It’s not always easy to name a single dish to be THE quintessential Christmas dinner, unlike turkey on Thanksgiving, but I can promise you one thing that quite possibly one of the very last choices that would have come to mind would have been meatloaf. Good old-fashioned meatloaf. Gravy and mashed potatoes meatloaf. Bubble- gum-chewing-waitress-at-a-roadside-diner meatloaf. The only possible exception would have been sloppy joes. But not by far.
I wouldn’t quite say I was stunned, because kind of food is generally pleasing to my stomach, except for maybe eating stomach itself, another classic dish from this city, by the way. But I was taken aback. “Meatloaf? Really?”
And it’s funny when you think about it because it really is a fairly elaborate recipe and certainly isn’t for the novice. It’s considerably more challenging than sticking a bird in the oven and waiting. On top of that, given its relatively exotic nature, no one in Spain makes it on a regular basis, it was totally logical. But it was still meatloaf. And I got a good chuckle out of the idea and rubbed my hands because it had been years since I last enjoyed a good slab of the stuff and was looking forward to it very much.
Christmas Day lunch was at Carla’s house and her mother and brother were there too. We had brought some boquerones to whet our appetites. Boquerones are known in English as European anchovies but they aren’t the same as the oily salted preserved anchoas, that some people adore – not me. These guys are prepared in two basic ways: one is to lightly batter them and then fry them. Those are the boquerones fritos. Because of their diminutive size, you pop the whole kit and caboodle in your mouth, eyes, bones and tail included. When they are that small, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Plus, any other way would drive the eater mad. The fried version is common all over the country. But there is another way to prepare them and that’s by take the time to bone them when they are still raw and then marinated in vinegar and a little olive oil. Once the flesh has turned white, you remove the fish and add the traditional seasoning of garlic, parsley and salt. It’s said to be more common in the south of Spain, but it is widely known that Madrid makes some of the best in the country. The lowly boquerón en vinagre suffered a setback for a few years when a rise in anisakiasis, an infection caused by a parasite which is common to these fish. Concern and then alarm regarding this condition rose several years back, and they was talk about banning certain seafood, but producers took preventive measures and now combat this problem by deep freezing the fish at a temperature of -20ºC for a time period of no fewer than seven days. The little critters just can endure such hardships, naturally.
We also ate some delicious chorizo, brie cheese, Manchego and potato chips and a dill dip. Naming these items belies the actual amounts they came in, which could be placed under the category of enormous. All of this was accompanied by beer and lambrusco. Lambrusco is a semi-sweet fizzy wine, not to be confused with sparkling wine which has much more carbonation, and it comes from Italy but has become extremely popular over the past few years in Spain. Its sugary flavor and low-alcohol content makes it popular among consumers who don’t normally drink the generally powerful Spanish wines, and is especially a hit among women. One friend confided in me that it was the best way to get a girl tipsy so that she loses her inhibitions. I got the feeling that wasn’t the only thing he wanted her to lose.
Lively talk and munching carried on for an hour and by the end you could have called it quits. After all, I had been eating for nearly 20 hours straight. After all, I had been eating for nearly twenty days straight. But we hadn’t finished yet. We took whatever tidbits of food that was left over to the table and sat down for lunch to have our first course, which was a bowl of steamy, rich seafood bisque. I was kindly offered a second helping and even more kindly accepted. I uncorked a bottle of red wine from Cádiz, which is a province in the south of Spain far more famous for its world famous fortified wine known as sherry. World famous because it is British famous, I think I should add.
The meatloaf was terrific. Firm, meaty, and savory. It was served with gravy and mashed potatoes. Now, considering Spain is still a homemade cook’s paradise, where millions of household continue to carry on with the tradition of peeling and slicing and dicing and frying and roasting and stewing and baking without the help of a factory – all with their very own hands – when it comes to good old mashed potatoes, an exception can be made. That is, they can’t be bothered. Instead, they revert to the boxed instant version which I recall only seeing back home in the school lunchroom where, in the immortal words of John Lennon, “nothing is real.” This is not peculiar to that specific meal. The night before my Spanish “mother”, one of the first women to introduce to the mindboggling variety and depth of cooking in this country, brought out the same side dish for the roast suckling lamb. The very same box. The competition has stiffened from the store brand, but Maggi is still the household product here. I have gotten used to it, come to accept it, and on occasion for lack of time and energy, even purchased and made it, but it just ain’t the same. The real homemade mashed potatoes, the ones that have pleased generations of Norman Rockwell Americans, just can’t be matched, and the Spaniards who have tried it are now converts…as long as I make it. When left to their own pots, stoves and water, they resort to what is familiar to them.
Dessert was back to real home cooking. A delicious tiramisu that Carla made with just the right hint of rum and coffee in it. It was a tribute to Italy and a credit to her cooking. To wrap up the encounter with food, out came the ubiquitous platter of goodies and a bottle of Extremenian cava to toast with. It wasn’t too bad, nothing to write home about, but it satisfied the gullet. All of these food factors were leading to one very specific point in my particular time-space world. Towards the greatest gift a person could ever want at that time: the Christmas siesta in the living-room armchair.