Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Guilt

I had good intentions, as we all do. I was going to post several times before Christmas. I had plans for a mazapan post, maybe something about almendritas, a bit about los tres reyes. All Navidad related.

But I got waylaid. I flew to Toronto. A storm hit. Thirty centimetres of snow fell in one day. I got distracted.

Now, in Calgary, I'm helping my mom prepare dishes for a traditional Polish Christmas Eve. Pierogies, cabbage rolls, borscht. I'll tell you more about that, but first I have to work myself out from under the piles of cabbage and mushrooms.

In the meantime, I'm going to post some photos of the Christmas lights in Barcelona by way of apology.

Feliz Navidad!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas Scenery

The weather has been beautiful in Barcelona. Upwards of 18 degrees (that's Celsius) and dazzlingly sunny. The boys are out with their hola guapa's as if it were the middle of summer. Perfect for Christmas shopping and general holiday related perambulating.

The Old Town feels particularly atmospheric of late. The Christmas lights have been up for a couple of weeks now. Every second tienda is selling Navidad sweets. The Feria de Santa Lucia gives the cathedral square a carnival like feel. And they've finally unveiled the creche in Plaça Sant Jaume.

The creche had been hidden for several weeks behind tall fencing, like the fencing around construction sites, the kind that helps build anticipation. Unveiled, it's quite lovely, even though so much religiosity doesn't always agree with me.

This year, the creche is an intimate thicket bisected by a path. In between the poplars and shrubs are carved wooden lambs, shepherds, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Behind them, in a nod to modernity, are chicken wire crates of varying sizes containing natural materials native to the Mediterranean coast: evergreen boughs, grasses, rocks, shells. These are not containers of left over greenery not yet disposed of by the normally efficient Barcelona clean up crews, as I originally thought. They're intentional, in fact. The display is meant to call attention to the intersection of modernity and tradition, the urban and the natural. That's what it says on the Catalan only plaque explaining the scene, in any case. Well, that and no dogs allowed.

Walking through the creche might actually have evoked a "communing with nature" effect were it not for the throngs of others also making their way through. I suppose that's the interactive "urban" portion of the display. And what's December without a little thronging? Really, it helps build up that healthy misanthropy that Christmas dinner was created to dissipate.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


You would be forgiven if you mistook peladillas for tiny Easter eggs. They have that look, particularly in their pink, white and blue incarnation. It's a little confusing to have them around at Christmas time, in my humble opinion. But a Christmas sweet they are. There's no arguing that.

Peladillas are almonds with a hard sugar coating. They're sometimes accompanied by piñones, which are pine nuts with a hard sugar coating. They're crunchy and delicious. They're manufactured by the same folks who bring you turrones (the ones pictured above are from La Campana, see No Ordinary Nougat). And they're the third part of the plate of sweets, along with turrones and polvorones, that's traditionally served during Navidad. That's really all you need to know.

Oh, and don't stick them up your nose. No good can come of that.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Will It Poo on Christmas?

Warning: This post is the opposite of appetizing.

My Spanish teacher Marta, in her endearing way, has been warning us for months that the Catalans* are a scatological people. That is, they are obsessed with number two. Apparently, as far as humour goes, the brown is to a Catalan what Jerry Lewis is to a Frenchman: a laugh riot.

In Catalunya, dropping the kids off at the pool has even infiltrated holiday tradition. In the days leading up to Christmas, you can witness this for yourself at the Feria de Santa Lucia (Fira de Santa Llucia in Catalan), which takes place outside of Barcelona's cathedral.

During the Feria, endless stalls fill the cathedral square, each one selling a different type of Navidad related item: some have Christmas trees, some nativity scenes, some Christmas lights, some mistletoe, some pine cones, some holly, some religious icons. There's a lot to look at. For my money, however, the two most interesting objects are figures representing the caganer (pictured above) and the caga tió.

Linguistically, the caganer and the caga tió share the same root: cagar. Or, as we say en inglés, to poo. The caganer, in Catalan, is literally "the one who poos". His squatting figure (now sometimes in the form of a famous or infamous personage) is placed alongside Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the nativity scene. Actually, traditionally, the caganer is hidden behind a tree, as is appropriate for one doing his business in the presence of divinity. Just so no one misses the point, however, the caganer's squishy gift is fully rendered and ready for burial under a pile of leaves (the leaves are my wishful thinking and are not actually depicted).

So why represent the crassest of bodily functions on the holiest of Christian holidays, you might ask. Is it sheer irreverence and affinity for all things dookie? Probably not. As I understand it, the explanation can be found in Catalunya's agrarian roots: specifically, the caganer symbolizes the return to the earth of everything that comes from the earth; his impressive heap is a symbol of fertility. This I was told by the vendor who sold me one of the pooping figurines for my private collection.

