Eat: Percebes (& since you’re not in Galicia, eat them @ Combarro)

Madrid is a city I’ve wanted to claim as my own since I was in college, for Madrid is where I spent the ubiquitous American semester abroad. At such a young age (19!) and as a foreigner spending a pittance of four months there, Madrid certainly didn’t become my city. But I was infatuated with its nocturnal energy, its never-ending supply of art, and, of course, its inscrutable history as the capital of Spain.

Here’s an image from those months that sums up my early courtship with Madrid: in late October, there was some kind of massive art festival, during which exhibits were open all night and concerts littered nearly every park and street corner. Entire families, toddlers included, were out at 4:00 am eating churros and swaying to jazz or checking out contemporary art.

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vibrant Plaza Chueca, all lit up for the holidays

It’s easy to feel as if you belong with such a social people, at least to a certain degree, just by virtue of being outside among them. I bounced along with a friend from my program, another “gringa,” drinking some gross concoction of wine and diet coke because that’s what the locals did (kind of) and like I said, I was trying to behave as if I were one of them. We ended the night by watching the sunrise in the Parque Buen Retiro, and weeks later I packed my bags and returned to a sleepy North Carolina town where I matriculated, eager to boast of my impeccable knowledge of Madrid.

This month, in preparation for our trip here, I re-read some emails I’d sent to pals at about that time and they are *hilarious*: “you should try to live near so-and-so metro stop, but not too near, and certainly south of so-and-so street unless you don’t mind a complete lack of charm.” My knowledge was so superficial; I learned something about Spanish art and a tiny bit about politics. I read Machado in Spanish, poorly, understanding only that he was somewhat depressed; I saw interpretations of Kafka at the Teatro de Valle-Inclán (Valle-Inclán I knew had been an important Spanish playwright, but I couldn’t name a play). Their poets are sad; they love Kafka; Franco had moved the political science campus of Complutense outside of town because he was afraid they’d make a fuss. These were my fuzzy snapshots of Madrid.

Fast forward nearly ten years. When we landed in Barajas on December 16th, I felt the immensity of my outsiderness, but by now I’ve become confident enough to remain aware of and (somewhat) less intimidated by it. For our very first full day in Spain, I’d made reservations at a well-touted Galician seafood joint in a residential area of the city. I’m not usually this type of traveler; I rarely plan so far in advance. But I had been dreaming about trying a certain dish since the fall of 2006, and by dios I wanted to do it right. The Internet told me this was the spot to do it.

I’d been so enamored with the idea of these sea critters that I even wrote a poem about them back before I’d actually ever witnessed them in person. I was determined to try percebes, aka goose barnacles, aka dinosaur toes, aka a phallic tube you must squeeze in order to release a delicious, briny flesh—something the very prim server had to show me how to do, by the way: I couldn’t make this shit up.

Percebes: Worth the process

Why would goose barnacles have been a poetic muse of mine? Percebes thrive on sea rocks facing only the roughest of surf and are so incredibly dangerous to harvest. They’re apparently the best from a certain coastal region named after the grim reaper himself, and to harvest them during winter is even more dangerous still. It’s around Christmastime, however, that the delicacy becomes even more high in demand. It’s also incidentally when my husband and I happened to be ourselves seeking them out.

photo of a percebeiro, or percebes harvesters, from

Moral qualms and price tag aside—we’d come so far!, and when a Spanish restaurant recommends a dish, it’s their specialty, and it’s imperative that you should order it— we asked for a media raciónde percebes.Let me take a step back for a minute to describe the scene. While the Cambarro Restaurant sits at the base of an unimpressive and even somewhat ugly block apartment building, the restaurant itself is lovely to behold, with a storefront window like a miniature set of The Little Mermaid.

Photo from

The bar, which you find just beyond that window, is like what every wannabe American bar-Salón wishes it could be. All I can remember now is a blur of deep mahogany, shiny brass, and discrete-sounding mechanisms busy at work to deliver what I imagined to be the ambrosia to these northern Madridleño gods—the conservatively and well-dressed clientele who I assumed to be abogados (lawyers), since we’d passed a handful of such offices.I had entered this bar in a fluster and nervously asked, in my rusty Spanish, something along the lines of: “If we have reserve, where is it that we should maybe go?” A particularly hospitable hostess, whose station had been tucked discretely out of sight, appeared at once. She seemed only slightly embarrassed on our behalf and took us up a flight of stairs where we suddenly found ourselves in a Madrid no study abroad student would ever stumble upon.

