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Embassy Eats: Sharing heart and soul at the Spanish table

The seafood explosion that is Paella, a specialty of Valencia on the Mediterranean coast.

The dining table: a couple of square meters of unassuming flatness unattended and unregarded for much of the day, but which exerts a powerful gravity on our lives and time with others. More than its utilitarian conception, the dining table is about community, comfort and conversation, tastes and toasts experienced together -- a space, moment and place that is, above all, shared.

    It draws us together, and that shared experience need not end when the dishes are cleared away. The table can also be an anchor for a web of friendship and support that extends through our everyday lives, as it is in Spain. At the table of Ambassador of Spain to Japan Gonzalo de Benito, he and the other diners -- counsellors Maria del Coriseo Gonzalez-Izquierdo and Beatriz Marco -- describe a country where "food is so social" and "all important celebrations are around a table"; shorthand for the tremendous importance of the shared meal. A shared meal like the day's lunch, and its dishes from very different parts of Spain presented in a seamless procession of tastes both refined and wonderfully fulfilling.

    Croquetas, served hot and filled with creamy shrimp.

    As this is a Spanish meal, it commences with tapas. There are soft cubes of Tortilla Spanish omelet, Jamon Iberico de Bellota cured ham with its silky nuttiness, little Empanadilla pastry pockets of tender tuna with their origins in the country's Arab period, crunchy Croquetas filled with creamy shrimp, and the firm but yielding Manchego cheese from the La Mancha region of central Spain. The meal will wend its way through Andalusia in the south with a soup, march up the Mediterranean coast to Valencia for a staggering example of an iconic rice dish, and head to the cool green of the north for a simple and simply satisfying dessert.

    There will be sipping stops in Jerez de la Frontera near Cadiz for a dry sherry, in Catalunya for Cava sparkling wine, white Rueda in Castilla y Leon, in Rioja for a classic Tempranillo, and back to the Cadiz area for some cutting-edge vinicultural artistry in red.

    Such variety packed into a single lunch, so much to experience. On, then, to the soup, a specialty of Andalusia in Spain's deep south.

    Soft slices of spectacular Jamon Iberico de Bellota, foreground, sits by Manchego cheese from Spain's La Mancha region.

    The chilled Gazpacho arrives in wide white bowls, a smooth red canvas for the diced toppings -- cucumber, white onion, egg white and yolk, fresh tomato, croutons and red bell pepper -- sitting like a painter's palette in the middle of the table. Sprinkled on the tomato soup, the toppings tarry a bit on the surface before slowly sinking. Stir a little, and the soup goes from bright monotone to color-dappled visual extravaganza, putting one in mind of a piece of modern art. It tastes as good as it looks, wonderfully fresh, intense and velvety, with sudden flavor highlights as you bite down on a tiny cube of topping.

    From Andalusia, the road winds northeast to Valencia and the main course. The wide, shallow Paella pan arrives on the table like a seafood cornucopia, a colorful profusion of whole shrimp and clams that look like they're bursting from the pan. It feels almost decadent to have such a rich collection of the fruits of the sea all on one plate. The shrimp are still in their shells, so getting at the firm flesh inside makes this a hands-on experience. The effort is well worth it, the shrimp supple and rich. The bed of rice, dyed a deep red-brown by the cooking process and tomato, is a sumptuous taste of the sea, bursting with all the juices released by the shellfish as the Paella slow-cooked. It is warming, filling and truly satisfying.

    Chopped toppings sit ready for the Gazpacho cold tomato soup.
    Gazpacho cold tomato soup, drizzled with olive oil and decorated with a colorful selection of toppings.

    There's a lot going on in just the first two courses. For one, they simply would not exist without two enormously influential periods in Spain's history: the almost 800 years Arab emirates held sway over much of Iberia, and the Spanish arrival in the Americas. The Paella could not be without rice, introduced by the Arabs (along with oranges, eggplant, and any number of ingredients now essential to the Spanish menu), and there is no Gazpacho without tomatoes, native to Mexico and just one item on the list of "New World" imports to the cuisines of the world that also includes tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chili peppers, vanilla and cocoa.

    For another, the size of the Paella pan tells you that this setting -- a broad table surrounded by people sharing in the meal -- is this dish's natural habitat. Indeed, it is a hint to the importance of the shared table in Spanish life.

    "I always say one thing I like about Spain is that we can have a (formal multicourse) meal like this one, but also we can have a party with just a glass of wine and some olives," says Beatriz, hands moving above the table. "Because it is important to talk, to have a meeting, and enjoy the company of each other."

    A paella pan nearly overflowing with seafood.

    Maria de Coriseo adds, "Something that I really like in Spain is friendship, including family. ... For example, you met some of your friends in kindergarten, and no matter what, they are unconditionally your friends for life." So, while Spaniards also tend to be very independent-minded, "you always have that. And for me, that is immensely rich," she says.

    However, the diplomats go on, this network is about a lot more than having a good time. It means mutual understanding and assistance when it's needed most. Earlier, Beatriz described how townspeople and villagers would come together to help each other during the grape harvest or to slaughter one family's pig, each person taking on the tasks they were best at. Now, she says, this helping-hand culture has its parallel in the apartment blocks of bustling Madrid; "vertical villages" where neighbors are ready to help each other with rides or grocery shopping when someone is in a fix.

