Archive for the ‘Barcelona’ Category

Tripe and preguntas

October 24, 2007

I finally got a Spaniard to ask me where I was from, while eating breakfast solo at El Quim in La Boqueria, my last full day in Barcelona.

In Mexico, I got asked 5 times a day where I was from, from the cabdriver to the waitress to the guy working in the cemetery who insisted that I see where Benito Juarez’s daughter was buried and then shyly showed me photos of him riding a bull attached to his keychain. Almost always, the question was asked with curiosity, warmth and kindness. But in Spain, in the 3 weeks I have been here, I have been asked that question once.

El Quim belongs a Spanish food genre that doesn’t exist in the U.S., not quite a restaurant, more of a counter, but not like a diner, as it may very well serve wine, beer, and sparkling Spanish cava, not to mention razor clams, calamari, and jamon iberico. El Quim, even within this marvelous class, is near the very top. It’s a wonder just to watch the owner and his assistants move with sureness and speed in the little space that serves as their kitchen behind the counter. El Quim is one of the young upstarts that have started to challenge the legend of Pinotxo at La Boqueria, and I say, “The more the merrier!”

Although El Quim does list a menu on a board behind the counter, it’s not actually comprehensible. There are clearly things displayed in the glass case on the counter that are not on the board, and I did what I have learned to do brazenly, gawk at what others are eating. I even made a full circuit around the U-shaped bar, dismissing the tortilla espanola as old hat, dismissing eggs as too typically American for breakfast. Finally, on my second turn around the stall, I noticed a man at one end eating a round, flat earthenware dish of a red, chunky stew.

“Cual es?” I asked. I don’t know why I bothered, as I didn’t understand the response, “Callos,” but it looked very much like tripe, one of my favorite things to eat. THAT would not be a typically American breakfast for sure. So I sat down next to him and ordered the same.

My God, it was so good! The tripe was wonderful, so tender and yet still springy. There were chunks of sausage and plenty of tomato sauce that I sopped up with pieces of good crusty bread. The nice guy behind the counter had filled my plate almost to overflowing, but I couldn’t stop eating. It may go down in memory as one of the best breakfasts I have ever had, if not one of the best meals.

As I ate in gusto, I could tell the man next to me was glancing at me from time to time. I recognized the question emanating from him: who was this Asian woman who spoke Spanish with an American accent, who thought nothing of eating tripe for breakfast? In Mexico, he would have asked the question immediately, but it stalled for awhile. But in the end, he had to ask.

I had done it, me and my stomach. I had finally made someone in Spain ask, “De donde eres?”

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Cook and Taste in Barcelona

October 24, 2007

I had been a little apprehensive about what the cooking class might be like at Cook and Taste in Barcelona. It was listed in my Lonely Planet, and a poster on Chowhound had recommended it, but I had been afraid that it was a school targeted to tourists wanting to swill sangria and that it would inevitably avoid “scary” ingredients. When I saw the menu, I wasn’t really reassured: tortilla espanola (the eponymous potato omelet), paella (the eponymous rice dish), sopa de tomates (suspiciously like the eponymous gazpacho), and crema catalana (suspiciously like flan). I wanted to learn how to make food that was essentially Spanish, but also to learn more about Spanish food than I could in New York.

But as I’ve learned so often on my travels, my pessimism was greatly misplaced. Bego, our teacher, was instantly likable, a somewhat serious woman with a quiet but sharp sense of humor. She had been an engineer for years and had started the cooking school as a major career change, but she kept her kitchen clean and her knives sharp like any professionally trained chef. And there was cuttlefish in the paella, bought fresh from La Boqueria that morning.

The class wasn’t big, three middle-aged women traveling through Italy and Spain together from Los Angeles, me and Anne, one young guy who was clearly a foodie from Australia, and then one motorcycle instructor from England, who it turned out never cooked but had been sent there as part of a tour package. We cooked through the recipes together, two volunteers at a time joining Bego, but all of us watching on, which was a nice change from the team-approach at other cooking schools I’ve been to.

What I loved best was definitely the sopa, the cold soup that she served in little glasses, with a pungent garnish of garlic aioli, hazelnuts, and a hard grated cheese. The tomatoes were almost raw, having only been blanched in boiling water to remove their skins, but sweet and red. It was as beautiful as it was good.

