This travel story was originally written for Dish Our Town.
After having read The Sun Also Rises multiple times during my undergraduate years, I finally made it to Spain in my early 20's. I embraced Spain as much as I did Hemingway's classic novel. Since then, I have returned multiple times; and not a day goes by that I don't long for my next return.
When one immerses themselves in the culture of a country he or she visits, a part of that person is inherently influenced by that country's culture for the rest of their lives. Of all I have visited, Spain has influenced my palate and way of eating more than any other.
Examples range from having chipirones (mini squid) in its own ink with chickpeas for breakfast at the counter of Pinotxo in Barcelona's famous Boqueria, to eating bulls testicles in order to soak up the poison after a day of drinking in Pamplona during the famous Feast of San Fermin, to literally having something to eat before eating again (tapas/pintxos before a proper supper - at midnight to boot) - I was hooked.
Of all things culinary, however, the Spaniards' affinity for canned and jarred goods left the greatest mark on me and intrigues me until this day, even more than the historical rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona in soccer.
A little about canned goods. According to Food Reference, it's been said that in the 18th Century, Napoleon Bonaparte was the first to commission the development of reliably preserving food; and a Frenchman by the name of Nicholas Appert has been credited to have come up with the first form of preserved canning (realizing that fully cooked food when tightly sealed didn't spoil).
He was followed by Englishman Peter Durand who developed a method of sealing food into an unbreakable tin. Since then, the process has been perfected, and has played a huge role in maintaining armies and world travelers through the centuries.
Most Americans, which formerly included me, don't associate canned goods as a choice item. A little over 20 years ago, a trip to a tapas bar near the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, named El Xampanyet, changed my position. Brought to me, along with a white sparkling wine they called xampanyet (a regional term for cava) were the most delectable pickled white asparagus spears, followed by stuffed olives, anchovies, sardines, oysters, barnacle, baby eel, and tuna belly.
Without pretense, the proprietors proudly served all this directly out of the tins in which they came. From place to place, from can to can; even when I ordered the same item, they all had their unique flavor. Something in the chemistry, not unlike wine, made every experience unique. Each told a different story per se. For example, the clams from the north tasted very different from the ones harvested in the south, just as the people of the north are very different from those in the south. As I went along, the flavors, my love for the people and its' micro-cultures intensified.
Can't have a post about Hemingway without a bullfight. (Arles, 2012)
The experience left such an impression on me that I am always on an endless search for finding the best canned foods available. This obsession later served as a vehicle for literally, and more importantly, figuratively transporting me to destinations in which the products came from. So whenever I open a can of Italian tuna belly and have it with some crusty bread, my mind brings me back to a memory I had on the coast of Liguria, where my wife and I would sit by the sea and have an aperitivo while watching our daughter on line at the gelato stand.
I sometimes get myself a good bottle of chablis to go along with a can of sardines I brought back from Antibes, and when I do, I feel like I'm there once again enjoying the blue skies, watching beautiful women in their very revealing bathing suits walk by, and pretend I'm Picasso.
When I pick up that very worn, first edition hardcover copy of The Sun Also Rises, that I received as a Christmas gift from my wife many years ago, I will treat myself to a bottle of cava and a tin of muscles, transport back to 20 some-odd-years ago at that zinc bar in Barcelona, and once again be that young man ready to have his world turned upside down by the greatest novel ever written, a country called Spain, and something that comes out of a can.
Have you been to Xampanyet in Barcelona? Do you enjoy canned goods? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments, I would love to know. Did you like this DISH? if so, please share, my wife would be so happy!