The caga tió, on the other hand, is itself a log. A literal log that drops figurative ones in the form of Christmas presents. Specifically, the caga tió is a round piece of tree trunk with a painted face and a traditional red hat. On Christmas Eve, in lieu of leaving milk and cookies out for Santa Claus, eager Catalan children tap the caga tió with a stick and ask it to defecate gifts from under its mantle. The children sing a song that, loosely translated, goes a little something like this: Caga tió, hazelnuts and turrones, don't caca herring, which are too salty, caca turrones which are are more tasty. Thus encouraged, the caga tió lays it down Navidad style.

All in all, the whole thing gives a new dimension to the phrase crappy Christmas gifts.

I regret to tell you that I will not be in Barcelona to witness the caganer and the caga tió in action on Navidad itself. I will, however, do what I can to bring you as much Navidad related fun as I can before I head back to Canada for the holidays, whether it involves taking the Browns to the Super Bowl, eating dust based desserts or sacrificing myself at the altar of the turrones.

* I may not have mentioned this before, but Barcelona is located in the heart of Catalunya, a region in the north of Spain. The people of Catalunya (Catalans) speak their own language (Catalan) in addition to speaking Castellano (the Spanish dialect that is spoken in Spain and Latin America) and have a culture and traditions distinct from those in other regions of Spain. While many of my posts refer to customs and traditions common to Catalunya and elsewhere in Spain, those described in this post are Catalan alone.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Tapas Episode

My friend Stephen is in town. He's an old friend and I love him a lot. When he visits and I make dinner, we do a cooking show in my kitchen. He's the host and I'm the guest chef. We're really good. Stephen points the fake microphone like nobody's business and his banter is super frothy. I, on the other hand, know my ingredients and am handy with a knife. I can't believe we haven't been snapped up by Food Television.

Today's show was about tapas. We started it off with a trip to the market. Wide angle shots of teeming aisles and close ups of fish on ice. Cutaway to the two of us feeling fruit at one of the stalls. (That's actually not allowed, but they'll let you do anything when you have a camera crew in tow.) Ingredient selection is key to tapas preparation, I tell Stephen while groping some tomatoes. Freshness and quality are crucial. Our goal at the market is to choose wisely and be inspired.

And inspired we are. Montage of us pointing at fresh prawns, pimientos de padron, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, onions, eggs, anchovy stuffed olives and a baguette, then walking out smiling, bags in hand. Fade out. Commercial break.

Welcome back. We're in the kitchen and ready to cook. Stephen kicks us off while I'm peeling the potatoes and putting a pot of salted water on to boil. Today we're going to show you how to put together a meal of traditional Spanish tapas. And it's going to be easy peasy. Food Girl, tell us what you're going to cook for us. Well, we're going to start off with a traditional Spanish tortilla. Is that anything like a Mexican tortilla? Not at all, Stephen. A Spanish tortilla is actually an egg and potato omelette. Very interesting. What else? We're also going to make pimientos de padron. What are pimatos de padron? Pimientos. Right, pimatos. Pi-mien-tos. Pi-mien-tos, what are they? Pimientos de padron are small green peppers. Most are mild, but every batch has a few that are extremely hot. The surprise is part of the fun. Ooh, can't wait! What else? We're also going to do pan con tomate, which is a Catalan version of bruschetta, and langostinos con ajo, or garlic prawns. Sounds fantastic! Doesn't it?

Let's start with the tortilla. We'll need 4 large potatoes. We've already peeled and quartered them and have thrown them into a pot of salted water to boil until just tender. Cutaway to shot of potatoes cooking. Cutback to me. While the potatoes are cooking, we're going to prepare the eggs. We'll need six. I break the eggs into a bowl and whisk them efficiently. The eggs should be well seasoned with salt and pepper. I use about a teaspoon of salt and a little ground pepper. You can use your discretion here. We set the egg mixture aside for now and sautee the onion. I pour two tablespoons or so of olive oil into a medium sized frying pan and let it heat while I chop a large onion. Don't cry, Food Girl, don't cry. Don't worry, Stephen, I put the onion in the fridge to prevent it from releasing its juices. Great trick! I swirl the oil so that it covers the bottom of the pan and slides up the sides. I toss in the onion and give it stir. Stephen, can you check on the potatoes? Almost ready. Once those are done, can you drain and slice them? Done and done. How thinly do you want them sliced? We want them as thin as possible, but we don't want them falling apart. It's a fine line. Stephen slices a piece a little less than a quarter inch thick. Perfect. Stephen puts the potato slices into a large bowl. I continue stirring the onion. When Stephen is finished slicing, I slide the now browned onions into the potatoes and pour the egg mixture over top. I stir gently. Then I carefully pour the whole mixture back into the frying pan from whence came the onion. I lower the heat to medium low. Now we wait. Fade out and commercial break.

