant eggplant on the description of one), but which were, in actuality, open-faced toasts, topped with things like an unctuous cream of potatoes and cod. Potato toast. It was good, adorned with a tiny purple comma of octopus tentacle. But the starch factor was real.

At El Tiet Taver in Barcelona’s Eixample district, a pretty but insubstantial flower crown of microgreens topped the crackly skin of suckling pork and I pulled the grassy threads onto my plate like they were sprouts of pure gold, relishing the light crunch of uncooked plants between my teeth after the béchamel-filled fried croquetas, delighting in the essential surge of chlorophyll that I was sure I could feel in my blood. Later, on the outdoor terrace at El Viti Taberna in El Born, a swoosh of nutty romesco sauce was a bed for charred octopus, its red pigment evidence of the existence of peppers on a table that otherwise bore no traces of ingredients that had come from the ground.

As we made our way beyond Barcelona and through Andalusia, spending our days in lush courtyard gardens and under the shade of leafy orange trees, my desperation for fruits and vegetables grew. I devoured the briny olives that were delivered alongside our vino blanco at the cafes where we stopped to rest, refuel, and hop on free Wi-Fi—after a while, even their salt-preserved flesh seemed fresh and raw. Once, I saw “ensaladilla” listed on a menu and looked to Lauren, eager and excited. She shook her head. “That’s Russian salad,” she said. “It’s potatoes.”

I knew that the vegetables were somewhere. Every once in a while they’d appear—a bit of garnish curled over a piece of fish here, a tousled dry side salad tossed next to a tortilla con gambas there. Surely, they must just have been hiding in dishes I didn’t know to order. In Sevilla (at, admittedly, a restaurant that even at first glance we could tell would maybe not be offering up the most authentic cuisine), I attempted the pollo Sevillano, a dish of braised chicken on top of an herb-flecked stew. I dug into the vegetables buried at the bottom of the bowl, savoring the soft carrots and wondering at the white, rectangular pieces—were they some sort of chard stem, perhaps?—before I realized that they were French fries. I had literally been served French fry soup, and that was when I decided to give up.

Later, we would find a French-inflected restaurant called Tata Pila where I would order the most beautiful bowl of lightly steamed white asparagus, draped in tendrils of greenery and plated meticulously with perfume-ripe strawberries and inky globules of roe. At Bar Alfalfa, for our last lunch in Sevilla, we would sit in air-conditioned splendor as we shared plates of crisp griddled eggplant and—praise be—a spinach salad. It is, as they say, when you stop looking for love that you find it.

I should say that I am not, by and large, a picky eater. I have no qualms about white bread or gluten, I will always help you share the side of fries, and, while I flirt with vegetarianism once a year or so, ultimately I am all too happy to try anything from land or sea. But at home, with my kitchen, my familiar restaurants, and my grocery store and market, I can balance the intake, and I can moderate. It is unlikely that I would have a hand-sized loaf of bread slathered with tomato for breakfast, and then a sandwich of ham and tomato for lunch, and then a dinner of pork and roasted tomatoes with a piece of bread on the side. I definitely would not be likely to replicate that eating pattern for multiple days on end, my food-group intake boiled down to just flour, tomato, and cured pig. But we wanted to eat Spanish food while in Spain, and this was the Spanish food that we found, and in time we accepted that it was what it was. As difficult a country as Spain must be to navigate, restaurant-wise, for a vegetarian or vegan, or even someone who, like me, just feels best when their sustenance is mostly plants, I couldn’t help but think of the self-imposed constraints of paleo dieters, or those macrobiotic adherents who steer clear of nightshades (a category into which potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes all fall). How frustrating it would be, I thought, to be limited even beyond the limitations of the menu, and so I was grateful for my lack of food allergies and for my lack of belief in nutritional claims not supported by science.

Robert, who can flick a fan open with such flamenco flair you wouldn’t be surprised to hear he moonlights as a dancer in one of those touristy tavernas, explained it thusly: “Spain is very poor. We keep the tomatoes. Everything else, we send out to other countries that pay more for them. So we have no vegetables.” Whether or not that statement was true, he’d also later coin the instant idiom, “Not meat, not sweet: it’s a vegetable!” which generously allowed us to group everything from fried, aioli-drizzled patatas bravas to wine (why not) under the header of healthful verdure.

In Granada, I drank gazpacho out of a pint glass, thrilled to have something refreshing—and (caveat: tomato) vegetable-based—in hand. “It’s so creamy,” I noted to Lauren. “Yeah,” she nodded, “they thicken it with bread in the south.”

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