Eating Out


Venta Magdalena

In the three plus years I have lived in Spain, I have come to love a good venta. Ventas are rural establishments scattered along lonely stretches of highway throughout Spain, where travelers between destinations can find hearty plates of local food and sometimes lodging.  Such restaurants are roughly the Spanish equivalent of independent American roadside diners, where even if you are far from home, you can find comfort. The Venta Magdalena, a mom-and-pop establishment in rural Murcia, is a perfect example.

Like most ventas I have come across, the Venta Magdalena has easy access off the regional highway and ample parking for weekend warriors. Good ventas, you see, are often destinations in and of themselves for in-the-know locals from nearby cities and towns.

Venta Magdalena

At the Venta Magdalena, you really do have to be in the know to guarantee yourself a serving of the restaurant’s specialty, its arroz (rice). If you don’t call in ahead to place your order, you might be out of luck (although the delicious grilled lamb chops help ease the blow). Such need for forethought may be frustrating for those who prefer spontaneity. Yet, in my experience, knowing a good arroz awaits greatly enhances the morning and fuels any distance that must be traveled.

The restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside (and there’s not much else around, either, minus a building with a flashing neon heart just on the other side of the highway, a beacon in the night for travelers with another kind of hunger). Yet on the inside, the Venta Magdalena feels like a country home, with wood paneling, dark wooden beams and walls decorated with rural landscapes, still lifes, ceramic plates and antique ladles. The day’s news flickers on a TV propped up in the corner, typical decor in a venta. You enter the restaurant through the bar, where, if you have to wait, a draft beer and a plate of locally cured meats help pass the time.

The arroz here is cooked over a wood-burning fire and served in well-blackened pans fresh off the flames. (Similar dishes are often called paella in Valencia to the north and in more touristy zones throughout Spain, but here in Murcia, a rice dish is almost always referred to as an arroz, a title which is modified with additional ingredients.) The most typical versions at the inland Venta Magdalena are arroz con conejo, rice with rabbit (pictured below), or arroz con conejo y caracoles, rice with rabbit and snails.

Arroz con conejo

I took my first spoonful right out of the steaming pan, burning my tongue. Our waitress set down a plate with lemon, the only condiment befitting an arroz, which I squeezed over the dish, adding lively acidity to the smoky, tomato-based broth. The grains were just right — not too firm and not too soggy, either — the equivalent of pasta al dente. The rabbit was lean yet tender, and both Manolo and I picked up the little pieces with our hands to get all the meat off the bones with our teeth. A quick look around the dining room confirmed that we weren’t the only ones licking our fingers. Towards the end, we sparred with our spoons over the crispy, toasted rice stuck to the bottom of the pan.

It was after 3 pm on a Friday afternoon, and the dining room was just about full, with men far outnumbering women (in contrast, on weekends, the Venta Magdalena tends to fill up with families). At one table, a group of casually dressed businessmen raised glasses of local red wine to greet a colleague from out of town. At another, a quartet of silver-haired men, all with a few extra pounds around their waists, had opted for beers instead. Like me, these men eschewed their plates, digging their spoons right into the common pan of arroz that just about took up their whole table.

In fact, everyone in the restaurant was having arroz, and I imagined that all of us had come with visions of this savory golden dish in our heads, leading the way. And here our visions had been realized, which is all this hungry traveler could ask for.

Venta Magdalena
Carretera Mula. Pj. Morata 67
Los Baños – Mula
Telephone.: +34 968 660 568

Do you have a favorite venta?

In my last post, I ran through the basics of the organized Tapas Route phenomenon in Spain (the where, what, when, why, how). Here, with a preface, is a sample day on the Tapas Trail in my neighborhood.

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Preface: Right around the time I started writing this post, I read Friday Night Supper, an essay by the late novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin in her endearing collection, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988). Friday Night Supper, for those of you who haven’t read it, laments the decline of the hearty, leisurely meal with family and friends. This emphasized for me what is different about eating in Spain, where time during weekend meals with friends is but a hazy backdrop. Colwin’s essay begins:

“We live in a decade that worships speed: fast food, one-minute managers, sixty-minute gourmets, three-minute miles. We lace up our running shoes and dash off to get on the fast track.

These days we are surrounded by overabundance but admire the minimal: cuisine minceur, high-tech deign, thinness. We are far too busy to linger over a long, languid meal. Instead, we bolt a pint of yogurt and suit up for a five-mile run or a corporate takeover.”

As I read this passage, I could feel two phases of my life in parallel. I recognized the fast-paced world Colwin described, and in the past, would have fully felt a part of that collective “we.” Yet I realized I no longer fully belonged in this “we” after three years of living in Spain.

Here, I have learned, it’s best not to have afternoon or even evening plans when meeting with friends at 1 pm for an “aperitivo,”  an “appetizer,” which tends to prolong itself into lunch, coffee and drinks. And then, what do you know, it’s time for dinner again (I’m talking 10 pm). Dinner in this case is often improvised at a friend’s home, like thin slices of pork loin a la plancha, a salad and wine.

