The moment was almost too perfectly put together to be real.
It is a wet and dreary day in January. I’ve just wrapped up a business trip and am winging my way over the Pyrenees, heading southwest for Valencia and a welcome breather with some friends. There has been nothing to see since takeoff but ash-grey cloud, hanging over everything like a bad mood.
And then it is gone, the plane bursting into the beautiful blue of a clear sky. A sun-drenched landscape rolls out beneath me, crowded with orange orchards; light dances on the Mediterranean off to my left.
“The quality of life is high, in this country.” A Spanish friend of mine living in Madrid told me that not too long after the financial crisis of 2008. It was so simple and simply honest, I’ll never forget it.
Spain has a very good image here in Japan. I’m sure many people make the long trek to Spain drawn by visions of beauty – the streets of whitewashed buildings and the splendour of Granada’s Alhambra Palace in Andalusia, the architectural spectacle of Barcelona and its Sagrada Familia cathedral – and by the promise of wonderful food that expresses the very best of its ingredients. This food aspect has become even stronger in recent years, with Spanish restaurants rising to the top of a noted world’s best list, and we can safely say that Spain is now a global culinary hotspot. And then of course there’s the sun, drawing people from all over Europe to Spain’s beaches and resorts.
All that being said, I’m not sure we really understand the core of what makes Spain so attractive, what makes it the place it is.
On a sunny July day, we approach the front door of Ambassador of Spain to Japan Gonzalo de Benito, an invitation to lunch and the opportunity to ask him about these very things in-hand. With him are Spanish Embassy counsellors María del Coriseo González-Izquierdo and Beatriz Marco, gathering around the lunch table to talk about what they think and feel about their country as diplomats, but also simply as Spaniards.
But before the main meal there must be tapas, taken in the living room with small glasses of a Fino dry sherry. You might say that variety is part of the very definition of the tapas experience, and it’s no different today; delectable little morsels laid in perfect patterns on a series of serving dishes. One of which glides in front of me, loaded with fine slices of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota — one of the pride and joys of Spanish cuisine and certainly one of the best cured hams there is, period.
I pick up a bite-sized portion, the ham leaving a thin film of oil on my fingertips even at room temperature. The scent of the fat, exquisitely refined and inviting, rises as I bring the ham up to my mouth. In it goes, the fat melting away in a smooth, fragrant wave on my tongue. The flesh, pleasantly chewy and yielding at the same time, sends bursts of nutty aroma up into the back of my nose, flipping a switch that sends electric surges of pleasure through my entire body. That nuttiness, by the way, is from the “bellota” part of this Jamón’s name: acorns.
The Ibérico pigs this ham is made from are let loose to wander in high mountain pastures dotted with oak trees where, following the natural rhythm of the passing year, they munch on grasses and the acorns that drop from the oaks. After the pigs are slaughtered, the Jamón maker rubs the meat down with salt and hangs it to dry and mature naturally. No other flavours or additives are used to make this most traditional preserve — a sharp contrast to the mountain of mass-produced foods we see in today’s supermarkets.
The next perfect bite is a Croqueta de Camarones, or shrimp croquette. As a Japanese food writer, I must say that I turned a bit nostalgic when I tried this, similar as it is to the “cream croquettes” that were such a mainstay of the “western” restaurant menus of my childhood.
With the warm glow of the Croqueta in my stomach, I move onto an Empanadilla (which means “little empanada” in Spanish), a bread shell filled with tender tuna. There is an amazing variety of empanadas across Latin America, and here I’ve finally managed to meet they’re great-granddad, so to speak. But then, there are similar-looking stuffed delights all over the world. It seems that regardless of culture, environment or geography, just about everyone loves a pocket of goodness wrapped in a wheat-based skin.
With the serving dish of the Empanadillas making the rounds, Ambassador de Benito offers a little more detail. He starts of by saying that Spanish culture has been influenced tremendously by the Arab world, and that the Arabs’ extensive trade links with Asia gave Spain some of its most essential foods, rice and oranges among them. Empanadas too, he says, were introduced by the Arabs.
