Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 16, 2011

Spain is top choice for traveling Mississippi chef

MADRID— I love my hometown of Hattiesburg and my home state of Mississippi. For the last four months I have been on a one-man PR, marketing, and promotional tour touting the joys and benefits of living in South Mississippi to any European who asked, and many who didn’t.

Over the years my kids have asked me, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

I always answer, “Hattiesburg, Mississippi.” It’s true. I love the food, the proximity, the culture, and most of all, I love the people.

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I was born with a natural wanderlust and I like being able to travel and see other places, meet new people, and experience different cultures. But home is Hattiesburg.

I state all of this to say that I might finally have an answer to the where-would-you-live-if-you-could-live-anywhere-in-the-world-question? Spain.

I will spend the rest of my life in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My ashes will be spread at several locales throughout the state. But if I am forced to give an answer as to where I “could” live, other than home. That answer is Spain.

We love this country.

We love the food, we love the people, we love the culture, the pace, the proximity, it’s the complete package.

During the two years leading up to this trip, I was often asked, “What country most excites you?”
“Spain,” was always the answer. It still is.

While opening the new Italian restaurant, I had spent two years researching the foods of Italy. My early culinary training (to the extent that there was any) and my early mentors were all classical French cooking disciples. I learned French cooking from them, the old-line New Orleans restaurants, and the “Larousse Gastronomique.”

I had Italian and French foods covered. Though with “true” Spainsh cooking, I was a blank page.
Sure I’ve eaten at a few Spanish-themed tapas restaurants throughout the U.S., but they were Americanized Spanish. The real deal is infinitely better.

You’ve got to love any culture that puts this much emphasis on ham. It’s everywhere, on every menu, in dozens of applications, hanging from the ceilings, and displayed on the counters. Jamon Iberico is often touted as the world’s finest ham. My new Italian friends— prosciutto lovers, all— took umbrage with that distinction, and told me to give them my opinion, once I reached Spain.

Hopefully they’re not reading this column, because for my money, Spain is the pork capital of Europe. Period.

Jamon Iberico comes from black Iberian pigs in the southwestern section of the country. The pigs are not kept in pens, but are left free to wander in fields and forage for food, namely acorns (which are supposedly the secret to the quality of the ham).

I have a trip arranged to see these pigs, and to follow the process from the field to the plate. Details next week.

The Spanish run on an entirely different clock than the rest of Europe. They eat lunch in the middle of the afternoon (it was 5 p.m. when we walked out of the restaurant yesterday). They eat dinner late (most restaurants don’t even open until 8 p.m.), and they stay up late. In Barcelona, we were serenaded by several middle-aged men singing Bob Marley karaoke songs outside our hotel window until 4 a.m.

As a consequence of staying up so late, no one seems to get moving until around 10 a.m. It’s almost like the Spanish live their lives in a freshman dorm.

We have spent the first two weeks dividing time between Barcelona and Madrid, both of which have made the top-three list of all of cities we have visited. After a quick trip north, we’ll head south for the holidays, and try to dip into Morocco and Portugal.

These people love food. There’s a reason— the food is fantastic. I have always been a “grazer” when it comes to dining. Back in the states I will often spend the majority of my meal trolling the menu for first-course small plate items, opting for three appetizers and skipping an entree. I’ve always believed that a chef’s most interesting work is done in the starter section of a menu.

Tapas, originally bar food, were originally served as small snacks on a plate which was used to cover the top of a bar glass as it was delivered to the table— Spanish pub food. Today, almost all restaurants in Spain offer tapas. Most restaurants have a display of cold tapas on a bar or in a side case, and other items that are prepared in the kitchen.

In Spain we have found two restaurants that are among the best dining experiences we have enjoyed while eating our way through 15 countries.

In Barcelona, Tapeo is owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team and has only been in business for 18 months. I ate here three times. That is huge for me. I have so many restaurants on my to-do list that I only reserve one meal for each location. If it’s exceptional, I might go back twice.

Tapeo is a small shotgun space directly across a pedestrian alley from one of the more popular tapas places in town. I ate six or seven items that I knew instantly I would be bringing back to my restaurants. Perfect.

Over here service is like the pace of their lives— slow. However, at Tapeo, an expatriated Brit named Chris Simms, was knowledgeable of the food and process, and gave excellent, efficient service.

We have also eaten our way through Madrid. The highlight has been Lateral (a two-time visit so far). We were given this recommendation from the hotel clerk after arriving from Barcelona at 10 p.m. We stumbled a few blocks down the street and found Lateral was hopping. They were four-deep at the bar and sitting on street-side tables despite the chilly weather. The food was creative, original, well presented, and on a different level than most casual restaurants over here.

We’re off to Segovia (more pork), before heading south, but we are energized by this country and look forward to a lifelong love affair with its food, its culture, and its people.

Harriesburg restaurateur  and author Robert St. John and his family are traveling in Europe for six months.