I have already written about eating out in El Maestrat, but that was a few years ago and in the time since I have learnt a lot, principally that my early opinions were slightly rubbish.
Now I can quite honestly state that of all the places I have eaten in the world, apart from one Chinese in Japan 32 years ago, and the scattered memories of a half a dozen meals in New York over the years, I have never eaten so well as in the province of Castellon.
From the traditional family cooking of places like Casa Julian and Casa Ramon , to the exquisite “a la brasa” food of Mas de Roures or the purity of local ingredients you find at Pou de Beca, they are all in their own right excellent, and always, always the ingredients are very fresh. Furthermore the prices will not bankrupt you, being at least half of those in Liverpool and probably a quarter of those in London again.
Aside from the many fabulous places that have contributed to my expanding girth, there is Ca Bolea, a small eatery on the edge of Alboccàser that sits outside the box. Only open on the weekends, it is unusual for a village restaurant in that it breaks the tradition of your typical castellonian cuisine, serving in its lieu freshly cooked tapas that could be described as Spanish “cuisine nouvelle”. And I hope this description is not an insult.
The chef and co-owner Fermin sends them to your table one after another, fresh, aromatic, mouth watering, and always with a “no sé que” twist to set them apart from any other local fare. Nevertheless they are distinctly Spanish, for instance the menu often features steamed mussels, staple offering in Spain, a dribble of the best olive oil, chopped garlic and a sprinkling of fine parsley, nothing more.
At Ca Bolea however Fermin forgoes the garlic in favour of minced toasted almonds (it goes without saying that they are local, doesn’t it?). You may not understand how wonderful this tastes. Certainly, if I read the recipe I would never ever have gone for it. I know I would have muttered to myself, “move over! I am going to put garlic in instead.”
One Thursday morning Fermin opened his restaurant especially for me and prepared a … breakfast. Well, it was not a breakfast exactly, not as you know it in the UK, but it qualifies as breakfast in Spain. In New York you would call it brunch I suppose though that is only on a Sunday. Here people tend to eat large breakfasts any day of the week instead of lunch, not always, but often, depending on their work schedule. Ok, not people, men. And me. Women only on the weekends.
Back to Fermin and of course I brought my camera and photographed him in the kitchen preparing his lovely tapas. I even took a few atmosphere shots to boot! After all I am a pro (you are supposed to laugh here). Then we sat down together to eat at a beautiful wooden and iron table made by my friend Miguel Belles who joined us.
Apart from the fantastic mussels, from what I can remember, we enjoyed at the very least:
Red Andalucian gambas a la plancha flamed with brandy
Black pudding medallions, crunchy outside, soft inside– a heady masterpiece
Two fine local cured meats
Marinated bacalao salad with slivers of green pimentos and olives
Grilled baby squid à la perfection,
An exquisite almond and oil sauce for dipping, dunking and slurping,
Fresh salted anchovies on crusty country bread,
Another type of bacalao and roasted red pepper salad on the same and …
…not too much then, I thought at one point, pulling at my tightening waistband and congratulating myself on having worn a loose shift dress thing.
Angels, Fermin’s partner, was still upstairs sleeping, not one to eat or get up before 2pm, but she came down to join us with a beer at about 1pm, nevertheless. She is slim, much slimmer than me. I remember reading somewhere that sleep helps you lose weight. We were drinking cava. Of course. In our defence I must explain that this is quite normal in Spain, alcohol all day long, in dribs and drops, with food and nibbles. It suits me just fine. Being a kind of highly-strung person, Spanish habits keep me perennially calm, while allowing my unit intake to progress slowly at a rate that the liver can cope with. Much better than Prozac I suspect. Well, I would ike to think so.
After this feast, Angels showed me around their home and I was struck by how faithfully it has been restored. Once upon a time her grandmother lived here and clearly Angels was very close to her – she pointed out paintings and photos that recorded the generations of her family, and their stories. Before the Second World War, Albocasser and several surrounding villages were subjected to a senseless Nazi “experimental” bombing carried out with Franco’s blessing and Angles’ great grandmother was one of its victims. As Angels related the story, her fingers alternatively caressed and clutched the curve of a family piece of furniture.
You could see that everything Angels touched carried a deeper meaning for her. And it touched me to witness this. It is not everyday that you have a wonderful meal in a restaurant and then get a “real” tour of where the owners actually live! Having said this, I did get to see behind the scenes at Restaurant el Portoles too. Maybe it is a Spanish thing.
So you see, this is what I mean about eating hereabouts. I guess on top of it all is the warmth of the people. At times it is like eating with friends, only they cook amazing food and wait on you. They are truly happy to have you there in their restaurant, not at all like some countries (France springs to mind) where you often need to deliberately trip the waiter up to get him to be pleasant to you. It is this inter-contact that lifts the dining experience in the province of Castellon to another, more “something” level. At least for me. Especially.