We're back. While the tortilla is cooking, let's prepare the other tapas. Stephen, I'm going to get you to help me with the pan con tomate. I'm yours. It couldn't be simpler. The truth is that, in most tapas places, pan con tomate is just a piece of sliced bread, neither toasted nor dried, rubbed with a bit of fresh tomato. It often comes out soggy and tasteless. So, what we're going to do is start by toasting the baguette. Cutaway to shot of baguette popping out of toaster. Cutback to me. Once the baguette is toasted, we rub it with a little garlic (the cut side of half a clove) and drizzle with olive oil. Then we cut a tomato in half crosswise, and rub it firmly on the bread so that the flesh and juice soak into the bread. And that's it. We can season it with a bit of salt to taste. It's so simple, even I can handle it, says Stephen, taking over the pan con tomate preparation.

The pimientos de padron are also extremely simple to prepare, I say pouring two or three tablespoons of olive oil into a large frying pan and putting the pan over a high flame. Once the oil is hot, we throw the whole pimientos de padron into the pan and make sure to stir them frequently so that they soften and brown evenly. They take 3-5 minutes to cook and can burn quickly if left unattended. Stephen, can you keep an eye on these while I check on the tortilla.

The tortilla has firmed up nicely on the sides and bottom and comes away easily from the sides of the pan. I slide a spatula around the tortilla to ensure it's not stuck anywhere. It isn't. It is ready to be flipped, I say. The top and middle are still a bit runny, but that's to be expected. In fact, we want it runny now; if it isn't, the finished product will be too dry. Flipping is the toughest part of the tortilla process, I continue, sweating it. In order to flip the tortilla we need a large plate or a flat pot lid large enough to hold the whole tortilla. I prefer to use a pot lid because the handle on top makes it easier to manoeuvre. I place the pot lid over the tortilla and hold my breath. It flips out easily onto the lid. As soon as it's out, I slide it back into the same pan, bottom up. Now we need just a minute or two to cook the other side.

I think the pimientos de padron are done, says Stephen. And so they are. I grind in an ample amount of rock salt and give them a last stir around. I set them aside and keep warm.

I go back to the tortilla. Contrary to your instincts, the ideal way to serve a tortilla is at room temperature after it's had a chance to sit and cool. I turn off the heat under the tortilla in the frying pan and pull out a plate with a perfectly formed, already cooked tortilla. This is one that we made yesterday. Today, it's going to be perfect. I cut two wedges out of the tortilla and place them on a large plate with the pan con tomate that Stephen has just finished preparing.

And now for the final dish, langostinos con ajo. We have a clove of garlic, already chopped that we're going to drop into tablespoon of olive oil mixed with a tablespoon of butter that we've heated in a large flat bottomed frying pan. We stir that for 30 seconds and throw in the langostinos (about half a pound). They've been washed, but we've kept them in their shells for maximum tenderness and flavour. We sautee them for 3 to 4 minutes. You know they're ready when they curl up and turn entirely pink.

We slide the langostinos onto the plate with the pan con tomate and tortilla. We arrange the pimientos de padron on the other side of the same plate. In the middle, we make a little pile of olives stuffed with anchovies because they're delicious and we just can't help ourselves. Cutaway to overhead shot of the plate (pictured above). And there you have it, quick and easy tapas.

I carry the plate to the table, while Stephen opens a bottle of Rioja. Stephen and I dig into the food with approving grunts and murmurs. The credits roll.

[P.S. For more on tapas, check out June Is Tapas Month.]

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Dustiest of Desserts

Dust. It's everywhere: your house, the atmosphere, the cosmos. According to Wikipedia (or, as I like to call it, the word of God), household dust is comprised primarily of dead human skin cells. Appetizing? Not particularly. But if you're Spanish, I suspect that your answer might be, is it ever!

The Spanish have invented a cookie called a polvorone--polvo meaning dust. The polvorone is a holiday classic, originally hailing from the dry and dusty region of Andalucia in the south of Spain. In the days leading up to Christmas, polvorones are available in giant bags in supermarkets across Barcelona and, in superior artisanal form, in many Barcelona bakeries.

Contrary to popular belief, polvorones are actually made of flour, almond meal and lard, not dust. However, they are undeniably dusty. So much so that, in order to prevent total disintegration, they come individually wrapped and must be squeezed with some force into a cohesive ball before being unwrapped and consumed. Eating them also provokes the same parched sensation that you might develop on a trek through the desert. The desert is actually more sandy than dusty, I would think. But that's neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that you need to be well kitted out with liquids before attempting either of a desert trek or a dessert polvorone.

Polvorones are traditionally served as part of a Christmas plate containing turrones (see No Ordinary Nougat) and peladillas (coming next week). Really, with a good cup of tea or coffee or a glass of liqueur, they're not half bad. Better than fruitcake, in any event.

(Disclaimer: I have never trekked through the desert.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Got Bail?

When you move to a new country it's important to have connec-tions, however tenuous. You know, someone to call when your apartment burns to the ground, your boyfriend of three weeks steals all your money and you're arrested for public nudity. At least that was the scenario my mother put to me before I moved to Barcelona, where I did not know a soul.

