Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fake Cake and Mad Moonshine

It's not like I wasn't warned.

Standing at the baggage kiosk at Madrid airport, an Iberia  rep approached me, asking where I was headed. When I told her Santiago de Compostela, her face lit up.

"You are going to have so much fun there!" she said with great enthusiasm. "And it'll be so much cooler there than here because of the mountains. And the food! Wait till you eat some of their octopus...or any of the seafood. Believe me, you will love Santiago."

With an endorsement like that and a flight of just an hour, how could I lose?

Arriving at the Hotel San Francisco - incidentally a former convent - to meet my partner-in-travel, I was immediately struck by the coolness after three days of hot, hot, hot in Madrid. One of the many benefits of making my home in a convent for the next few days are our bedroom's beautiful long windows that look out over a grass courtyard flanked by the three sides of the convent/hotel and a pool house.

Let's put it this way, a girl could get used to this in July and that's not even counting the way it stays light until an hour before midnight. Seeing the magnificent architecture of the Cathedral de Santiago against a clear blue sky at 10:00 p.m. is breathtakingly unexpected.

Where I began to see what Miss Iberia was talking about happened after the cocktail reception on the hotel's grassy terrace. A short walk took us to Abastos 2.0, a seemingly simple little restaurant with a Michelin logo out front, conveniently located across from the market - an extensive series of meat, seafood, cheese, flower and fruit/vegetable stalls in several long halls - which is also the source of everything they serve.

The 20 of us sat down around a large table with a carved wooden head of lettuce and (inexplicably) a carved wooden shoe on either side of a colorful flower arrangement. The only drink options were red or white and this being the Galicia region, choosing white means Albarino every time.

No complaints here.

Next to each place setting was a pop-top can lid which was meant to serve as a bread plate for the crusty slices that our servers kept us supplied with all evening.

From then on, this tiny restaurant proceeded to dazzle us with course after course displaying the bounty of the Iberian peninsula. First up was creamy gazpacho with sweet-tasting cockles floating on top. I licked the bowl clean. That was followed by marinated mushrooms, although the Australians claimed that they were pickled (they weren't) in a tomato-based sauce. Like the cockles, the mussels tasted like they were right out of the water.

Given the size of the table, it was tough to chat with everyone. One of the funniest members of the group was also one of the most multi-talented. Besides having been a Buddhist monk for years before rejoining the secular world, he's currently a bike tour guide and big wave surfer. But he's also a good gay boy, having seen Leonard Cohen (RIP) three times, albeit always with his Mom.

When he starts singing "Hallelujah," he expects the group to chime in and pouts when they won't. Hilarious.

His ability to break into song, dance or impersonation at the drop of a hat made him invaluable to the party vibe, even if some of the more macho types (the Costa Rican, the Australian) didn't like how touchy he was.

Get over it, guys, no chance you're his type.

Up next was tuna tartare with an avocado cream that wowed even those who'd never had tartare before, although I have to wonder where these people have been eating. Luckily, after three courses, everyone was sufficiently lubricated to banter about such things. The French Canadian couple, curious about my food reviewing, were especially eager to know about whether or not there was anything I don't eat.

Um, crappy food by choice?

Our fish course was another cousin of cod over braised greens, the meat white and delicately flavorful, the skin crisped and tasting of herbs. Just when the Tazmanian lamb rancher was convinced that there would never be a meat course, plates resplendent with slices of rosy veal  and bronze-skinned fingerlings arrived to soothe the savage beast.

You'd have thought this group was bloodthirsty from their reaction to red meat, but more likely the seafood focus in Santiago was just wearing on some of them. Not so this bounty-of-the-sea fan who could eat seafood and fish for weeks without complaint.

While everyone was admiring a photograph of a drunk Brazilian woman jumping off a bridge naked (something they had all witnessed before my arrival), a palate cleanser of Asian pear wedges arrived to prepare us for dessert. Everyone was surprised when one of the chefs arrived with a birthday cake ablaze in candles, intended for the rancher's wife whose birthday today was.

After she made a wish and blew out the candles, the cake was whisked away and cannolis arrived. Some of us assumed birthday cake slices were to follow but, alas, the cake had been plastic (one of the guys had poked it, unbeknownst to those of us at the other end of the table), a mere symbol to acknowledge her big day.

Once we'd eaten all the things, we were invited out onto the terrace for after-dinner drinks, all of them variations on Galician moonshine with herbs. There was a variety made with coffee for those who wanted to speedball, another made with cream that was very popular with this crowd and the straight ahead version, which was a deep yellow, smelled like a first cousin to moonshine and singed the nose hairs of anyone brave enough to try it.

That would be me, although, I added plenty of ice and drank small sips slowly. And although I didn't finish mine, the rancher had not one but two glasses, which surely factored into him getting lost walking home. His wife, the birthday girl, found him near the town square later, sitting on a stone bench and looking dazed.

We got back to the convent just in time for fireworks over the plaza. Not a bad way to begin my stay in Santiago, not that I had a single thing to do with the planning of any of it.

All I'm saying is, Miss Iberia sure knew what she was talking about. I can take all of this Santiago can dish out.

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