I finally realised it the other night. I was wandering through the streets of Aguilas, a small, seaside town in southeast Spain, looking for a place to watch England get knocked out of the World Cup.
When I say was looking for the football, more than anything I was looking for something to eat. I hadn’t eaten all day. It was late at night. And opening times in Spain are always chaotic.
I walked back home and there she was. She was finally open. The old woman’s restaurant I’d heard so much about. The TV was on. Either she wasn’t showing the game, or it was half-time, but I was too hungry to care.
I looked at a rich-looking couple sitting outside, enjoying wine and a great spread of tapas. The hot evening air streaming down purple and the distant flicker of Venus brick-red.
Inside, the old woman was nagging at her husband to finish his cigarette and start on the washing up. He walked past me. World-weary, wine-shadowed eyes. He glanced at me with an expression that was hard to read, but seemed to say “don’t get married”. He scuttled off to the kitchen and I heard the clink of plates.
I looked at the tapas on the bar. 11.30 at night. Where else would you find food like that? I thought about Boris, the man who urged me to write a book about training to be a chef - a journey that failed miserably when I ran out of money and was forced to return to the 9 to 5 rather than the 9am to 5am.
He’d told me to buy an “old jalopy and scootle down to Spain and learn the knives”. “Spain,” I remember him saying breathlessly as he sank another oyster, “is the food capital of the world!”
That was seven maybe eight years ago.
I ordered another beer and looked at the food again - meatballs in salsa, fried fish, hake roe, pimientos spread like oil paintings over clay. A similar hue to the sandstone cliffs that house the troglodyte caves where they once dried weed for baskets, and the hollows where the Romans fermented garum - a sort of Centurion’s Worcestershire sauce.
The old woman opened a huge metal oven, and the bar was filled with the smell of almond wood. She pulled out two huge steaks and headed to the rich couple’s table.
The game came on. No overpaid, half-time punditry from crisps-peddlers here, just adverts. Then I spotted it. The menu of the day. A huge roasting tray filled with potatoes the size of giants’ toes, and legs and shoulders of lamb - cooked not to pinkness, but to falling-away succulence.
She heaped a metal plate and put it in the wood oven to warm through, then asked whether I wanted salad to kick things off. She suggested pimientos.
A plate arrived with a basket of bread. Green and red streaks from Van Gogh’s palette, studded with black olives, and draped in garlic. Seconds later the peppers were snatched and the lamb arrived.
A whole front leg and parts of shoulder. Half a kilo of potatoes roasted not in the usual way, but more like fondant spuds - stewed in the lamb juices so the bottom was soft and the top wreathed in smoke and crisp from the fire.
It was incredible. I pulled off a huge strand of meat and munched. If I had one more meal - my Death Row Meal - this would be it. You'd hardly worry about the calories. The bone was thick, the meat was thick, the juice was thick, the fat was soon thick around my lips and hands.
The meat juices were seasoned with whole black peppercorns, sprigs of thyme and rosemary, the garlic papery and unpeeled. The taste was magical. Onions, a little white wine, but not much else. What else?
The lamb had been fattened on the nearby cliffs, munching samphire, wild rosemary and thyme. My word did this beast have flavour. I was half-way there, bursting. I picked up the leg bone like a troglodyte. Juice smeared, fat everywhere.
Uruguay scored again. “Goooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaal!” roared the Spanish commentator. His favourite part of the job. The stadium went wild.
The dish deserved more applause. The woman asked me if I wanted postre. Just another cold beer. I washed my face, I washed my fingers, and then I told her what an excellent meal it was. She looked happy.
I sat outside, barely able to move. My stomach thrust towards Venus. The couple were now on gin and tonics and chocolate desserts. I looked at the sign. I hadn’t seen it earlier. There it was - asado cordero.
My bill came. Three beers, half a sheep and enough potatoes to sink a freighter for 16 euros. Where else in the world would you get a meal like that? Only in Spain. Only in Spain. Then the trap door fell open.