So, before leaving, I pestered friends, acquaintances and random strangers for possible contacts. The conversations went a little something like this: So, do you know anybody in Barcelona? Spain generally? Europe? The northern coast of Africa? Anybody you know like to travel? Have they considered Spain and are they prepared to bring bail money? I was a little desperate.

As it happens, the strategy did pay off. By the time I arrived in Barcelona, I had a surprisingly long list of people I could call, many of them people I now know and rely on as friends. At the top of that list was Deirdre.

Deirdre is a beautiful Canadian girl married to Jordi, a handsome Catalan boy. Deirdre and Jordi met at school in Paris. Once they graduated, she moved to Barcelona, learned the language (actually, two languages, Spanish and Catalan) and made a life here so that she and Jordi could be together. They were married this year. Really, it doesn't get much more romantic.

Deirdre is actually a friend of a friend of a friend. And not only is she an excellent resource for everything from restaurants to apartment rentals to language schools to hairdressers, she's an extremely warm, funny and generous woman.

I realized what a truly good friend Deirdre is last Friday night. Jordi was away on business so Deirdre and I went out. We began with quite a lot of wine at Barcelona's best tongue twister restaurant, Tantarantana (pictured above, c/ Tantarantana 24, 93 268 2410, reservations recommended). Relaxed, welcoming and candle lit, Tantarantana is ideal for an intimate evening with a girlfriend, a boyfriend or a group of friends. The place practically screams birthday dinner. Most importantly, the food is excellent: one of the best caprese salads I've ever had--enormous slices of mozzarella di bufala, perfectly ripened tomatoes and (who would have thought) anchovies; an outstanding tuna, avocado and sesame salad; baby sepia in a fresh basil sauce accompanied by a wild mushroom sautee; and a warm melt in your mouth brownie with vanilla icecream for dessert. If only the duck had been a little more tender or if I'd ordered the risotto that the friend who recommended the restaurant raved about, it would have been perfection.

After dinner, Deirdre humoured me by agreeing to check out Harlem Jazz Club (see Girls' Night). Secretly, I wanted to see if the principe azul of the weekend before was there. He wasn't. But a soul band was playing: the Gangsters of Love. The lead singer is American and may believe that he's Elvis. He does have that vibe--at least spiritually if not physically. I think it's the hypnotic hip movement. In any case, I knew I was smitten when he started playing the harmonica. I'm not even slightly kidding. But in order to preserve my steamy harmonica playing Elvis fantasy, I was forced to look away when he would mop himself down with the grungiest towel on God's green earth. Deirdre took the full weight of the blow and only let me look when the towel was out of view.

Now that's a true friend. I have no doubt that she'll also bail me out of jail if the law ever catches up with me. No more need to worry, Mom.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Ordinary Nougat

I was going to save the post about turrones until closer to Christmas so that I could tell you in one shot about all the delicious Christmas sweets available in Barcelona. But I'm not great at self-restraint. I've been gorging myself on turrones since mid-November. They're irresistible. And you must know about them.

My lovely Spanish teacher, Angels, first told me about turrones. They're a typical Christmas sweet in Spain, a type of nougat, to be exact. They originate in the pueblo of Jijona, where most turrones and many other almond based Christmas sweets are manufactured.

Really, turrones are around all year, particularly in tourist locations, but they made their appearance in force around November at about the time that icecream season ended. In fact, the same stores that had until November been heladerias (icecream shops), all of a sudden became turronerias. It's the winter business. Clever.

In an effort to deepen my experience of Barcelona food and Christmas tradition, I decided to sample the turrones that have come to fill my favourite Born icecream place, La Campana (c/ Princesa 36, 93 319 7296), this past month. La Campana makes its own turrones using traditional artisinal methods. These appear to involve a contraption that's part medieval torture device, part enormous mortar and pestle. Luckily, the monstrosity does not appear to be located anywhere in the vicinity of the shop.

Now, if for you nougat is what you eat second to last out of a chocolate box (after all the nut chocolates are gone and just before you resign yourself to the fruit creams), prepare to reorganize your priorities. I did. Turrones are no ordinary nougat.

The three turrones I sampled first--turron de coco, turron de jijona and turron de yema--were a revelation. Turron de coco is a light blend of marzipan and coconut. The traditional turron de jijona is a slightly chunky almond based nougat, a little like halva, but creamier and without the pistachios. And, my absolute favourite, the turron that dreams are made of, the turron de yema, is like creme brulee in nougat form, a creamy marzipan interior with a melting burnt sugar coating.

I went back to get three more turrones after I devoured the first three in less time than it takes most people to tie their shoes. Despite my impulse to go back to the turrones I knew and loved, I opted for variety, thinking I might reach even greater turron heights. Alas, like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun. The turron de alicante, which is a hard version of the turron de jijona, is a classic, but can tend toward tooth cracking. Take care if you value your dental work. The turron de mazapan y frutas is fruitcake in turron form. Stay away unless you're in your seventies and British. The turron de chocolate y almendras is really just a block of chocolate with almonds. Resist unless you're looking for a reasonable substitute for Hershey's milk chocolate.