It makes perfect sense that the Arab world, its cultures and its food, would have such an elemental impact on Spain. After all, Arab kingdoms held sway over much of the Iberian Peninsula for a little less than 800 years, the Emirate of Granada — the last of the Spanish Arab states — falling only in 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus bumped into the Americas. And, even with the Arab era over in Spain, its influence continued to expand, carried by the Spanish themselves to their growing empire in the vast territories of the “new world.”
And in the bellies of Spanish ships coming back to Europe came North and South American foods that would forever change cuisine the world over – tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chili peppers, vanilla and cocoa, to name a handful.
We move now to the dining room, the first course of the main meal arriving quickly and smoothly before us — Gazpacho Andaluz, a chilled tomato soup from Spain’s southern Andalusia region. It is a perfect restorative for a hot summer afternoon, laced with the tomatoes’ natural sweetness and given just the hint of an edge by the scent of garlic and a touch of spiciness.
Our bowls empty of their invigorating soup, we turn now to the main dish, and what a dish it is: that famed specialty of Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, Paella. The rice dish arrives on the table like an explosion of colour, seafood including two kinds of whole shrimp ready to burst from the pan. The rice itself is not too hard and nowhere near mushy, each grain its own tiny essay in perfect texture infused with the scent of saffron and the natural juices of the seafood.
It’s a dish that deserved appreciating, and I’m glad to have the time to do so. According to the ambassador, many Spanish people continue to follow one of their deeper food traditions: taking the time to have and to appreciate a good meal. He says that even when he stops at highway-side restaurants on long road trips back in Spain, he sees people ordering a proper multi-course lunch: first plate, main dish, dessert, and even a spot of cognac to wash it all down at the end. He is, he reveals, moved by such scenes.
”They don’t miss good lunch,” he goes on. “And the truck drivers. They have the first course, second course and coffee.”
“So true,” María del Coriseo says with a laugh. “They are known in Spain. If you want a real food, and if you are travelling, driving around Spain, best piece of advice is to look for those places, where truck drivers are.”
Looking back over the past 20 years or so, I have to say that many the Spanish people I’ve met have similarly strong ideas about food. These people haven’t been neither super rich nor involved in the food business in any way. They have been ordinary Spaniards from several walks of life, and they have all been passionate about seeking out good food. Going to a restaurant with them in Spain has almost always been prefaced with hard looks at posted menus and serious discussions of seasonal ingredients and the best dishes from particular regions.
But the Spanish dedication to a good meal is not all about the quality of ingredients or dishes, but about the quality of the time spent with others, gathered around the table to talk and share. The first time I visited Spain, I dropped in on a Spanish couple I had in fact met only once before. I noticed them making some telephone calls – come dinner time, I discovered why. To my surprise, people began to arrive one after another – parents, brothers and sisters, friends and their partners. For several nights in a row we got together, filling up the places around a big table for impromptu dinner parties, or just a bite and a drink.
What’s more, I didn’t get the impression everyone had gathered just because foreign houseguests were a rare occurrence. No, they had come together to be together, to have a bit of food and a bit to drink and a bit of warm conversation. Being suddenly included in these casual gatherings was something familiar to them, simply a part of their lives. And to make sure I was included in the flow of conversation, they all made the effort to speak in English, even if it did not come easily to them. It was simply a warm, perfect time and place, and I still remember it well. I thought then, as I was brought into this welcoming community of the table, that these people understood what is truly important in life.
When I tell the diplomats this story, they all break into wide smiles. Ah, they say, that’s part of Mediterranean culture. It doesn’t matter what part of Spain you’re in, it would be the same. They also say that, though Spaniards tend to be very independent in both action and sentiment, at the same time they value bonds of family and community.
“This kind of network and community created helps when you have difficulties,” says Beatriz. In bustling Madrid, she goes on, apartment complexes have become vertical communities in their own right, residents ready to help neighbours in need. If someone can’t get out to do grocery shopping, for example, a fellow resident on their way to the shops may ask, “Do you want me to pick up some eggs for you?” says Beatriz.
And Beatriz’s story is born out by the numbers. In the 2015 edition of the OECD’s Better Life Index, 94.7 percent of Spaniards said they know someone – perhaps a friend or family member — they could count on in “time of need.” The survey also concluded that “there is a strong sense of community” in Spain. Doing a little more digging, we also found that, according to Council of Europe data, in 2014 Spain had the highest organ donation rate among 69 countries surveyed, making it number one in the world.
