[Pigging by Wilfrid: September 15, 2008]
Granada, like the Barcelona of ten years ago, is not a major restaurant city. It has hardly been touched by the post-Adrià revolution, and it's most popular restaurants generally cruise quietly along, serving the traditional dishes of Andalusia.
But there is some very fine eating to be done at the casual level, especially if you tune your radar to pork products - sausages, embutidos, hams, pâtés - and cheese. Or both if you will: I give you queso de cerdo. Pigcheese, in a word.
Scroll down for La Cueva, Casa Enrique, and above all, the amazing gastronomic treasure-house, Queseria Rossini.
Although Granada has some suburban sprawl, the city center is compact, and walkable if you have a tolerance for hills, and with a third of the population of metropolitan Barcelona it has a quiet, sleepytown feel to it, enhanced by the tradition of siesta and barely disrupted by the steady but manageable stream of backpackers and Alhambra-bound coach parties.
The noisy tourist action is concentrated, especially in the evenings, in a small tangle of narrow streets where the c. de Elvira meets Plaza Nueva; a quieter crowd nibbles tapas at outdoor tables on the c. Navas. I've stayed on Elvira before, and was happy this time to have found an apartment in the Realejo district, a peaceful quarter about fifteen minutes walk from the center. A duplex apartment too, high-ceilinged and well-equipped, at a fraction of the price I'd paid for not much more than a studio off the Ramblas.
I've been to the Alhambra before, but my family hadn't, so we hiked dutifully up the long approach in fierce, dry heat, and gawped at the views of the city. Even though we caught a bus back down to Plaza Nueva, the initial climb and the trek through endless and gorgeous apartments of Muslim and Catholic kings builds an appetite. By three in the afternoon, a late lunch before everything closed was urgent.
The stretch of c. Reyes Católicos which runs into Plaza Nueva boasts one long-established bar and dining room, favored by locals and tourists alike, Los Manueles. We'd found it a good breakfast option. But on the same strip, the curing porcine stalactites of La Cueva sang a siren's song. Through the windows you could see it was busy, and you could also see the food and know that it was good.
About a ten minute wait for a table, during which I scanned the meat counter immediately inside the entrance. Like the other best places in town, La Cueva was sourcing fine Iberian hams and sausages, and also making its own charcuterie from the local pork. Witness the queso de cerdo, a thick block of pressed pig meats - not just a headcheese or brawn, I believe - sliced into thick, cool, juicy chunks for snacking. I'll have some of that, I promised myself.
La Cueva is a cheerful, bustling, working dining room - checkered paper and ketchup bottles on the tables. Having fine-beaked my way through the most delicate cocina nueva in Barcelona, this solid food hit the spot. Chistorras, for example.
Lengths of skinny chorizo, essentially, glowing red, fried and slapped on a plate. Whether or not by design, some boasted a fine, crunchy char.
Alongside, I ordered a hearty Granada specialty: lima beans tossed with strips of ham and topped with a sunny fried egg. Break the egg, of course, and this is very good eating. (And not, New Yorkers note, a morel or spear of asparagus in sight). Plain food at its best, and with that one needs fries.
My English soul wants to call them "chips". These reminded me of the chips - as in fish 'n'chips - of my youth: piping hot, crunchy outside, soft within, golden and scattered with salt.
A regret for all those fine hams dangling above my head, but this was time to fuel up, and a few goblets of sangría were a good way to wash it down. There would be time later to spend an hour...or two, or three...nibbling at Spain's finest treats.
No better place do that than the Parc del Principe, further up and away from the center, still in the Realejo: an urban park with playgrounds, a war memorial, dogs running loose, children booting footballs and punching baloons. Along one side, a long block occupied entirely by bars and restaurants with terraced seating. I think you might enjoy an unpretentious plate of migas or some baked rabbit at any of them.
But you must resist, and make your way to the one which barely has a name outside. It's at number 15, and you will see the name "Rossini" on the wall if you pay attention. Inside, beyond the food preparation area, is huge - a couple of rooms full of tables. Maybe people sit there in winter. The thing to do is sit outside and make no other plans for the rest of the evening.
As you'd expect from a quesería, cheese is a big deal here. But so also are the meats, and the quality across the board is just superb. You can order piece by piece from the carte, but it makes sense to order a table, a meat or cheese "board" - they come in different sizes - put together by the genius counterman.
So, as dusk settles over the park, and iced beer arrives, let's see what we have. Notably, two thick, pale rectangles of meat. This is lomo de orza -slices from big pork chops which have sat long enough in a herby marinade (you can see them in a big earthenware bowl on the counter) that the meat is beyond juicy, almost buttery.
