Sunday, 10 March 2013

The language of food

10 March 2013

 One of the very best things about cruising in the Mediterranean is experiencing new foods. This normally brings to mind  visions of leisurely studying the menu in an atmospheric café somewhere while enjoying a glass of fine local wine and discussing the various options with an ever helpful waiter. While this has happened to us on a few occasions, most of our new food ‘discoveries’ occur in a much more haphazard or even accidental manner.

One of the best aspects of cruising in the Med is the food we discover.

When we spent a considerable time in Palma Mallorca while navigating our way through the bureaucratic maze of buying a boat in Spain, one of our favourite marina front cafes offered a ‘Menu del Dia’ (Menu of the day) for Nine Euro ($11.50 Aus) which included three courses, mineral water and a bottle of wine on the table. What a bargain. Each day a choice of three, entrée, mains and deserts were put on the blackboard for us to choose from. All were listed in Spanish only of course and the wait staff’s English language skills were as non-existent as our Spanish vocabulary.

Initially we tried to make out what was what from the list or point to other people’s plates on nearby tables saying ‘I’ll have that.’ Before long though we came to the conclusion that it was easiest just to take pot luck and see what happened.  This method saw us enjoy some truly wonderful local dishes. Don’t ask us what they were. We have no idea. We simply ate them. We also left a little hungry sometimes as not all Spanish food proved to be to our taste but that’s all part of the experience.

Tapas are also a fantastic Spanish invention that allows you to sample a wide range of local dishes in small servings. We found one great seafood tapas restaurant in La Linea where we again played Russian roulette with a menu that proved totally beyond our comprehension.  Karen particularly liked one dish she had so asked the single waiter with some English what it was. It proved to be local delicacy unique to the Cadiz region, algae. Nothing like a plate of seaweed to go with your garlic prawns.
Tapas are a fantastic way to sample a wide range of Spanish dishes. In this cafe we got a
free tapas with every drink we bought. Needless to say, we eat well.

Café menus aren’t the only challenge you face on the food front when cruising new lands though. Wait till you get to the supermarket to provision the boat. Other than a few big multi-national brand names you won’t recognise any of the packaging and if you’re as linguistically challenged as we are, you also won’t be able to read a word of the product descriptions printed on the packets, boxes or cans. Let’s hear it for packaging that features pictures but that still won’t exactly help you tell the difference between a packet of self raising flour and icing sugar sitting on the shelf.

It does lead to some interesting surprises though. Who would of guessed that much of the muesli sold in Spain comes compete with choc chips and heaven knows how much added sugar. We certainly didn’t discover this until our first bowl full for breakfast. With four large packets of the stuff sitting in the boat’s food locker, so much for choosing the healthy breakfast option.

Even here in Gibraltar, because of the ridiculously expensive prices charged by Morrisons, the local British supermarket, we regularly walk over the border and do our grocery shopping in Spain at half the cost. Of course this means we still have the language minefield to deal with but after eight months or so we’re getting better at it by now of course. Wrong!

Surprisingly, even the meat section can prove particularly tricky. On one recent bag drag trip, Rob spied a smallish looking rolled roast beef in the refrigerated display which looked perfect for the three of us onboard. Our oven on the boat may be small and will never be accused of getting too hot, but to date it has done an excellent job of cooking anything we’ve been able to squeeze in. However, after a solid two hours in the roasting pan our rolled roast was still very pink inside. Not wanting to risk drying the meat out by overcooking it we elected to serve it a little on the ‘rare’ side. It proved quite tasty but with a flavour unlike any roast beef we’ve ever had. After dinner Rob retrieved the packaging out of the rubbish and Googled a Spanish to English dictionary. Who would of thought ‘carne de caballo’ was horse meat. It explained why those burger patties we’d been having for lunch tasted a bit different too.

