Post written over a week ago from a sofa in Alicante, Spain…
I won’t be going home hungry.
We’re standing in front of the 3rd glass covered case of gelato looking for the flavor “Mora” which I identified in Spanish as translating to blackberry or marionberry or some combination thereof, recalling when I found good bread in Mexico to toast and top with the accompanying Zarzamora jam.
In any case it’s what my friend Alexis wants and rare here in Spain but can be found. I’m using the opportunity to inquire about every other flavor and get samples. I start with platano con chocolate – banana chocolate – which is dreamy but something I can get at home. I’m trying to find the most unique and so I inquire about a flavor I’ve never seen before – “Que es Crema Catalana?”
“Crema Catalana?” the man behind the counter with thick wavy dark hair asks me in a way that sounds like a dare. His description is seductive and like a challenge for me to order it, his final words summing it up, “It is a cold rich crème brulee. It is gelato of burnt crème. CRÈME BRULEE GELATO, he practically screams, do you understand?”
I shout back “I’ll have the Chocolate Truffle!” Something so basic but I panicked and it was all I could say at that point. It was an airy mousse-like scoop of chocolate, perfect in one small cup to stroll the remainder of the promenade watching Spanish 20 year-olds play soccer volleyball. Alexis got Mango. How boring i thought, too fruity. I tried a bite and it was divine. The players are kicking and heading the ball over the net, soccer rules with a net in between. We find a bench in front of them and sit long past sunset, the air still warm and the stars starting to twinkle. As they are folding up the net Alexis and I decide, we too, should head home. We wander the curvy streets up the hills to our apartment, observing Spaniards eating, sipping and laughing, they all seem oblivious to time and tasks on the horizon, and slip into the panaderia for an empanada. I’m full but Alexis needs a nibble and gets the mini pisto empanada. For “mini” it is good sized and she gives me a corner to try. Pisto is a tomato paste filling and I’ve now sampled a half dozen varieties, all of them smooth and savory.
Two days later I arrive by bus in Elche, a sweet little town that is probably often missed as a place to stop. I’ve got snacks in tow, as always, but instead of my natural raw almonds from home I’ve grabbed a bag of the freshly roasted salted marcona almonds and a hunk of Manchego cheese that I bite into and decide I want to stay here forever.
Elche happens to have one of largest groves of palm trees in the western hemisphere. There is no beach, this is inland and palms of every variety, mostly date, are growing alongside churches and bus stations, lining paths and winding along streets. A river cuts through town, the only thing strong enough to march a course past the palms, essentially dividing the town into two very easy to manage halves. The now almost completely dried-out riverbed is replaced by a beautiful mosaic of murals painted along the ground, walkways lining the sides.
After a day of wandering the city, criss-crossing over the 4 bridges that mark the city, I start to peek into those glass cases of frozen delicacy again. “Que es….” I tried black sesame which was delicious, all the while knowing this is where I was going to go for it.
The gentleman scooped up a most generous “copa pequena” of Crema Catalana for me and I handed over two Euro coins.
It is as expected a rich custardy perfectly eggy and cinnamon cold creamy delight. I saw it in every cold case of gelato every day after that but couldn’t do it again. It was perfectly satisfying and hard to finish, but I did.
Highlights were the Pastel de Belem in Portugal, a crispy phyllo type crust tartlet filled with custard, the national pastry of Portugal.
Gelato, in any flavor.
Tortilla Española at a hole in the wall bar, perfectly cooked potatoes, crisped edges.
Churros con chocolate. Always get the hot chocolate. We tried the cold chocolate as well, “just to see” and it was good, but caliente is best.
Grilled artichokes. These came as an appetizer before the paella and almost ruined the meal they were so good.
Pastel de Belem, Alfama district, Lisbon Portugal