Don't get me wrong. I'm still working my way through these bad boys. As they say here, even bad turrones are better than none.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Girls' Night

Having survived the Japanese Lunch in Spanish, the girls from my Spanish class decided to move on to evening fare. Last weekend was our first girls' night. There were five of us: Simona, a forthright Romanian beauty who's always up for anything; Valerie, a lovely French school teacher who is the personification of a conspiratorial wink; Yukiko, of Japanese descent, a luminous corporate consultant with the soul of an artist; Vanessa, a vibrant Brazilian knock-out capable of killing a man with her bare hands for looking at her sideways; and me, the food girl from Canada.

We started out at Mudanzas Cafe/Bar (C/ Vidrieria 15, 93 319 1137), one of the few places you can get a drink and a seat at 9pm on a Saturday night in the Born. We talked a lot about boys and a little about men.

Then, we moved on to Habana Vieja (C/ Banys Vells 2, 93 268 2504) for Cuban food. It's a good spot. Very relaxed with simple, flavourful dishes: roast meats, black beans, rice and fried bananas. All intended for sharing, family style. We shed a tear for the ropa vieja (shredded beef), of which nothing remained by the time we arrived. So it goes. The waiters made up for it by being very sweet...and Cuban.

But the highlight of the night was Harlem Jazz Club (pictured above, C/ Comtessa de Sobradiel 8, 93 310 0755), one of my favourite Barcelona bars. Cool, relaxed, always fun, with a completely mixed and unpretentious crowd between 20 and 70 years of age. For a 7 euro entry fee on weekends you get to see live jazz (or soul or funk or Latin) and they give you a free drink when you present your ticket at the bar. Concert listings appear at

It was at Harlem Jazz Club that Vanessa and I saw our principe azul. We needed a break from the dance performance inspired by Down Home, the jazz/swing band playing that night, so we went outside to get a little air. He was standing directly across the way from where we sat down. He had a bass slung across his back and a little bit of a beard. He was wearing a jean jacket and cargo pants. It was hard to tell how old he was. Maybe late twenties, early thirties. Definitely hot. Vanessa and I were staring at him, not all that discreetly. But it was o.k. because he was staring back. First he would look at one of us, then at the other, then back at the first and then the other. And so it went, until Vanessa and I worked out a schedule for seeing him (alternating days Monday to Saturday, shared Sundays). After that, we couldn't restrain ourselves from collapsing into giggles. I think he smiled. Maybe not. Eventually his friend came out and they walked off. We could have run after them, I suppose. But we didn't. Well, I held Vanessa back by her belt loops.

Shortly after, we all headed home, exhausted. Vanessa, who lives outside of Barcelona, stayed over at my place. We both dreamt of our bass playing principe azul.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


So, I've been dumped. As a friend. Like yesterday's paper plates.

Well, at least I think I have. I'm a little paranoid about these things. But I've given the situation over a week to settle. And I've confirmed the course of events with more than one girlfriend at home. We have all come to agreement about the correct interpretation. All except for the Pollyannas, of course. The Pollyannas are forever thinking that you can just scoop the cake off the floor, pat down the icing, cover it all up with sprinkles and sing Happy Birthday. Not so, Pollyannas. Not so. Sometimes it's best to just hide the evidence and bring out the liquor.

The thing is, alone in a new country, I'm taking it a little hard. Here, even imperfect friendships are better than none. When they come crashing down, well, it's back to table for one. No choice but to start again.

This time, I'm starting with girlfriends. Less icing to scrape off the floor.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Return of the Radish

In Canada, I used to stay up nights wondering what ever happened to the radish. It had disappeared from supermar-ket shelves seemingly overnight and even my local fruit and vegetable place barely stocked it.

Not that I had done a lot to keep it hanging around, mind you. I had passed it over for other vegetables plenty of times. It barely even made it into my salads anymore.

To tell you the truth, the radish had had a crush on me since grade school. You know, one that was good for my self esteem, but never one that was going to translate into a relationship. It would always hang around my house with its cousin, the turnip, and I wouldn't give either of them a second look. The radish was always a little bit of an afterthought in my life. Until it was gone.

When the radish disappeared, I started thinking about all the good times we'd had: my mother's summer salads with radishes and buttermilk dressing, lazy mornings biting into radishes stirred into creamy yogurt cheese and sometimes afternoon snacks of radishes and salt. Those were the days. Bygone days.

Imagine my excitement when, passing a vegetable vendor the other day, I caught sight of the radish, looking very fine. All of a sudden the radish was all fresh, crispy, antibacterial, cancer fighting, just 20 calories a cup and not at all bitter. Something to think about.

