Our Beet Reporter in Spain
Editor’s Note: We say that the Local Beet provides a “practical approach” to local eating in Chicago. We do that by documenting our eat local habits, pointing out markets and shops, and listing CSAs. How does having a reporter in Spain advance our purpose. The short, easy answer is, it doesn’t. No one around here is eating a local mango dripping with juices. Still, we bring you Jessica Suss for a few good reasons. Mostly, because there’s a pretty good consensus that no one eats better than the Spanish. Let’s draw inspiration. But also, there’s a lot of value in seeing what others are doing, good and bad. Jessica notes that as great as eating is in Spain, they have food system issues too. With this post we introduce our latest reporter. Look for more dispatches from Spain soon.
My name is Jessica Suss and I know exactly where my last meal came from.
No, I don’t live in California where you can throw a rock and hit a farmer’s market.
No, I don’t have an “in” with a small but passionate restaurant that sources entirely from its own purely organic, agriculturally sound gardens.
I teach English to elementary school children in Almería, the corner of Spain. The nearest major cities, Granada or Malaga, are hours away by bus or train. We don’t have a lot of tourist attractions, save for a Moorish fortress, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any city in Spain WITHOUT a castle. Also, we have the beach…like every other coastal city in the country.
What sets Almería apart is that it is the sunniest place in Europe, or so I’ve been told. Though I haven’t found any firm statistics that back up that fact, I can count on two hands the number of times it has rained since I arrived here last September (eight).
Due to the warm climate and nearly excessive amounts of sun, Almería is also home to more than 28,000 hectares of greenhouses. Every morning on my commute to work, I watch an exquisite ocean sunrise, pass a shellfish farm and watch as more tomatoes than I can count climb the vines inside their plastic houses. It’s a rough life.
And it’s not just my produce that travels only a few kilometers to land on my plate. Before Thanksgiving, I ordered a turkey from my butcher at the Mercado Central (every gastronome’s dream). He called the poultry ranch while I stood in front of him, one bloodied hand punching the buttons on the phone and told the farmer what he wanted—the biggest one available. The turkey was collected the day before Thanksgiving, many bloodied feathers still clinging to the 20-kilo carcass. This was nothing compared to my previous Spanish Thanksgiving, however, where I had to remove the esophagus from that year’s bird. The poultry farm was just a town over and our bird had likely died just the day before we got it. It had round haunches, meaty breasts and so much fat was stuffed below the surface that when it was cooked, the skin browned and crackled like it had been deep-fried.
Best turkey of my life.
My eggs come from Tarragona, according to the little piece of paper stuck to the window of the stall. Packed in nondescript grey cartons and held together with rubber bands, they usually have hay, mud, feathers and chicken excrement still stuck to the shell. The yolks are the color of a marigold (the photo above is a comparison of an egg from the grocery store on the top and an egg from the mercado below). They are like nothing I have ever tasted in the states.
Each time I eat a mango the size of a baby’s head, dripping with juice or crack open a red pepper so vibrant it looks like it’s been dunked in Red Dye No. 4, I tell myself, “This is the best ___________ I’ve ever eaten. I’ve got to savor this because it’s never going to get better.” But then the next week I buy a kilo of strawberries from a man in a stained orange polo shirt and I forget all about that pepper.
This is the beauty of Spain, especially the southern parts of the country where so much of the produce is grown. We are spoiled rotten by food. It doesn’t look pretty like in the States; sweet potatoes are strangely conical, eggs still have things you’d rather not see stuck to their shells and animal heads with dazed expressions sit stacked among links of chorizo and chicken breasts.
But it’s real food. And I know just where it came from.
I have never once worried about getting food poisoning in Spain. Though not one of my butchers has ever worn a hair net or even plastic gloves, though each chunk of bloody fish is weighed on the same set of scales in the lower level of the Mercado, I am completely at peace. I saw that hunk of chuck get fed through the grinder. I poked and prodded that fish, inspected its eyes for any sign of cloudiness, demanded to run a finger down the gleaming scales until I was satisfied with its freshness.
It is honest, whole food. It doesn’t smell like bleach or come from a thousand different cows. I would rather eat a hamburger fashioned by my bloody-handed butcher who leaves smears on the Euros I hand him than a pre-packaged cut wrapped in plastic from Jewel-Osco.
I am surrounded by ugly, real, local food. And I have never eaten better in my life.
A recent graduate of the Philip Merril College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, Jessica currently lives in Almería, the greenhouse capital of Spain where she teaches English. She is passionate about nutrition education and healthy school lunches. Jessica is a nut butter enthusiast (especially cinnamon flavored almond butter) and does not appreciate being called a foodie. Jessica has been cooking and baking since she was old enough to hold a whisk and hopes to become a magazine journalist. All opinions expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter: @JessicaLSuss -