"Mariscos are the pride of Málaga," declares Salvador, smacking his lips. And indeed, the seafood for our dinner is an epiphany. Coquinas, tiny purple-shelled cockles, tasting sweetly and pungently of the sea, bathed in a garlicky parsley sauce. Crunchy grilled prawns rolled in sea salt. A mound of expertly fried boqueroncitos, little anchovies. And the house specialty, a whole dorado baked under a crust of salt.
That night I collapse from the explosion of Spanish consonants and the riotous parade of tapas, copas, and seafood. As I fall asleep I recall one of Pepe's absurd pieces of wisdom: "Wine pleases the eyes, cleans the teeth, and heals the stomach."
On our way to Granada I entertain an iconoclastic thought: to skip the Alhambra, the Moorish palace complex whose mythical glow blinds visitors to the real city. But John drills some historical correctness into me, and we climb with the ogling hordes up to the famous promontory. I imagine having the Alhambra all to ourselves, surrendering to the shade of its sensuous gardens with a little picnic. But a luncheon awaits at Mirador de Morayma, a restaurant known for its splendid location and historic Andalusian cuisine.
Our taxi huffs and puffs through the web of winding streets in Albaicín, Andalusia's most evocatively Moorish quarter, and pulls over by a pretty villa. Waiting for food historian Pablo Amate to join us, we poke around a series of intimate whitewashed dining rooms decorated with old paintings, antique furniture, and ceramics. From the little terrace on the top floor, a vision of the Alhambra looms across the valley like a Technicolor postcard scene. There may not be a lovelier spot in all of Spain.
Amate swaggers in. He sports a caliph's mustache and clutches a cell phone whose ring regularly interrupts his breathless tirade: "God created Andalusia for his retirement! Spanish cuisine is full of garlic and religious preoccupations! The best tapa in Granada is snails! Señores árabes spent fortunes transporting ice from the Sierra Nevada to cool gazpachos and drinks!"
During this lecture we manage to polish off a bottle of chilled fino sherry, plus platters of splendidly rustic embutidos (sausages) and Sierra Nevada smoked ham. But the real feast begins in a little private dining room Amate has reserved. "Many a president has eaten here!" he boasts. There is pink salmorejo, a cousin of gazpacho, made without water and loaded with garlic; tiny breaded chops of baby goat fried to shattering crispness; a cooling tropical salad; and tortilla Sacromonte, a plump stuffed omelette, named for Granada's Gypsy quarter. The dessert—an almond confection called tarta de Zafra—is the work of holy hands: those of nuns at the Zafra convent nearby.
Though some guidebooks tell you otherwise, there are many pleasures in Granada besides the Alhambra. You can lose yourself in Albaicín's whitewashed alleys (don't miss the little market on Plaza Larga); make an evening of a tapeo—the tapas version of a pub crawl—around the thronging Plaza Nueva; or visit the hilltop Gypsy settlement of Sacromonte, stopping for lunch at Casa Juanillo, run by a rakish gitano. Whatever you do, don't gulp the Alhambra and run.
Úbeda and Baeza
The following day we head for Úbeda and Baeza, remote towns in northeastern Andalusia, spared by mass tourism but home to some of the finest Renaissance architecture in Europe. As you enter the province of Jaén, sun-burnished fields give way to ranks of olive trees, a sea of silvery green shimmering in the wind.
Úbeda and Baeza are ablaze with florid church façades and sand-gold palacios. Handsome streets radiate from impeccably proportioned plazas, and decorative surprises abound: a portal, a fountain, an archway.
The cuisine of this mountainous region is simple to the point of austerity, yet extravagant flourishes of exquisite local olive oil add dignity and refinement. There are several beautifully appointed restaurants in Úbeda, the larger of the two towns. But the title "Best in Jaén" belongs to the homely Juanito, in Baeza. Its modern façade conceals an even less promising interior, adorned with ghastly renderings of cherished olive groves and whitewashed houses. But on a Saturday night the whole town is here: the butcher and his mistress, a local soccer team, a group of guapas (beauties) who look like escapees from a Pedro Almodóvar set.
Juanito himself glides by, preoccupied, whistling silently—a captain navigating his ship through a storm. We begin with a salad of partridge breast mixed with a bit of iceberg lettuce and hard-boiled egg. It looks like nothing but tastes remarkable. The braised artichokes "Luisa" are full of head-on Spanish flavors: garlic, olive oil, pieces of cured ham. I am in love with the slow-roasted cabrito (baby goat), served off the bone and accompanied by a robust fava-bean casserole. Add to that grandmotherly desserts and a fruity Berberana 1985 Gran Reserva, the world's best bargain at $12, and you have a quintessential Spanish repast.
Juanito's wife, Luisa, makes her rounds with a basin of her seafood rice—a treat from the house—talking like there's no tomorrow. The soccer players toast one another with diet Coke. The guapas puff obscenely large cigars. The butcher and the blonde nibble each other's ears.
This is the provincial Spain I love. Rustic, for sure, but poetically bizarre.