Towards the end of last year I found myself in the backstreets of the Spanish city of Córdoba. The weather was swinging between brilliant sunshine and steady rain, but this didn’t matter much because what I was looking for was happening indoors – a tapas take on Spain’s nueva cocina. Definitely not Ferran Adrià’s molecular approach, but more the kind of thing that you can actually indulge in – food that’s emotional-sensual, rather than cerebral. There is nothing new about this – Barcelona and San Sebastián in particular have been covering that ground for years – but in this somewhat traditional Andalucian city, I was surprised and very pleased to find inventive variations on traditional fare.
I had just emerged from the twists and blind turns of the Judería, or old Jewish quarter, stopping to admire an architectural gem of the late 15th century, la Casa del Indiano, so pure in mudéjar style that it could have been standing in Fez: another reminder of the Moorish history of this beautiful city. But my compass was firmly set on Ziryab Taberna Gastronómica, named after a Baghdadi bon vivant who had lived here in the 9th century, about which I had heard excellent reports.
As I was early by Spanish standards, I managed a few words with the chef, Ramón Montilla, a retiring chap with a shy smile. This gave me confidence – he obviously wasn’t in the business to achieve celebrity – and in fact he soon proved himself. Plate after indulgent plate appeared, from perfectly al dente seasonal vegetables slumbering beneath a slow-cooked egg, to a flaky bacalao (salt cod) fillet, which came seconded by curiously blackened potatoes. Not burnt, I learnt, but painted with squid ink, all the better to bake. Boletus mushrooms had been transformed into a luscious soup laced with truffle enveloping dainty little mounds of bread and jamón, but I managed to resist a tempting list of rice dishes.
The greatest surprise of the menu, though, was its revelation of Córdoba’s latest trend: gin and tonic. Half a page was devoted to the properties of eight different gins and four different tonics. So, even if the tapas were breaking ground, here I was being lured back into a dark Hogarthian world of gin-drinkers, albeit Andaluz style. I declined. For me, it had to be fino all the way.