Seafood does funny things to people. When the Bluff oyster season opens in Bluff, in New Zealand’s South Island, ritzy Auckland restaurateurs fly the prized bivalves the length of the country so poncey, paunchy connoisseurs can slide the creatures down their throats that very night. For a hefty premium of course. Can’t they wait two days? And many of us (me included) have a thing for hunting down the best [insert underwater delicacy here] in [insert city here]. The best pulpo in Madrid? The best anchovies in Albuquerque? No one’s ever too worried where the best chicken dish is hiding.
Seafood is the promised land of food. And, like many before me, I went to Ribeira do Miño looking for a religious experience. A Galician restaurant down a drab Malasaña street, its mariscada, or seafood platter, is mythical.
The waiter led Yoly and I through a succession of packed dining rooms, reverberating with booming conversation and the music of cracking shells. Tables were laden with groaning platters and the air carried a whiff of ocean.
My saliva glands opened. Seafood was doing funny things to me.
Seated down the back, under littoral decor and a sign that read “Singing is prohibited”, we ordered the mariscada for two, pimientos de Padrón and a bottle of Albariño. And we didn’t wait long. 327 seconds later, the meal arrived.
A glistening hillock of dismembered sea creatures. Claws, shells, beady eyes, antennae, all humped on a silver platter, with a row of shiny king prawns draped over the summit. My heart lurched. You feel like a king in front of a dish like this. And eating seafood tickles some evolutionary nerve. Since its so hard for us to get our hands on the stuff (because we can’t breath underwater), being served an obscene amount of it for only €16 per person releases a flood of serotonin (Nb: I made that up).
Unfortunately, the moment you’re served a mariscada is the best moment of the mariscada. Despite the freshness of the bounty (the restaurant’s seafood is shipped direct from northern fish markets daily), the flavour of this hoard is subtle. Strike that. It’s disappointing. The thing is, there’s just not that much flavour in that big heap. Boiled prawns, king prawns, langoustines and crabs are, like most things boiled, rather bland. Lemon slices give the meat some zing. But the traditional bowl of mayo is misguided. Sticking a boiled prawn into mayonnaise hits the delicately-flavoured prawn flesh over the head with a blunt instrument. The prawn simply becomes a delivery device for a large, waddy dollop.
Now, I’m sure all mariscadas are not created equal. Perhaps this wasn’t a great one. But all mariscadas are boiled and (I believe) served cold. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Instead of a mariscada, I’d plumb for its much warmer, much tastier (and only slightly more expensive) cousin, the parillada de marisco. The latter is a platter of grilled seafood, and they do a fine one at little-known Dueñas. For about €50 (bottle of vino included) you get less seafood, but more flavour. Or head to Iker’s stall, on the ground floor of Mercado de Antón Martín, where he’ll do you a grilled king prawn for a few euros. If crustaceans were currency, I’d trade five boiled prawns for one of Iker’s gambones a la plancha any day.
There were tasty morsels in the mariscada pile. At the bottom were two crabs, on their backs, their underbellies ripped open and their entrails, like whipped pate, ready to be scooped out. Delicious. The percebes (gooseneck barnacles) were pretty good too. Though Yoly doesn’t get all the fuss over percebes, I do quite like the spurt of seawater on the tongue when you suck them out.
And, to their credit, mariscadas are joyously physical… a very stand-back, sleeves-rolled-up, I’m-going-in experience. Shells fly, juice squirts and nice shirts are ruined. As you rip and tear through dinner, your plate becomes a seafood midden, piled high with nippers, tails and skins. And every fifteen minutes, when the midden looks likely to topple, a happy waiter appears and swaps your plate for a clean one. And it makes you feel like a child. You’re caught with your proverbial pants down… your hands are greasy and smelly and you’ve got prawn flesh all around the mouth. As he changes your plate, you hold your arms aloft, afraid to touch anything except your wine glass or more seafood. And you realise you’ve gone from feeling rather regal, to looking like Mr Creosote.
Update 17 July 2013: I was drinking cocktails with a rather right-wing retired military doctor last night… who was from Galicia. I asked him whether he was a mariscada or a parillada man. He said he was neither. He said he abhors these massive servings of seafood – they’re a “barbaridad”. Instead of being dished up a mountain of food, he prefers to order the specific things he feels like eating the day…. perhaps a plate of cockles, a few gooseneck barnacles and a pair of velvet crabs. While I found serious fault with his crypto-Fascist politics, I thought this little piece of gastronomic insight was without reproach.