It’s a rural place where I currently live and I’ve come to miss those things that just seem silly in a place like this. I miss cocktail carefully crafted, specifically negronis and I miss drinking these at a sleek counter of a dimly lit bar, leaving a messy streak of red lipstick on the rim of a stout glass. I miss walking anywhere, as opposed to climbing, and I miss spending money on things I don’t really need instead of just on the necessities I’ve run out of. I miss having plans for the weekend and looking forward to those during the week and I’m starved for new faces, new smiles, new smells and odors. New frowns and snarls would put the cobwebbed cogs of my mind to work again. I’d soak in like a sponge the good and the bad that come with being surprised at something, at anything. Where I live is beautiful, probably more so than any other home I’ve ever had, and its undeniably more real than any city. The silence here is one I will momentarily sink back into when my life becomes noisy again. But it’s one I need to escape from sometimes in order not to develop a double identity or an imaginary friend to talk to late at night.
A few weeks ago my colleague, quite cosmopolitan, suggested we get out of the 17th century flour mill that had lulled us into the most advanced stages of Stockholm syndrome. She suggested we take a pickup truck and drive to Tarragona nearby, maybe go to the beach if its nice out or see a movie (at a movie theater) if it’s not. It also happened to be the last day of Santa Tecla week in the city, so there was plenty of fun stuff going on. What most drew me was the way her mind snapped right to one place when I mentioned dinner, a restaurant and bar called El Complet in the Old District. After a few gins and tonic and the painfully loud bangs of fireworks in the plaza we were there, sat at the bar downstairs with the busy open kitchen in clear view.
What we had come for were the mejillones a la plancha, no questions asked. My colleague had returned here just for these babies several times during her semesters spent in Tarragona studying nerdy wine science . And she had brought her wine science nerd friends with her, too. She recalled how surprised she had been at the fact that mussels grilled (as opposed to sautéed with a sauce) could taste so damn good. And after my first one I could see what she meant.
Plump, tight little pillows of flesh sticking out of black shell like the panting tongues of dogs in the summertime. Steam everywhere but none of the fishy low tide stank of mussels that are less than 100% fresh. These are clean, delicate things with only a hint of the marine within. The exterior is licked with the flavor of dry smoke sizzling off the mussels’ own juices as they hit the metal griddle beneath them. There’s no white wine, no garlic, no cilantro; only salt and a tiny bit of that painfully good local olive oil tossed through the bivalves. “Caught a few hours ago,” the guy nods as I finally raise my head from the bowl. No need to tell me. We finish them within minutes, sopping up the clear broth at the bottom with thick hunks of toasted bread. The juice is salty, smoky with the faintest hint of sea brine and it’s too good to leave a drop.
At this point I really only order croquetas de bacalao when I know they’re going to be good. Prepackaged, frozen and deep-fried to order is always a bummer and painfully obvious in case of these and patatas bravas, which I’ve also had a few miserable versions of lately. The last great ones I’ve had were in Gandarias bar in San Sebastian. The quality of those made me believe there is a way not to screw up croquetas.
The ones at El Complet are great; a crunchy gold coat wrapped around mushy soft salt cod cream on the inside. A cheap trick but one that works most of the time. The brittle, fried exterior cracks up into shards when bitten into, leaving behind little excess oil in the mouth. The filling is the consistency of a waxy potato puree but with flakes of bacalao running through. It gushes right out and coats the tongue, adding a salty, fishy flavor to the otherwise unsalted and unseasoned snack. There’s a rule with these to not touch them for a few minutes after they come piping hot from the frier in order not to burn your tongue ~ a tough one, in this case, to follow.
And then an eggy treat with butifarra negra and thinly sliced, fried potatoes underneath to soak up the grease. The blood sausage is soft, crumbly, moist with that intoxicatingly murky, mineral flavor that moves me to order anything morcilla related on a menu. The eggs are wonderfully smooth and fluffy, undercooked to the point pleasantly slimy here and there. The top is sprinkled with paprika that adds a nice color and collects into patches of flavor. The grease from the blood sausage collects the paprika and drains down to the bedrock of fried potatoes which soak it all up and become plump with flavor and moisture in the process. A hearty thing neither of us thought we were hungry enough for but which we finished off anyway.
A nice meal and an even nicer stroll from the restaurant to the car, across the city of Tarragona.