Saturday night in Murcia City, southern Spain. I’m in El Secreto tapas bar, trying to summon up the willpower to eat a sea urchin. It looks absolutely bizarre. And in all honesty, absolutely vile.
But as all vacationers need to eat, food stories are a travel writer’s staple. From London’s gastro-pubs to Bangkok street food, it’s a world of rich pickings. Admittedly, pickings are sometimes strange, but ‘strange’ is part of the job.
More on sea urchins shortly, but first to Murcia—a jewel of an art-and-culture university city. Once a Moorish stronghold, its old town is a warren of narrow lanes and little plazas shaded by orange trees, palms, jacarandas and magnolias. It’s also a byword for gastro-tapas. Small dishes of hot and cold food—tapas—are served throughout Spain, but Murcia takes the experience to new levels.
Most locals hit the tapas trail before dinner, but after a hearty lunch, an evening tapas feast is often enough for many visitors. There are bars all over the city, but there’s a wondrous cluster in Plaza Santa Catalina and adjoining Plaza de las Flores, a haven for flower-sellers.
Murcian tapa classics include michirones—plump broad beans stewed with cured ham, chorizo sausage, garlic, and sweet red peppers. Pastel de carne are flaky pastry mini-pies of minced beef, hard-boiled eggs and chorizo. A marinera is an anchovy-topped helping of Russian salad.
Most tapas cost $2.50 to $6.35. At the sophisticated end, my favorites included a pasta cylinder stuffed with scallop and boletus mushrooms in a bechamel sauce. Heaven on a plate for $3.80. But the $3.20 pastry parcel of blood pudding topped with a smear of foie gras in a sauce of dried fruits was just as good. The most I paid for anything was $6.35—for lamb braised in black beer, served in a creatively-latticed basket of crispy potato.
If you do intend writing about food, don’t forget vegetarian publications. The Murcia region is Spain’s market garden, so interesting vegetable combinations abound. One veggie delight is morcilla de verano. Although the name suggests “blood sausage” and “summer,” this meat-free tapa is served year-round. Sprinkled with oregano and toasted pine nuts, it’s eggplant braised in olive oil with minced onion and garlic.
Chefs also have the bounty of the Mediterranean and the Mar Menor, Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon. Now, although I could happily live on seafood paella, swordfish, shellfish and squid rings, I’m not enamored by the prospect of sea urchins. (Or rather, what sea urchins contain.) To me, the idea of scooping out and swallowing any creature’s reproductive parts is more repellent than mouth-watering.
Small, spiny and globular, sea urchins are a prized Spanish winter delicacy. What makes them prized is their contents—a five-pointed star of soft, orange roe. Some U.S. chefs euphemistically call these egg sacks ‘tongues.’ I’d call them appetite suppressants. Yes, they taste of the sea. But so does a mouthful of seawater.
I’m not going to lie and say “mmm—it was delicious.” It wasn’t. But for a travel writer, a sea urchin makes a great way to kick off a story about Murcia’s tapas bars.
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