The Granada I knew was as pretty as a postcard – the only problem was that was the only experience I’d had of it. Postcards. And after 5 hours in cattle class with Iberia, who offer complimentary turbulence and little else, and a sweaty transfer at Madrid’s ridiculous excuse for an airport, I needed a little more affirmation than an old ‘wish you were here’ from a redundant auntie.
At this point it’s worth pointing out that Michel, the Brylcreem-slicked local sent to meet us was now hopping from one foot to the other. Robin, my friend who would suffer my presenting skills on this trip, turned and explained it was Spain’s first game in the world cup.
“And Michel is missing it,” he stressed before entering a conversation with our man about Fernando Torres and an injury. Both of them shut up though, when the Hortons cruised over. Two vintage-looking automobiles that were shaped like machines about to enter the Mille Miglia. Unfortunately, the only racing done was on some dusty Andalucian highways. Our destination, Palacios de los Platos is slap bang in the middle of the city, and with electric gates and mock classical pillars, it gave Robin’s and my excitement levels a shot in the arm.
Once I’d marvelled at my unapologetically decadent room and laughed at Robin’s apparent positioning in the slave quarters, we were pushed into a blacked out Merc and told it was time for some culture. Winding through terracotta bleached streets, for the first time I remembered why I love this country. It’s the quintessential apathetic spirit of the place. The pace of life is somewhere between slow and standstill, as men float in and out of bars, kids barely break a sweat kicking footballs around the roads and the women are effortlessly beautiful. It’s absolutely exactly where you would want to live in a recession. It creates the kind of serenity that had flooded the Merc’s air conditioning by the time we pulled up at the Alhambra, the ancient fortress that overlooks the settlement. Set in a reddish brick (Alhambra means ‘the red one’, though it looks pink and buff from most angles), it certainly inspired Robin and I to actually do some work. We set upon filming with some enthusiasm, and soon I was presenting various pieces of information on camera (some of which were actually true).
By the time we’d made our way through the Muslim stronghold, the sun was beginning to set and we stumbled into a caviar tasting session on the Alhambra’s garden terrace. Oh well. Several glasses of champagne later and I’d managed to land myself a gig on the judging panel, although I wasn’t entirely sure why.
“They’ve flown in five different types of caviar, and we have to decide which one is the best,” Antonia, a journalist, explained. I finished another glass of the champers and asked the waiter to just leave the bottle on my table.
“So what am I looking for in the taste?” I asked. Antonia went on to explain the intricacies of caviar tasting, but a bottle of Grey Goose had appeared, so my attention fatally wandered.
“…and that’s what I like about it. What about you?” Smashing the shot glass down again I realised she’d finished talking and was now looking at me expectantly. I topped up both our glasses.
“I feel exactly the same,” I murmured and seeing a look of confusion creep across her face, reached to eat a breadstick. Except of course we were on a caviar tasting platform and there were no breadsticks, just Grey Goose. And I’d had a lot. Half a bottle a lot. And we hadn’t even started yet.
A Spanish man stood up and spoke a lot of Spanish. Another Spanish man spoke up and said a lot of Spanish. I may have said some terrible things in some terrible Spanish. But the important thing is I tried, or so I told Antonia, who was now edging away from me. Thankfully, men in impossibly white shirts began putting down dishes of caviar with numbers on in front of us and I managed to find an excuse for finishing off the vodka.
“It’s to cleanse the palette after each taste,” Antonia explained to me. Unfortunately, she meant just a sip. I dropped a shot after each spoonful and then wondered why I couldn’t focus on my score card. I managed to see Antonia’s though and neatly copied it before handing it into a stern-looking gent who seemed to be taking the whole thing far too seriously. Or at least more seriously than I was. Time for dinner, I was told, and without another word it was back in the Merc, which drove fast enough to keep the riff raff away but slow enough to keep the vodka in.
A real treat awaited us back at the hotel’s restaurant, where 3 Michelin-starred chefs had been charged with cooking us dinner. Philistine that I am though, I had to be found and ushered to my table from the bar and the tab the hotel was picking up. By now I had very little idea what was going on but again I was on the main table and desperate to maintain some decorum. At first I didn’t do too badly. I watched as many people made many speeches in turbo-charged Spanish and even managed to applaud at the right bits. I cheered with the crowd as each of the chefs came out, made the most beautifully complex and delicious looking nouvelle cuisine and then ruined it by obsessively introducing caviar. I’d like to point out that I have no problem with caviar in small doses, but at the centre point of each course when you’ve spent the afternoon tasting and judging the stuff, it starts to taste a little less than premium. Even so I seemed to be recovering some form with the Spanish journalists. I made some jokes in English. They laughed. I tried some jokes in Spanish. They laughed again. And with that little bit of confidence I made the mistake of thinking it was Ok to start drinking again. Starting by downing the merlot and announcing I was going to show them all how to get ‘truly crunk.’ And crunk I got. And until I see the footage of the film we made that night I still don’t know whether the fish in the pond outside were floating upside down already or because of the introduction of a 40-year-old scotch to their habitat.
Regardless, I woke up the next morning on my chaise longue next to an empty minibar and a feeling of familiar dread. Time for a change in attitude, apparently.
Back on the road again, where we were driven up to the hills and the small town of Rio Frio. Dozens of ponds, full of sturgeon, were dotted around the town’s caviar farm. They were huge, some five feet long but I was told that they were only kept here till they were around eight years old. It’s then that they can tell which are male and female. The males are shipped out for meat, the females moved to a separate farm down the road where they are kept until the caviar is taken from them – aged 15.
Just as I was wondering how the caviar was removed, I was taken to a vat where a solitary surgeon lay considering his audience of hungry journalists.
“You will now see the process,” our translator said simply before a man stepped from the shadows and electrified the pool sending the sturgeon into convulsions and a rather sudden end. As he dragged the very big fish onto a nearby table, we were ushered into the main factory where the caviar was to be extracted. The fish was then brought in and was suddenly surrounded by a group of masked men who slit it open as if we were in surgery. We were talked through the process of the caviar being carefully taken from the stomach, and then cleaned and purified. The farm goes through around 8,000 sturgeon a year by this process, over two harvests, but their attention to detail in getting the caviar to an appropriate standard had an unbelievable intensity. Even so I was glad to get outside again away from what was little more than an obsessively sterile slaughterhouse.
It was time to get a little more friendly with the remaining (live) sturgeon. We were taken to a nearby pool, handed some waders and told to jump in. The trick was to get your foot under one of their heads, and flick it up into your arms. But it was a trick I couldn’t master, especially when I was told that they can ‘break your face.’
After another epic meal, I was bundled into a small private aircraft for a view of Granada. Despite turbulence throwing the little plane around, it was the first time I’d felt any serenity for the whole trip (I was lying about the serenity in the Merc. I don’t know why). Within minutes we had climbed to 5,000 feet and I could see the area where I’d spent the past two days wrestling sturgeon and drinking myself silly. Surrounded by the snow-topped Sierra Nevada mountains, the orange glow of the Spanish city was devastatingly beautiful. This was what I’d come to see and suddenly I just didn’t want to go home. Yes, I’d had a good time. I’d learnt a lot and partied in the face of Spanish indifference. But there was clearly another side to the area I’d not even touched upon, and when the plane touched down and I returned to the hotel for my final night, I knew I’d have to come back for a proper period of time, one day. This time, sober.