I travelled to Salamanca to attend Spanish school for three weeks, and the lesson in language was the sole purpose to my visit. My culinary experience in this city was an unexpected, and brilliant bonus.
Spanish dining is focused around the “tapas” style of eating, which involves lots of small plates of food, rather than one main meal.
This style of eating originated in the 1700s, when poverty stricken farmers who were unable to afford food, chose alcohol as a cheaper alternative on their lunch-breaks. The Spanish king, Phillip III was horrified at this phenomenon, and passed a law stating all alcoholic beverages must be served with food, at no cost.
Restaurateurs didn’t want to fork out for fancy food, so simply placed a piece of bread atop of beers with a hunk of cheese. The foods formed a cover, which in Spanish is called ‘tapa’.
This humble beginning has evolved into a marvelous food culture, which is celebrated globally, and is world-class in Salamanca.
Thankfully for us coeliacs, the presence of bread has gradually diminished in tapas culture and the focus has switched to meat and seafood, paired with incredible flavours.
After my first Spanish class, I went for lunch in Plaza Mayor, the square marking the centre of the city, after seeing a sign that stated ‘sin gluten’ in the window.
I ordered patatas bravas from the menu, which was marked gluten free, but had no idea what the dish actually was. A dish piled high with chunks of crispy fried potato, lathered in rich tomato sauce, and a creamy aioli style sauce dusted with paprika, emerged from the kitchen, and I immediately knew I had found my favourite tapa.
Every day after my Spanish lessons I’d venture into a new tapas bar and attempt to communicate my allergies. Only once did I get a very confused look and a “Lo siento” (sorry), and I am quite sure that was due to my poor Spanish skills.
I stumbled across two more restaurant windows proclaiming to have ‘sin gluten’ menus, one- a tapas bar, the other, an Italian restaurant.
The tapas bar was run by a lovely gentleman whose daughter was a coeliac. I merely said ‘soy celiaca’ and for 4 euro ($7!) I had two pieces of gluten free bread; one topped with hunks of manchego cheese, the other with jamon, both delicacies that would cost you an arm and a leg back home in Melbourne.
Don’t get me wrong, I love tapas, but after so many bite-sized meals, I was ready for a large plate of pasta and a full stomach.
I dragged my Spanish school buddies along and much to their delight; the restaurant had separate kitchens so they could eat ‘normal’ food. Any menu item could be made gluten free so I went all out and indulged in beer, cannelloni and profiteroles.
Salamanca came a close second behind the capital Madrid, for the most gluten free options, but the beauty of this tiny town made it a winner in my eyes.