Tortilla espanola, I have never particularly cared for, since potatoes are not my favorite vegetable. Bego revealed that the question of whether onion should be added to the potatoes cooked in oil was a controversial question in Spain, one that could even divide families. When I asked Isaac, Mao-Mei’s husband about it, he said, “Huh, that’s funny. I never eat tortilla without onion,” proving her point. But this tortilla, so expertly flipped by Anne, did have a lovely golden crust, and although I still will order almost anything else at a tapas bar, I can see how it’s the kind of everyday food that I love, simple, cheap, filling, and tasty.

The other controversy in Spanish cooking is apparently whether lemon should be squeezed on paella or not. Bego warned us, if we’re invited to a Spanish home and served paella without lemon, not to ask for it. Anne and I had avoided paella up to that point, since it’s the kind of thing that tends to get advertised by garish backlit photographs at tourist restaurants, and we both loved what the lemon juice added to the prawns and the cuttlefish, the tomatoes, and almost al dente rice. I loved how the grains felt in my mouth, as if each grain had its own integrity.

Crema catalana, in the end, turned out to be a Catalan version of crème brulee, complete with blowtorching of the sugar on top. I liked it, as I like almost all custards, but I think you can imagine what it was like without much more description.

I had to admit, what was typical was still real and still good. I left New York to be humbled, to stop being so sure of what I like and what I don’t. It’s happening.

Razor clam heaven

October 23, 2007

Even before I had ever tasted them, I knew I would love razor clams. I loved the way they looked at Maceiras in Madrid, at the table next to us, I loved the way they looked in the markets with their long, slim shells and the clam body sticking out at the end like a tongue. I just didn’t know how much I would love them until I finally tried them at Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo in Barcelona.

Paco Meralgo is a spruced-up tapas bar in the L’Eixample neighborhood with no tables, but blond wood counters running all around and through the restaurant and plenty of bar stools. It’s quick and it’s busy, bustling with good food and happy people. Anne and I were overwhelmed by the Catalan menu, and frankly, by the Castilian menu as well, but our waiter kindly made a few recommendations to fill out our dinner beyond razor clams.

We loved the three kinds of setas or wild mushrooms, liberally drizzled with olive oil, especially an inky-black one that looked as crinkled as seaweed. Based on the signs we read in La Boqueria, we think they were “trompetas de la mort.” We enjoyed more croquetas and the crunchy, thin tortillitas de camarones, studded with tiny bits of shrimp.

But the first bite I had of my razor clam was like heaven. It tasted salty like the sea, with so much chewy flavor and none of the bitter graininess that you sometimes find in clams. It was seriously succulent. It was possibly one of the top ten most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

I liked it so much that I licked my razor clamshell from one end to the other, to get all the juice. When Anne saw what I was doing, she offered me her second razor clam, saying that I was enjoying it so much more than she was. Normally, I would be polite and refuse but I couldn’t. I ate three, she ate one.

I really love Anne, I really do.

Reserving a donut at La Boqueria

October 23, 2007

(I’m now in Ronda with Becca, having spent the last week traveling through Andalucia, so I’m playing major catch-up. Lo siento!)

I liked Barcelona so much more than Madrid. Largely, it’s because in Catalonia, Anne and I stayed for a chunk of time with our friend Mao-Mei and her husband Isaac in Vilafranca, a small town outside of Barcelona in the heart of cava, or sparkling wine, country. And partly, it’s because I had massive culture shock coming to Spain from Mexico. After Mexico, I expected salespeople to greet me like I was a long-lost cousin, waiters to smile with approval at what I ordered, and everyone to be complimentary about my Spanish. It turns out that’s just a Latin American thing. In Madrid, until we met up with a friend of a friend who lives in Madrid, Anne and I lived in a little tourist bubble, moving silently among the madrilenos.

But being who I am, one of the big reasons I loved Barcelona was the food. Despite our morning adventures, breakfast was not Madrid’s strong suit, whereas in Barcelona, I had some of the most memorable breakfasts of my life at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famed market.

Our first morning in Barcelona, Anne and I went straight to Pinotxo, the most famous bar/food stand in La Boqueria, which is immediately visible the moment you walk in the Ramblas gate. Juan, the owner, has been greeting locals and tourists for many years. There’s no menu, so I tried to hold off ordering for as long as possible, to see what everyone else was eating.

We got a big plate of chickpeas in a strong, olive sauce; some ham croquetas that melted away, and two little glasses of café con leche. But we were still hungry. “Could I have one of those donuts over there?” I asked.

“No, they’re not available,” the counterman said. “They’ve been reserved.”

Reserved! We inquired about their name, xuxo, pronounced “chu-cho,” Anne and I looked at each other. The solution was obvious. “Please, could we reserve donuts for tomorrow?”

