Archive for the Barcelona Category

But There’s Better

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After witnessing the Fire Walk (people dress themselves in goggles and other protective gear and throw themselves in front of exploding pyrotechnics: part of the Fete de Merce), a group of us went in search of paella.  My new Quebecois friend, Josiane, wanted to taste it before she left Spain and I was looking forward to trying another version.

We had really liked the Born neighborhood so I thought to ask dear Javi from Cal Pep where he might recommend there for a great paella.  We wandered the curving alleys until we found ourselves back in the Place de Olla, only to discover that Cal Pep had closed at 3pm.  (One of the top tapas places in Barcelona is closed  on Saturday nights?!)  Many of the nearby restaurants might as well have had matching neon signs screaming “MEDIOCRE TOURIST FOOD HERE” so I did the best I could in the moment.  I went into a cute vinoteca and asked the bartender for his recommendation for good paella.  He suggested Senor Parellada (Argenteria, 37).

We walked six or seven blocks and found the place.  I was confused to find white tablecloths and tuxedo-clad servers paired with a reasonably-priced menu.  The group voted “yes,” probably because it was already 10:30pm and we were all hungry.  We waited a few minutes for a table for five and then were seated on the second floor of the crowded restaurant.  I was happy to see that the menu had a lot of Catalonian specials.  Josiane was up for sharing so we ordered the paella and the cannelloni.  (Catalonia is the only region of Spain that has embraced pasta and cannelloni is a specialty.)

Cannelloni at Senyor Parelleda Paella at Senyor Parelleda

I tasted the cannelloni first and it was actually very tasty: thin tubes of pasta stuffed with tender ground veal and generously topped with a creamy bechamel.  I was glad for the chance to try the dish.

The paella, on the other hand, was not good.  Each grain of rice was separate, with no relation to any of the others.  It was the opposite of the risotto-like, creamy rice that I savored in Valencia.  This particular paella had some shrimp (overcooked), some butifarra sausage (overcooked) , and some other unrecognizable mystery meats (overcooked until their individual identities were completely lost).  I kept my mouth shut because this was Josiane’s first paella.  She was liking it; why not let her?  But Juli-from-Germany ruined it for Josiane, describing in detail everything that was wrong with this particular paella.  What she said was sad, but true.

Chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli is quoted in Paul Richardson’s A Late Dinner, “People accuse me… ‘It’s your fault there are so many young kids trying to do modern food, and doing it badly.’  Maybe, but isn’t it much worse that there are millions of tortillas and paellas all over the country that are cooked so badly.  Ordinary food in Spain is in a much worse state than haute cuisine, and that’s a fact.”

It makes me very sad to think that some visitors will only ever taste the paella at Senor Parellada.  (Or worse, somewhere along Las Ramblas, that terrible tourist strip.)  Tragically, they’ll get back on their cruise ships and go home to say that the food in Spain was just okay.

When we left Senor Parellada, there was a group looking at the menu posted by the door.  As I passed them, I said quietly, “Don’t go.”  They looked surprised, but thanked me.  It was the least I could do.  I hope they found a better paella.

Bar Picnic

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Today started as one of those perfect travel days.  I got up early and had another delicious breakfast at Pinotxo in my beloved Boqueria.  Then, I met Josiane, my new friend from Quebec, in a metro station, as arranged two days earlier.  She and I went to Gaudi’s beautiful Park Guell.  On the way to the park, we saw some promising food shops.  There was one with meats and cheeses, another with fruit, and several bakeries.  These were local establishments where real Barcelonians shopped.

Leaving the park, we decided to have a picnic.  Going from store to store, we bought six slices of jamon iberico, a small chunk of a hard Catalan cheese, a still-warm baguette, a variety of olives, a persimmon, some figs, and a strange green fruit called a chirimoya, which I had been wanting to taste since first spotting it in Valencia.

With our delicious loot, we headed towards La Sagrada Familia, looking for a green spot.  Along the way, we hoped to find some fancy hotel where we might wash our filthy hands and maybe the fruit, too.  Aware that we had no plates, utensils, or Purell, I had a new idea.  Wouldn’t it be perfect if we could find a bar that would let us picnic inside?  In the States, you can often bring food into bars if they don’t sell their own.  Just as Josiane agreed that this was a good idea, I looked down a side street and saw a bar.

It was called Bodega Casas.  Going inside, it looked perfect.  The front was crowded, but the tables in the back were empty.  While I was disappointed to see a display of cold tapas, Josiane was not deterred.  In simple Spanish, she asked the bartender if we might have our picnic there.  We showed our bags of food.  Miraculously, he agreed.  He took us to the back, showed us a sink, and brought us plates and silverware.  I couldn’t believe our luck.  We ordered copas (glasses) of cava and spread everything out before us.

