I was twelve years old before eating out for the first time and I remember it well. Our family went tothe local Italian restaurant up the road, San Carlos, and it seemed terribly posh with its pristine white tablecloths and single stemmed roses in slim vases.
The occasion was my mother’s 45th birthday and the waiters flirted with her outrageously. I had my first sip of champagne. Mama ordered filet mignon “au poivre”, cooked rare, and so I did too. I had never seen or tasted a piece of beef like that before as she used to send me to the pet store to buy our meat which was very tough and on occasion included horse. I have been hooked on filet mignon ever since, though I now know that pepper sauce is more of a French thing. But it does not dilute the delicious memory all the same.
Going for a meal is not a big deal for me anymore, especially not in the mountains of El Maestrat where the menus hover around the 9 euro mark. For that you get a starter and main course, the house wine, coffee and dessert included. Quite frankly I cannot buy its equal as cheaply in the supermarket, certainly not when cooking for one. Add into the equation that I for two years I had no fridge and only a small corner wood burning stove to cook in and you know why the menu del dia has become a regular habit.
I can think of worse ways to spend a few hours each afternoon. And as you will see from the photos, wine is of the utmost importance!
During the week my lunchtime haunts are mostly frequented by workmen, interspersed with the occasional suits. I have come to avoid the nights because the restaurants are simply not that busy. The Spanish really only eat out at night during the fiestas. On the weekends however it is quite a different matter, at least in my local village. All the bars and restaurants are hives of activity, due in part to the fact that Atzeneta is on the way to Vistabella, which in turn is the stopping point for walking to the top of Penyagolosa. Casa Ramon even hires in extra staff to help with the daytime rush and all the eateries suspend the set price menu so beware.
On these days Atzeneta’s bars and restaurants are crammed with men in cycling and motor bike outfits, helmets included, and if the time of year is right, the hunters are there too, not to forget the walkers. Though the winds of change are blowing, this still remains a predominately male domain. In recent years though I have seen an increase of tables with a female presence; families and couples returning to their roots and inherited fincas for the weekend, young women filling the bars with their babies and prams, and almost always just drinking coffee. Add to this the scattering of expats that have settled hereabouts and I am happy to say that the gender balance is gradually shifting more towards the middle.