Real tapas in Durham? You better believe it…

After a sun-kissed month in Madrid this summer delighting in the delicacies of Iberian cuisine, it was with a heavy heart that I returned to the grey North-East and the prospect of student cooking and bog standard English fare.

madrid2Indeed, I was only two mouthfuls through a plate of own-brand beans on soggy toast and already I was pining again for the tastes of Spain.

Paella, gazpacho, jamon serrano… such treats seemed all so distant now as I looked bleakly at my cupboard full of Tesco value tins and Uncle Ben’s rice. I’d try my best to recreate a little bit of Spanish magic at home – an ill-fated tortila de patatas being my first and only attempt – but alas my cooking skills proved woefully inadequate.

What to do? How to banish my withdrawal symptoms and satisfy that craving for one more experience of la cocina española? Fortunately I was in luck.

As all Durham foodies will know, nestled on the high street between Market Square and the Cathedral is La Tasca, a tapas bar that offers all the signature dishes of the Iberian Peninsula. It was here that I found hope of getting that one last fix of Spanish cuisine before resigning myself to an inevitable fate of Michaelmas microwave meals and bland pasta dishes.

But walking through the doors of La Tasca I still had my doubts. Would it be a disappointment? Could you really find a real taste of Spain in the heart of Durham? Or would it be a pale imitation of the real thing?

I needn’t have worried. The tapas at La Tasca were excellent, a mix of bold flavours and Spanish flair wonderfully washed down with a caraf of ice-cold sweet sangria. Better still, the portion sizes were slightly larger than the tapas you might find in Madrid (who said the English couldn’t do something right?) and hence it was great value for money.

If you ever get the chance to go to La Tasca then here’s a list of my top recommended tapas, complete with a bit of cultural background that you can use to pass yourself off as a connoisseur of all things Iberian.

la-tasca-durham-1-500x333Paella – this is a world-famous classic of Spanish cuisine and should be your starting point if you’re new to tapas. Be it cooked with seafood, meat or a mixture of both, paella is a delightful dish of saffron sticky rice and vegetables.

It’s traditionally cooked in great big dishes and for many Spaniards is the staple of a lazy Sunday lunch with the family. It can also be a source of fierce regional pride; ask a Valencian and they’ll tell you that real paella can only be found in their region, where the qualities of the water are said to give it its distinctive flavour. Indeed, I’ve been fortunate enough to try paella in Valencia and they have a point!

But to the uninitiated this shouldn’t be a worry. Paella is awesome full stop and it’d be a culinary crime not to give it a try.

Croquetas – you’ll find these in lots of different cultures but the Spaniards do particularly mean croquetas as a tapas dish. They’re little fried breadcrumbed rolls usually filled with potato, ham or cheese. The best croquetas will simply melt in your mouth and are unfailingly moreish.

A word of warning though – they may be small but they’re deceptively filling so be sure to savour every bite!

Calamares – don’t be fooled by their ‘onion ring’ style appearance, calamares are in fact fried squid in batter and are another hot favourite on the tapas scene. When in Madrid I got some envious looks on the underground as I tucked into a baguette filled with calamares. And who could blame them? Try calamares with a dash of lemon and they’re a treat.

Gazpacho – perhaps not best appreciated in Durham, gazpacho is a refreshing tomato-based soup-style dish widely popular in Spain. The locals usually have it chilled to cool off after a day in the sun. Of course you won’t get these benefits in the North East but it’s still tasty all the same and full of vitamins.

Tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) – good, wholesome, simple: tortilla de patatas embodies the best of no-frills Spanish cuisine and a tapas outing would be incomplete without it. It’s essentially a large omelette made with potatoes and onion, fried in olive oil. You can have it hot or cold and it goes great with gazpacho or salad.

Churros – strictly speaking these don’t count as tapas but I just couldn’t leave them out. Churros are rings of fried, crunchy pastry that you dip in thick hot chocolate and to a sweet-toothed simpleton like myself they’re irresistible. They’re particularly popular amongst club-goers in Madrid as a post night-out snack, the Spanish answer to the kebab if you will. More conventionally though you’ll see people eating them in cafes in the morning before work. La Tasca offers churros as a dessert and they’re a perfect way to round off a taste of Spain in Durham.

¡Buen provecho!