I took the radish home with me. For lunch, I cleaned it up, chopped it into quarters and tossed it over mache (which just as easily could have been arugula) with some chickpeas and fresh mandarin orange pieces (grapefruit would have been delicious too). Then I dressed it with a French dessing: three tablespoons of good red wine vinegar, four of extra virgin olive oil, half a crushed clove of garlic and a teaspoon of dijon mustard, shaken together in a jar and seasoned with salt and pepper. I sprinkled a little over the salad and refrigerated the rest. If I'd had chives, I would have sprinkled those over too.

I devoured the salad with a mixture of nostalgia and discovery. Then I made a date with the radish for dinner and the next day's lunch. And I promised not to underestimate it again.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Comerç 24

It was September 11th, La Diada Nacional de Catalunya, a holiday commemorating the siege of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession. With the exception of some Catalan separatist flags and assemblies, the day was unmarked by the same raucousness that can characterize other holidays in Barcelona. Instead, Catalans flocked with their families to what few restaurants remained open and to outdoor lunches organized to commemorate the day.

By the time it occurred to me to have lunch myself, every place I passed was completely packed. This was a problem. It was already 3pm (the equivalent of 1pm in Canada from the point of view of lunch); I was a good half hour from home; and, as always, I was hungry. I walked along hopefully, but pragmatically, i.e. in the direction of home.

Just as I was about to leave the Born and all reasonable hope of lunch behind, I happened on Comerç 24 (c/ Comerç 24, 93 319 2102, reservations generally required) . I had heard of it. I had read about it in several guidebooks, in fact. The chef (Carles Abellan) had worked at El Bulli, reputedly the best restaurant in the world, for many years. Comerç 24 is the place he opened after he left. It's a tapas place. How expensive can tapas be, I thought rhetorically, and went in.

It was busy, but not packed, and the chic maitre d' gave me a seat at the bar, already populated by a couple of lone food boys.

The menu was slim and, when opened, slightly troubling. The two tasting menus, recommended by the maitre d', were 55 and 78 euros, respectively. That's more than my weekly food budget, I thought. Then immediately, what can I get away with?

The a la carte tapas were somewhat less expensive, though by no means affordable. I decided on the two cheapest, ignoring the maitre d's recommendation to select three. I would have the summer salad and the canneloni. The menu doesn't over promise so neither was described in any more detail. For all I knew, for approximately 30 euros, I was about to get a few pieces of artfully arranged iceberg lettuce and some Chef Boyardee. I asked for a glass of wine to help it all go down more smoothly.

As soon as I closed the menu, a linen mat was spread before me and things I hadn't ordered started to arrive--the amuse bouche: a handful of gold covered macadamia nuts, two enormous anchovie stuffed olives, a creamy pesto with fresh bread sticks, the lightest pork fritter known to man with a Peruvian sweet sauce and a parmesan tart. And the wine. The wine was good. I was starting to loosen up a bit. I took the pins out of my hair and let it down. Then, I undid a couple of buttons on my shirt.

After the amuse bouche came the summer salad: a small flower pot of sweet cherry tomatoes, baby courgettes, peaches, and an impossible variety of tender greens, herbs and edible flowers. The vinagrette tasted softly of honey. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, sighed, and closed my eyes.

When I next opened them, the main course lay before me, sizzling. It was a sublime meat filled canelloni topped with sauteed chanterelles in a rich beef reduction. The perfect balance of agression and surrender. I arched my back and let out a moan. Then I lost consciousness a little bit.

When I came to, the waitress was bringing dessert. I must have asked for it at some point. It was a tasting...of nine. I braced myself against the bar. I wasn't sure that I could keep going. But I couldn't stop: three takes on fruit and six different variations on chocolate, including a dark chocolate mousse topped with olive oil and salt. I can't really give you a more detailed account because it was at this point that I shivered and blacked out again. At one point, I'm pretty sure I left my body and floated overhead for a few seconds.

When it was all over, I slid my credit card across the bar without a word. Then, I drifted home and collapsed, spent.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chicken Soup

The evenings in Barcelona have become a little cool. A sweater isn't always enough. A girl sometimes needs warming up when she gets home. In other words, it's soup weather.

My favourite soup is plain old chicken. But, I confess, I'm a lazy cook. Lazy, but demanding. Or, at least, unwilling to give up the idea of cooking from scratch. The combination makes me an enthusiastic user of shortcuts.

I have two shortcuts for chicken soup, one of which presented itself to me in Barcelona. The first shortcut--known by cafeteria ladies the world over--is dispensing with a raw chicken. You can't do this if you need a pure chicken stock to use as a base for another dish--for that, you should stick with a classic stock recipe. But, if all you want is a little soup to eat all by your lonesome in your cozy Barcelona apartment, dispense away. I tend to use a partially intact chicken carcass that I've either roasted and half eaten the night before or bought at my local rotisserie and half eaten the night before. The three main advantages of this strategy are that there's no skimming or rinsing, both yucky jobs; that the precise flavour of the soup is always a bit of a surprise, being largely dependent on the way the roast chicken was originally spiced; and that you essentially get two meals from one bird.