Rob copped a pretty good bagging from the crew for that one but the shoe was on the other foot not long after when Marc chose a likely looking packet of chicken pieces do make a chicken casserole. On opening the pack he expressed some disappointment about the amount of meat on the pieces suggesting Spanish chooks must be scrawny. Once again our meal proved particularly flavorsome but on forking one piece out of her casserole Karen suggested she was looking at the strangest chicken ribcage she’d ever seen. After digging into the trash again, no Google was needed this time. The word ‘raebit’ seemed self explanatory even after the couple of red wines we’d had with our bunny casserole. It was Marc’s turn to take some stick

Karen actually enjoyed it so much that she decided to have a go at making a Spanish dish, ‘Raebit Salmorejo’ Along with the recipe she’d found an interesting historical tit bit. It transpires that the ancient Carthaginians named Spain ‘Rabbit Land’ and the Romans then kept the name, referring to the country as ‘Hispania’. The modern name ‘Espania’ is clearly derived from this origin. I guess we can be thankful Australia’s not called Kangarooville.

All was well until it came time to section the rabbit to add to the stew. Now Karen is far from squeamish but what lay before her on the countertop looked much more like an extra from the Alien movie than dinner. To her credit she overcame the intergalactic terror and consigned it to the pot where is absorbed a wonderful array of flavours from the range of spices used and proved to taste far, far better than it looked on the cutting board.
Looking more like a scene from Alien than dinner

For our Christmas dinner aboard Karen wanted to take no chances so rather than the supermarket, she found a traditional fresh food markets and went around the various meat vendors until she found someone with some English and explained she’d like to order a rack of lamb for collection on Christmas eve. ‘Se senorita, Lamb no problem, no problem. I get you leg, more meat, better.’ It took quite a while to bridge the communication gap but she eventually felt reasonably confident she’d ordered a rack of lamb but wasn’t quite sure. We males couldn’t help but tease her a little suggesting she’d arrive to find a whole side of mutton waiting for her. She became so stressed about it all she actually had a nightmare the night before in which she found herself in tears because she ended up with a rack the size of dinosaur ribs and couldn’t fit them down the companionway into the galley. Strange dreams that girl has.

Needless to say, Karen was very relieved when she did in fact receive a rack of lamb not a rack of stegosaurus. It was huge though suggesting Spanish lambs must be born at two years of age so she was even more relieved next day when it actually fitted in our smallish oven, even if there were only a couple of millimetres to spare
The world's largest rack of lamb.

Our shopping misadventures haven’t been limited to food lines either. Low humidity has been a feature of our time in the Med and we’ve all suffered to an extent from dry skin. To combat this, Karen chose a nice big bottle of moisturiser from the supermarket shelf and after enjoying a long hot shower in the marina applied it liberally to her face along with much of her body. While drying her hair she became aware of a strange sensation of setting concrete. Next time she buys moisturiser she will be making sure it’s not actually face mask.

To further expand our range of culinary experiences, Scottish friends we’ve made here in Gibraltar invited home for a dinner of Haggis. We knew we were in for an interesting evening when Graeme arrived in his car to pick us up from the marina wearing his kilt. We weren’t really sure what to expect of the haggis but after some of the other things we’d recently found we’d unwittingly eaten were sure we would survive.
Marc, Graeme and Karen after more than a dram of whiskey

From Wikipedia ‘Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep's pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal's stomach and simmered for approximately three hours.

Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish, considered the national dish of Scotland as a result of Robert Burns' poem Address to a Haggis of 1787. Haggis is traditionally served with "neeps and tatties" (Scots: turnip and potato), boiled and mashed separately and a dram (a glass of Scotch whisky), especially as the main course of a Burns supper. However it is also often eaten with other accompaniments.

As the 2001 English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique puts it, "Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour"
The haggis is cooked wrapped in sheeps stomach
When the stomach lining is pierced it shrinks ejecting the haggis

We may have accompanied our haggis with more than just ‘a dram of whiskey’ for Graeme and Jenny’s hospitality new no bounds but, like the rabbit, the haggis proved much, much better on the palette than the eye and we can tick one more box on our foods of the world list. We didn’t realise that eating haggis gave you a headache though, or was that the booze?

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