Spain's Undiscovered Food Destination
In the Mediterranean province of Alicante, Departures finds what might just be the Spain’s last great undiscovered food destination.
I ’m in paradise— or as close to paradise as I’m ever likely to come while sitting on a barstool. This particular stool is pulled up to a long, white marble bar at a bustling, unpretentious establishment called La Taberna del Gourmet in the port city of Alicante, on Spain’s south central Mediterranean coast. Overhead hang glistening shanks of jamón ibérico de bellota—the world’s best ham, made from acorn-fed black Iberian pigs—flanked by garlands of sausages and strings of dried, dark-red ñora peppers. On various counters there are bowls of artichokes, onions and oranges, a bucket of long bread loaves and a board crowded with cheeses. In a refrigerated case at one end of the bar there’s a profusion of fresh seafood.
This is one of those eating places where everything just seems right. The crowd is lively and happy; warm light and savory aromas suffuse the air; the wines are inexpensive, generously poured and excellent. Most of all, I am transported by the food. To start, I’ve had big, green, faintly spicy Tarragona olives; fried Marcona almonds (rounder and flatter than the conventional variety, these are a highly prized local treasure); and shards of paletilla—pork shoulder cured like ham—from Joselito, the most celebrated jamón producer, served with slabs of tomato-and-olive-oil-moistened toast so thin and crisp that it’s called pan de cristal, glass bread. Then things get serious: quisquillas, tiny pink boiled shrimp, almost buttery in flavor; lightly charred dried octopus tentacles sliced into discs and drizzled with olive oil; small grilled squid, their lacy tentacles lightly caramelized; a montadito—a slider-sized grilled sandwich—of Manchego and sobrasada, the spreadable sausage from Majorca; and finally grilled medallions of a fish known locally as negre, “black,” whose firm, intensely flavorful meat is in fact snowy white. Everything glows with freshness, and the impeccable quality of the raw materials is honored by the sure-handed simplicity of the preparation. This is my idea of restaurant perfection.
“The province of Alicante is where you eat the best in Spain,” Ferran Adrià told me last year, and as Spain’s foremost culinary genius, he ought to know. “It has the best products in the country,” he continued, “especially the seafood—and there’s so much of it. And there’s a restaurant there that serves the greatest paella in the world!”
Adrià and other celebrated Spanish chefs have turned the food world’s attention to Spain in recent years, helping to establish the country’s reputation as both a hotbed of avant-garde cuisine and the home of some of Europe’s finest food products and richest traditional cuisine. But the diverse culinary offerings of Alicante—the name applies both to the city and to the province that surrounds it—have thus far remained almost unknown, or at least greatly undervalued, outside the region itself.
Administratively part of the Community of Valencia, Alicante is one of the smallest provinces in Spain in terms of area, with just under two million inhabitants occupying 2,250 square miles. To many Europeans, it’s known primarily as a vacation destination, famous for the time-share villas and beachfront hotels of Benidorm and other overbuilt tourist towns along its sunwashed, 125-mile-long Costa Blanca. The city of Alicante is not particularly showy, and it lacks the cutting-edge architecture and the cultural institutions—not to mention the somewhat frenetic restaurant scene—that give its larger neighbor to the north, Valencia, its reputation as “the new Barcelona.” It is a very pleasant place, however, with a friendly citizenry and a low-key stylishness characterized in part by its graceful Explanada de España, a palm-shaded pedestrian passageway inset with mosaics and lined with cafés and shops, running parallel to the sea, and by its Casc Antic, or old quarter, a warren of narrow streets and pretty little squares defined by whitewashed houses with bright-hued trim and decorative tile and ironwork. The city’s most unmistakable landmark is the massive, forbidding-looking Castillo de Santa Bárbara, dating back to the ninth century, which looms atop Mount Benacantil.