In the Cambarro restaurant, clockwise: My husband and me, pan for sopping up the delicious-est olive oil, olives, percebes.

As I twisted the little percebes flesh off its rock and pushed the oyster-y tube into my mouth, I couldn’t help but think of someone who risked his life to get the monster to me. I began to imagine all of the dark histories I tend to superimpose on  contemporary Spaniards. Call it a duende lens, something that’s probably like the deliverence lens  with which people see often my own home region, Appalachia.

In Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain, the British-born journalist talks about the unspoken remnants of Spain’s not-so-distant Francoist past; how, for instance, you’ll find many of the homes in grand 1940s apartment buildings belong to families that thrived under the dictator’s regime. So even though the service at the restaurant was impeccable, the food was delicious, the price tag was not ridiculously exorbitant, and I can highly recommend the experience, my brain kept circling back to a little nagging question: Was I among those families now?

Angulas, or tiny eel, via

Was the immaculately blazer-ed woman sitting beside us, eating eels (or angulas, the other/more expensive delicacy on the menu) part of upper-class Spain because her family had decided to side with the generalissimo? Probably not. Or maybe. I’d never know, but either way it seemed the most Ursula image I’d ever come across in real life, and the question lingered— whether it was a fair one or not.

Read: The Time In-Between, María Dueñas, trsl. Daniel Hahn

El Tiempo Entre Costuras

As I was sitting in that swanky restaurant, immensely aware of my every move, I kept joking with my husband that whenever I felt uncomfortable or unsure of myself, I’d keep repeating: What Would Sira Do? When you’re traveling, you’re constantly absorbing new information: you pick up audio guides, read every informational plaque, collect museum pamphlets with gusto. And though I’m curious by nature, there comes a point where it’s hard to take in more facts.Which is why on this trip I chose to get my extra dose of history in  the form of a war-time era spy romance.

You can call it a guilty pleasure, if you like, but the novel is well-written and gracefully translated, spiced with compelling historical biographies and perspectives, and also quite a bit of fun to read. Maria Dueñas’s heroine was wisely conceived: As a seamstress, Sira is able to straddle different the class divides of early twentieth century Spain. A hard-working woman of humble beginnings, she eventually finds herself, after a series of woes, in constant contact with influential ladies of the time. We get to appreciate Sira for being unlike her selfish and materialistic clients, and yet admire her impeccable taste of luxury goods. We somehow get to relish in the descriptions of elite environs of a war-gutted society without feeling indecent about it. Hence, also, her graceful negotiation of intimidating social situations that I called upon myself in Cambarro.

As the title suggests (you might translate it as the time between seams or the time in between), Sira’s story also plays a skillful game with time. She leaves a Spain on the brink of civil war and returns from Morocco only after the war has ended. So while we do get many political tirades from Spanish characters with strong allegiances one way or the other, they are not Sira’s for us to judge. We learn about the war and its effect on the people who suffered it, but we don’t have to look it directly in the eye.

Dueñas cannily avoids providing a real-time description of war time Madrid; all of those are accounts are secondhand, and though they’re still stirring they’re also less immediate because of it. Yes, Sira does eventually work as a spy for the British. She grows and evolves and begins to make her own decisions, beginning with how she can best help her country. But her motive there, too, seems somewhat apolitical. Here is the great novel about the Spanish Civil War that delicately tiptoes the most controversial elements of the war and its aftermath. Not once does Sira— or any other developed character— directly address her attitude toward the certain señor whose name begins with F. But by avoiding this, Dueñas also opens up conversations that are difficult to otherwise find. She directs the spotlight on what seems like painstakingly accurate descriptions of real lives of the time, on the kind of people that, as Sira says, might easily be left out of the history books.

Photo stills of the television adaptation, via

Did I mention it’s also a binge-worthy TV series, available on Netflix? Watch it to practice your Spanish and to ogle at the beautiful clothes: Most of the reflective historical perspectives are less represented on the screen.