KISHORE AND SMITA IYENGAR

Sunny Spain is one endless sojourn of fascinating gourmet sensations.

Spanish cuisine owes it unique legacy to the countless influences of its conquerors and races down the ages.

THE stage came suddenly alive. The lights dimmed as the foot-tapping rhythm blended with the sonorous notes of the Flamenco guitar. As gorgeous floral skirts swirled in swan-like cascades and sensuous forms surged, singing and dancing, the guests at the Tablao Flamenco-Corral de la Moreria in Madrid clapped in appreciation.

Delightful spread

On our table was laid out an exotic fare exotic... Gazpacho with Langostines and Basil, Salmon with fine aromatic herbs and Idiazabal cheese flakes, Breaded custard with Chinchon, Aniseed Coulis and Dark Chocolate, all tinged with a super red Spanish Marques de Riscal Rioja 2001 wine. Outside, the Spanish evening was being celebrated in countless Bodegas (wine bars), Tapas bars and restorantes as crowds of food-loving enthusiasts lapped up the flavours of Spain. The Flamenco experience at Corral de la Moreria was just the beginning of our endearing gastronomic journey. The summer heat in Spain is a tad drier and harsher, but that edged us to explore further. In one of the non-descript side lanes near Puerto del Sol, a busy square populated by hordes of body-worshipping visitors, we entered Sidra Y Comidas, a small Tapas Bar offering that irresistible Madrid summer drink, the Sidra, a green apple wine with some salt in it. Accompanied with a liberal helping of fried Calamaris and cheese Tapas and delightful onion-parsley-fried potato rings Tapas, the Sidra worked well with us. Our friend at the bar, Manuel Luis Garcia Bernardo (a freelance stock market consultant) demonstrated by pouring the Sidra high from the bottle into a lowered glass, allowing the even mix of apple granules.

Unique flavours

Spanish cuisine owes it unique legacy to the countless influences of its conquerors and races down the ages... the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians, the Celts, the Romans, and lastly the Moors. The tastes and flavours intermingled to create a heady fusion of exciting creations famed the world over. The sensuality and allure of Costa Del Sol (the Spanish Riviera) lives through the colourful streets of Malaga. On arrival, we were driven straight for lunch by our companion Maria Utrera to a tiny bar with countless barrels of wine, endless garlands of garlic and scores of inverted wine bottles donning the interiors. A joint enterprise of the owner and the famed Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias, the Meson Mariano is renowned for that delectable Andalucian speciality, the refreshing Gazpacho, a cold summer soup broth. A thick gravy of fresh raw tomatoes, a dash of garlic sautéed in olive oil, some old bread whipped within and savoured with crackers and the local signature offering, Malaga Virgen Sirvase Frio-Pedro Ximen liquor, it's a hit with the taste buds! Later, our lunch at the chic and futuristically designed Restaurante Trayamar in the Old Town area was a voyage through the nouvelle cuisine trends sweeping Spain.The languorous night does things to the beachfront along Malaga's shores. It never sleeps. Frenetic activity there with the Chiringuitos (local fishermen) grilling fresh sardines, crabs and clams on their display boats, serving them straight off the charcoal embers. Lettuce garnished with olive oil sautéed fresh garlic and peppers signed off a great open air fiesta, watered with a grand red wine, Majuelo Sancosme 2004. You see, Spanish food is incomplete without its fascinating wines.

Catalan venture

The highlight of our visit to Barcelona, capital of the Catalunya region, was the discovery of Catalan flavours at La Gavina Restaurant with the effervescent and genial Maria Lluisa Albacar, who conducted us through the attributes of the meals. "This contains vital minerals and ingredients from fresh springs, sure to improve health, reduce blood pressure and regulate circulation," she remarked pouring us the Vichy Catalan (mineral water). The local tuna in liberal Spanish olive oil, sautéed with pine nuts and cheese flakes was the finest fish delicacy we've ever had, the vegetarian Paella with leeks, carrots and smoked mushrooms adding zest to our already cultivated Spanish tongues.Barcelona boasts of several well known fine dining places, the Michelin Star Restaurant Moo (pronounced Moe) at the Hotel Omm rated among the world's finest. What happens when impeccable service marries world class cuisine and the choicest of wines? You have Pears Gnocci with Fourme d'Ambert, Smoked rice with mushrooms, tuna with comfit tomato and black olives, apple soup with lemon thyme and chocolate seared with beer. Then the wines... At the end of this signature meal we felt like honoured royalty.The drive up the hills into Catalunya's fabled wine regions of Penedes and Priorat proved to be a gastronomic repertoire for us. At Sant Sadurni d'Anaoia, we visited the small but modern Cava Cellar Pere Ventura. Cava is Spain's handsome answer to France's Champagne, the fizzy aperitif an ideal cocktail base too with its intrinsic flavours. On to the wineries of Spain's celebrated legend, Miguel Torres and the vast estates were just a polite introduction to the stupendous varieties we tasted. So the Torres Gran Sangre de Torro-Reserva 2001 and the Torres Gran Corona were liquid jewels par excellence, superlative in flavour. The cheese crackers that we nibbled helped smoothen the imposing aroma of the Torres wines. Celler Aspic, a warehouse-turned-fine dining place in Falset in the Priorat region was an experience in local innovations. White wine cured Cod with citrus juice and potato coulis and pumpkin quiche... In Spain we noticed a parallel shift to innovative cooking alongside age-old favourites.On our last winery lap we turned into the miniscule, boutique phenomenon by the name Clos de L'Obac in Manyetes, Costers de Siurana. On rugged, visibly barren hillsides sits this amazing winery exporting its limited edition red wines exclusively to the United States. On our taste buds and nasal sensitivities, the wines spoke a language of mystery and magnanimity... the flavours were unconditionally outstanding, with delicious Catalan cheeses like Turi Gawotxc Serrat Nevat and Manchego Cabrale Idiazabal Torta del Casar.

Picture of serenity

Before turning back to urban civilisation, we headed for Vilella Baixa, a small cliff-clinging village further inland. Peaceful, serene, we watched a family crush giant almonds from shells, old men playing cards by the kerb and kindergarten kids romping and playing beside watchful mothers... Taking in the sweeping nocturnal sights of Barcelona that evening from the restaurant at the prestigious hilltop Hotel La Florida in Valvidrera al Tibidabo, the singular, inimitable flavours of Spain were etched stronger on our psyche. Raising a hearty toast to the gourmet grandeur of this spirited nation, we quaffed appreciatively on a perfectly chosen red wine - an Ebruix Vall Lach 2004 of Priorat, from the boutique winery of the famous Spanish singer-composer Luis Lach. Salude!