Howard Chua-Eoan meets an old friend and a dessert that tells stories of gold, and greed, and tragedy.
There is an absurdity to it, I know: ordering a dessert in solidarity. But what else would we do? It was the last Saturday of July at Manzanilla Spanish Brasserie on 26th Street, I was there with a Spaniard, and the news was still lingering about the horrific derailment near Santiago de Compostela in Galicia that had killed 79 people three days before. The crash had come on the eve of the annual religious feast for St. James the Great (Santiago, like San Diego, is the Spanish form of the name Saint James). It had been a horror that brought all of Spain into mourning. But we couldn’t do anything except to feel melancholy about crash. And besides, it was time to order dessert.
Desserts may have a reputation for frippery, but Proust can attest to the deeper meaning of sweets. The memories and histories they rouse come in the entire range of taste, from sweet to bitter. And so it was only fitting that there, on the menu, my friend Jose Angel Abad and I saw the tarta de Santiago.
A Galician creation, the tarta de Santiago is traditionally a pie-shaped cake stuffed with almonds. The version at Dani Garcia’s New York City outpost was cupcake-sized and filled with a mixture of nuts and jammy fruit but it still bore the mark that identified it: a powdered sugar coating that formed the silhouette of a thousand-year old design, the Cross of Saint James—part fleur-de-lis, part sword. It is like feasting on heraldry.
But there are deeper resonances for people who love Spain, even those who, like me, are not Spaniards. The Order of Saint James, for whom the florid sword was designed, was an armed religious group founded in the 9th century that proved instrumental in kickstarting the Reconquista, the half-century long military campaign to oust the Muslim rulers of the Iberian peninsula. The momentum of that reconquest also led to the creation of a single Spanish kingdom and sped the ambitions of the new overseas empire—with riveting lessons of heroism and power and greed and sanctity and evil and the eventual fall of all empires. The dessert whispered all of this to me.
Jose Angel is a Spaniard but he is much less romantic about his country than I am. He is often surprised about the parts of Spanish history that I find fascinating. But I was born in the Philippines, a former Spanish colony, and Filipinos possess the usual love-hate-neurosis that colonials have with the old country. He did appreciate enough of my obsessions, however, to email me a photograph from a restaurant in Madrid that had a plaque saying that Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, had stayed in the building once in the late 19th century. The Spanish colonial government would go on to execute Rizal, who was of Chinese-Filipino descent (as I am) and wrote his novels and poetry in beautiful, if florid, Castilian.
An on-air correspondent for the TV network Antena 3 in Spain, Jose Angel has covered many parts of the world. In 1999, when he was just 27, he was sent to London to be Antena 3’s correspondent there. He remembers talking to a shady character in the aftermath of the Northern Ireland peace process who said, “I have a lot of bad friends”—that is, friends with arsenals. I said it was always good for journalists to know people with bad friends. Jose Angel now covers North and South America for his network—which is broadcast all over Latin America. As such, he is a recognizable face for millions who watch Spanish-language TV—our waiter at Manzanilla certainly recognized him—yet retains the advantage of anonymity in the Anglo world.
Jose Angel had just returned from visiting his network’s headquarters in Madrid and, as when we sat down to dinner, he handed me a gift: a book by the prize-winning writer Antonio Muñoz Molina entitled “Todo lo Que Era Sólido” (All That Was Solid). A series of elegant yet biting vignettes, the book, which takes its title from a line of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, excoriates the entire squabbling political class of contemporary Spain. A major target is the greedy gullibility that allowed the country to be swallowed up by the financial crisis. And as he takes aim, Muñoz touches on history and how it is perceived and packaged and recalled. He talks about modern Spain’s obsession with its disastrous civil war in the late 1930s, how both right and left have romanticized its meaning to the point of diatribe and triteness. Or as he puts it, “the confusion between historical memory and the historical novel.”
EVEN THOUGH SPAIN’S MOST RECENT GOLDEN AGE WAS MOSTLY MIRAGE, THE COUNTRY STILL CHANGED THE WORLD OF CUISINE
When Muñoz looks at the most recent burbuja, or bubble, he sees echoes of the euphoria of 17th century Spain, when gold and silver began coming in at incredible rates from the colonies. But even though Spain’s most recent golden age was mostly mirage, the country still changed the world, especially in the world of cuisine, before the euphoria evaporated.
Dani Garcia, the chef of Manzanilla, had come to prominence during this culinary revolution which changed kitchens around the world and dethroned the French. Perhaps it was the frenetic momentum from all that creativity that convinced him to bring his reputation and food to New York (Ferran Adria, vanguard of the revolution, had consciously decided against starting a restaurant in the U.S.). The local critics have not been kind to Garcia or Manzanilla, seeing it as a sort of hodge-podge of new and old, with paltry new and unexciting old. But those moments that are good at Manzanilla are astonishing: perfectly globular croquetas holding joyously rich reservoirs of squid ink sealed under their crunchy surface; so many sherries you could well pair each dish with a separate glass; a take on traditional potatoes and eggs accompanied with jamon iberico that was unctuously comforting.
As he often does, Jose Angel groused that Manzanilla, like most Spanish restaurants here, does not offer his favorite Spanish dish, ensalada rusa, or Russian salad, a mess of potatoes and carrots and celery and peas drowning in mayonnaise. I am sure there is a story, beneath all that mayo, about Russians and Spaniards and history, but I was glad to hear the whispers of the tarta de Santiago instead.