Our Picnic in the Bar

Digging into our pieced-together feast, the bread was fresh and soft.  The salty parmesan-esque cheese paired perfectly with the jamon.  The fig, as red as the meat, was intensely sweet and also paired well with the ham and cheese.  The persimmon was sweet, tart, and so juicy that it dripped down our chins.

Chirimoya

The chirimoya was the most amazing find of the day.  It looks like a cross between an artichoke and an avocado.  It needs to be very ripe, which means it should be so soft that pressing will bruise it.  (A kind old man had helped us pick a perfect one, touching fifteen before he handed us the winner.  He had then mimed that we should cut it in half and eat with a utensil.)  When we cut it open, we found a white interior with a lot of big black seeds.  Tasting it, we were totally surprised.  The chirimoya was sweet and creamy, like a custard.  Josiane and I put it aside and saved it for dessert.

Josiane with the Vermouth

After cava, we tried vermouth, which neither of us had ever tasted.  The owner brought us two glasses of the liquor, each with a slice of lemon, as well as a green plastic bottle, so we could spray our own soda water.  The vermouth was mildly bitter and a little bit sweet.  It reminded me of very dark chocolate and anise.  We both liked it.

By three o’clock, the bar was almost empty and we realized he was closing up.  We offered to do our dishes, but he wouldn’t let us.  Instead, we took photos with him, tipped generously, and happily headed out into the streets.

Bodega Casas

We ate our last treat as we walked.  I had taken it ”to go” from Pintoxo that morning; it was only slightly crushed from my purse.  Called a chucho (or xiuxo in Catalan), the crisp, light, fried dough was covered with sugar crystals and filled with a not-too-sweet cream.  It might be compared to a tubular donut, but I think that underestimates its greatness.

The Chucho

Cava

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An easy forty minute train-ride from Barcelona, Sant Sadurni d’Anoia is the center of cava-making in Spain’s Penedes region.  Cava is Spain’s sparkling wine.  It is made by the champenoise method, but cannot be called champagne because it is not from that region of France.

My Lonely Planet guidebook lists tours of Freixenet and Codorniu and says “You can simply turn up for tours at either of these establishments.”  Not true.  The Freixenet cellars are conveniently located across the street from the train station.  When I arrived at noon, I had already missed the only English tour of the day.  There was only one tour left and it was in Spanish.  As I had trekked out there, I took the Spanish tour.  I didn’t learn much, but I saw the cellars and enjoyed the Disney-esque ride on the glorified golf cart.

Freixenet

Freixenet

The Caves of Freixenet

The gentleman at Freixenet was kind enough to call Cordoniu and ask about tours for me.  There was one English tour at 3:15pm.  He said it was a half-hour walk.  It was 2pm so I headed in that direction.  The streets were confusing and the map was not helpful; I soon got a little lost.  A couple of locals recommended that I should take a cab.  They said it would cost me 5 Euros to get there.  Since I had traveled to Sant Sadurni to learn about cava, I didn’t want to miss my only chance at taking a tour.  I found a taxi at a taxi stand.  The driver pressed a couple of buttons and the meter started at 5 Euros.  Stubbornly, I refused the ride and got out.  It was getting alarmingly close to 3pm and I was nowhere near Codorniu.  I stopped a woman in a car at an intersection and asked her for directions; I was really hoping that she might offer me a ride.  She did and I amazingly arrived at Codorniu at 3:10pm.  (The logistics of these tours are definitely not as easy as the guidebook makes them sound.)

Cordoniu

My tour at Cordoniu, the first company in the region to use the champenoise techniques, was basic because it is aimed at a general audience that knows nothing about the wine.  I did learn some interesting tidbits, like how they just barely freeze the bottle so that the settled sediment can be popped out in one piece.  Cordoniu, like Freixenet, is a mass-scale production.  There were 40 million bottles stored in its caves!  Again, we were driven through the facilities like kids through “It’s a Small World.”  At the end of both tours, there were tastings of some of their average bottles, included in the price.

Last Day of the Cordoniu Harvest, 2009

Vineyards in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia

Grapes in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia

The best part of my trip to Sant Sadurni was my leisurely walk back to the train station.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day with perfectly blue skies and I liked that I was somewhere rural and green.  I was there on the last day of the season’s grape harvest and saw the final trucks, stacked with the fruit, driving back to the grounds.  I walked along the road in solitude with the plants on either side of me.  I took some grapes straight off their vine and popped them directly into my mouth.  It felt a little naughty, but also necessary.  The grapes were juicy, though that particular variety was quite tart!  As I crossed the street towards town, there were grapes on the road, fallen from the trucks.  I deliberately stomped every single one.  The bottoms of my shoes became sticky; I reveled in how they clung to the asphalt as I headed for the train.

