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My Spanish sanctuary

Updated: Wed, October 2nd 2013 3:23 pm
© Todd Coleman / Bonnier © Todd Coleman / Bonnier
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Every morning, the city's briny air made me wince when I woke. It also pickled my pain, as did the stubby snifter of Fundador brandy I downed every night after dinner, the reason why the scouring white sunlight of those summer mornings was too bright for me. So, after bracing myself with several shot glasses of harsh black coffee and a saucer of sugary churros at Bar Brim, a busy café infused with the fine stink of slow-burning black tobacco and clean sweat softened by lavender water, I'd cross the street and slip into Cádiz's Mercado Central de Abastos, a shadowy gastronomic seraglio.

Soothed by its musky light, I'd discover a vividly perfumed circus that needled me with pleasure while letting me be invisible. If I loved the olive stalls, the chickpeas and fava beans, and the charcutier's stand with its carnivore's curtain of dangling brick red chorizos and its satanically handsome butcher, it was the fishmongers of this port city at the door between the cold Atlantic Ocean and the warm Mediterranean Sea that truly fascinated me. I could study their lavish and mysterious offerings for hours, and every day I'd come across a kind of fish I'd never seen before—science-fiction-strange goose barnacles, or scarlet scorpion fish. Though I didn't know it at the time, slowly but surely, the market was healing me, a just-turned-30 writer living in Paris in the 1980s.

One morning, I'd stared at the neat rows of fire-engine red carabinero prawns from the southwestern city of Huelva long enough to suddenly sense the seller's swelling impatience, so I swiftly moved on to another corner of the market. If the seafood aisle at the market's heart smelled of iodine and roses, this one was about smoky pimentón and the sweet ethylene punch of tiny bunches of Canary Islands bananas hanging on sharp iron hooks. Stealthily, or so I thought, I snifed the fruit.

"Hola! Que tal? Go on then, have one, luv! You know you want it!" The stallholder, a busty, coal-eyed gypsy princess in a low-cut lemon yellow dress, was speaking to me. I was dumbstruck, and blushing. This woman I'd never noticed before was now roaring with laughter. "American? Are you American? I just knew it! So hopeless the way your lot peers at the world through keyholes in the hopes of spotting a dirty stereotype or two. My old dad was from Liverpool." Now I was laughing, too, also rather hysterically. "What's your name?"

I told her.

"I'm Dolores. So, Alejandro, what happened? I've watched you sulking around in here for a couple of days like a monk in an abbey, and you never buy anything." I choked up instantly. "Oh dear, sorry I asked." She waved her hands. "Oh dear, don't worry." Suddenly this lusty-looking lady sounded like a nurse. "I'm sorry. I really am. Hey, how's about we get some lunch after I close my stall?"

Why did I say yes? Dolores's smile, maybe, and the fluttering frilled red silk carnation she'd tucked behind an ear. It was both pretty and ironic.

Those were the years when my axis of eros was spinning fast on ever more extreme expressions of opposition. The equation was that the less I had in common with someone, the more I fancied him. Even today, there's a part of me that still wants to brag about my affairs with the Boer insurance salesman, the Portuguese lieutenant, and other men who couldn't possibly have been more different from me, a New Englander who'd gleefully bonfired the proprieties of a comfortable suburban upbringing and the gray-flannel career path suggested by an excellent education.

I didn't see it then, but I was vainly living in the middle of a feckless carnival, one that had finally crashed when the hard-drinking Czech med student I'd been obsessed with smashed a terra-cotta casserole of clams on the floor of a restaurant in Valencia and walked out on me on the first day of our vacation. I muddled through a day alone like a compass without a needle, and then realized I needed to make a plan. Years before, during a trip to Seville, local friends had lamented that I wouldn't have time to see Cádiz. I put together the few shards of memory I had of their enticing descriptions—oldest city in Western Europe, founded by the Phoenicians, the fish, the light, the market, the shrimp fritters, the wine—and I left in the morning.

I loved my little whitewashed room with powdery tiles where I could listen to the seagulls and innocently eavesdrop on other people's lives from behind the slatted shutters of my window, even though I barely spoke Spanish. The voices around me broke my solitude without requiring any risk on my part, and best of all was the market down the street, which quickly became my cloister.

Among many other things during that first lunch with Dolores the fruit vendor, I learned her Cádiz market dictum. "Never on Mondays," she said. "The market's open, but there's no fish for sale, and our market with no fish for sale is just about as interesting as a man without a—" She batted her long black eyelashes. "Coat?" I replied, and scored some more of that insane cackling. Mutually surprised by our odd friendship, we had lunch a couple of times that week, and all we talked about was food and the trials of love, but mostly food.

Dolores, I eventually found out, had trained indeed as a nurse but had chafed at the hours. She was involved with a jealous merchant marine captain she called the Cyclops. He'd ended up with a glass eye after a fight in a bar in Cape Town, and it was because he was shacked up at her house that Dolores and I couldn't do the thing that we most wanted to do alone together: cook. Still, she became my tutor in the cuisine of the Gaditanos, as the city's people call themselves, and oversaw my every meal, sending me to the tapas bar at El Faro for tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters) and ortiguillas fritas (sea anemone beignets), which tasted like the Mediterranean would if you boiled it down to a saucepan of liquid. "The reason our cooking is good is that it's always been a cuisine of mercy and curiosity," she said. "We lived in a ménage à trois for centuries—Arabs, Christians, Jews—and then, after the river silted up and choked off stuffy old Seville, Cádiz got rich."

