Thursday, January 24, 2008

Food Glorious Food - Murcia, Spain

Forget the rich tomato and herb-based dishes of Sicily or the exquisite cuisine of Lyon, European food lovers looking for a taste of something truly fantastic should make their way to Murcia in the southeast of Spain.

Whether you are a die-hard carnivore, veggie all the way or a little bit fishy, Murcia has a whole range of culinary magic and fresh produce to satisfy your tastes.

Known in Spanish as “La Huerta,” the garden of Europe’s hot climate, effective irrigation system, population of skilled farmers and vast areas of arable land have ensured that fruits, vegetables, spices and crops can all flourish in harmony in this seemingly dry and rocky region. Every day truckloads of farm-fresh cauliflowers, chillies, peppers, lemons and aubergines are sent from Murcia’s fields to destinations all over Europe.

The region does however hold onto plenty of its own supplies, a blessing you will appreciate as soon as you sample the tapas dished out free with your first bottle of the local Jumilla or Yecla red wine in many of the bars, taverns and street-side cafes in Murcia, Cartagena, La Manga and in the numerous rustic villages surrounding the lagoon known as Mar Menor.

Among my favourite vegetarian tapas are: ‘cabra a la plancha con tomate’ (grilled goat cheese and tomato; ‘ensalada Murciana’ (a salad incorporating lots of the region’s finest vegetables); and the classic ‘tortilla’ (Spanish potato and onion omelette).

With its long, clean coastline and of course the Mar Menor (the name of the lagoon translates as ‘Lesser Sea’ and it is Europe’s leading centre for water sports), it is no wonder that the fish and seafood in this part of Spain are second to none.

There is something quite special about spending a lazy few hours sitting in the lengthening shadows by the marina in Cabo de Palos, watching the sun set over the white buildings and hills to the west, enjoying the lingering warmth of the calm breeze known somewhat predictably as ‘La Brisa’ and stuffing yourself silly with prawns, squid, ‘dorada a la sal’ and ‘mejillones a la marinera’ (mussels in a marinière sauce).

Sunday is the traditional family day in Spain, and in Murcia, that translates as an entire day spent preparing, cooking and eating (or of course simply going to a restaurant).

Locals tend to go for a ‘caldero,’ ‘arroz negro’ (a rice dish cooked in black squid ink) or of course for the classic ‘paella.’ If you get the chance, and enjoy a bit of fresh seafood, it is almost criminal to visit Murcia and not succumb to the pleasures of the best paella you will possibly ever taste.

With such juicy fruit and vegetables and such a selection of fresh fish plucked from the Mediterranean every day, you might be surprised that Murcianos even bother with meat dishes – but one trip to the famous restaurant Rincón de Pepe will cure you of your suspicions, in much the same way as the jamón, chorizo and morcilla hanging from the rafters have themselves been cured.

This restaurant has such a long list of tapas and main courses that it is impossible to know where to begin. Indeed whenever I went there with my partner’s family I dispensed with the need to select between one thing and another, and just opted for pretty much all of them! This is actually not quite as gross an act as it sounds, because they have catered for gluttons like me with a ‘Menú de degustación’ (tasting menu).

Seriously, and I really mean this, do yourself the favour of trying this place out, and pay particular attention to the simplicity and succulence of the ‘chuletas al ajo cabañil’ (garlic pork chops), ‘jabalí’ (wild boar) and ‘habas con jamón’ (Serrano ham with broad beans). Mmmm….

The only one thing that could possibly detract from a wonderful Murcian gastro holiday is not having enough time to sample all the great restaurants, cafes and tapas bars the region has to offer.

Niven Whatley

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