Winter’s produce

Winter in the north east of India is a lovely time, even if you are not on a family holiday. I was. A bunch of my cousins and their families had flown in to Guwahati over the last day. They’d gathered at the airport when we arrived in the morning, and, after all the hugging and greeting and marveling at how fast the youngsters grow up, we started out for a drive to Shillong. With a seventy year spread in ages (between the Youngest Niece and Aged Aunt), this was going to be an interesting trip. The plains of Assam were pleasant, the air was cool but the sun was warm. It would get colder as we climbed. But we had to stop to take on fruits.

Our driver stopped at a bunch of shacks on the roadside. Mounds of pinapples of course, the east is famous for its pineapples. There was much discussion about it, and eventually we agreed on the considered opinion that although it would be good to eat some, we couldn’t possibly take whole pinapples with us. Family democracy is wonderful; I enjoy the process of talking it out even when the conclusion is something that we each reached in ten seconds. The kids (not really, any longer) had not expressed opinions yet; I guess that would change over the next few days. They hadn’t really spent long times together, and had individually complained to me about this whole trip. “It’ll be so boring, I won’t get along with anyone,” the oldest had said. Now they were carefully gauging the dynamics of the clan.

The shops had a huge variety of squashes, pumpkins and gourds. Even a big inflorescence of banana. That’s a delicacy across the east, and the south. Nothing that could be eaten during the journey. Where were the oranges that had been recommended to us by a fellow blogger? There were dried out large wrinkly oranges here. I wouldn’t mind eating them in Mumbai, but not here. Maybe we would get the local variety higher up. We took on a few oranges in any case. There were some of the large olives that you get in these parts. Bag a few. I love the flavour of fresh turmeric (featured photo) in salads. I should remember to pick them up on the way back.

The pride of the place went to preserves. Pickles of various kinds: chili, olive, lime, mango. I could feel the memory of the spicy sourness in my mouth. But there was also preserved fish, and unfamiliar vegetables. Regrettably, this was not on our shopping list. We got back in our clan bus, and were on the road again. I had an uncomfortable premonition that I would put on some unwelcome kilos on this trip.

The friendly San Miguel market

We walked out of Plaza Mayor in Madrid through the north-west exit, and we were in the San Miguel square. In front of us was a wrought iron and glass structure from the beginning of the 20th century: the market of San Miguel. In recent years Madrid has converted many indoor spaces to the equivalent of food courts, from this to the upmarket Platea near Plaza Colon. We were in Madrid for too short a time to try more than one.

The main business of the market started behind the stall with fruits and vegetables. The sides of the market are lined with shops selling interesting tapas: fish on toast, cheese on toast, hams, stuffed olives, and so on. We diffused through the market slowly. The central aisle had long tables where you could sit and eat what you had bought. This part was crowded, and we realized that we would have to wait a while to find a place.

A very pleasant discovery was a counter for wines. I had my first tasting session of wines from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas here. We had discovered the grape varietal called Tempranillo a year ago in Portugal. We met it again. My previous experience with Spanish wines was inadequate. I resolved to repair this gaping hole in my experience during the trip. There was also a counter with sherries and vermouths, which could serve us over another evening, if we had one.

Decades ago, I had my first view of live performances of Flamenco in Tokyo. The cultural compliment seemed to be returned here. I tasted something called Gulas which adapts Japanese cutting techniques to create a dish which looks like eels on toast (click on the thumbnail above to see the details). Later I found a stall selling sea urchins. I’d only ever had it before as the wonderful raw goo that is called uni in Japan. This is different, as you can see in the photo above (if you haven’t seen sea urchins before, click on the photo of the things which look like hairy doughtnuts).

The Family found a stall with Sangria, and I got myself a Rioja. We found seats at a table and settled in for a bit of tapas: some fish, some ham. I’d not had much experience with the cheese of Spain. This was a good opportunity to try out the varieties available here. Madrid has an olive which I had not tasted before: this variety looks bright green, and has a different flavour (you’ll see it in the bottom rack below the stuffed olives if you click on that photo). The sweets did not seem specially Spanish. There were macaroons and chocolate of various kinds, and the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, all of which looked and tasted authentic.

We thought it was a nice place to have an early evening’s drink. Dinner, as always in Spain, comes much later, well after sunset.

The wonderfully fresh food of Spain

This lovely plate of fresh food was part of our dinner. Olive oil is drizzled over the toast. Then it is covered with avocado and topped with salmon in one case, and a base layer of tomatoes topped with Iberian black ham in the other. Some more olive oil is poured over everything. The taste of the food preserves the freshness of the ingredients. That is what I think of as Mediterranean food, and Spain has it in spades.

As for the olives, Spain has extended the variety of olives beyond what I’ve eaten before. The ones in the plate here are spicy (you can see a bit of bay leaf in the photo).

While we shared this plate The Family said, "They deal so effectively with the hot weather in their food. Why can’t we do the same?" I held my tongue. After all she insists on scalding hot tea irrespective of the weather. She thought for a while and said "Our tomatoes are not so tasty." That was something I could agree with.