“Two?”

“Yes, two!”

“Okay, I’ll remember!”

The next day, there they were, waiting for us on top of the espresso maker. (TIP: if you get there early enough, around 9:15, there will be some unreserved donuts left, but you’ll have to move fast.) Anne and I hadn’t even really known what they were when we reserved them, knowing only that they were beautifully brown and dusted with a good quantity of granulated sugar. So imagine our surprise when we bit into them and found a lovely, light cream inside. The outer layers were as flaky and crisp as a good croissant. It was like someone had taken the idea of a Boston cream donut and made it 1000 times better. Later, when we talked to Bego, our cooking teacher about them, she nodded knowingly and said, “Yes, Pinotxo is the place to eat xuxos. You’ll see them elsewhere, but they’re not the same.”

Would it be wrong to name a child, “Xuxo”? Perhaps a dog would be better.

How to Pick a Good Ham

October 12, 2007

Before I left for Spain, I had a friend say to me, “You know, my friend So-and-So didn’t really like the food in Spain.” To which I replied, “But she doesn’t eat pork!” And my friend had to agree that So-and-So would probably not be the best judge of food in Spain.

Spain is famous for its jamón, or ham, giant hind legs of the pig, complete with hoof, that you see hanging everywhere. The hoof, I’ve learned, is attached to the leg for an important reason, but I’ll get to that later. The first time I saw them displayed, I got very excited and started taking pictures, but the sight of them is almost passé to me now. Eating them, of course, will never be passé.

Anne and I arrived in Barcelona on Monday afternoon and stayed in Barcelona proper for two nights before heading to Vilafranca del Penedés, a town of about 35,000 people an hour outside of Barcelona, where our friend Mao-Mei lives with her Catalan husband, Isaac. (I’m going to have to go back and write more about Madrid.) Barcelona immediately felt very different from Madrid—warmer, both in terms of temperature and attitude, and very open, with its Paris-like wide boulevards as beautiful and as striking as the medieval warren of streets of the the Barri Gotic. The Moderniste architecture by Gaudi and others adds an immediately whimsical feel to the city, but Anne and I may also like Barcelona so much because after all the churches and castles of Madrid, we took a bike tour and a cooking class in Barcelona.

The cooking class included a market tour of La Boqueria, the oldest market in Barcelona and the most famous. Located right off the Ramblas, the main thoroughfare as touristy as Times Square but more attractive, La Boqueria draws a lot of tourists as well. But it’s also a real, functioning market. I saw one butcher showing off pictures of her granddaughter to a regular, and as Bego, our teacher pointed out, you could see the changes in Spanish society by the new stands focused on Asian or Latin American ingredients. I even saw a Korean stand called “Macitta,” which means “delicious” in Korean, though they seemed mainly to sell a lot of prepared food and instant ramen.

For an American who glories in gory food, La Boqueria was heaven. There were chickens with their heads still on, heads of lambs complete with eyeballs, and skinned rabbits laid-out with their little butts facing up, like darling little sunbathers.

And the seafood! My God, when I think of the fish stands of your average American supermarket and how you can’t find a freakin’ whole fish. I saw big octopi with their tentacles spreading like blooming flowers, shiny little herrings, entire stands devoted to bacalao or salt cod, and funny fish heads that I almost wanted to talk to.

But the highlight of the market tour, to be sure, was when Bego explained how to pick a good ham. First, you get what you pay for. Second, the “pata negra” or the black hoof belongs to the best pigs, the black ones who feed on acorns and wander free-range in the Extremedura. This is what is called jamón iberico, and as it’s the priciest, you need to make sure that you are truly getting jam from a black pig. Show me the hoof! One seller we saw had a flat-screen TV showing his pigs, presumably, frolicking in the meadow.

Once the ham has been sliced through, you can look for things like a thick, white rather than yellow layer of fat around the ham. There should also be small white specks in the red part of the ham itself, as that indicates that it has been well-cured.

Once you have such a fine ham, Bego advised that it had to be served correctly, always at room temperature. If vacuum-packed, the ham should be opened for at least half an hour before serving.

When I asked how long a ham would last, Bego smiled and said, “It goes very fast.” But if you ration yourself, your ham can last as long as three months. You can leave it hanging out at room temperature, using the outer layer of fat to cover the cut area. I instantly had a beautiful image of a ham hanging from the ceiling in my Brooklyn kitchen, but can you imagine me trying to squeeze a giant leg of ham into my backpack? Dreams, sueños, dreams.