As I wrote in my last post, on days such as this, I have been learning to ignore “that little internal voice suggesting perhaps I’d had enough.” I do still have that little voice, a bit of Colwin’s “we.” But the Spanish we is different, and, the good thing is, it’s not exclusive. Anyone can join, the more the merrier.

Meals in Spain are not necessarily the languid affairs Colwin wrote about, especially when they involve tapas. Lively would be a better word. But boy can they be long, but who’s counting? No corporate takeovers or five-mile runs for me (i.e. us), at least not on meal days with friends.

A Day on the Tapas Route

At 2 pm, my friends and I enter our first bar on the Route and seize the only remaining elbow space at the chrome counter. We must yell our order to be heard over the din. Here, we begin our day with a literal bang, biting into queso explosivo (pictured at the top of the page), a thick wedge of mild, fresh goat cheese dipped in an “explosive” batter loaded with snap-pop candies and deep-fried. The mini combustions in my mouth surprise, yet the syrupy sweetness of the quince marmalade leaves the final impression. I would have appreciated more salty contrast in the batter, but nonetheless enjoy this playful version of fried cheese on a stick.

We order another tapa that catches our eye at the bar, tender pulpo al horno, oven-roasted octopus, which is entirely savory minus a tart squirt of lemon.

Fried ham and cheese rolls

At the next stop, we are lucky to snag an outdoor table. The tapas here are more standard and set the themes we’ll encounter throughout the day – fried finger food and canapés, various toppings on thin slices of baguette.

The crisp crepe wrapped around the fried ham and cheese rolls crackles as we bite in. What could be better than flavorful ham and melted cheese?

The pork tenderloin canapés with salty, tangy roquefort and sweet roasted green peppers quickly disappear. In fact, my two beers have outlasted the two-bite tapas and time pressure creeps in (I tend to be a sipper, not a guzzler), if only to catch up with my friends. Due to the itinerant nature of the organized Tapas Route, time is more of the essence than in other meal situations. There are so many bars to try, and so many stamps to get on the Tapas Route passport (see last post). Yet these are only immediate pressures, for the end of the day is nowhere in sight.

The next tapa, which we eat standing, is my favorite on the Route – a canapé spread with zarangollo, Murcia’s sweet zucchini and onion scramble, topped with local fennel-flavored sausage.

After another stop not worth mentioning (every Route has a dud or two – this one involved a long wait, an unapologetic staff and a forgettable tapa), we meet up with more friends at Carmica, a creative neighborhood restaurant, which isn’t on the official Route, but has joined in spirit with a 2 euro tapa and drink menu.

Carmica is serving canapés with international flavors, topped with bite-size slices of tender beef filets in a creamy sauce with hints of Worcestershire and curry.

My first glass of wine is served in a plastic cup, much to the horror of a nice gentleman (a friend of a friend’s cousin – everyone’s a friend here) who later buys me another wine, this time in a glass. There always seems to be someone making sure your hands are not empty on the Tapas Trail. And I’d just told myself I’d had the last.

It’s nearly 8 pm, six hours after we began. So much for ultimatums. The corporate takeover, so to speak, will have to wait.

Tapas 

A Few Words on Tapas

¡Vámanos de tapas! – “Let’s go for tapas!”

These are some of my favorite words to hear or say in Spain, where going for tapas is not only an opportunity to try an intriguing array of small bites, but is often an exhilarating social experience, as well. There is an element of adventure in a tapas excursion – you never know where you might end up or who might join in along the way.

In fact, I have found that tapas are more fun in groups of at least three to four. With a larger number, as opposed to a pair, a group (i.e. feast) mentality takes over, fueling the collective appetite. At other times, I may be more restrained, but standing in a tapas bar, fork in hand, the group sweeps me up, handing me one more tapa and another glass of wine. Forget about that little internal voice suggesting perhaps I’d had enough.

As any of you who have been to Spain know, you can make your own tapas route just about anywhere in the country by roving from bar to bar with your dining companions and sharing several small plates at each stop. Here in Murcia, where the sun shines over 300 days a year, streets and plazas are perpetually vibrant, and tapas are a way of life. This means I happily hear and say ¡Vámanos de tapas! on a regular basis.

La Ruta de la Tapa

La Ruta de la Tapa

It thus comes as no surprise that I love the Ruta de la Tapa, with a capital R and capital T. I am not talking about any DIY tapas route, but rather an organized Tapas Route. Over the last several years, such routes have been popping up in cities and villages throughout Spain. Often put together by restaurant associations or festival committees, Tapas Routes last for a limited period, usually about a week, typically in conjunction with a town’s annual fiestas. Local bars and restaurants on the route offer a special tapa and a drink (beer, wine or soda) for around two euros.

One of the most stand-out tapas I’ve tried on a Tapas Route in Murcia was at Rincón de Pepe, a classic restaurant downtown. For my two euros, I got a draft beer and a brownie-size portion of roast suckling pig served on a mini bed of sautéed chard, pine nuts and ibérico ham, nestled in an airy potato emulsion that dissolved in my mouth like sea foam. Digging into the crisp outer layer of the pig with my fork was like breaking into a crème brûlée. Beneath this fragrant, toasted layer, the meat was succulent and tender.