One day when the Cyclops was away, Dolores invited me to the beach and brought a picnic, including a little tub of manteca colorá (scarlet pimentón-flavored pork fat), which she spread on crackers and served with sherry, and a quartered chicken that had been roasted in Oloroso wine. "I call it brokenhearted chicken," she told me. "Because it tastes so good it makes you hungry even if you're heartbroken." The bird tasted lightly caramelized and gently garlicky. I matched her wing for wing, leg for leg, thigh for thigh. "This is Gaditana cooking," she said, "simple but sincere."

The last time I saw her, we spent the whole afternoon in a tapas bar, and when it was time for her to go home to the Cyclops, she emphatically forbade me to come and say good-bye at the market the following morning before I got my train back to Paris. "The last thing we need is more drama in our lives," she said. "Just promise me you'll come back sometime very soon so that we can cook together."

During the years that followed, she sent me a Marks & Spencer Christmas card every December, and I never forgot her birthday—it's the day after mine. I called her a few times, too, but our friendship was one that required physical presence. Through three Paris apartments, I kept a postcard of Cádiz taped to the bookcase by my desk, but freed of my demons, I just kept getting busier and busier with work.

Then last year, there was no Christmas card, so I called. The number had been disconnected, so I wrote, and many months later, I was puzzled by a letter with an Uruguayan stamp in my mailbox. A daughter I didn't know Dolores had wrote to tell me that her mother had died of lung cancer just before Christmas.

I was devastated. And ashamed. I hadn't been much of a friend to the woman who'd nursed my wounds so gently that I barely noticed. Now she was gone, and for a week, her death was the first thing I thought of when my eyes opened in the morning. Then one day, I knew what I needed to do—keep my promise. So, I rented a little apartment with a decent kitchen in the Calle Rosario, and I went back to Cádiz to cook.

Arriving late, I dumped my bag and ducked around the corner to a tapas bar called El Aljibe for some choco en su tinta (cuttlefish in its own ink) and a lot of white wine. I fell asleep that night with the smell of the city's brine-wetted limestone in my nostrils for the first time in two decades. Up at dawn, I hurried down the Calle de Columela with my canvas shopping bag, rounded the corner by the handsome art-nouveau post office, and had a shock.

After 20 years, the Mercado Central de Abastos, the oldest covered market in Spain, had changed. Unbeknownst to me, it had been completely renovated and redesigned, a project, as I later learned, by architect Carlos de Riaño that was completed in 2010. Now, the original honey-colored stone walls surrounded two white and airy bright pavilions.

I had a day to get my bearings in this clean-edged and decidedly not murky market before friends from LA arrived—the first in a rotation of visitors I'd invited here to help fuel a week's worth of cooking—so I wandered and poked and prodded and sniffed and sampled and chatted a little bit here and a little bit there. Finally, finding my safe harbor among the fishmongers' stalls, I bought a half kilo of tiny almejas (clams), which I would cook Gaditano style, in sherry and garlic, and then purchased a fat, silver-blue dorada from a vendor named Miguel Perales, whose aura of gentleness matted against strength made him look like he'd just stepped out of a Zurbarán painting.

For a week I cooked and cooked, first with the Angelenos, then with an Australian pal from Madrid, next with another Yank living in Barcelona, and finally for a couple from London. One day it was the sherry-cooked clams, the next it was crisp cubes of marinated swordfish, a recipe Dolores had given me, and then it was her brokenhearted chicken, followed by sea bream baked with peppers and tomatoes in a heady bath of bone-dry palomino wine. On the last day, I was exhausted but exultant. Memory may lie, but food can't.

The first time I fell for the market in Cádiz it was because of the annealing sensuality of its produce and the friendship I found there. The second time I discovered an equally intense but more studious passion. It only took a few days before the market denizens I'd decided to make mine smiled when they saw me in the morning and were willing to share a recipe or two. From Miguel the fishmonger came the one for sea bream. From David Méndez, a chef I'd struck up a conversation with at Miguel's stall, came another, for a creamy tomato and bread soup garnished with strips of salt-cured tuna.

And on that last, sun-baked afternoon in Cádiz when I'd sought some shade and a breeze on the edge of one of the faience-paved terraces in the lush subtropical gardens of the Parque Genovés, a white-haired lady in a nearby kiosk brought me a glass of cold water when she heard me crying. Calmer than I'd been in years, I'd never really looked at my scars before, and as a middle-aged man with a happy, settled life, I was slow to realize that they're a blessing. They're not only the reason for my relentlessly questing appetite, they also remind me of the storms I've survived and the very special people whom I've known.

See the recipe for Dolores's Brokenhearted Chicken »
See the recipe for Almejas à la Gaditana (Clams in Sherry Sauce) »
See the recipe for Tortillitas de Camarones (Shrimp Fritters) »
See a guide for where to eat in Cádiz »



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