Friday, 4 November 2016

In pursuit of the perfect birthday lunch.

Zahora to Marbella, 98 miles, Camping Buganvilla  €17 per night, 2 nights 

We alternated between fulminating over the demise of the bikes and figuring out where to find a restaurant to meet Gill's birthday lunch quality standards, which, if you are travelling in the Mediterranean are hardly stringent - well cooked food made from fresh ingredients, view of the sea, preferably in sight of, or beneath a palm tree. This is our third attempt to achieve this, and sad to say, the previous two, despite the fame of Mediterranean cuisine and the prevalence of both coastline and palm trees, our quest to date has not been entirely successful.

The criteria themselves are the result of a conversation during the summer of 2014 while planning our first big trip. "Do you mind celebrating your sixtieth away from home with just the two of us?" I enquired. After a moment's thought Gill replied, "Not at all, so long as I am eating well cooked food made from fresh ingredients, with a view of the sea, preferably in sight of, or beneath a palm tree." In practice, the achievement of this seemingly simple request proved far more difficult to achieve than we imagined. 

On Gill's sixtieth we happened to be in Benicassim, a small resort north of Valencia. We considered two restaurants for the celebratory lunch. The first was in Hotel Voramar, a venerable establishment with an attractive dining room overlooking the sea. It did seem a bit a quiet and starchy - silver service, crisp white table cloths and hushed conversation. Hushed is not really our thing, we are definitely pro hubbub. A more modern establishment based in one of the town's famous 'fin de siecle' villas seemed more to our taste, so that's what we opted for. The Valencian paella was good, but the ham and butter starter very weird. We were the only customers, the weather was showery, and stuck indoors, Gill only managed the merest glimpse of the palm tree that graced the establishment's front garden. By her criteria this birthday lunch had to count as a fail. For future reference we agreed to add the adjective 'sunny' to the statement about a sea view. 

A year came and went. In 2015 we were travelling in the southern Peloponnese. With fantastic food and gorgeous coastal scenery how could we not succeed? The beach-side taverna in Tolo certainly hit the spot location-wise. Its table on the sand with checked cloth and blue painted wooden chairs was picture perfect, like a set from a remake of Shirley Valentine. Cloudless sky, sea so blue it was mauve, gulls circling above, fishing boats chugging by - what more could we wish for? Admittedly, the place was empty, so there was a failure of hubbub levels, but the beach life itself provided entertainment to compensate. The problem emerged when the food was served. After a fortnight of Greek meals that provoked superlatives, (this is so good, how exactly can you make a deep fried courgette so delicious?) the plates which arrived on the Shirley Valentine set menu were distinctly mediocre. Failure number two in the birthday lunch quest. 

I was beginning to take this personally. What sort of husband was I if I could not manage to conjure up for Gill a simple birthday lunch by the sea? What can I do now when the restaurant at Zahora beach with the Kuomi palm trees and interesting menu had the temerity to shut up shop for the season, a mere two days before her birthday? 

I am profoundly suspicious about spontaneity, a retired professional risk analyst, and someone not given to having one plan if many are possible. So, when we when headed off with only a plan A and B for the lunch, by my reckoning that was living life on the edge. 

Plan A involved driving a few kilometres beyond Barbate to the remote fishing village of Zahara de los Atunas which, according to our mobile library van reference section had a free moho aire and a renowned fish restaurant called El Refugio. 

Epic pine forests in the hills above Barbate
The first few kilometres were delightful, crossing the wooded hills behind Barbate. We agreed it was somewhere we might well return to. The town itself is a workaday port, but it had a Lidl, which in our unforseen cycle free state we were pleased to see. Lidl has a good reputation among motorhomers, partly due to its cheap and reliable products, but mainly because most of its car parks don't have height barriers. The Barbate branch sadly did, and generally was busy and difficult to manoeuvre around. Gill hopped out to buy a few things. Meanwhile I had parked across two disabled parking spaces waiting for an opportunity to reverse into the cargo loading bay and make an exit. Before it was clear enough behind to manage this manoeuvre, a scooter screeched to a halt in front of me and its owner pointed vehemently at his prosthetic leg, performed the entire repertoire of Hispanic rude gestures in 20 seconds, before hurrying into the store. Now I was blocked-in at the front as well as the rear. I have no idea how I managed to extricate myself, but I did, and found a place nearby to park. 

Eventually Gill tracked me down and fully provisioned for lunch we found the minor road to Zahara de los Atunas. Things were not going smoothly for Plan A, nevertheless, we persevered, heading eastwards along the narrow road which hugged a desolate crescent bay. This stretch of coastline is a military zone. Every so often a camouflage daubed troop carrier would trundled through the dunes. Gaggles of soldiers with helmets sprouting dune grasses stood about, I think the war games must have been on lunch break. 

