20 Feb Casa Puga
Deep in the old town of Almeria, down the narrow Calle Real, you’ll find Casa Puga. A tapas bar claiming to be one of the oldest in the province, it’s a regular in any Google search of the top ten things to do in the city. We fell upon it a few years ago because it’s just up the road from the language school where I took some classes. We return each year, a kind of ritual that makes us feel that we’re part of it all for a while.
Casa Puga is an institution here – and it sort of knows it. It’s the bar where “everything happens: the people, the conversations, the life of Almeria”. It’s most certainly full of history and seems to insist on keeping everything just as it was when it opened in 1870: same décor, same aesthetic, probably the same menu. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the bottles that adorn a very high shelf that stretches around all the internal walls were at least a century old. An unprepossessing entrance via a couple of doors straight off the street and you’re at the bar, a good 40 feet end to end. Hanging from hooks in the ceiling are enormous hams, the fat gilded from spending months in the dark up some rural chimney, the meat almost damson red; clusters of chunky chorizo looking gnarled; a strange fish and roe concoction congealed in a red waxy skin suspended on thick strings. This last is a specialty that I foolishly tried once – never again. It tasted of neither fish, nor fowl, nor even wax and left an aftertaste I can still conjure up but would rather not.
The décor is dark wood, blue and white ceramic tiles coming to shoulder height where they meet walls plastered with notes and photos, lottery tickets, oddly disturbing religious icons, all manner of paraphernalia. It’s busy and would probably entertain for a few days if you had the time or the inclination to look and read it all. The photographs, of loyal patrons, or maybe of the padrón and his amigos, are mostly rotund men making merry in groups celebrating something or other; few have captions so it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on.
The staff are the same year on year. We recognise them even out of context in the café across the road that they occasionally patronise before they start their shift. Black trousers and a waistcoat over a white shirt and a long black apron. They’re gruffly confident, highly skilled, slick without being smooth. Just a little offhand but it’s not offensive. It’s that off-handedness that goes with the air of having seen it all before, including the Brits struggling over an obscure dish or wondering how many prawns make a kilo.
There’s always a hum of conversation among the regulars, men in their 50s, 60s or older. Dressed in dark clothes though not suits, amply built, with knowing handshakes when they meet each other and greet the waiters. There’s just a hint of freemason or Mafioso, not exactly sinister but you get the feeling that these are brethren, the in-crowd, the ‘Puga-ists’. There are no women working here – well maybe in the kitchen but I doubt it. Barely a photo of a woman anywhere on the walls festooned with images of men and their compañeros. This is a man’s world, there is no doubt about it.
For all that it’s not objectionable. It just is what it is and always has been and is faintly amusing. And the food is good. The manchego is the best we’ve tasted, served in simple slim wedges with a smattering of perfectly toasted almonds. The pimientos de padrón are the finest we’ve had anywhere and we’ve had a lot. Who’d have thought whole little green peppers with some salt and a bit of oil could be this good? They arrive at the table, searingly hot, straight from the pan and seasoned to perfection. The boquerones are fresh and the batter light. The prawns? So many ways to do prawns. Al pil pil is the best, sizzling hot oil, chilli and garlic to keep you repeating yourself for the rest of the afternoon. A small beer is all you need to rinse it down. Classic Spanish fare done well.