Pinotxo Bar

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I loved Pinotxo Bar so much that I went back three times.  I don’t usually make repeat visits to restaurants when I travel because there are so many other places to explore, but Pinotxo is special.

Pinotxo Bar

The food there is as fresh, simple, and flavorful as it gets.  Toasted bread with grated tomato pulp.  Clams with flecks of scrambled eggs.  Razor clams which burst open on the grill.  Perfectly fried croquetas, creamy on the inside.  Chickpeas, heightened by bits of morcilla sausage, pine nuts, and a few golden raisins.  Escargot, served in its own shell, cooked with sausage, bread crumbs, garlic, and plenty of olive oil.  (In the States, escargot often comes in cans.  Some restaurants actually buy bags of empty, sterilized shells and stuff the canned snails inside them for show.  At Pinotxo, there was a peculiar pleasure in pulling the snail out of its own home, seeing it uncurl, and then giving a little tug at the end to finally wrench it free.)

Pan con Tomate at Pinotxo Bar Razor Clams at Pinotxo Bar

the chickpeas at Pinotxo Bar Escargot at Pinotxo Bar

Pinotxo’s draw is as much about the feeling as it is about the food.  Juanito Bayen, the legendary owner, exudes joy as he presides over the place.  Like at Cal Pep, there is limited countertop at Pinotxo.  Ten lucky people get to sit at a time.  This one doesn’t have a formal line so you have to eye your spot and scoot in when you can.  Once perched, you’re part of the family.  At the end of each visit, wanting to stay but knowing that someone else was waiting to take my place, I would reluctantly give up my seat.  On the last day of my too-short time in Barcelona, I was sad to leave Pinotxo.  I don’t often revisit places, but I’ve resolved that I will be back there someday.

Pinotxo Bar in Barcelona

Pinotxo Bar in Barcelona

Pinotxo Bar in Barcelona

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Cal Pep

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Chef Jose Garces kindly took the time to send me a list of places to try on my trip.  This was one of those places.

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Cal Pep (Placa de les Olles, 8) is an awesome tapas restaurant, located near the waterfront in the hip Born neighborhood.

Cal Pep

I went to Cal Pep with two great girls that I’d met earlier in the day, Josiane from Montreal and Yael from Jerusalem.  We arrived at a packed restaurant so we waited in the doorway until enough space cleared for us to come inside.  Then, we ordered Estrella beers and waited another 45 minutes until room at the counter opened up.

Clams and Tomato Bread

There was no menu; others just seemed to know what there was.  Since we hesitated, our server asked us how many tapas we wanted and decided for us.  Everyone gets a plate of pan con tomate, the local classic of tomato pulp rubbed on bread with olive oil and sometimes garlic.  Josiane and I ordered cava; Yael got another beer.

Clams

A bowl of clams arrived first, richly flavored with bits of sauteed bacon and garlic.  As usual, my favorite part of clams is the jus, delicious when soaked up with the tomato bread.

Pescaito Frito

Josiane and Yael

Next came the pescaito frito, a mixed plate of fried seafood, including calamari, tiny shrimp, baby hake and baby bass.  The calamari rings were light and tender.  I easily popped the crunchy little shrimp, shell and all.  The fish, however, fried whole, were a big adventure for me.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.  (I only started to eat fish about six months ago, determined to face my one food aversion before starting culinary school.)  Javi, our stylishly bespectacled server, mimed that I should pop the whole thing in my mouth; he was laughing at me.  However, the two Spanish men sitting next to us said that they don’t eat the head.  Then, Yael, who seemed to have done this before, told me to pull out the little skeleton.  I was thoroughly confused.  I pulled out the little skeletons which came out easily in their entirety.  I used my fork to get as much as possible out of the head and then popped the rest in my mouth.  Whatever I ate, it was all delicious: perfectly fried, no grease, actually light.

Tortilla

For our third tapas dish, Javi brought us the most heavenly tortilla (traditional Spanish omelette) that I can imagine.  This one had potatoes, yes, but it also had tons of pork flavor and was far creamier than any other tortilla I’ve tasted.  I have a feeling there was a fair amount of pork fat hidden in that decadent tortilla.

Cal Pep

Finally, we had a butifarra sausage with white beans, a traditional combination.  This butifarra was very different from the one at La Rosca.  It was almost sweet, with hints of cinnamon and clove.

Cal Pep

The restaurant must have closed around midnight, but people kept coming.  It happened over and over: they would beg to be allowed to stay and Javi would sweetly turn them away.  I felt lucky to have eaten at Cal Pep that night.

Barcelona’s Boqueria

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I agree with all the superlatives that have been assigned to Barcelona’s Boqueria.  It is, hands down, the most amazing market I have ever experienced.

