My first summer job in Spain was in Logroño, capital of the Rioja wine region. I had left a blistering Madrid for the cooler north where I was met by my next boss, Alicia, at the train station. I was the last passenger to alight, as my feet touched the platform, I heard a voice, and I turned to find a red haired woman in front of me.
‘I’m Alicia, let me help you with your luggage.’
By her appearance I doubted if she had ever crushed clothes into a rucksack in her life, however, she took the holdall, clutched the backpack as I turned to get the cat box.
She said, ‘I hope there isn’t a cat inside.’
The cat meowed, Alicia groaned and I though what an awful first impression, my arrival had been the anti thesis of elegance.
‘I don’t think your landlady is going to be too happy to find out you’ve got a cat.’
‘It’s only a kitten.’ Her look was sufficient response.
Alicia dropped my holdall in front of the oldest scruffiest car outside the station. It must have been one of the first Renault fives of the production line. It did not match her elegance, though as I was to learn it fitted her personality like a glove. Lifting the hatch back door she said, ‘ Come on. Let’s put your stuff in the car and have something to eat. We can leave the cat at my language school where it can recover from the journey.’ And as she slammed the door down in the most unladylike manner she turned and smiled, ‘Then we can find the right time to smuggle the cat into the flat.’
I warmed to her immediately though I did not take as easily, to her driving. We drove at break neck speed, through the one-way system, where she cursed the socialist party for their incompetence of the design. She obviously had not mastered it because at times we went in the wrong direction. Gears crunched, the cat meowed, and my knuckles blanched as my nails sunk deeper into the palms of my hands. We pulled up outside a park and she pointed out her home, two minutes walk away from the language school. True to her word, we left the cat with free reign and ended up in a hamburger bar. Alicia observing the look of surprise and disappointment explained, in a venomous tone, ‘The last person who worked for me didn’t like Spanish food. Mind you, she didn’t know how to cook either.’
Obviously, something had gone wrong, she had not stayed for the summer. Feeling I had ground to make up, though told the truth, ‘I love Spanish food and I love cooking.’
‘Ah the food here in Rioja is much better than Madrid. We grow all our fruit and vegetables thanks to the Ebro. Tomorrow you must come to lunch. We can discuss pay and conditions then. You must be tired after your journey.’
Alicia’s pay and conditions were very good, her Riojan chicken even more so. Stewed with a touch of vinegar and lots of whole garlic cloves, it simply melted in your mouth. The starter had been a light prawn risotto. It had been a long time since I had eaten someone else’s home made food. Washed down with clarete local rosé wine, I had a definite feeling that my summer in Logroño was going to be less stressful than the academic year in Madrid.
After my first class, my fears disappeared. The class was mostly university students, who had a reasonable level of English and mostly interested in having a good time rather than serious study. It hardly seemed possible when break time came and the other teacher and I were invited to join our students for coffee. Alicia had warned us we would get a lot of invitations, however I did not expect so many.
We had elevenses at a bar called Porto Novo, owned and run by two ex merchant seamen. I was taken back immediately to the small Andalucian bar in Getafe, only nine months earlier though now seemed light years away. The display cabinet was groaning, but with substantial portions; stuffed peppers, green with cod, red with beef and cream, lots of things that I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what they were, and Spanish Omelette.
There were three varieties, potato, potato and onion and peasant with potatoes and green peppers. Furthermore, there was what looked like an omelette gateau; in layers sandwiched together with mayonnaise were a potato omelette, a chorizo omelette, and a peasant omelette. Omelette was the bar’s speciality and they served it with homemade hot chilli sauce. It was decision time and I did not know where to start. I did what I had now become accustomed to do let my hosts lead.
‘What wonderful Tapas, I never saw such big portions in Madrid.’
There was a snort of sniggers.
‘They’re not Tapas. In the north we call them Pinchos, something you can literally pinch, get your teeth into. Riojan food and wine is the best in the world.’
I had heard this regularly in Madrid about Spanish food in general; here it had become regional.
‘Well then what do you suggest?’
‘The bar’s speciality is Spanish omelette. They make one of the best omelettes in Logroño.’
It was exactly what I needed to dispel the last of my nerves, comfort food. A potato omelette with chilli sauce, it was thick and hearty, warm and filling. The flavour was right and so was the texture, firm and moist. You do not eat it, you let it caress your mouth with comfort and flavour. They have the secret of the balance between the egg and the potato. Although Spanish omelette is a staple dish, both at home and in bars, not everywhere gets it right. The potatoes at times can be either over or undercooked, not sufficient egg and it crumbles or can be too dry or worse not cooked enough, an obvious breeding ground for Salmonella. The bar became the elevenses destination of choice for the summer. Throughout that first Riojan sojourn, as good as it was, I never imagined within twelve months, it was to become home for the next twenty years.