A Maine Cook Rediscovers Breakfast
Here’s the thing about breakfast. It’s a wonderful meal and all, but I’m just not the type of person who wakes up with an appetite. I open my eyes and start thinking about coffee. Strong, hot, espresso with lots of foamed milk piled on top. That’s what gets me out of bed — not visions of fluffy pancakes or fried eggs and bacon. I can see the nutritionists out there shaking their heads in disapproval. Yes, I’m aware that it’s very important to eat first thing in the morning, but sorry, it just doesn’t work for me.
I spend a good deal of my waking day thinking about food. What will I cook? What can I make for lunch? For dinner? How can I stave off that late-afternoon hunger and exhaustion when all I want to do is take a nap, but there’s still much work to be done? So the way I figure it, if I’m not hungry for just a few precious hours of the day, I might as well not eat. Right?
Things change. My youngest daughter is spending a semester studying Spanish at the University of Seville in southern Spain. A few weeks ago we decided a visit from the parents was just what she might need mid-term. (Let’s not even mention how badly we needed to leave Maine in mid-March, when all the rest of the world is in spring blossom and we are stuck in a no-man’s land of not-quite-winter-and-not-quite-spring.)
Seville is a dreamy a place. It’s a beautiful old city, with narrow, rambling, cobblestoned streets, colorful tiled walkways and courtyards. The single best thing about visiting Seville in mid-March is the orange trees (the famed bitter Seville oranges are used to make marmalade) that line virtually every street in the city. And those gorgeous trees have an abundance of blossoms — tiny white flowers that give off a heady fragrance that is hard to describe. The words “heavenly” and “sweet” are the obvious choices, but they don’t really begin to describe the sensation of walking down a city street and being overtaken with the scent of orange blossoms.
The University of Seville dates back to 1505. A series of huge buildings connected by courtyards, fountains, green lawns, and tiled entranceways, the school looks more palatial than academic. The University was once the home of a cigar factory, and provides the setting for the opening scene of the opera Carmen.
We spent several days walking through the city, eating tapas, and adjusting to the Spanish style of dining. Lunch begins around two in the afternoon and you can’t even think about making a dinner reservation before 9:30 p.m. (my usual Maine bedtime!).
Many Spanish hotels offer elaborate buffets, and being the anti-breakfast person that I am we skipped these overpriced choices and wandered into small neighborhood “bars,” ordering fresh-squeezed orange juice, café con leche, and a delicious treat called pan com tomate — crusty bread, toasted and then spread with fragrant local olive oil and grated fresh tomatoes. This was the type of breakfast I could get interested in. No sweet French toast swimming in maple syrup or fatty bacon with rich eggs.
After a few days exploring they city and inhaling the blossoms on many orange trees, we took our hard-working student (who had just finished her first round of all-Spanish mid-terms) away for the weekend. We drove across the border into the Algarve region of Portugal. No more border crossings or stopping to show passports in these days of the E.U. One simply drives from country to country like crossing the border from New Hampshire to Maine!
We spent our first night in Portugal in an old fishing village called Tavira. I found an old, renovated apartment in the center of town, a block from the river, and we happily settled into our rooms and felt very much at home. The owner, a Swiss-Italian, asked us if we would like to have breakfast the next morning. I was about to decline (me, breakfast?) when my daughter, assertive young woman that she is, answered “Yes, that would great!”
The apartment came with a roof top deck, complete with views of the ancient terra cotta tile roofs of the adjoining buildings and the nearby river and fishing boats. In the morning I woke early and walked up to the rooftop. There was an old cast-iron bed loaded with colorful pillows where I settled in to read. “Good morning,” said a young woman appearing out of nowhere. She was holding a series of wicker baskets that she set down on a table and disappeared like a mirage. I walked over to the basket and opened it slowly, as if I wasn’t sure it was meant for me. Inside were modern white plates filled with colors and shapes and textures that woke me up like a slant of bright morning sunlight coming directly into your bedroom. There were three types of whole grain still-warm rolls. Little white plates contained four types of locally made jams and jellies. There was fresh, thick yogurt, a bowl of honey, a raw, European-type Muesli cereal, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, dried apricots, local walnuts, and a fresh, soft cheese. In another basket I discovered a pitcher of just-squeezed orange and carrot juice.
It was a fantasy breakfast. It was if my body has simply been waiting for this exact version of the morning meal. These little white plates and bowls, nestled inside that wicker basket, looked like modern art. They screamed, “I will give you everything you need to have a great day.” And I was more than game. I began tasting the food nestled within the basket with an appetite that astonished me. The yogurt was so creamy and silky, sprinkled with the local honey and the coarse muesli and meaty sunflower and flax seeds. The rolls, spread with not one or two, but all four types of jelly, woke up my senses. Sitting on that rooftop I had what my daughter has taken to calling an “L.C. Moment.” (Life-changing.) She uses this term when raving about certain foods she has recently discovered and about being in Spain in general. This breakfast basket, in an ancient little town on the Portuguese coast, was most definitely an “L.C Moment.”
My mornings in Maine will be different. Sadly, there will not be a basket delivered to my patio, but jams and good, crusty bread, yogurt, muesli, and dried fruit will make a nice partner to my morning coffee. And maybe a slice of two of pan con tomate.
In the next month or two your phone will invariably start to ring. Friends and family from cities around the country will tell you they are thinking about coming to Maine this summer. They are thinking about a visit. “We can stay with you a few days. Won’t that be great?” And when they get here in early July, and your home feels like a bed and breakfast, and those friends and family need something to eat in the morning, I’d suggest putting something together like my Portuguese breakfast basket. Good, thick yogurt, local honey, granola or Muesli, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, crusty bread, and local jelly. Not much work for you but lots of morning pleasure for your guests. Possibly even an L.C. day.
Spanish Pan con Tomate
In small bars throughout Spain, thick slices of crusty bread are smothered with fruity, local olive oil, topped with grated sweet tomato and grilled until the tomato just begins to soften. The toast is served with tiny cups of strong coffee. It’s a great way to start the day, but you can also serve tomato toast for lunch, accompanied by a green salad, or serve it as an hors d’oeuvre or first course.
Serves 3 to 6.
6 slices of bread, such as a baguette or ciabatta, about 1/2-inch thick
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large, ripe tomato, grated on the biggest opening of a cheese grater
Pinch of salt, or to taste
A few grindings of black pepper
Preheat the broiler.
Place the bread slices on a broiler pan or cookie sheet and place under the broiler for about 1 minute, or until the toast just begins to turn golden brown. Flip the bread over and drizzle with half the oil. Broil another minute or until golden brown. Remove the toast from the broiler and divide the grated tomato between the toast and drizzle the remaining oil on top. Season with salt and pepper to taste.