Year of Grace, Day 122. On Tortosa: pondering places and sushi

The sun is out today, but overnight there’s been a hard frost. Winter seems determined to hang on by its chilly claws, a sharp reminder that there are still a good two months to go before the Ice Saints (Eisheiligen) declare in mid-May that its frosty breaths are, officially at least, no longer welcome.

I’m reading a fascinatingly engaging book on Jewish history by Simon Schama, and in it he mentions a scribe, Menahem ibn Saruq, eloquent assistant of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the trusted right-hand man of the Caliph of Al-Andalus, Abdalrahman III. Menahem was born and raised in Tortosa. Now Tortosa is the provincial capital of Tarragona, on the lower Ebro River, and over the past two weeks most of our wanderings have been in the towns along the Ebro. It is this kind of serendipity in what I am reading about and experiencing that enthralls me – the links that bind the immediate to the ancient. And Menahem and the “minister” Hasdai and the Caliph lived in the 11th century!

Menahem penned the letter that the minister Hasdai sent to Joseph, king of the Jewish kingdom of Khazar in Western Asia (a vast one –extending from the lower Volga to the Caucasus mountains). It was among the documents in the Cairo Geniza collection, now stored in Cambridge. It described Spain as:

“[a] land rich, abounding in rivers, springs and aqueducts, a land of corn and oil and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies, pleasure gardens and orchards, fruitful trees of every kind including the leaves of the tree on which the silkworm feeds of which we have great abundance.” (Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, page 264).

Had I not been there, Tortosa would have remained a mere name. Just as Trier and Cologne and Bonn, also mentioned in Schama’s book, would have been, had I not been resident here and experienced being in those places. But having once been in a place and lived in it, or even spent just a few hours in it, one comes to place (pun intended) a town in one’s mind map. Not simply in the geographical and morphological sense, but the psychological as well. I had written earlier about the spirits of place, and I do feel that places – whether houses or villages or cities – possess not only a structural form, but an emotional content as well.

It’s a pity that we did not have time to explore Tortosa. We might have made the effort, if it weren’t for the quasi-sushi that we had in the Restaurant in Tortosa Park. We had expected quality sushi. There’s the Mediterranean and the wonderfully fresh catch of all manner of marine ingredients, right? And there’s the Ebro Delta, where rice flourishes with overflowing abundance. (And I digress here a bit, but the agronomist in me suspects that rice, much like coconuts, might relish a bit of salt intake from brackish water or the rainclouds that form over the sea). Put these local treasures of seafood and rice together, and of course the local specialty has got to be none other than paella. But hang on – what other food combines, so exquisitely, that inimitable pairing of seafood and rice? But of course, what else but the globally and gastronomically fashionable sushi. Naturally our Tortosan gourmet restaurant offered sushi as the day’s special. And we — naïvely assuming that with such abundant and good-quality local ingredients, no chef worth his or her salt could bungle such a simple dish — took the bait.

Big mistake! For a start, the rice was too decidedly al dente, as so often happens with paella. And it was unflavoured. I could go on about the underwhelming quality of the ingredients – why use fake crab when fresh is so easily available, and most likely cheaper than kamaboko masquerading as crab? Oh, and they also offered a set meal of “tempura” squid. (Our neighbours had it.) It turned out to be none other than calamares fritos. The dish was not even remotely presented like tempura: the sliced tubes of squid were just piled on a plate, indistinguishable from the less-pretentiously named calamares fritos at less-pretentious eateries. A gratis bottle of cava accompanied the sushi and tempura sets for two. On a positive note, on taste alone, I would imagine that the “tempura” squid might just be a tad more palatable.

Sorry to be such a sushi and tempura snob, but it’s a crime to foist such blatantly inauthentic food on Tortosans. On top of it all, the waiter was obviously not having a good day – he was surly and rude, and scowled throughout. Evidently, being around food and customers who enjoy food is not his niche.

Lesson learned: the exquisite meals we had enjoyed all along the coast of the southern Catalunya had been in simple eateries. The Tortosa Park restaurant was aspiring to be – trying too hard to be — in the gourmet category, with the waiter dressed head to toe in modish black and the artful cobalt blue glassware and matching (plastic) water containers. Those who appreciate food – good, honest, well-prepared food – are not fooled by faddish frippery. This is one Tortosan restaurant I would never contemplate going back to again.

Seriously, sushi is more – oh, so much more — than just raw fish and rice. Let me sweeten this with a gracious end note: the mandarin and orange curd served with the almond-citrus pie was lovely. (Yes, this area is justly famed for its citrus.)

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie