It was the glorious autumn of 1980. I was 28, a cub reporter at a Connecticut magazine, and entirely unacquainted with the haute cuisine scene in Manhattan, or anywhere else for that matter. An avid but novice cook, I yearned to dine in Europe to see what the big deal was all about.
Recklessly, I bid adieu to my editor and hopped a tramp steamer, for reasons both romantic and pecuniary. Enhancing the romance part was my girlfriend of three months, Anne de Ravel, a 23-year-old administrator at a language school in Washington, D.C. Taking a cue from me, she abandoned her job and packed a sea bag. Though her name trumpeted her nationality, one could peg her as French from the far end of a long, smoky bar: She was exceedingly feminine in movement and dress, polite and reserved, with a Gallic upturned nose and a passion for food. I was smitten.
Our destination was the port city of San Sebastián, in northern Spain. We had little money but youth and energy to burn, and our strategy was to scrimp on hotels but splurge on food in this proud capital of Basque cuisine. We got right down to business, strolling along narrow, bustling streets, mapping out our assault. That first evening, we found ourselves on a cement pier that extended far into the wide crescent bay. A dozen fishing boats bobbed below, their crews hauling up the mooring ropes for a long night at sea.
Toward the end of the pier we spotted a tiny restaurant called Bar Sebastián. A couple of teetery tables had been placed outside, so we took a seat. A young waitress, maybe 16, took our order for a bottle of Banda Dorada, a bone-dry white wine from nearby Rioja. It arrived frosty cold, perfect after our walk on a warm fall afternoon. We leaned across the table and shook hands in giddy triumph. I had no idea what Anne was thinking at that moment, but I was hopeful that this celebratory meal would be the first of many.
We lingered over green salads and dense whole wheat rolls that I drizzled with olive oil so sweet, earthy, and viscous it was nearly unrecognizable to my stunted American palate. There were but two main courses on the laminated menu, so we ordered both in no particular order. "Gambas a la plancha," or pan-fried shrimp, were made using that same lusty olive oil along with a wheelbarrowful of whole garlic cloves. Being accustomed to faucet-rinsed, flabby, tasteless white shrimp—standard American cocktail party fare at the time—I found these so startlingly tasty and addictive that I devoured them shells and all. When I realized that Anne had been little more than a spectator at this exhibition, I called for a second platter.
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