Not all tapas I’ve tried have been so sophisticated, but, overall, from what I’ve seen, the Tapas Route is an opportunity for chefs to get creative. The “Wow!” factor is important, because, in Murcia at least, you get to vote for your favorite tapa. In fact, the tapa I mention here won Best in Show in 2009.

In Murcia, the Tapas Route has been a boon for businesses. For route-goers, it’s a bargain, and a lot of fun. The atmosphere in participating bars is guaranteed to be lively, and the tapas are particularly adventurous. A “passport” turns the Tapas Route into an exciting quest.

Passport - Ruta de la Tapa III

This is my passport from the third official Tapas Route in my neighborhood, a village within the city of Murcia. Naturally, I have been to all three.

Passport - De Tapas por Murcia Passport - De Tapas por Murcia 2

Passport - De Tapas por Murcia 3

Here’s my passport from downtown Murcia’s “De Tapas por Murcia,” 2010. This year, the downtown event was moved to early September to take place during Murcia’s Feria. Sadly, I missed it, which was only because I was across the Atlantic.

The passport system provides extra incentive to eat as many different tapas as you can (and drink the accompanying libations). In each bar you stop for a tapa and drink combo, you get a stamp. With enough stamps, you can enter a drawing for a prize, which is typically food- or drink-related. For example, in the 2010 Tapas Route in Murcia, the first prize winner received his or her weight in Estrella Levante, the local lager (extra reason to eat more tapas, to inflate the numbers). This year in La Alberca, the prize was a weekend getaway for two, meals included.

I have never won a prize during a Tapas Route, but have seen the numbers on my scale creep up, as well as those of my blood alcohol level. The Tapas Route is particularly perilous in this respect, because you have one drink per tapa, instead of a couple of tapas per drink. The pace is relatively quick, because there are so many tapas to try. I always plan to walk or catch a taxi home, and am always glad I did, simply not to worry, and let the route take me where it will.

¡Vámanos!

  • Be on the lookout for my next post, “A Day on the Tapas Route,” an account of last week’s tapas crawl in my village.

How to Find a Tapas Route

If you are visiting a town in Spain, particularly during its fiestas, look for tapas route posters in restaurants and bars. They go by different names, typically something like Ruta de la Tapa, Senda de la Tapa, or De Tapas por (the name of the town). In Murcia, each participating establishment has passports on hand.

I have found a couple of Websites with tapas-related news and events throughout Spain:

A Saturday aperitivo at the Plaza, our neighborhood market, is a well-loved ritual for many locals. While Spanish-English dictionaries will lead you to believe that the aperitivo is a pre-lunch affair, experience in Spain has taught me otherwise. Here in Murcia, at least, it is not unusual for an aperitivo to begin at around 1:30 p.m. and end nearly twelve hours later, with one last drink in a friend’s home. Meanwhile, nearly the entire day has been spent imbibing – a few bites here, a few sips there – and talking. This is typically what happens when we begin at the Plaza.

La Plaza - Saturday at Pasqual's

But beyond the timeframe, an aperitivo at the Plaza is not a typical bar experience. For here, you buy your own fish and meat at your purveyors of choice in the market and then take them to Cafetería Pascual, where the owner cooks them up for you. The preparation is simple – either a la plancha, on a griddle sizzling with olive oil, or al vapor, steamed in a big pot seasoned with bay leaves. Both methods bring out the flavors of the literally market-fresh products. You don’t have to specify. You just leave your bags in the queue on the counter, and Pascual takes care of the rest.

Our first stop – Pescadería Manolo:

Plaza - Pescaderia Manolo

Our fishmongers:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri

The fish:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri (2)

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Our next stop – Cafetería Pascual:

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This is not a meal for the timid – there are no signs explaining what to do, and you must be pro-active to get your food in line. Nor is it a meal for the impatient – it can take up to an hour, or more, to get your first cooked item. It’s best not to think about the time, and instead focus on more important matters, like beer and warm-up nibbles, such as locally cured sausages or a plate of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad.

A “martini,” which here means vermouth and is a typical aperitif, can be dangerous at this stage, particularly given the volume of the pour.

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It can be difficult to pace yourself, especially when you arrive hungry. I have found it is easy to forget how much fish and meat is coming my way. So after I’ve had my fill of steamed mussels, griddled razor clams and prawns, I remember there are more plates to come – the griddled sausage, pork filets and boiled local morcillas, blood sausage stuffed with caramelized onions and pine nuts. Oh yeah, and the quail eggs, which will come perched atop thin slices of baguette.

La plaza - Mussels! (2)

This whole process takes at least three hours, during which time the empty beer bottles have steadily accumulated and the conversation has steadily gotten louder. A Saturday at the Plaza is a boisterous feast, which is clear in the aftermath…

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Once the frenzy has died down, we plot out our next step – going home is usually out of the question. This is an aperitivo, after all.