x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Indulging in the food of Spain offers up revelatory moments

I don't feel great after consecutive days of rich, cholesterol-laden foods. I've made jokes in the past about Lipitor as a recreational drug, but they're not as funny to me right now.

Indulging in Spain offers up revelatory moments

I'm not a kid and Bar Zeruko isn't a candy store. Still, I can't seem to control myself in San Sebastian. Favourite foods are laid out on every surface, displayed on platters and counter tops, disappearing into the hands of others while I stand, paralysed. I'm euphoric.

Even the most prosaic offerings here are exquisite. Before now, I didn't understand the fuss about fluffy Spanish tortillas, with their silky centres of potato slices bound by barely set egg. The creamy filling spills out on to the plate while you eat, and now I realise how luxurious eggs and potatoes can be. This tortilla is the essence of simplicity and bears no resemblance to the versions I had known before.

I can see spiny black sea urchins, filled to the brim; a creamy, peppery purée is poured into the shells and then torched before serving. After a succession of dishes, we tear ourselves away from this pintxos bar and go on to the next, to devour solomillo, juicy rectangles of fillet on toasts, crunchy with sea salt. There's foie gras à la plancha at every little spot in town, and we order it riotously, hot and cold and hidden on toast beneath apple compote and a cold marinated anchovy.

Even the "risotto" we order is over the top: a small baked goat's cheese, its warm, runny centre crammed with rice-shaped pasta. We dip our spoons into a plump raviolo full of satiny creamed sweetbreads, then wash it down with rabbit terrine and duck confit. We press our fork tines against a braised veal cheek and watch it collapse into dark, sweet ropes of meat. Nothing, however, can compare to a grilled artichoke, stuffed with foie gras, hazelnuts and molasses. The inedible artichoke leaves, sprayed with edible gold, bring the concept of lily-gilding to a new level of literality.

And I feel like I'm taking Emily Dickinson's line, "the mind is fat", to new heights of literality, too. Besides, by now, we haven't had a vegetable in weeks. The food in Portugal had been disappointing and we had arrived hungry in Spain.

My mind and my eyes and my liver are overstimulated by novelty. Not everything here is heavy, rib-sticking food, but after 10 days of overdoing it to magnificent excess, my cells feel as close to bursting as that sweetbread raviolo. I've had too much salt. The stormy weather has kept us from swimming it off. Usually, this is where I'd take note, then ignore and keep going. But like I said, I'm not a kid anymore, even if I act like one.

Although I can down sardines by the dozen and guzzle olive oil in the Mediterranean to no ill effect, I don't feel great after consecutive days of rich, cholesterol-laden foods. I suspect it's because I wasn't built for them. I've made jokes in the past about Lipitor as a recreational drug, but they're not as funny to me right now. Although I believe in eating real food, including whole milk, whole eggs and real butter, I also know that my body can't process certain foods, such as dairy and animal fat, as effortlessly as someone of northern European descent might be able to. I don't want to be lily-livered in the figurative sense, but I also don't want to be lily-livered in the literal sense. So I pay attention.

Surprisingly, I have the ultimate revelatory experience only after I decide to take it easy on the grease for a couple of days. A small, austere dish of dense, oily bonito tuna swathed in a sweet, skinned tomato is one of the highlights of the trip, and is also a dish I would be happy to eat every day. It's rich to eat, but in a very different way, and no amount of cream could have improved it. The next dish we tasted - a marinated anchovy topped with cream of spider crab - paled in comparison, seeming gratuitous -and not in a good way.

Other revelations came in the form of Galician steak, butchered into cuts I had never seen before. Bar Nestor, a modest brick-and-mortar place that rests on a pedestal as my fantasy restaurant, was the ultimate tease. They produce only two of their famed tortillas a day: one at 1pm and one at 8pm. Both disappear within seconds. Besides the tortilla, they serve Galician steaks, and with either of these things you can have a plate of exceptional sliced tomatoes in olive oil, or green Padron peppers fried in olive oil. And that's about it.

Like the Atkins and Paleo diets, the popularity of fattier cuts of meat has swelled in the past decade and is now experiencing a legitimate revival, and not just in culinary dreamscapes such as San Sebastian. Just look at lamb "belly", now a speciality item that was previously known as lamb "breast", which was unglamorous and inexpensive. The lamb "bacon", cut from the belly, is especially irresistible. Sometimes, the belly will come attached to the ribs. I had lamb ribs for dinner a couple of nights ago, which reminded me of how important it is to marinate and season these cuts of meat properly. People have weird relationships with fat - and with viscera in general - and one thing that makes lamb challenging for the ambivalent is its sometimes gamy taste of grandpa sweaters, all the more present in fattier cuts. I love this taste, but I do think these cuts need to be addressed for what they are.

A camel's hump, which is really just a huge mound of fat, can weigh as much as 35kg. My brother suggested we try to make camel bacon out of the hump and market it as an Atkins-friendly, local and sustainable alternative to other meats. He may have been on to something. We do love our snack foods. The Spanish chef Jose Andres, who was instrumental in introducing the Spanish tapas and pintxos style of dining to the US, makes a Spanish tortilla with thin potato chips instead of fresh potatoes. I'm making it for dinner tonight, with sides of tomatoes and peppers. Until I can find a stellar source for beef, I'll gladly do without. And if this is taking it easy, I think I can handle it.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico.

artslife@thenational.ae