Matters of taste

The Spanish have perfected the beach restaurant
July 20, 2011

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 full-flavoured my lunch must have been to taste so incredible al aire libre.

Whenever I rhapsodise about it, people tell me that, wind or no wind, sea air makes you hungrier. There is, it turns out, no physiological basis for this belief, but it’s true that seaside breezes often carry fragrances that provoke our appetites. Some are, of course, man-made, like the smell of charring sardines, or the pier-end fug of fried doughnuts and chips that beclouds the English coast. Under these, however, lurks the aroma of the sea, created predominantly by algae and other forms of marine life in various stages of decay. Not terribly appetising in theory, but in practice it tends to persist at a low-enough level for us to perceive it as tangy, salty or mildly fishy. Like nature’s precursor to the supermarket in-house bakery, or the house-vendor’s coffee-bean under the grill, waves release a mild sulphurousness into the atmosphere. Our appetites are highly suggestible, and the boardwalk promenader might find herself unexpectedly craving a platter of oysters, a pint of prawns, buttery corn on the cob, boiled eggs or cooked asparagus, all of whose fragrances have compounds in common with the smell of the sea.

The other craving that might overcome you, at least on a very hot day, is for something salty. As we perspire we lose not only water but sodium, and feel a corresponding impulse to replenish it. After a morning on a sun-lounger, you might find yourself hankering after a Greek salad, with its brined feta and Kalamata olives, or a salad niçoise, sharp with anchovies, olives and capers. It’s surely no coincidence that salted caramel, which ricochets between your salt, sweet and fat receptors till your palate rings and flashes like a pinball machine, was invented at a Brittany confiserie on the Bay of Biscay.

If you’re unlikely to make it to the beach any time soon, may I suggest that on a hot day you take consolation by sitting barefoot in the garden with a glass of chilled manzanilla sherry. It’s dry as flint, and has the yeasty character common to all fino-style sherries, but it’s most renowned for the salty quality that comes from being aged in sea air. Not only does it taste wonderful, but when you raise it to your nose the combination of yeast and salt will recall the smell of warm skin after a day at the beach.