What’s more, according to the Good Country Index – developed by British academic Simon Anholt to try and measure countries’ positive impact on the world – Spain is number one in contributing to global “Health and Wellbeing.”
Of course, you can’t analyse a country’s entire culture based on data sets. But put yourself in the shoes of someone agreeing to be an organ donor, to give their organs to a complete stranger. You can’t deny that it would take courage. So, perhaps, we can infer this from the numbers, that at the very least a great many Spaniards understand that they live together in their society, and value helping those in need.
We come now to the last dish of the day, a Tarta de Santiago almond tart from the northern region of Galicia. Like much of what we’ve had here today, this is a masterpiece of delicious simplicity. Built up from a foundation of almonds, sugar, a little lemon zest and a dash of sherry, the flavour is the best of all these things and more – full and rich and satisfying.
And it’s here that I ask the diplomats my question, the one I always ask because it usually turns out to be so revealing: If you could only choose one thing, what do you like most about your country?
Ambassador de Benito takes up the challenge first. “I would say this combination of tradition and all this process of modernisation that we lived in last 40 years,” he declares, adding that every facet of the country – politics, economics, society, culture – had been transformed. “Politically, we had authoritarian regime for 40 years,” he explains, during which Spain had “no presence abroad.” Now, ” it is one of the most open economies in the world.” Incidentally, Spanish firms currently make up six of the top 10 transportation infrastructure companies worldwide, and build or manage about 40 percent of all major transportation concessions globally (MIT Technology Review).
Ambassador de Benito was in his 20s when the dictatorship ended in 1975. He and the other members of his generation have risen the wave of reform that came in the regime’s wake, and he says that it has not been an easy process.
“In 1978 the new constitution was approved — the king was there since 1975 — but in 1981, we had a military coup in Spain,” he tells us. “It has been difficult. Everything has been difficult. But today, what you know, a nice country.”
It’s certainly true that, as people become more economically prosperous, become ever more modern, they tend to leave old values behind. It’s not uncommon to hear people in many places around the world talking about how vibrant their communities used to be, but how now those personal connections have faded, weakened. So why not Spain? In all the modernisation that’s gone on there over the past four decades, why haven’t the Spanish let those community values slip away?
“I think we are resilient,” says Beatriz on what she likes most about her country. She tells us that, in Spain, when it comes to overcoming problems, people have long said, “’Ok, don’t worry, have this, and just tomorrow, we are going to set things differently.’” Put another way, no matter how hard your troubles may be, look them straight in the face, figure out what situation you’re really in, and change your attitude so you can deal with it.
Beatriz goes on to say that the Spanish “can party with just a glass of wine and some olives” – the latter so cheap in the country they’re often provided free when you order a drink. Of course, Spaniards appreciate good food a very great deal, but ultimately what’s most important, no matter the situation or how bad you may be feeling, is getting together to talk. It’s a chance to change your opinion look, renew your strength, and do what you have to do. It’s that strength, drawn from each person’s circle of family and friends, that Beatriz likes about Spain.
María del Coriseo sounds a similar note when she says, “friendship, including family.” She once talks once again about how independent-minded the Spanish are, while at the same time they maintain lifelong bonds with kin and with friends. “For me, that is IMMENSELY rich… That’s important in a life.”
What is important in life? For the Spanish diplomats here today, the answer is simple yet profound, and they have an astoundingly clear fix on it: Human bonds made and reinforced at a table, buttressed by conversation and mutual care, and linking them through all the days of their lives. It is sincerity and loyalty the depth and breadth of which is hard to sum up, here in the narrow confines of the page.
Imagine strolling through a warm night, a beach and a soft breeze kissing your cheek on the right, the inviting lights and sounds of restaurants packed with people lining the promenade to your left. You’re on your way to a table at the place three doors up, but it’s not just a great meal that awaits you; it is a circle of support, of friendship, of shared wellbeing bound together by nights of conversation like this one. And when it’s over, when you’re heading home in the waning hours of the day, you will carry that circle inside you — tonight, tomorrow, and all the days marching into the future.
How are we to express what makes Spain so attractive, what makes it the place it is? It feels now like there aren’t enough words in the world to get the job done.
Story by: Rika Sakai
English text by : Robert Sakai-Irvine