I first came to know Spain through its movies. The melodrama, the architecture, the gazpacho: They made the country for me in my imagination, long before I would ever step foot into the Madrid airport. These movies had names like Carne Tremula and Jamón, Jamón. Both are about sex, but they’re also filled with meat—especially the salty, cured jamón ibérico that is the national staple, hanging above the bar at pintxo stops in San Sebastián, shaved with flair in the restaurants, one leg after another, to satisfy guests who’ve come out to dinner at 11 p.m. in sweltering heat.
On any food-travel show that films in this country, you’ll watch the gruff male hosts be pushed to an almost orgasmic state as they take slices of jamón into their hands, drop back their heads and allow the salty ribbons to fall into their mouths. Eyes roll. It would seem that these disembodied, aged legs of pork are a rocketship to another planet of carnal delight.
But I don’t eat meat, so what would this country that I’ve lusted after offer me?
Chefs I’ve come to know on travels to Puerto Rico who trained in Spain were able to serve me some of the most exquisite dishes I’d ever eaten: highly acidic, not spicy, big on fat and garlic and salt and freshness. Being able to understand the birthplace of sofrito inspired me to take this trip, sponsored by the González Byass family of wineries, yet I couldn’t be sure the Spain I’d experience would be the same Spain as everyone else gets to visit: The one where the taste of jamón drives everyone wild.
Before the trip, I’d already taken a break from years of strict veganism to see what life is like as a vegetarian. I wanted to remember old pleasures: the taste of a runny yolk, a bite of luscious bread pudding. I wanted to say “yes” when offered most bites and order off menus without asking any questions. These small thrills were enough in New York. There was no guarantee they’d amount to anything in Spain.
June was unusually hot in Madrid, and my thrills were poured from bottles. At the dusty old La Venencia, full on a Monday afternoon, an old man served me my glasses of manzanilla sherry with small plates of green olives and potato chips and wrote down my bill in chalk on the counter in front of me. As I stood there, I became enamored of the silly Tío Pepe logo, a bottle of sherry dressed like a matador with a guitar that also looks over the city’s Puerta del Sol.
At 1862 Dry Bar in the Malasaña neighborhood, I sipped a brilliant shaken banana and rum concoction called Banana Joe on a packed Thursday night while eavesdropping on girls who ordered White Russians. Across town at the very buttoned-up Dry Martini, I ordered just that—with gin, of course. Spaniards love gin, and in the tiny town of Haro in Rioja wine country, I stumbled into the medieval dive Teorema Pub. They have over 500 bottles and measured out FeverTree tonic with a bar spoon into my glass over the London No 1 Gin. The soundtrack played Britpop, and as I sang along, I wondered why there was a sink in the middle of the seating area. But my drink was too good to care too much.
Drinking continued to be my best friend, my only route to learning about this country’s cuisine without the jamón or the Gilda, a classic Basque pintxo—a tapa-like snack—of pepper, anchovy and olive. “It’s too bad you’re not pescatarian,” everyone told me. “We have a lot of pescatarians here. The seafood is amazing.” The bread is, too, and thankfully able to soak up the wine we sipped south of Madrid at Finca Constancia, near Toledo, before a tour through that medieval city where three religions improbably lived in peace. There, I tried the city’s famous marzipan, sweet almond candy that covers chocolate or jam. There was one classic I was allowed to taste.
Everything opened up once I got to the north. Lamb is the specialty at Haro’s Restaurante Terete. A massive order came out of the oven so tender that the waiter cut through it with a fork and spoon. But white asparagus was also in season, served simply with oil and red wine vinegar. Then there was a plate of addictive menestra de verduras, lightly fried artichoke hearts that everyone at the table agreed could be mistaken for meat. There were peas and carrots in the dish, which didn’t look like much (in fact, it looked like mush). The proof resided in the flavor, though, and it paired wonderfully with a white from nearby Bodegas Beronia.
What followed were a trio of fried lumps atop a red pepper sauce; the one in the middle, I swear, looked just like a sheep’s head, complete with a particularly crisp bit to act as an eye. Inside, though, there was only tender, creamy vegetables mixed with egg. The meal, so simple, was a revelation. And that was before I got to San Sebastián.
While I couldn’t eat a Gilda, there were grilled mushrooms stuffed with tomato and spices, blistered piparra peppers sprinkled with flaky sea salt, and so many red peppers marinating in olive oil, garlic and salt that I could’ve gotten full on those alone. At a pintxo bar called Zeruko, where the chef trained at elBulli, I was treated to a heaping serving of gorgeous fried mushrooms next to a small piece of toast topped with a fried quail egg. Next, tempura-fried vegetables that are crispier and crunchier and fresher than the kind I’m used to getting in the States. My dining companions were served cod topped with charcoal foam and half-heartedly apologized for my self-imposed restrictions, yet I was satisfied, completely.
And that was only the second stop on the pintxo tour, which moved on through more bars where the jamón hung, beginning to taunt me. That was only until my friends started to moan about how full they were and I smugly, quickly, eagerly ate up a plate of torjilla, a Spanish French toast that has a paper-thin layer of crispiness on the outside of the bread before giving way to a fluffy custard.
That sense of having finally arrived to the country’s food continued on my last morning in the north, walking through the farmers market. Tomatoes, greens and mushrooms were abundant. White beans were bagged with a tomato and pepper, because that’s how they’re traditionally cooked. I saw the city’s seafood bounty in the basement market, across from all the meat counters, and there were no pangs of desire, no feeling that I was missing out.
With the food from the market, we cooked lunch in a traditional txoko, or gastronomic society. There I spooned guisante lágrimas into my mouth, tiny green peas that burst open in your mouth and sell for the price of caviar, before moving on to mushrooms enmeshed with farm-fresh egg. I wasn’t moved to moans of pleasure, but I was pushed near tears. I’d found the Spain I wanted all along, and unlike on all the TV shows, I didn’t need jamón to get there.
Illustrations by Adriana Gallo.