Last night was opening night of Carnaval in Puerto de la Cruz and we headed down to the town to catch the Opening Parade which was scheduled to begin around 9pm.
Walking down Calle La Hoya we passed the usual smattering of visitors who’d made some sort of effort to get into the Carnaval spirit; the occasional feather boa slung around the neck, a neon wig or flashing sunglasses. But we were still firmly in ‘civvies’ hours – the fancy dress brigade wouldn’t begin to appear for another 3 hours or more.
On Calle Quintana the first of the food smells assailed our nostrils; the sweet, sticky smell of candy floss being spun and rolled onto a wooden stick and the perfumed almonds roasting brown in their crunchy sugar coating.
Reaching Plaza Charco, the sweet smells were replaced with the unmistakeable smoky aroma of Mesón California, possibly the best street food stall in the entire world.
As much a part of carnival tradition in Puerto de la Cruz as the High Heels Drag Marathon, Mesón California is in effect a huge Guachinche set up every year in pole position between the main stage and the harbour. Kitchen, larder, shop front and restaurant all rolled into one; a dozen men in matching T shirts cook, take orders, serve and clean up in full view of diners. It’s a magnet for foodies, photographers and everyone passing by – all are drawn to its visual, audible and olfactory presence.
Surrounded by tables and chairs with dainty red and white chequered tablecloths, the all-in-one food market takes centre stage, its rafters adorned with hanging strings of salchichas (sausages), chorizos and Jamon Serrano (cured hams). High stools sit around a counter packed beyond capacity with glass display cabinets filled with tapas and topped with sample dishes from the inexhaustible options of available things to eat. Crates of dishes lie ready to be laden with food, flanked by towers of upturned plastic glasses, condensation covered Dorada hand pumps, loaves of bread the size of small islands, whole cheeses and row upon row of wine and spirits
In the centre of the stall is a long work-station piled high with ready-prepared food; four different types of sausages, morcilla (sweet black pudding), pinchos (kebabs of savoury pork), chips, papas pobres (poor man’s potatoes – a savoury potato, onion and pepper stew topped with fried eggs), fried green peppers, tortillas (Spanish omelettes), calamari Romano (crispy fried squid rings), croquetas (breadcrumb-coated rolls of potato with cheese or cod), chocos (cuttlefish), pork chops, chorizos and sardines.
Along one side of the work-station a small army of cooks prepare dishes for orders taken and shouted from the other side of the bench by two servers who patrol the counter like linesmen at a football match.
Two waiters move between stall and tables shouting and collecting orders from the tables.
It’s a whole carnival in its own right.
We grab two high stools at the counter and immediately the order-taker arrives. We order a couple of beers while my decision-making skills phone for a therapist. The beers arrive, Jack places his order and my brain is still a riot of indecision fuelled by succulent aromas and frenzied by the bewildering choice. I want to order everything. After what seems like a couple of days, I make a decision and the order is snatched from my lips and thrown across the stall.
Within minutes the food arrives. Mine is a huge chunk of bread the size of a doorstop, toasted and spread with savoury garlic and tomato paste (a tapa catalana) and topped with sausages and morcilla. Jack’s is a catalana topped with three fat, sizzling chorizos. A large, fried green pepper sits alongside each catalana, showered in chips. The side order of chips arrives and we think “D’oh!”
I’m pretty sure we make that mistake every year…
As we eat, the Latino band strikes up, vibrating the Plaza with its volume and sending shock waves up through the legs of the stool and into our throats. It’s that carnaval moment when the atmosphere suddenly hits you, a broad grin fixes itself onto your face and the adrenalin starts to pump.
The Opening Parade turns out to be a complete non-event but it doesn’t matter. In a few hours the opening party will get into swing, thousands of people in fancy dress will descend onto the beer kiosks and food stalls like locusts on ecstasy and a week of hedonistic overindulgence will begin.
For tonight our bellies are sated, ready for the party, but we’ll be back to Mesón California; Carnaval street food is just too good to resist.