The other shortcut is particular to Barcelona, as far as I know. It is a ready made package of herbs and vegetables sufficent for one pot of chicken soup. These packages invariably contain 2 or 3 large carrots, 2 or 3 ribs of celery (leaves intact), and 1 leek; usually a handful of parsely; and sometimes a parsnip, a turnip or a small piece of cabbage. The variety is part of the fun. And you don't have to comb the store for all the required ingredients. Laziness, the mother of invention.

So, here's what I do with my roast chicken and my package of vegetables. I peel the vegetables that need peeling, chop into 2-3 inch chunks and toss into a stock pot with the remainders of the roast chicken. I cover all this with cold water, throw in a tablespoon or so of salt, 3 or 4 whole peppercorns (if I feel like it) and sometimes a bay leaf. I might also add a quartered onion or two, although with the leek, it's not strictly necessary. I bring all this to a boil, reduce the heat and leave to simmer, partially covered, for about an hour and a half. If I remember, I check on it occasionally and season to taste as I go. If I don't remember, the water evaporates, the solids incinerate and the fire department has to be called in. In any case, when done, I cool the soup (when I don't, the next part of the process tends to burn a little), strain the liquid into a clean pot and proceed to pick out the still edible vegetables (i.e. the carrots, parsnips, turnips and cabbage, all the rest having more or less disintegrated) and the chicken. The chicken I shred, discarding bones and skin; the vegetables I chop into bite sized pieces. All this I throw into the pot with the stock. I check for seasoning one last time. Then I eat. Actually, I usually can't wait that long and tend to make myself a mini-bowl before I've gone through the cooling and straining process, but you can do as you like.

One of the things I love about chicken soup is that, like the missionary position, you can riff on it to your heart's content. I'm a big fan of cutting in a piece of fennel along with the other vegetables, which gives the final product a faint taste of anise. I also sometimes o.d. on parsnips, which makes the soup almost sugary sweet. When I'm feeling a little like Asian and if the stock is fairly pure to start with, I garnish with bird's eye chiles (one or two), beansprouts and chopped cilantro. Oh, and if I have them, I sometimes throw in a few fresh or frozen peas once the soup is ready. You can, of course, add noodles or rice or tomatoes or any number of fetish items. But you don't need to. The soup is delicious just as it is.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An American in Barcelona

Remember Tom? The gregarious American stockbroker in his sixties who has been taking Spanish with me and the other girls. Tom is heading back to the U.S. today with his lovely wife, Linda.

The girls and I were heartbroken on Tom's last day. Tom has been entertaining us for an entire month with his good humour and enthusiasm for the language. He first learned Spanish in Mexico 37 years ago, inspired by his friendship with a schoolmate whose family spoke only Spanish. Having found it difficult to keep up the language in Oregon, where he lives, Tom decided to take classes during his month long holiday in Barcelona in order to recuperate his former facility.

Tom was very fond of saying that he was learning "mucho más que español" in our class. And, it's true, between Vanessa's vivid descriptions of carnaval, Bodil's passionate defense of animal rights, Irena's interesting take on organic food and our occasional digressions into boys and sex, a man can learn a little. Whatever he learned, it's clear that Tom fit in perfectly with the girls and that we will all miss him very much.

As for me, I couldn't let Tom go without asking him out at least once. I was a little nervous because no girl likes to be rejected. But, as they say in Spanish, hay que intentar. After class last week, I walked out with Tom and spoke to him in English for only the second time since we’d met. I suggested that Tom, his wife and I go for dinner. Tom seemed interested, but he didn't say yes right away. He had to discuss it with Linda. Clearly, the man had read the Rules somewhere along the way. I walked away somewhat crushed, but still hopeful.

The next day, Tom put me out of my misery. He and Linda were available on Sunday. Perfect. He suggested that we also invite Angels, our tiny shining star of a teacher. Even better. I would make the reservation for four.

Because it was Sunday, we were somewhat limited in our choice of restaurant. Most places in Barcelona are closed on Sunday evenings, if not all day Sunday. And so, we chose Pla (c/ Bellafila 5, 93 412 6552, reservations strongly recommended, see The (Personal) Best of Barcelona). Tom and Linda, who had done a very thorough gastronomic tour of Barcelona in their month here, hadn’t had a chance to go and I had good memories from my last visit. Tom proposed that we also visit La Vinya Del Senyor (Plaça Santa Maria 5, 93 310 3379), a well-stocked wine bar in the Born, for a glass of wine before dinner.

The evening passed in a flash, as the best ones do. We started outside the beautiful Santa Maria del Mar church (pictured above) in front of La Vinya Del Senyor with a bottle of Tom and Linda’s favourite Spanish wine (Tom will have to remind me of the name again; I've now forgotten it twice). Then we walked the few blocks over to Pla and had a great meal. The starters stood out: pineapple carpaccio with steamed prawns; salads of baked queso de cabra, roasted red peppers, dandelion and arugula perfectly married with a beet and balsamic reduction; and a plate of beautifully shaved idiazbal and manchego cheeses with a tomato and rosemary oil marmelade. Those and the banana tarte tatin with pineapple icecream that we all shared. Mmmmm.

