The most formative year of my education was the year I went to the University of California’s center at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras in Madrid. It was there that I learned to speak and understand and DREAM in Spanish – I picked up a Spanish boyfriend and acquired a taste for true Spanish food. No, not Mexican food, which is wonderful in its own right – SPANISH food. Spain.
This is a picture of one of the best restaurants in Madrid, Lhardy, on the Carrera de San Jerónimo; it’s been in existence since 1839. Rich people and wanna-bes in 19th-century novels (and real life) were always sending for Lhardy take-out: croquettes, pâte, fois gras… whether they could pay for it or not. Eventually, of course, if they didn’t pay, Lhardy stopped accepting their orders.
I couldn’t afford Lhardy when I was 20 years old (and I hadn’t even heard of it until I read Benito Pérez Galdós’ nineteenth-century masterpiece, Fortunata y Jacinta). But I did just fine eating a tremendous amount of one of the cheapest and most typical dishes in all of Spain: tortilla de patatas. Potato omelet.
Of course tortilla can contain any number of ingredients besides potatoes: peas, shrimp, asparagus, eggplant, ham, mushrooms, red peppers… But the classic one is just potatoes, olive oil, salt and onion. I watched my boyfriend’s mother make tortilla and learned how to do it – but she didn’t use onions. It wasn’t till I remembered a description of a tortilla in a nineteenth-century novel that I started putting onion in mine.
I’ve seen many tortilla recipes; generally speaking, the more complicated and fussy it is, the further it will be from an authentic tortilla. Try the recipe in Claudia Roden’s monumental The Food of Spain.
I came home, started graduate school, got married and started teaching in Boston. When I turned 30, one of my colleagues, María Paz, invited me over to lunch to celebrate my birthday. She asked me what I wanted her to cook for me: “Tortilla and flan and whatever else you like,” I responded immediately.
María Paz was from the southern Spanish city of Córdoba; I’d tasted her cooking before and knew it would be a good lunch. It was. And she taught me how to make something else I loved: flan (caramel custard). Now there are many kinds of flan, from all over the Spanish-speaking world: orange flan, flan made with condensed milk, cheese flan, and so on. But again, for me there is only the simple classic one, the one I remember from Spain and that María Paz taught me to make: eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar (some of it caramelized).
When I was a kid, I refused to touch custard. It was supposed to be a dessert (I’m told my grandmother made wonderful custard), but it rhymed with “mustard,” which was certainly NOT a dessert. How could it be any good? It was not until I lived in Spain that I learned how delicately delicious it could be. Maybe being a young adult instead of a kid had something to do with it.
I continue to make flan to this day. Sometimes my family asks me if I want to order it when we go to a restaurant. I sniff disdainfully and remind them that I don’t need to eat anybody else’s flan; mine is the best.
Other people agree. My friend Nancy, a brilliant cook, tasted my flan at a family celebration and asked me for the recipe. Flattered, I said of course and handed her my recipe book, open to the appropriate page. As I turned away to continue cooking, she said, “Marti… I can’t read this.” I turned back, and suddenly realized that it was written in María Paz’s handwriting – in Spanish, naturally. No wonder Nancy couldn’t read it!
There are other delicious dishes that live on in my heart and on my palate - gazpacho andaluz, empanada, crema catalana – each with a story behind it that makes it memorable for a lifetime. When you travel, be sure to notice what the people of the area eat, and try it yourself. Sometimes people can’t believe you want to eat something as ordinary as their regular fare. Sometimes you may not like it after you’ve had it. But always give it a try.