Published in The Bubble, Durham’s Online Magazine, 1st November 2012 –

El Valle de los Caidos

This is El Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), Spain’s most controversial historical monument. Here, buried deep beneath the cream stone and in the shadow of this towering iron cross, lie the remains of 40,000 Spaniards, both Communists and Republicans, killed in la guerra civil that divided the country between 1936 and 1939.

I arrived at the base of the monument and was instantly taken aback by its sheer scale and beauty. The cross is enormous, a stunning feat of human endeavour. It commands the valley with such force and seemed to create a powerful silence, emanating a presence that could only be met with wonder.

Yet my feelings of awe and the numinous were also mixed with a distinct sense of unease, the kind you might experience when you hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or read The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. I had to remind myself that prisoners of war had died building this monument and that beneath my feet lay the bones of thousands.

However it’s not the mass grave that is the true controversy of this site. Instead it is the fascist eagle that adorns the wings of the monument’s Catholic basilica and the single grave of the man lying behind its altar, a man who provokes reactions of anguish and confusion amongst Spaniards to this day: Francisco Franco.

A key general in the Nationalist movement during the Civil War and later the dictator of Spain until his death in 1975, Franco is an anomaly amongst the fascist leaders of the 20th century. Whereas Hitler burned in a bunker in Berlin and Mussolini hung unceremoniously from a petrol station in Milan, here lies Franco, his grave freshly decorated with a bouquet of flowers.*

How can this be? How can history have been so accommodating to this man and yet not so to the others? Why, in effect, has Franco been granted a shrine? Having spent three weeks here in Spain I’ve come to realise that there are no easy answers to these questions.

As I’ve walked the streets of Madrid I’ve come to sense that the scars of the Civil War and Franco’s era lurk close beneath the surface, neither fully healed nor fully understood.

On the one side there are the passionate yet pained denunciations of Franco and his legacy. On display in the Museo del Reina Sofia is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the aesthetic epitome of this denunciation. It’s a stark, frenzied depiction of the horrors inflicted by Hitler’s Luftwaffe on the town of Guernica in the Civil War, one of the worst atrocities of the conflict. The painting also proved to be an ominous spectre for the repression and the concentration camps that would come to be a feature of Franco’s Spain.

And then there were the oral denunciations from the Spaniards themselves who had lived through the oppression of franquismo. One example came from the lady I lived with who told me that she was the daughter of one of Franco’s generals. She described life under the dictatorship with an angry grimace. Women couldn’t go to university, she said, and there was essentially no freedom. There was a general curfew and widespread censorship. She described hers as a ‘lost generation’.

Yet denunciations of this type always came in a hushed voice, a voice lacking the kind of conviction that we feel comfortable using when denouncing Nazi Germany or fascist Italy. I sensed that this hushed tone reflected an inner anxiety and ongoing confusion, a national inability to agree upon the true meaning of the past.

For whilst many denounce Franco, a significant minority defend him and his legacy (hence the fresh flowers on the tomb). To these people, largely comprising traditionalist Catholics and strong-minded conservatives, Franco was a hero, a man who brought safety and stability to an otherwise poor and vulnerable country. He saved Spain from communism, they say, and he strengthened the institutions of the church and the family. Even Franco’s critics begrudgingly admit that crime was almost non-existent under his dictatorship.

Given this stark disagreement of interpretation I’m not surprised that the Spanish prefer not to speak of their Civil War and Franco’s rule. It’s all too recent, too contentious and too difficult to comprehend. Which brings us back to the monument and Franco’s grave. This is why his body is buried here and this is why the Spanish government is so hesitant to move it. The national scar needs more to time to heal.

As I took the bus back to Madrid from the Valley of the Fallen I realised in a fleeting instant what had been so moving about the monument. It was the fact that it was so raw. There were no placards explaining the site, no information sheets telling you what you were seeing. Perhaps the Spanish aren’t yet sure themselves. It was just you, the silence and the bones of the dead. I think I prefer history this way.

*It took me a while to get these photos. Cameras were strictly forbidden inside the basilica and there was a security guard patrolling the grave. Not to be outdone, I stood beside Franco’s resting place for a long time, figuring it was the closest I was ever going to get to a fascist dictator. After several minutes the security guard approached me and said I could take two photos but no more. And so I did.