Somewhere between brave and crazy: Grilled manchego with fig jam and olives

You hear a lot of chatter about scent memory, how a specific scent can be more evocative of a specific time or place than almost any other form of memory jog–the smell of bread conjuring up evenings in your grandmother’s kitchen, the aroma of pine and daisies taking you back to your sixteenth summer. While I won’t disagree with this (let me tell you–twelve years later, the smell of Windex still slams me right back to the summer I spent selling skateboards and Doc Martens), I think there’s also something to be said for taste memory.

Grilled manchego with fig jam and olives

In 2005, I took an epic road trip, striking out from the family homestead in Kent, crossing the channel and driving down through France to the south coast of Spain and back again. It was, you will be unsurprised to hear, a journey that changed my life. It was where I discovered my love of photography, where I truly learned to be unfazed by the unexpected, where I learned that driving through deepest La Mancha without a radio isn’t really as bad as you’d think. It was also, I think, my true epicurean awakening. Because, oh, the food. Cassoulet and foie gras in Sarlat, Truffles and Armagnac in the Perigord region, Jamon and grilled sardines in Barcelona…and then there was Orgiva. Oh, Orgiva. When you stop to consider the culinary hubs I was passing through, it’s kind of surprising that this tiny town on the southern coast of Spain would be where the veil finally lifted..but there you have it.

Grilled manchego with fig jam and olives

The first revelation took place during a hike in Sierra Nevada mountains, just outside the town. It was high noon, and the sun was blisteringly hot; we were following the water channels down the mountain and decided to stop in the shade and rest for a moment. Just off the path, located right out of comfortable reach, was a fig tree. For some reason, I got it into my head that what I wanted more than anything in the world was one of those figs; I grabbed a sturdy branch on a nearby tree, swung out over the precipice, and pulled off a piece of fruit, nearly falling to my death in the process. Warmed by the sun, my prize was practically obscene in its sticky sweetness, and it was the first time I understood what figs were really supposed to be. Washed down with a draft of water from the snowmelt, it was possibly the closest I’ve ever come to the divine.

When evening rolled around, we walked to our friends’ house on the outskirts; unsurprisingly, we got lost on the unmarked roads, and being both of high temper, we fought. It was in silence that we finally located our friends, who ushered us without a word to the backyard and set us up with glasses of local wine and a plate of home-cured olives from the very trees we were sitting beneath. The air was finally cooling, creating a breeze that made our skin dance. The clouds looked like spaceships, like whirlpools, and were the color of cotton candy; the olives were sweet and salty, and melted between my teeth. I closed my eyes and focused on their metallic taste, forgetting my fury, forgetting everything but their flavor, almost instantly.

Things have changed a lot since then. I have a different traveling companion and less fear; more scars and more stories. A new career, a new life, new dreams. I haven’t returned to Orgiva, but I’ve eaten my share of delightful figs and lovely olives,  and no matter where I am when I consume them, I can close my eyes and be back on that mountain, back under those trees, back beneath the open sky where we were almost happy, if only for a little while.

Grilled Manchego with Fig Jam and Olives

4 slices of bread
8oz manchego, grated
15-20 oil cured olives, pitted and roughly chopped
2 tbsp fig jam (or, if you’re feeling really enterprising, fresh pureed figs!)
butter

  1. Butter each slice of bread on one side. Spread fig jam on the opposite side of two of the slices.
  2. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat; place the slices of bread that have jam on them in the skillet, jam side up/butter side down.
  3. Divide the cheese and olives evenly between the two slices. Top with the remaining slices of bread, butter side up.
  4. Press down with a spatula and then cover loosely with foil. Cook for 4-5 minutes
  5. Remove foil and VERY CAREFULLY flip the sandwich over. Press down again and cook for 2-3 more minutes.

Yield: 2 sandwiches

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