By Robert St. John
MADRID— I spent the final month of 2011 in Spain. I was nearing the end of a six-month sojourn with my wife, 14-year-old daughter, and 10-year-old son. We covered a large part of the country — Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville and Malaga. There were several other stops such as Segovia for the meats and Bilbao for the arts, but our focus was on those other cities.
We all fell in love with Spain. To me, it’s second only to Italy over here. It’s strange, but before I went on that long comprehensive trip, if asked, I would have said France would be number one followed by Great Britain. I am certainly a Francophile when it comes to food, but I side with the Italians in that longstanding heated argument. Great Britain isn’t necessarily a food-lovers country. Though I have had many great meals there.
Spain was the big surprise on that original trip. We fell in love with the people and the food and the laid-back culture.
Here I am in 2022, back in Spain, exactly two years after a global pandemic shut down the world. I took a quick two-week working vacation into Tuscany last fall, but other than that, this is the first time I’ve been back in Europe since the pandemic hit.
I write this at 6:30 a.m. as the sun is beginning to rise through my hotel windows as it creeps above the tree line over beautiful El Retiro Park. There are 25 people in other rooms in this hotel waiting to start a 10-day journey with me retracing the route I took a little more than 10 years ago. I am glad to be back and working over here again.
I use the term work, but it’s not hard work. It’s not like landscaping or construction. I’ve done those jobs. That’s work. And I’m not a tour guide, not at all. Even though I’ve led more than 500 people through Italy over the past several years, I’m just a host. I find great people and great places and I love turning Americans on to those people and places.
This trip was booked pre-Covid, more than two years ago. The beauty of this group is that almost all the 25 people here have travelled with me before. For many of them, this will be their fourth or fifth trip. We are friends now, and that’s what the next 10 nights in Spain are going to be, a group of friends traversing the country and enjoying another culture, its people, and its food.
I never intended to be a tour host. It just happened. When my family was on the long six-month European trip, I invited my friend and co-collaborator/business partner Wyatt Waters over to join us on the Italian leg. He and I had written two books together at the time (four now, with another in the can waiting release one day). We worked on an Italian coffee-table cookbook, and from the resulting promotional book tour and requests from readers, we began bringing people to Italy.
Wyatt has suspended European travel for a bit and is staying closer to home and traveling the South while focusing on his new book project that will be out this fall.
While Waters and I were leading those tours we also filmed five seasons of our show “Palate to Palette” which can be viewed at public broadcasting’s website. We were set to film season six in Spain when the pandemic hit.
March of 2020 held a lot of unanswered questions and confusion. No one knew the extent of what was coming. We were a few days away from the “Two weeks to stop the spread” mindset. Little did we know we were in this for the long haul. When it became apparent that full countries were starting to shut down, I cancelled the Spain trip. Unfortunately, we had one couple who was already over here in Portugal set to meet us in Madrid. Fortunately, they are good friends and have travelled with us many times and were able to make their way to London to fly home.
I rescheduled the Spain trip (and all my Italy trips) for the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021. Surely, I thought, this thing will be over in a matter of months. If we can stop the spread in a matter of weeks, certainly things will get back to normal in a few months. We all know the rest of that story. I ended up rescheduling and rescheduling and cancelling several other groups when the Delta variant hit, until now.
Here we are. Back again. Italy felt very safe last fall. They still take a lot of precautions over here, and in Italy. I’ll be shooting a new television show over here called “Yonderlust.” The first season will cover Spain and our journey on this trip with these friends.
Typically, I am not a group-travel person. I have gone on a few group trips food suppliers have gifted me throughout the years, but if they hadn’t been free, I would have preferred to travel with my wife as a couple. Though there is something about the way we do these trips. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But it’s not like we’re in a group travelling. It’s just like having a group of like-minded friends experiencing new things.
We always err on the side of local non-touristic things and places. We hit some of the can’t-be-missed historical places, but for the most part I use locals to get us behind the scenes and into the places only the locals know and love.
So, again, I’m not a tour guide. I hire others to cover that role, and they are the best in the business. They know their stuff. They are enthusiastic, and smart and energetic as well as knowledgeable, and — just as our guests have become friends — these guides and experts have become my good friends.
Ultimately, we are all just friends travelling through European countries satisfying our wanderlust, or in the case of we American southerners, younderlust.
2 ½ lbs. Calamari, sliced tubes and tentacles
½ gallon Water
¼ cup Dry white wine
¼ cup White vinegar
4 each Lemons
2 TB + 1 tsp Kosher salt
1 TB Whole black peppercorns
1 sprig Italian flat leaf parsley
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 TB Red wine vinegar
1 TB Tarragon vinegar
¼ cup Extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp Fresh ground black pepper
½ tsp Fresh garlic, minced
¼ cup Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves, loosely packed
2-3 each Large leaves fresh basil, chiffonade
In a 2 quart stock pot, combine water, wine, white vinegar, 2 lemons, 2 TB salt, peppercorns and the sprigs of parsley and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and add the calamari. Leave in the water for 3-4 minutes to partially cook the calamari. Strain and spread out on a pan to cool completely. Discard the poaching liquid.
Stack the basil leaves, roll them tight, and slice thin with a sharp knife (chiffonade)
Once the calamari has cooled, combine with the juice of the remaining 2 lemons, red wine vinegar, tarragon vinegar, oil, 1 tsp salt, black pepper, garlic, parsley leaves and basil. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for a couple hours. Serve chilled.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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