La Boqueria in Barcelona

As I wandered the aisles, there was everything that could be craved: seafood, meats, cheeses, eggs, produce, chocolates, spices, nuts, and more.  It was all fresh, colorful, and beautifully presented.


The Boqueria manages to be both raw and sleek at the same time.  The carcass of a halved lamb hangs on a lone butcher hook and I marvel at its beauty, snatched before I can snap its photo.  Vendors periodically turn the crabs on their sides so you can watch them flail and know that they are alive.  Rows of jamon hang just above head height, each leg with a little plastic cup below to catch its drippings.


It is an assault of color.  Perfectly-stacked, precarious-looking produce comes in every shade.  The fruit vendors sell take-away cups of fluorescent juice.  The candy stores look like jewelry shops.

La Boqueria in Barcelona La Boqueria in Barcelona

La Boqueria in Barcelona La Boqueria in Barcelona

La Boqueria in Barcelona La Boqueria in Barcelona

La Boqueria in Barcelona La Boqueria in Barcelona

This market wants you to eat now.  One fish stand sells little lollipops of fried cod alongside the day’s fresh catch.  The butcher shop sells skewers of meat and cheese.  There are those stacks of freshly squeezed juices; I tasted green kiwi coconut one day and pink dragonfruit the next.  In addition to the vendors, there are also countless counter cafes scattered throughout the market.  These little restaurants serve the freshest of what the Boqueria has to offer, along with your cup of coffee or cava.


In the morning, the market is throbbing with people.  Many, like me, are slowly wandering the aisles, jaws dropped, camera in hand.  For lucky others, this is their boqueria and they rush through to get the making of tonight’s dinner or tomorrow’s lunch.  Later in the day, the market becomes quieter.  In his cookbook, Made in Spain, Chef Jose Andres writes the most gorgeous passage about the market.  He eulogizes, “At the end of the afternoon, when the market was dying down, I always felt a sense of loss.  I thought the market was in a sense a living thing that needed time to rest.  So I would wait anxiously until the next morning, when it would come alive once again.”  I felt that about this market.  I couldn’t wait to get back to it.  I found my way there as many times as possible in my too-few days in beautiful Barcelona.

La Rosca

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I took a very early train from Valencia to Barcelona today.  When I arrived at my hostel, Hello BCN, it was too early to check into my dorm room.  I left my luggage and went in search of some food.  I had read about a place called La Rosca in my guidebook.  It was supposed to have traditional Catalonian food and a great set price lunch deal.  I didn’t have any better leads, so I set off in search of it.  It was hard to find, set back in a small side street near the Palau de la Musica.

With Alberto at La Rosca in Barcelona

When I finally got there, the restaurant was completely empty.  I second-guessed my choice, but something in my gut made me stay.  An older gentleman seated me in the empty dining room.  There was no menu.  For each of the three courses, he gave me three choices, in Spanish.  For each, I asked, ”muy tradicional catalunya?”  He would nod and write something down. 

After taking my order, he went away and brought back a liquor bottle filled with cold red wine.  Then, he brought a steaming bowl of soup.  I asked him to write the name of it: sopa d’esculla.  It was a deep, comforting chicken broth, full of large elbow pasta and potato chunks.  The soup was creamy, not from cream, but thickened by the pasta and potato.

Sopa D'Esculla at La Rosca

The kind man’s name was Alberto.  When he brought my main dish, he wrote its name for me: butifarra y sanfaina.  The butifarra, a regional specialty, might have been the best sausage of my life.  It was a pork sausage, simply seasoned with salt and pepper.  It was just perfect pork flavor, so juicy that each bite burst in my mouth.  The sausage sat atop a mixture of roasted vegetables, the sanfaina.  I now know that sanfaina is another classic Catalonian dish, often compared to ratatouille.  While the ingredients may overlap, this sanfaina was so much more flavorful and more integrated than any ratatouille I’ve tasted.  The zucchini, eggplant, red pepper, onion and garlic had been roasted to sweet tenderness in olive oil.  It was so good that I took one slow bite after one slow bite, not wanting it to end.  This sanfaina was an example of the best that food can be: simple, earthy ingredients cooked to bring out their own gloriously rich flavor.

Butifarra y Sanfaina at La Rosca

For dessert, Alberto brought me crema catalana, the most “muy tradicional” of the day’s choices.  It is like creme brulee.  Historically, the dish may have been in Catalonia before it was in France.  La Rosca’s crema catalana was pudding-like, not too sweet, with a glass-like bruleed top.

Crema Catalana at La Rosca

As I left in the restaurant, I looked in the kitchen.  There was one woman of grandmotherly age.  “Gracias,” I said and she took a little bow.