I’m done with being shocked. I don’t know when it happened: Brexit; or that feverish morning in November when I woke up at five and refreshed The Guardian homepage; or the rolling boil of post-inauguration horror; or sport; or the telly, maybe. In its wholesale shift towards twisty, rug-pulling What The Fuckery – Mr Robot, Game of Thrones, even something supposedly innocent like This Is Us – TV is a faithful mirror to our times, but not an especially pleasurable one to consider, particularly when real world events continue to chip away at our ability to feel shock.
Anyway. On a recent trip to Seville I was astonished at how little I was surprised. We went, I think, to the right sort of wannabe-iconoclastic places; the creative, hip, modern joints all the bloggers and CNN Travellers and Guardian Long Weekenders raved about. Everywhere we were confronted with the same stuff, a David Muñoz-lite variety box of Asian nods (tuna with sesame oil, or soy), techniques ripped from high-end joints (Arzak-derived slow-cooked eggs with mushrooms), and swaggering but mediocre house takes on established heroes of the Spanish canon like patatas bravas and Padrón peppers.
I remember encountering this sort of stuff for the first time maybe a decade ago: it had thrilled me, then, as an alternative to all that boring exquisite ham. But now the very thing which once felt revolutionary has become codified into a sort of sloppy shorthand for genuine innovation. Like a Noma-influenced cook artfully plating three berries and a twig – so expressive of their terroir; so much less pleasant to eat than a sticky toffee pudding – shorthand like this is rarely good news for punters: unless the produce and execution is absolutely on the money – which, if the cook is lazy enough to reach for shorthand in the first place, it probably won’t be – then the result is almost always going to be inferior to the classics.
Classics are classics precisely because they have stared down wave after wave of pretenders, spins, and reinterpretations and come out triumphant. They speak of the perfectibility of cuisine, the idea that you can reduce food down to the most elemental level possible and hone in on something unimprovable. Spain is particularly rich in these primal combinations – sherry and jamón, Manchego and membrillo, hake and aioli – and good places there are totally unabashed about serving them with no further ornamentation. I once spent a baffled five minutes asking a waiter at Bar El Pinotxo in Barcelona what else was cooked with the chickpeas I was eating, rotating through increasingly odd articulations of the same question – torturing grammar and syntax – because I simply could not believe that you could get so much flavour from a handful of legumes, some crumbled sausage, a scatter of pine nuts and a little oil. I had a similar moment of incomprehension at Bar El Rinconcillo in Seville, the one truly old school place we visited: chickpeas again, slow-cooked this time with spinach. Clearly, start with good chickpeas (the Navarrico ones you get in a big jar in the UK will do). But start further back than that, too: go back to people with limited means extracting the most they could from their produce, and seeing no reason to layer unnecessary stuff on top just because it suddenly became available.
We were heading in that sort of direction when we went to Morito Exmouth Market for one of their Sunday dinner-fiestas in honour of the Calçotada festival (held annually around this time of year in Catalunya). I’ve made it clear elsewhere before that this is pretty much my platonic ideal of a restaurant, the sort of place I’ve grown to love unconditionally, like family; but entre nosotros in recent visits I’ve felt it bucking against me, testing that love as it has strayed further and further from the single-plancha magic tricks of the Boquería and towards the more recognisably Middle Eastern flavours of its older sibling next door.
This, though, was cojones-to-the-paredes Spanish – alright: Catalan, you tiresome pedant – from start to finish. We started with a gilda, one of the very greatest combos in the Spanish canon, the best amuse-bouche on Earth: briny, spicy, savoury. Then the calçots themselves, charred and mummified in newspaper, a chunky, unreconstructed romesco sauce on the side. Next a slaughterhouse’s worth of sausage – chorizo, morcilla, butifarra – with some rosemary-accented beans and a salad touched only by the virtuous other tables. Finally an almond tart chock full of actual nuts, not marzipan, with a bracingly sour crème fraiche on the side. Everything was utterly without fault, tremendously, straightforwardly delicious, and even more winning for being a couple of degrees less soigné than Morito’s usual Instagram-pretty assemblage. We drank so much that the waitress who brought us our bill apologised because she thought another four-top’s drinks had been added to ours: vermouth and the OK-ish house red and a far better tempranillo and a stonking Matusalem oloroso dulce to riff off the almost Elizabethan spicing of that tart. A sore head the next day, sure, but a profound and lasting sense of satiety: people had been eating this sort of food alongside this sort of wine in this sort of jovial setting for decades, and it was all harmonious, together – this with that and me with you and all of us under this roof, now.
I am not calling for all chefs to retreat within themselves and go full Jiro Dreams of Sushi on their every ingredient and process. Innovation and surprise – more correctly, the drive to make food novel, and surprising – are essential to the wellbeing of a city’s restaurant community. But it always tickles me that high-end chefs, who torture exquisite, fleeting new flavours from unsuspecting ingredients, want, at the end of a long day, exactly what you and I would: good bread, good butter, good cheese, good ham, good wine. They know what we all know: that there is a time and place when what you need is something elemental, foundational, unsurprising.
Sometimes, things going to plan is nice. Sometimes, eating the classics, perfectly executed, is to be surprised in a different way, to be reminded of that word’s history. To be seized, and transported.