Little cup of perfection

Lisa Hilton praises a divine lunch in Santiago de Compostela

Eating Out

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

On her journey to her bridegroom, Arthur Prince of Wales, in 1499, the Spanish Infanta, Catherine of Aragon, paused at the second great pilgrimage site of Europe, Santiago de Compostela. As she heard Mass, the huge swinging censer, the Botafumeiro, carried by eight men, came loose from its rope and flew out of the cathedral window. No one was hurt, but perhaps it was an omen for both the princess and the future of her faith in England.

Contemplating the Plateresque façade of the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, one feels very sorry for Catherine. If this was what her parents built to house pilgrims free of charge, what a dank and piddling place the Tudor court must have seemed. Perhaps Catherine’s loss was England’s too, as despite the flamboyant magnificence of its Gótico Isabelino architecture, Santiago feels curiously un-Spanish — a city of soft mists, grey stone and cawing seagulls. If the Spanish Armada hadn’t been dispersed by the winds 79 years after the Infanta’s marriage to Arthur’s brother Henry, maybe Cornwall would look this good.

The name of La Tacita de Juan in Santiago suggests a more modest vessel than the Botafumeiro — it means “little cup”, but then this is a restaurant that doesn’t need to advertise its ambition. Its confidence is manifest as soon as you step inside — the restaurant has a rather beautiful art collection, but the dining room itself is achingly plain, spacious tables and capacious linens, nothing else.

My host, a charming young Galician historian, is the fourth generation of his family to patronise La Tacita, which is run by the fourth generation of Juan’s family. I admit I got rather mixed up with the Juans, but the present cook is the present Mrs Juan, and her food requires no distractions.

Our first course was sliced raw tomatoes: no dressing, no sauce, no decoration. Green, yellow and a wine-dark variety known as “blue sea”, from the 15 varieties grown in the family orchard from seeds selected from last year’s crop. Juan brought the new vintage on a piece of kitchen paper for us to inspect. The fruits were Hesperidian.

Then an empanada of salt cod, with sweetly wrinkled grapes hidden in the layers of golden pastry, their juice cutting the salt tang of the fish and a Russian salad of fat crayfish and a shallow pot of clams in the Galician rendering of sauce marinière, smoky with fish stock and pimento smoothed over by cognac.

These dishes alone would have comprised a perfect lunch, but Mrs Juan was about to bring out the big guns. Eggs, chips and peas. That is, soft-yolked eggs fried on the principle of croquetas, with a little bechamel and a crunchy batter, peas with lean, intense lardons and bright matchsticks of potato to unpick the eggs’ jackets.

There’s an old Liverpool gag about ladies who are generous with their favours — chips and peas will go with anything, but La Tacita’s chips and peas are the Mary Magdalenes of side dishes. Having known perfection they need stray no more.

My host described our wine, a Galician Granbazán, as a “seaside wine” and luckily its jaunty crispness allowed room for an ox steak, plainly translated as “old cow”, a chop of milk-fed veal (of which the region’s farmers are justly proud) and a casserole of hake gullet. This latter delicacy is seldom served as it requires ruthless filleting, and the result is not beautiful — glutinous and greenish, yet the taste is a pure, buttery shot of the sea.

Years ago I wrote about an unsurpassable dish of veal with caviar at the tragically defunct Greenhouse in London; at the time the combination seemed outlandish, but the flavours, salt, soil, cream, were echoed and amplified here in a logic which reminds one that the very best cooking relies more than anything else on the assured combination of ancient tastes.

I wasn’t superhuman enough to attempt the quince and white cheese ice cream from the pudding menu, yet a single graceful canita, a slim pastry cigar of lemon and vanilla custard, only a whisper of sugar to temper the tang of the citrus, was the last stroke of the conductor’s baton on this symphony of a lunch.

You don’t have to take my word for how good La Tacita is. The regional parliament of Galicia recently banned its politicians from visiting the restaurant on the grounds that being a host or a guest there was an incitement to political corruption. The law was rapidly overturned once the opposition returned to power. It’s an odd distinction, but perhaps one particularly suited to this intensely Catholic city. Santiago soars with testaments to the spirit, but the kitchen at La Tacita pays eminently sensible tribute to the bounty of the Lord in the world.

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