Writing & Tapas
A few years back I was lucky enough to spend a month writing in a small retreat just out of Barcelona. Every day I’d sit in the garden, notebook in hand, gazing at the beautiful Monsterrat mountains, trying to convince myself it was real.
At mealtimes I’d gather with the painters, photographers, dancers, sculptors and filmmakers from all over the world to eat dishes steeped in the history of the land. We’d eat outdoors despite the scorch in the air, scoffed Rioja like water and become intoxicated with smells of sweat and spices.
Breakfast was never a hurried affair. One by one sleepyheads would stagger outside in pyjamas, sipping café con leche, swearing themselves off Spanish wine forever. Very quickly I discovered it was only writers that got up when the rooster crowed – escaping to write with hovering dragonflies as the day dawned on the silence of the desert.
Lunchtime though would see everyone gathered en mass, spooning huge piles of grilled sardines and salad onto their plates. In the evenings we’d sit around the long wooden table under the vines, chatting for hours, nibbling pieces of chorizo. Later still we’d retreat to the wine pit, away from the villa, to be noisy while downing, yet again, too many bottles of Cava.
Sundays were a day of rest for the cook, so we’d trudge over the red earth, through the olive groves, to a local restaurant, in the middle of nowhere. It was always busy, full of families spilling out of cars, laughing. Inside the iron gates, you’d take a seat in the courtyard, pay a set cost, and eat what you were given.
While flamenco music played in the background, everything arrived on the table – chunks of breads to dip in bowls of pressed olive oil, platters of vegetables piled high with tomatoes, cuts of meat so huge it didn’t bear thinking about what you were eating. Paella was cooked on an open fire, out in the sun, tossed by a dozen shirtless men. The heat from the fire blackened their skin, and perspiration just added to the flavour when mixed with smoky paprika. For dessert, baskets of fresh figs picked straight from the trees and more terracotta jugs of sangria lined the centre slats.
It was here, in this world full of imagination and creativity, that I began to appreciate the concept of tapas. It was such a social, relaxed way to dine. A series of small plates keeps on keeping on until it constitutes a meal. So much choice and so many options are offered to keep people coming back for more. For me tapas are a lot like writing – there are so many choices.
Around this time I began thinking more about the similarities between cooking and storytelling. You learn the basics as a young child in your family environment. We’re fed well on both counts. We remember the stories our grandparents told us, and we remember the meals that we shared. Mealtimes, in fact, were usually where we were told the best stories.
I think, as writers, we can draw on these experiences. Food that is cooked with passion tastes so good; the same applies with writing. I’m always looking for where passion sits in a piece. My taste of Catalonia will never be forgotten, because love was always there, present in the preparation of food, and in the freshness that made it something unequalled.
As time passes, writers gather momentum, learn the craft and gain skills. If I think back to the classes I’ve attended, the places my writing has taken me and the mentors who nurtured me along the way, it impacts on me. I think about this every day in some shape or form, as I undertake to pass on this passion that was given to me to other writers and writing students.
Only the other day I heard myself telling a student to ‘think about their text like cooking – you need ingredients, then you peel, slice, sauté. Maybe even let things sit for a while. Getting the correct balance is a multi-layered process.’
If tapas are made for sharing over conversation, so is a good story. Like good food, it can be enjoyed at any time of the night or day, regardless of anything else.
Writers, I believe, need to think about the cooks and the chefs out there, and draw inspiration from them. Think about how they combine traditions, draw on memories, experiment with new ideas and flavours, and share their loves and passions with the world. They don’t always get every combination right, but they keep going, striving for something that appears so simple we sometimes miss the skill that sits behind it.
Writing is very much the same. It can serve a lot of people, for a story told well can hugely impact human lives – as long as we keep trying until we get the recipe right.
Donna Banicevich Gera – writer, wanderer – loves feeding her obsessions 24/7 and is attracted to food that screams ‘good enough to eat’. Her eureka moment was watching a waitress in Europe chase bread rolls across a plate with serving tongs, muttering in broken English, ‘Just like life.’