Year of Grace, Day 236. Only in L’Ametlla

On our penultimate day in L’Ametlla de Mar two weeks ago, I was at the bank, where there was a fairly long queue. Before me were 5-6 people. Luckily 4 stepped up to be served as a group, one woman doing the speaking and interpreting from Spanish to German. Without any hesitation whatsoever, the bank manager switched from Spanish to German. And very good German it was too, with no discernible accent. The group spokeswoman, strangely enough, persisted in speaking Spanish to him.

Next up was a woman, obviously a long-time customer as she was greeted by name – this time in French. And the manager’s French was, similar to his German, untouched by a Spanish accent. Absolutely amazing.

When my turn came, he switched to Spanish, asking me, “¿Estas bien?” I hesitated before I replied; his query was rather odd, as we’d not met before. Then I remembered, of course I’d been ill all this while, and he’d only met M. “Más mejor, gracias,” I replied. Whereupon he said, “Your language is English, yes?” And he went on with the transaction, all in fluent English. I do hope the bank values this treasure and pays him accordingly. As I left, more customers had crowded in, and I closed the door on a merry babel of tongues. How harmonious the world would be if we could speak and understand each other’s language as effortlessly as that polyglot banker!

That concluded, we rewarded ourselves with a farewell meal at our beloved Restaurant Mestral – named after the chilling northwest wind – but the atmosphere in it is anything but. It was as well a pre-Valentine’s meal. Fortuitously, a gastronomic festival dedicated to the mantis shrimp, la galera in Catalan, had begun that very day. This is the third year running that 4 fishing villages of the Baix Ebre (Lower Ebro) – L’Ametlla de Mar, Alcanar, Sant Carles de la Rapita, and Amposta – are honouring this locally caught delicacy.

Mestral’s special mantis-shrimp menu began with three starters. Our hostess very kindly offered to explain in Castellano, if we didn’t understand Catalan, but having lived for 4 months in L’Ametlla, we managed. When it comes to food, we become almost as polyglot as our banker ☺. (Btw, the regular menu is translated into English, French, German, and Russian.)

The starters:
Aperitiva de la casa amb vermutet — home-made vermouth of local herbs with home-cured unripe olives.
Torradetes de brandada de llagosti i galera – brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp on toast.
Crema de galeres amb xips de carxofa i cruixent de pernil – a bisque of mantis shrimp with artichoke chips and crisp (Serrano) ham.

Brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp

Brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp

 

Mantis shrimp bisque with artichoke chips

Mantis shrimp bisque with artichoke chips

For mains:
Arros melos de galeras i ortiques de mar amb algues – rice with mantis shrimp cooked in a broth enriched with sea urchins and seaweed.
Suquet de galeres i peix de la Cala – a light stew of mantis shrimp and locally caught fish (seabass, red mullet).

Rice cooked in mantis shrimp and sea urchin broth

Rice cooked in mantis shrimp and sea urchin broth

Stew of mantis shrimp and fish

The mantis shrimp proved challenging to eat; its shell isn’t amenable to peeling. Eventually like the locals around us, we cut off a manageable section with knife and fork, then brought it to our lips and sucked with no inhibitions the sweet flesh with its crunchy red coral in the middle of the white meat, coated with delectable sauce. We were among the first guests at opening time at 1 pm, and in no time at all, all tables were taken. Beware the sharp spines – we’d been warned at the outset by our cheery hostess, who called me “Lady”. The mantis shrimp comes by its name justly, and M wore evidence of the encounter (cuts below his lips) for days afterwards. Dessert was a subtle mint sorbet on a piña colada jelly, and chocolate-walnut cake (home-made) with whipped cream. Well-chilled limoncello, also home-made, rounded the repast.

It had been almost a year since we first ate at Mestral; it was just after our first day of house viewing. As we parted from the agent, we realized it was 2 pm, and asked if he could recommend somewhere to eat. He pointed just behind us – there’s a good place, he said. Mestral’s location – in a residential neighbourhood (except for a bakery) – and its unprepossessing facade did not call to mind anything out of the ordinary. (And frankly I’d much rather a restaurant paid more attention to its food than its décor.)

Both M and I were all the more impressed then when the food turned out to be outstanding. And there was such a warm welcome from the hostess and the youthful chef (a new father — his wife and baby were there for a brief visit). That memorable meal over, we strolled to the beach just minutes away, where we sat contentedly on a bench under palm trees, looking out to sea. We could very well see ourselves living here, we mutually agreed. And indeed we did return to do so, eight months later. And only then, having eaten at other restaurants in L’Ametlla, did we realize that our agent, a Gallego, of course would know where good seafood was to be had when he’d recommended Mestral that very first time a year ago.

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