There’s a beautiful beach on the Côte d’Azur, not far from the Fort de Brégançon, the French president’s official summer retreat. The sand is white and the water so clear you can spot the rubber-clad heads of the secret-service frogmen lurking in it. Tucked into the cove is a rustic-looking restaurant. Breeze round at lunchtime, dreaming of what you might eat with your glass of chilled rosé, and you’ll be met by the granite expression of the head waiter, who, clicking his tongue, will tap the reservation book and announce he has nothing for you. Now, in my book, the seaside is where you go to get away from this sort of thing, a liminal zone in which the societal norms of table linen, delicately stemmed wine glasses and snotty maître d’s are overturned in favour of eating with your fingers, dabbing your lips on your wrist and clenching and unclenching your toes in the sand.
The Spanish get it right, but then they conceive of the beach restaurant as a separate entity, deserving of its own, appropriately festive-sounding name: chiringuito. While some chiringuitos aspire to a degree of formality, most hit just the right note of laid-back dishevelment, serving cold beer and simple food from a Crusoe-esque shack with a thatched awning for shade. Like as not your chiringuisto, or whatever he’s called, will be serving espetones—a skewer of six sardines grilled over a wood fire strewn with sprigs of fresh thyme. The more thoughtful chiringuisto will, mercifully, serve glasses of frisky gazpacho to subdue your hunger while you wait in the inevitable line for your crisp-skinned fish.
A few summers ago my husband and I chanced upon an isolated chiringuito on the Playa Zahara near Cádiz. Unable to smell sardines, we assumed it wasn’t selling food until we spotted a gas burner the size of a bicycle wheel behind the shack. Precariously balanced on it was a paella dish full of arroz con pollo. No vegetables. No herbs or spices. Just rice with bits of chicken in it. A paper plateful cost €1 and was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It was made with the sort of dark, sticky, intensely flavourful chicken stock that somehow tastes profound. Eating outdoors diminishes intensity of flavour, for the simple reason that the wind on which irresistible smells are borne also whisks them away, and I marvel at how…