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Cádiz: Sexo y Mariscos

June 2000

I cook a mean tortilla español. It’s not just a matter of sticking some cooked potatoes in an omelette, you know. It takes time, skill and patience. But it’s well worth it. A slice of dry, uninspiring tortilla, as recently endured in Plaza San Francisco, is a thing designed to banish all saliva and destroy all appetite for a week, whereas a slice of well-made tortilla is a gastronomic delight to rank alongside lobster thermidor or corned beef hash.
(Let’s make it plain right from the start that we’ll have no food snobbery here. Exquisite though caviar and truffles are, heaven for me could just as easily be eating fish, chips and mushy peas to t’sound o’t’Sally Army band as foie gras and trumpets. And this is Spain, not France. However there will, no doubt, be expeditions to the front line of Spanish cuisine, especially as the best restaurant in town is just round the corner. Watch this space.)

For fans of tortilla visiting Cádiz, there exists a subtle little trap. Order “tortilla” in one of the many bars and restaurants around here and you may be surprised, as la frisada and I once were, to receive a small disk of fried batter, embossed with small, whole shrimp. This is the delicacy, unique to the province of Cádiz, known as tortillas de camarones. My recipe book, written for the American market, translates these as “Shrimp Pancakes” but anybody from the UK, especially north of Watford will immediately see them as fritters. At best they can be delicious but, as at our first encounter, they can also be a little too greasy — but that’s nothing a glass of ice-cold fino can’t deal with (if you want the other sort, by the way, you need to specify tortillas de patatas).
The city of Cádiz sticks out into the Atlantic ocean between Portugal and Gibraltar. It was founded by the Phoenicians three millennia ago and enjoyed one of its occasional heydays as a Roman seaport. In those days, the aspiring young soldier, sailor, diplomat or merchant could read, in his Liber Michelina, that Cádiz was one of the finest postings in the empire for sex and seafood. At this stage in my life, only the latter is of active interest and my researches so far have confirmed that this is indeed Seafood Heaven.
Now, you might be wondering what the purpose of this piece of culinary information could be. You might also be baffled were the subject suddenly to change to a lyrical description of an afternoon on a sunny beach with three English lasses. Worry not, all will be made clear.

Georgia was deeply unimpressed by my comment that she was always on my mind. Apparently, despite her tender years, it was far from being the first time anyone had made that reference. And yet my prediction made at the time has proved completely true: of the girls in the photograph, hers is, for that corny reason, the only name I can recall. And it was Georgia, coincidentally, who seemed most interested in helping me to find a name for a planned series of vignettes, random jottings descriptive of my life here in this corner of Europe, to be sent to various parties, willing or otherwise, over the Internet. “Letter from Cádiz,” unoriginal and uninspiring though it may be, was, for a long time, the best either of us could think of.
Eventually I tore myself away from the beach and wandered off in search of inspiration and a snack. In the pleasant Parque Genovés I sat myself down by the cafe and ordered a beer. Nothing on the menu looked appealing: inspiration, it seemed, had run dry in all quarters.
Then I looked toward the bar itself and beheld a revelation. An heavenly choir burst into rapturous song, flights of shimmering cherubim hovered in the air and I smiled contentedly upon reading the notice taped to the counter: “Ay Tortillas de Camarones”.
“There are Shrimp Fritters.” Indeed there are, I thought and promptly ordered three of them. To be honest, only when nibbling away at them did it occur to me that “fritter” was the best translation and only at that point was I sure that here was the perfect title for these Letters from Cádiz. The very next day found me back on the beach, still drunk on serendipity and excitedly telling Georgia, Thingy and Whatsit that I had my title.
“Yeah, fine,” they responded with gleeful torpor.
May they entertain and excite you likewise, gentle reader.

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[Background illustration courtesy of José
at Taberna al Albero, Virgen de la Palma, Cádiz:
and very nice they were too!]