    "One of the distinctive things... of the Spanish character I would say is solidarity," Ambassador de Benito observes. On the macro scale, the solidarity he speaks of is borne out by the numbers. The OECD's Better Life Index declares that "there is a strong sense of community and moderate levels of civic participation in Spain, where 95 percent of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need." According to Spanish government and Council of Europe figures, in 2014 Spain also had the highest organ donation rate in the world, at 35.9 per million people.

    Perfect cubes of a Spanish classic: Tortilla Espanola.

    This spirit of assistance also seems to reverberate in Spain's international presence. The Good Country Index, which attempts to measure each country's positive impact on the world, ranks Spain No. 1 in "Health and Wellbeing," for things such as international food aid and voluntary contributions to the World Health Organization.

    Back down on a more personal, kitchen table level, it means there are people close to you and ready to help when you need it. Beatriz says that friends and relations are often so keen to help that, if you try to push through a tough time on your own, they may scold you for not calling them to have a coffee and talk it over. "Let's have a coffee," Beatriz comments, is often shorthand for "Let's talk about some important things." It's said that talking out your sorrows, she goes on, can make them go away -- key to what she calls Spaniards' particular resilience. Have a meal, have a conversation with people who have always been there for you, and you will see things in a new light come the next day.

    Ambassador de Benito speaks often about the wave of modernization that followed the end of the country's dictatorship in 1975 and the passing of a democratic constitution three years later. Since then, a nation that once had virtually "no presence abroad" economically or diplomatically is now "everywhere" -- from active membership in all the major international organizations to becoming a leading exporter of wine and transportation infrastructure, and even taking seven spots in an annual list of the 50 best restaurants in the world.

    White from the Rueda Denominación de Origen (DO) in Castilla y Leon flows.

    The ambassador says that the transformation has sometimes been "difficult," but he is immensely proud that through it all Spain has maintained its social traditions, its web of family and friends that enrich and assist each Spaniard. He even credits this network with helping the Spanish get through the worst of the recent financial crisis, providing family members with monetary support or taking care of kids while parents are out job hunting -- friends and family, people that you can "rely on in time of need." And the table is where these bonds are renewed, strengthened, kept vital.

    At this table, there is but one stop left on the journey through Spain: Tarta de Santiago (Torta de Santiago in Galician), a large, round almond tart dusted with icing sugar. A northern specialty, it is smooth, subtly sweet and under-laid with a rich nuttiness that never threatens to overwhelm (see recipe below). The balance of flavors in such a simple dessert -- there's nothing in it but almond, sugar and a splash of sherry -- is remarkable, and plays perfect companion to a nice thick cup of coffee.

    The tart disappears; the conversation continues. There are moments of seriousness, of surprise and levity. There are moments that engage the whole table, and a few sidetracks of two or three people. This is a busy weekday afternoon in Tokyo, but everyone is fully committed to this time and space, to appreciating the food and the company. It is a true taste of Spain.

    Empanadillas, or "little empanadas" -- tiny pockets of tender tuna perfection.

    Imagine for a moment walking down a stone-paved street to the welcoming light and happy, human sounds of a tapas bar. When you walk in, you know your friends (and perhaps a cousin or two) will be there, ready to talk and laugh and commiserate. The night will be measured in conversation, in the tempo of topics and stories. And when it's done and you're heading home, you will carry all that with you through the night, and into the next day: a network of love and support intertwined and strengthened there at that table, and all the tables past and future.

    The dining table: that place of human togetherness, drawing us in from our individual lives to share our time and our stories and all the tastes placed between us. You might say that these scant few square meters are the most precious real estate there is for us all.

    A classic Tempranillo from Rioja, left, stands next to a cutting-edge wonder from Cadiz.

    * * * * *

    Recipe: Tarta de Santiago (Courtesy of Chef Etienne Sonntag, Embassy of Spain, Tokyo)

    Filling

    - 250g raw, skinned almonds

    - 250g sugar

    - 3 eggs

    - 20 ml dry sherry

    - 1g cinnamon

    - zest of 1/2 lemon

    Batter

    - 100g soft butter

    - 180g flour

    - 1 egg yolk

    - 10 ml dry sherry or water

    - 1g cinnamon

    Preparation

    1) Put all the filling ingredients into a mixer and blend for 30 seconds.

    2) Mix all the batter ingredients and refrigerate for one hour, then roll the dough into a pie mold.

    3) Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C.

    4) Add the filling to the mold and bake for 40 minutes until the surface is golden.

    5) Let the tart cool and put a paper cross on the top. Sprinkle powder sugar over the tart evenly with a sieve.

    Have a good time.

    * * * * *

    Embassy Eats is a regular column designed to explore the breadth and depth of food culture from around the globe. To do that, we've gone to the source, getting to know the staff at the foreign embassies in Tokyo to find out what they eat when they want a genuine taste of home -- and connect readers to places and people that may, at first, seem far away. So to anyone looking for a bit of food fun and a tasty introduction to the cultures of our world, have a read -- and keep on reading as Embassy Eats continues. Next up: Mexico!

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