2004-03-07

Out to Lunch... Back in 5 hours

A Spanish friend invited me to go join him and some friends for lunch in a neighboring village called Medina Sidonia near to the village of Vejer where I go painting. I figured it must be special to be worthwhile to travel for lunch nearly an hour away. At 11:30 we met and in the end we were a total of eleven ? me, an Italian who, although not fat, had a stomach at least twice the size of mine, a German girl, and eight Spaniards. We took three cars and headed out of Cadiz. Cadiz has a pretty good selection of restaurants so I was curious as to what we would be so good that a group of Spaniards would go to such lengths for lunch. As my friend later put it, "They have better meats". We arrived in Medina and walked through Moorish castle gates built in the 12th century on stone streets to arrive at a breathtaking view. We walked up the hill until we arrived in a small plaza where the Santa Maria Church built in the 16th and 17th centuries sits near the pinnacle of the hilltop village‘s hill. Continuing across the plaza we followed a small street just behind the church. This street leads up to a set of ancient Roman ruins at the peak of the hill but we stopped just before these at a restaurant properly named "El Castillo". We arrived at 1:30 but the waiter behind the counter informed us it wouldn‘t be open until 2 for lunch. Of course we all knew that that would be the case because almost no restaurants open until two in the south of Spain. We hiked the rest of the way up the hill and sat in the Roman ruins looking out at fields and cows and olive groves below. At two we headed back and they began to set up a table for us. There were maybe fifteen tables but they were arranged into larger tables such that there was space for perhaps four or five groups between eight and fifteen people. It was not a restaurant designed for banquets however, it was a restaurant designed for eating ? Spanish style. Spanish style means eating with your family and friends over the course of 3 or 4 hours. Looking past smoked pigs legs hanging from the ceiling (which, when sliced gives us the famous Serrano ham) and wheels of cured cheeses, I peeked over the counter into the kitchen. A stocky woman stirred big orange earthen pots of all kinds of meat. Dozens of legs of lamb together in one pot, pheasants piled high in another, piles of other meats which I couldn‘t recognize sat in other pots.
There was no menu. Scribbled on one small chalkboard were the meats and on another were the desserts. They looked as if they hadn‘t been changed for years and with good reason. There were no prices. Restaurants like this are family owned and often times all of the people working there are parts of the family. For this reason, they take great pride in what they do and you would never find a waiter trying to hurry people in and out in order to turn around tables with hopes of generating more profit. At 2:30 all of the tables were filled with big groups like ours with everyone fitting precisely into the tables as they had been arranged earlier. The waiter rattled off a string of appetizers and we ordered a selection of homemade sausages, cured cheese and olives. There was no fussing over quantities ? the waiter put what he felt would be the right amount for the table. After the waiter went away, a heated debated ensued over which meats would be ordered. Finally, we ordered two pots of lamb, one of pheasant, one of javelina, one of something related to a deer, and two plates of French fries. We nibbled on the sausages and drank our beers and sometime around 3:30 the dishes arrived in the flattish bowls heaped high with pounds of meat. I ate some of everything except the lamb (which happens to be one of my favorite meats) because I simply couldn‘t eat another bite. The table worked through the meats until we were all left staring at the few remaining slabs. No one could eat another bite, except that is, the Italian. Seeing that nobody would be offended if he continued to eat, he took one of the remaining legs of lamb, bone and all, and ate it like a drumstick. We sat groaning with our hands on our stomachs and we watched in amazement as he kept eating. He looked a bit disconcerted seeing that there remained more meat in the other dishes and that he wouldn‘t be able to finish them as well. The dinner plates went away and were shortly replaced by two oversized plates of baked fruits smothered with whipped cream and cinnamon. After our coffees, two bottles of a local liquor arrived and shot glasses were passed around the table. We toasted and finished first one bottle and then half of the second.

Sometime around 5, we asked for the "damage". The waiter with a small pad of paper looked over the table and estimated this and that and declared the price to be twenty Euro per person. He couldn‘t have given us a check because there was no menu, no items of fixed price, it was all up to the waiters discretion. The only topic of debate was whether we would keep the remaining half bottle of liquor. Laughing, the waiter grabbed the bottle, poured one more shot for the girl arguing to keep it, and the bottle stayed in his hand the rest of the time. We happily paid without complaint because we all knew that a meal like this was worth infinitely more than what we had paid. After a stroll on the hillside, I fell asleep atop a stone wall in the sunshine. A few of the others did the same while the rest chatted. Six and a half hours after our start, we arrived back home."