The local ham, both raw and cooked. Slices of dark, slippery duck ham. Chorizo, and a couple of other salami-like sausages. A basket of bread. Get to work. I can't conjure in words the depth and clarity of the flavors, the velvety textures. It is only my recent and very happy experiences with the sausages made in California by the Fra'Mani people that makes me hesitate to tell you all to move to Spain: right now.
If something which appeals is not included in the house selection, you just order it on the side. Partridge pate, for example; de la case, of course. Creamy, gamy, with a snowy cap of smooth fat. This is what a soft pate should be (in the Spanish way, it's just slicked with some good quality oil - not drowned in it).
Another way to go on the menu is with the smoked fish.
For a change of pace, we sampled the salmon and tuna, each served on thin slices of toast. The garnishes, simple and appropriate.
As best I can make out from the simple menu, the table of meats for three clocked in at all of 12 euros - for once, a bargain even taking the wilted dollar into account. So then I ordered some cheese.
Twelve different cheeses there by my count, all at their peak. Again, I believe this was the quantity they estimate for three hungry people, same price as the embutidos. You'll note that the establishment doesn't shy away from flavored cheeses: there's some delicious soft cheese there studded with nuts, one with some spicy peppers too. Manchego was rubbed with herbed oil. The blue was a Gorgonzola. Insane.
So a couple of nights later, we went back and did it again. Starting off this time with that great pigcheese. At Rossini, it's sliced from a big, cylindrical terrine, and cut into dainty cake-like pieces. It's surprising how much pig one can eat.
An enchanting aspect of the business is the work done by the counterman and his assistant. I don't know if a cheesemaster in Granada undergoes anything like the training of a sushi chef, but just inside the bar, surrounded by cheeses...
This paragon composes the plates and platters, one by one, with infinite patience. Each example of charcuterie, each cheese, is unwrapped to order, sliced with the appropriate knife - and he has a lot of different knives - then re-wrapped and placed back on its shelf.
As I watched the ritual, it struck me that this must be one of the loveliest jobs in the world: hands on, every night, with some of the finest artisanal pork and cheese products in Europe.
Just in case you're wondering what a small cheese-plate looks like - I wasn't quite able to justice to the full range yet again. So, I just had a few pieces to nibble. Queseria Rossini: exemplary, impeccable, and essential Granada stop for anyone remotely interested in what some call "cold cuts".
I have to mention one more meat and cheese destination, about which I have slightly mixed feelings. But you should go, if you're in the neighborhood. Henry's House has been a Granada fixture for hundred and thirty years. It's a small barrel of a place, incongruously located among the modern camera stores, shoeshops and pharmacies, just where the Acera del Darro runs away from Reyes Católicos.
It's like finding a nineteenth century tap-house in a shopping mall.
Casa Enrique opens its old doors directly onto the street, strewing a couple of big barrels outside to act as tables, and a few chairs. Inside, the tiny, dark room has no seating: there's an l-shaped bar, narrow shelving along the remaining wall to rest glasses and plates, and in the rear, a the space where a couple of guys busily slice hams and cheeses and richly greasy sausages, and pull wine and sherry from wooden casks.
The walls are busy with old photographs of the place, showing former stewards of tradition in their big butcher aprons, brandishing knives and peering over their old half-moon glasses. There are old newspaper articles, glass cases filled with paraphernalia, boards with the menu chalked in barely legible script.
Casa Enrique is a Character - capitalized too - and knows it. It has been there forever.
I fell in love with the place at first sight, some years ago. The quality of the food is, again, superb - genuinely artisanal, not a P.R. stunt. I drink sherry there, and that's excellent too. The downside is that it has never returned my love.
It's hardly a tourist destination. Yes, there are a few strays, but it's hard to fit a coachload in there. But a series of visits have demonstrated to me that the bar-tenders are just very uncomfortable with anyone who is not a local, and preferably a regular. It's not easy to get attention, impossible to get a conversation or a smile: and my party is both knowledgeable and Spanish-speaking.
It couldn't keep me away from a big plate of juicy morcilla. I couldn't finish it, but it crisped up beautifully in the pan for breakfast the next morning. I also managed to extract a plate of Picón from the reluctant bar-tender having convinced him I knew it was a strong blue cheese. Oh, well. I suppose the secret is to move to Granada, live there for thirty years, then try Casa Enrique again. In the mean-time, there's always Rossini.