Postcard from Cordoba, Spain: Regional flavors dominate menus

Torching of seafood atop paella at Al Grano Arroces y Mas

The distance from Cordoba to Seville is less than 100 miles, but the cuisine distinctions seem much greater. The regional favorite tapa is flamenquin. A slice of pork loin is topped with a slice of jamon and a piece of cheese and then rolled up and deep-fried. Fried eggplant drizzled with dark honey is found everywhere. The traditional salad consists of wedges of romaine topped with fried garlic with vinegar and oil for dressing. Sephardic-style preparations are abundant, and oxtail, rabo del toro, reigns.

A by-the-book traditional Cordoba menu removed from the main Mezquita tourist zone can be experienced at Restaurante Sociedad Plateros Maria Auxiliadora. Nothing trendy. A place where large family gatherings are held to celebrate First Communions or high school graduations.

Bodegas Mezquita, of which there are several, proved a popular spot for sampling Sephardic dishes. The warm garbanzo salad was wonderful, and we enjoyed a hardy lamb stew and fried merluza, hake.

Following a delicate appetizer of red tuna carpaccio atop a wispy crust, the Mister got his rabo del toro fix at La Fuente 12.

Restaurante Campos del Mar was far off the tourist grid, and it was well under-populated during its fixe prix lunch hour. The chef was so disappointed we did not order his habas (giant lima beans) con chorizo, he brought us a healthy portion to sample. I sometimes am blood-sausage-challenged, but, in his richly flavored broth, it was wonderful. The goat cheese salad was overdressed, a regional tendency, but the dressing was so good we managed to polish it off.

Reservations are needed to sample the rice specialties of the small Al Grano Arroces y Mas. Grilled apples were a nice change on our salad with the usual generous portion of goat cheese. Rather than try to replicate Valencian paella, the chef throws out the rule book. Seafood is placed atop the cooked pan of rice and dramatically scorched tableside.

In addition to the Mercado Victoria, our favorite spot to eat was the somewhat funky laid-back El Astronauta. A plate of grilled vegetables, always welcome. Perfectly cooked grilled tuna. Moussaka. And a luscious preparation of Moroccan savory-sweet chicken pastilla.

Postcard from Xativa, Spain: Socarrat good for paella but not for a town

In Valencia, the crispy caramelized socarrat around the edges of the paella pan is a cook’s goal, but scorched is far from ideal when applied to your town.

Spaniards have referred to residents of Xativa as socarrats since the early 1700s. Flush with victory at the Battle of Almansa securing Spain for the Bourbons, the vengeful Phillip V (1683-1746) ordered the town taken and set ablaze. Felipe has not been forgiven, his portrait condemned to hang upside down in the city’s Almodi Museum.

The twin peaks of Monte Vernissa above Xativa have been fortified since Roman times. Himilice, the wife of Hannibal, gave birth to a son there in 218 B.C. Although the fortress appears difficult to conquer, sometimes alliances place one on the conquered side because of battles lost elsewhere.

While under Moorish control, Xativa became the 12th-century European center for production of paper. Most of the walls stretching across the two hilltops today are preserved from the Islamic and Gothic periods. Portions of the castles and fortifications were rebuilt more frequently, including the upper Santa Fe Tower – destroyed by a gunpowder explosion in 1563, an earthquake in 1748 and the French in 1813.

Xativa was home to the powerful Borgia family, known for their Machiavellian political maneuvers. Two of the Xativa-born Borgias became popes, Calixtus III (1378-1458) and Alexander VI (1431-1508). The city also takes great pride as the birthplace of the painter Jose de Ribera (1591-1652).

Out of respect for possible remaining scorched sensibilities, the Mister opted for rabo del toro instead of socarrat-crusted paella. Translated literally, this means bull’s tail, making one think this was one way Spain took care of the remnants of bullfights. But it is oxtail, slowly cooked to an extremely tender stage and served with the resulting rich broth.