by Deborah Hansen
How do you like that feeling when you are slightly but not hopelessly lost in a new city or country, when the signs don’t make sense, and nothing looks nor smells familiar? I, for one, adore it. Forget the map app. I just try to enjoy the sensation of new territory, because it smacks of adventure. Our hunter-gatherer brains tell us to be wary of new terrain and all its foodstuffs for there may be danger lurking behind every street-food vendor and each barely-marked hole in the wall eatery, but I relish this sensation. I do not claim to have evolved much from my hunter-gatherer past. To the contrary. I just like to relax into the dumbness of my cerebral cortex and follow my nose. The frontal lobe of my somewhat-evolved brain may say to me “Street food here? Utterly devoid of any sanitation principles? Unrecognizable victuals? Don’t do it! Belly turbulence guaranteed!” But I let my reptilian brain stem override this reasoning and I buy the food on a stick with the stinging sauce that two pairs of hands (that I saw, anyway) touched. I eat it with the thrill of several senses. It’s colorful. It’s fatty. It’s warm. It’s spicy. It’s new and different! And that un-marked closet-cum dining spot? I venture in. No one understands me, I understand no one. I point, I hold out some crumpled cash, and wait for whatever arrives while savvier customers jostle me and slurp. I savor my plate of the new and unknown, noodles in some animal’s broth with vegetables I cannot name. I am nourishing my body with different foods and forging more neuron paths in my brain as it grapples with the new.
You see, authentic food experiences force us up and out of the grooved rut. The tongue feels wowed, and the brain expands a tiny bit (I’ll take that, even if it’s the tiniest of tiny bits). In my Spanish restaurant Taberna de Haro, open since 1998, I aim to bring you some thrill - and perhaps some neuron expansion, too - through truly authentic food. A dish may not be what you are expecting. And that’s a good thing. ‘Tortilla’ for example, is a pan-fried omelette containing so many potatoes and onions it is 3 inches tall. Those potatoes and onions have been simmered in real (read: expensive) olive oil, so the wedge you are served is perfumed with olive oil, sweet with well-cooked onions, satisfying with the soft starchiness of potatoes - some crispy brown on the edges- and juicy with perfectly cooked eggs. Oh, I could boil those potatoes in water, use cheap vegetable oil, and buy commercial eggs (which require full cooking) rather than free-range, but then Taberna de Haro’s tortilla would not be authentic. You wouldn’t feel Spain in your midst. You wouldn’t have an extraordinary, rut-busting experience.
In world booby-trapped with chain restaurants that guarantee sameness and no new neuron paths, I live for authentic food experiences. In the lunar landscape of the pre-made and the predictable, I crave an original dish or five, and I bet you do, too. Therefore, my mission as chef-owner is authenticity. Take the griddled cuttlefish with black allioli. Cuttlefish is the plumper, squatter cousin of the squid, and he needs to be cut into little cubes before being browned on our flat griddle, called a ‘plancha’ in Spain. Planchas are ubiquitous in tapas restaurants for their unique ability to brown food. That black allioli on your cuttlefish, ‘sepia’ in Spanish, is made by mixing mayonnaise, raw garlic, and squid ink, which costs $30 per jar. I could just serve you white mayonnaise, but that might remind of the chicken salad you had for lunch. Not my goal. I want to delight you with the adventure of something new, the irresistible sensation of black, garlicky mayonnaise on thick squid-like pieces of sweet sea critter, lightly caramelized.
When authenticity is your mission you resist the temptation to buy commercial olives and you import them from Spain, higher price and shipping costs be damned. You stick to traditional recipes you learned during your years in Spain from hard-to-manage sous chefs whose heads were filled with grandeur - and their moms’ traditional recipes! You don’t jump on the chuck wagon of food trends to be hip, rather you keep on your menu the anchovies, the frogs legs, and the saffron salt-cod balls you’ve always had. You make stock for your paella that takes hours, never even considering canned. You peel and cut potatoes by hand rather than using the frozen kind with so many ingredients on their labels. Shouldn’t fried potatoes be just that?
Authenticity to me means staying the course of my ambassadorship to the traditional food and wine of Spain, a place to which I am forever indebted for rocking all my neurons with her flavors and uniqueness for over 30 years now. Imported black-hoofed pig ham. Rich green Spanish olive oil. Dozens of sherries by the glass. Exquisite and costly cheeses that Issan of Formaggio’s Kitchen chooses with as much passion as rigor. 330 different wines from Spain and Spain only. Black paella, using that squid ink again! Piquillo peppers and guindilla peppers. Raw salt cod in your Catalán salad, roasted baby pig once a week, perfectly fried chicken thigh pieces in an audacious amount of olive oil, and naturally raised beef at twice the cost to bring you ten times the pleasure are all examples of my commitment to authenticity. I humbly offer a little foray into Spain’s flavors without the transatlantic journey. I may not be able to offer quite the adventure of that street food vendor in Mexico city with the food on a stick, nor that shoebox noodle spot in the Japanese neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil, but I do deliver authentic.
By Deborah Hansen
Taberna de Haro
999 Beacon St.
Brookline, MA 02446