Tuesday, 28 April 2009
Cheese and Biscuits on tour - Cal Galan, L'Escala, Spain
There was a time, going on 25 years ago now, when El Bulli was just a simple seafood restaurant attached to a grotty camping site near Rosas, and when going to Spain for your holiday was considered a budget option. Prosperity came late to Spain in comparison to other European countries, and while France could boast a mature and exclusive fine dining culture and West Germany was a glittering consumerist paradise, my memories of the Costa Brava from the late 80s involved untarmacced dusty roads in the centre of reasonably large towns, electricity supplies that could best be described as "reluctant", and an attitude to service from anything from banks to corner shops that could ruin your day. Of course it's all changed now - Spain has more restaurants in the San Pellegrino top 50 than any other country in the world apart from France, the towns are spruced up and clean and efficient, and it has turned into a wealthy, modern European country.
Now, I'm not the nostalgic type, and you'll notice I'm not looking back to late 80s Costa Brava with rose tinted glasses, but there are a couple of things I miss from 20-odd years ago. Firstly, and most obviously, are the prices. I distinctly remember a restaurant down the road from where we were staying doing a four-course meal for 1050Pts - about £4. It wasn't a particularly good meal - one of the courses consisted of boiled potatoes and green beans, and on one memorable occasion came garnished with broken glass (no refund was offered, not even an apology, they just swapped the dish - Health and Safety also being a post-1990 concept in Spain) - but if you were prepared to lower your expectations and put up with having your dishes flung at you by a guy in a string vest, you couldn't really complain. Secondly, before Ferran Adria started doing his foamy thing, restaurants in the Costa Brava tended to be either hushed, exclusive French-inspired places where the food was secondary to flummery and silver service, or seafront tourist traps where Brit-friendly menus served the odd Catalan dish in amongst chicken and chips and paella. Cal Galan, tucked away in an alley near the beach in L'Escala, is very much in that 2nd category, an unreconstructed tourist bar but one that has survived all these years by doing simple, tasty food very well and by virtue of its low prices and the odd Catalan speciality, is as popular with the locals out of season as it is with lobster-faced Brits in the height of summer.
There's a certain charm in the way that Galan serves a good chunk of its menu with chips and the option of a fried egg. I know of very few cuts of meat that can't be improved by the addition of chips and a fried egg - it's something you don't see enough of. I'm also pleased to report that pig's cheek, slow-cooked to perfection in a deep, meaty broth, also goes very well with chips and a fried egg. Oh, and a beef tomato. It was there on the menu, and true enough my pig's cheek came with a sliced tomato. Straightforward, no messing about, pig's cheek, chips, fried egg, tomato. Sorted.
And it was a beautiful pig's cheek, rich and tender and glistening with fat, and the chips were great for dipping in the egg yolk. A friend's chicken leg (also served with fried egg, and chips, and tomato) was simply grilled but moist within and similarly excellent value. Galan also do a pig's trotter (with chips, etc. etc.) which will be on my wishlist for next time as they certainly have a way with pork. With a bottle of the local Emporda Rosé, the bill came to around £10 each I think. Ludicrous value.
The reason that places like Cal Galan only seem to exist in Spain (or at least, in the Costa Brava) is because they are so unselfconsciously naff while at the same time tasty and cheap that any other country would either have to double the prices and bring in the white tablecloths or alternatively go down the "authentic" route and serve worthy locally-sourced fare without the egg and chips. They're an anomaly I suppose, these seafront restaurant hangovers from the 80s, but isn't a Brit-friendly egg&chips&paella joint in a way just as authentic in its own way as some asador in the Sierra Morena? None of them would have lasted this long unless they were doing something right, and traditions are created all the time - only the good ones stick around.
I may be the only self-confessed foodie championing the clumsy comfort of a Costa Brava cafe with a multilingual menu but I can't help the fact I really enjoyed my meal at Cal Galan. Perhaps it was the combination of accessibility and shades of authenticity, or perhaps the cheap local wine and low lighting put me in the right mood. Or maybe, just maybe I'm a sucker for nostalgia after all.