Soon we arrived at Zahara de los Atunas, a grid of white houses by the sea interspersed with low rise apartments. We drove through a half built urbanisation looking for the aire. The sat nav instructed us to turn down a narrow street towards the sea front. It did not feel right. Gill hopped out the cab to reconnoitre on foot, reporting back that the beach car park was empty, but there was no sign of any organised aire. The entire town seemed to have closed down for winter, reminding us of the forlorn, shuttered resorts we had come across in February in southwest Sicily and by Calabria's Ionian sea. Hardly somewhere for a celebration we agreed over lunch in the car park. So, plan B. Head for Marbella, which, as Gill pointed out, at least would lively; as the birthday girl, it was her shout. 

Now we were heading through more familiar territory. The hills near Tarifa are not so much covered in wind farms, but turbine ranches. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them spread across the landscape. Looking at this investment, and the prevalence of solar, it is not surprising that Spain is the first country in Europe to generate more than half of its electricity from renewables. The more you travel through the country, the more impressive it becomes in terms of its progressive culture and economic ambition. 
Between Barbate and Tarifa - hundreds of wind turbines

and the occadsional 'andeman's bull
We travelled the same road eighteen months ago which links Algeciras and Gibraltar with Cadiz, but heading in the opposite direction. Today was like discovering it anew. On our previous trip it had rained, so we missed how spectacular the views were of the Straights of Gibraltar. The road zigzags upwards for miles, every so often we glimpsed high mountains across a silvery sea. Because the road twists and turns it is easy to become somewhat disoriented. We had assumed we were looking east towards the mountains beyond Gibraltar. When Gill compared the road atlas with Google maps, we realised the grey mountains over the sea were in Africa, what we were looking at it was the coast of Morocco. "Perhaps I should have planned a birthday tagine in Tangier," Gill commented, only half in jest. Perhaps we should have, we could have parked Maisy at Algeciras port, and taken a day trip. Instead, we were headed for Marbella, we knew where we going to stay - Camping Buganvilla - inexpensive, an easy bus ride to the centre, where we stayed last time. All we needed was the perfect birthday lunch café. 

Next day the search was on. We crisscrossed the narrow alleys of Marbella old town, there were scores of places to eat, but most seemed uninspired, serving burger and chips or a pizza with half hearted attempts at a tapas menu. We got as far as taking a seat at one place, but looking at the photograph of patatas bravas on the menu, the dish had been reinvented for a northern palette as chips with ketchup. We moved on. 

We covered every inch of the picturesque Arabic quarter in our quest, passing some establishments a many times. As soon as you pause to peruse a menu the unwitting tourist tends to be accosted by a waiter pursuing a hard sell. One pointed to a fish option, at €24 the most expensive dish on the menu. Addressing Gill, he announced proudly, "This, so beautiful, and fresh!" Gill peered at him over her sunglasses, and summoned a somewhat withering look, "Surely," she retorted, "aren't all of your fish fresh?" It's what I call her Ofsted mode; she is a beautiful person, but occasionally, really quite scary. We were in danger of exhausting Marbella old town, and in turn, it seemed determined to return the compliment.

Footsore now, we considered our options. Yesterday, we found a good review for place nearer the seafront called 'La Taberna del Pinxto's. Gill had dismissed this option on the basis that it seemed an odd choice, having sampled the delights of pintxos in Donostia, that we would travel over a thousand miles south to eat Basque dishes in Andalucia. Now, our feet were making the counter argument - pintxos, at least they have to be freshly prepared, so why not? Our feet proved persuasive. Google maps plotted the way, about seven minutes on foot, back through the whitewashed alleys of old Marbella, over the traffic clogged main road, and there it was, on a modern street leading down to the palm fringed esplanade. 

Donostia had taught us the pintxos drill, order a drink (one white, one rose), take a plate, choose your pintxos from the counter, - simple delicious food. 'La Taberna del Pintxo' had introduced a variant to the routine up North. There you choose the cold pintxos from the counter but the warm dishes were chalked up and cooked to order. Here they simply kept churning them out of the kitchen and waiters wandered through the diners tempting them to choose more delicacies from a plate. It is really quite irresistible. 

 'La Taberna del Pintxo'  - hits the spot...

Plate level view - asparagus wrapped in ham, deep fried in batter; Russian salad in prawns, in a vol au vent, Spanish omlette....

Happy birthday to Gill....

So, good fresh food cooked with love and a bit of panache, in a lively atmosphere about 150 metres from a palm fringed promenade overlooking a Mediterranean beach. Reverting to Ofsted speak, the birthday lunch, in relation to agreed quality standards, cannot be regarded as outstanding due to insufficient regard having been paid to the proximity of the palm tree stated in the criteria. So, the judgement, good, recognising 'progress towards'. I am working on the QIP as we speak.

Sadly, additional evidence of nearby palm trees proved inadmissable - 


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