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Silence of the Iberian Ham

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about two Type A–ish people (namely me and my husband, Brett,) traveling abroad and trying to strike the perfect balance between hitting all the major sites and just chillaxing with the natives. This second option is not always easy for us to do and is something we call “living among the Romans.” (If you want to know why, read the first article, entitled “When in Rome.” You can find it, and all of my other articles, archived at Shameless plug. But if you are reading this online, you’ve already gotten there!)

So, I’m going to pick up where I left off. Brett and I had been in the lovely city of Barcelona for four days now, and still we had not really dined among the Spanish. We had eaten some nice meals, yes, but always with the sense that everyone around us was also a tourist, brought to the same destination as recommended by a similar guidebook, reading off an English menu and relaying their orders to English-speaking waiters.

But not this night, oh no. This night would be different! By declaring it with an exclamation point, we felt that the statement just had to be true! This night, the guidebook would not be consulted. The hotel concierge would be blown off. Brett and I were going rogue. We were dining on a hunch, determined to infiltrate the real Barcelona, the one that the Spanish didn’t tell the Americans about.

Because, by day four, we had this sinking suspicion that the Spanish were, in fact, keeping stuff hidden from us. Maybe there was this “official” list of great restaurants that the board of tourism was releasing to the rest of the world, and then, maybe there was this special list for Spaniards to enjoy in peace.

Or maybe, just maybe, we were completely paranoid and delusional.

In either case, we were off to dinner.

Cuines Santa-Caterina, in the Born district of Barcelona, was our destination. Right away, we loved it. We were greeted in Catalan, seated in the cool, open-market space, and handed menus in Catalan.

Now that’s more like it, Brett and I agreed, high-fiving each other like the lame Americans we are. We consulted our menus greedily. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t read a word. It all looked so yummy.

Our waiter came over and stared to speak to us in Catalan. We nodded and tried our best with broken Castilian Spanish to make it clear that we had no idea what he was saying. I consulted the wine list. Pinto or Rosado, I wondered? Which was the red wine? Must be Rosado. Tinto, I concluded, would be white. Yes. Based on my own limited knowledge of Spanish wines, I then ordered a bottle of somethingorother from the list. The waiter paused, unsure of my order. Then he smiled and made grand hand gestures; we smiled and pantomimed back. Satisfied by something I showed him from the menu, he scribbled on his pad and walked away.

Wow, that was challenging! I sighed, letting some of the tension from that exchange leave my body. This was not going to be easy, Brett and I agreed, but the experience would be well worth it in the end. Of that, we were certain. We gave each other the thrums up signal, like the lame Americans we are.

Our waiter approached and, before I could find any words in any language with which to object, opened for us the bottle of pink wine that I had apparently ordered.

“You ordered rosé?” Brett barked.

“Uhm?” I answered. “I guess?”

“But we don’t drink rosé!” He reminded me, a little too harshly, I thought.

“Well, tonight we do!” I said, smiling nervously at the waiter who now sensed our international trouble in paradise. (It doesn’t matter the language, you call tell when a married couple is not getting along, si?)

I took a taste and nodded to the waiter. “Bene.” The waiter bowed and left.

I was so freaked out I had stared speaking Italian.

“It’s not bad,” I said, trying another sip.

“Whatever. Let’s just order,” Brett said.

Three times our waiter approached and three times we sent him away. “Not yet,” I said. “Uno minuto mas.” There. That sounded more like Spanish.

Back to the menu we went. Since the menu was divided by both region (Mediterranean, Asian) and food type (vegetables, meat, fish, rice), some of it was easier to read than others. Gyoza and ebi maki, for example. Other words jumped out at me at random, like “foie,” “calamari,” and “pimientos,” but not one dish in total was translatable. “Hamburguesa amb salsa de bolets” meant that I’d be presented with a hamburger with some kind of salsa on it, right? But exactly what was that salsa going to be? There was just no way to know. And, further, what was this Fideua, sitting there all by itself under the charcoal-oven/pasta categories?

Brett and I were starving in a fine dining establishment, incapable of ordering a meal.

Our waiter sensed this and swapped himself out for an English-speaking waitress. The phrase “Hello, may I help you?” never sounded so pretty as it did that evening.

Our new waitress started to help us translate the menu line-by-line. Then, in mid-sentence, she paused. “Wait. You don’t have English menus?”

“”You have those?” Brett asked. “Great! Bring ‘em on!”

Within five minutes of receiving them, we ordered our meal and relaxed. We were getting a few different tapas and the Oven-roasted Iberian Pork for two. My goal was to eat pork with every meal while in Spain, and so far, I had managed this feat quite easily.

“Do you think that’s enough?” I asked the waitress.

Her eyes went wide. “Oh, yes!” But she didn’t elaborate.

“Perfect.” For the heck of it, I even ordered us a half-bottle of real red wine.

Oh, how quickly we had returned to out natural state as helpless American tourists! And how happy we were about it.

The apps were nice, the red wine red, the crowd Spanish. We were digging Santa Caterina.

The waitress came by and gave us a lovely dish that we were sure we hadn’t ordered, of matchstick fries and new potatoes with two dipping sauces. We inquired. “Oh, yes, that’s yours. It comes with the pork.” Then she started pushing items aside on our table to make room for the main course.

Drumroll, please.

From the kitchen emerged a sizzling cast-iron tray of substantial proportions. The entire restaurant – noisy, crowded, high-ceilinged – fell silent in the presence of this dish. There was a collective intake of breath as the Oven-roasted Iberian Pork for two was brought the length of the restaurant and then laid before us.

Imagine a pig, and then cut it in half. Then imagine all the ribs on one side of that pig, seasoned to perfection and broiling in pinkish brown loveliness right under your nose.

It was simultaneously the most glorious and most repulsive thing I have ever laid eyes on, much less consumed.

Brett raised his eyebrows and grabbed a fork. I watched as he sunk the tines through the crackling skin and then pulled away a tender, moist bit. He kept pulling, until a nice pile of bite-sized morsels lay in front of us.

“Well done, Clarisse,” I said, trying to sound like Hannibal Lecter. “You have silenced the Iberian Ham.”

People were staring. We didn’t care. People were whispering, pointing. We didn’t care. We had found our way into the core of Spanish culture, and we loved eating its heart out.

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