There's nothing like first getting to know people that you truly like. We talked about learning languages (for a change, Angels practicing her English instead of Tom and I our Spanish), Spain, Barcelona, life histories, life plans, and countless other things. Tom and Linda gave me their list of Barcelona favourites (Comerç 24 (c/ Comerç 24, 93 319 2102), Gaig (c/ Paseo de Maragall 402, 93 429 1017) and Cal Pep (Plaça Olles 8, 93 310 7961) were at the top). Tom, the perfect gentleman, treated us. He said he wanted to do so to thank Angels for her attention in class and to support the Barcelona Food Girl.

Thank you, Tom, for everything. I sincerely hope that we’ll keep in touch.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Best Man I've Got

My love life, such as it is, has been a little complicated lately. Signals are getting crossed, messages are not reaching their destination and, all in all, I'm starting to feel a little frustrated by the fiasco that the single girl's world sometimes becomes.

This is a problem beyond the reach of food. So I've been spending some time at home watching 24. Yes, in Barcelona, with the cultural events, the art, the clubs and the restaurants. Sometimes there's just no denying a girl's basic need for television.

I'm in the middle of season 5. Make no mistake about it, season 5 sucks. But I'm sticking with it. Why? Because of Jack Bauer, an erratic, middle aged, former drug addict with a bad temper and a gun. Those are his strong suits. On the downside, he has no sense of humour, is unable to sustain a relationship and all his girlfriends are sooner or later killed, kidnapped or tortured. None of that changes the fact that, right now, Jack is the best man I've got.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Penultimate Tabernero

The other day I got a call from David inviting me to a fiesta in honour of the birthdays of Pepe and Toni. Pepe you already know--of paella fame. Toni is a friend of Pepe and David and a lawyer. Don't hold that against him.

You have to come, said David, who seems to be under the impression that I have other things to do with my Wednesday nights. It'll make a great blog. O.K. It's at this crazy place. Uhuh. The guy calls himself the penultimate tabernero in Barcelona. There's another one? What do you mean? Well, if he's the penultimate, then who's the ultimate? I don't know, but he calls himself the penultimate. O.K. His name is Angel. O.K. You'll love it. O.K.

Allow me to take a moment to explain the concept of a tabernero, as it was explained to me by Pepe, who is worthy of the utmost trust in these matters. (If you were left with the opposite impression after reading the paella blog, English is quite likely not your first language. You're forgiven for not catching the nuances of the writing.) Taberneros are owners of tabernas who prepare and serve the food themselves. Often, taberneros do so in their own homes. Taberneros in this sense still exist in many parts of Spain, but have almost disappeared from Barcelona, except for Angel. Angel, who is in his sixties, is also thinking of closing soon. When this happens, it will be a nearly tragic shame.

When we arrived on Wednesday night, Angel greeted us with great enthusiasm and immediately proceeded to explain his approach to food, all before I took off my coat. For Angel, food is primordial. It is (his words, my loose translation) like the face of a woman (la cara de una mujer) when she first wakes up in the morning. This is when a woman is at her most beautiful, her most unspoiled. If you apply too much make-up, that simplicity and perfection are gone. Food works along the same principles. It's best if simply prepared. The goal is to bring out its flavour (el sabor), not to cover it up with fancy dressings.

As a brief aside, if a woman woke up at Angel's place, she'd probably stub her toe on the way to the bathroom three or four times, at which point her face may not be the picture of perfection that Angel had in mind. Angel's place is a junk shop. That's not a figure of speech. It is, by day, a junk shop. It's a little like eating in your grandparents' closet, i.e. the place is filled to overflowing with everything from wire hangers to deer antlers to Swedish dictionaries; it adds an extra dimension to the food, although I'm not exactly sure how it fits with the make-up metaphor.

Now, the food, the food: a Spanish tortilla as delicious as it was enormous, fresh tomatoes dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and pieces of stewed pork that you could cut with a spoon. All in enormous dishes placed in the centre of the tables, along with still packaged fuet and chorizo sausages that you could cut yourself, provided you could find a sharp enough knife among the mismatched cutlery. All piping hot, except for the sausages and tomatoes, which were at room temperature, just as they should be. This is the food your grandmother would have made if she were a wise cracking Spanish man with an ample belly and a penchant for suspenders. The food wasn't fancy, inventive or creative; it wasn't whimsically presented. The food was home, which is better than anything.

Angel has a bit of an exclusive thing going on. I asked Toni how one goes about making a reservation at his place. Well, Toni said, first Angel has to remember you--i.e. you will require an introduction and a memorable presence. Assuming you've made it past step one, you can call him in the morning on his mobile. It's up to him to give you his number.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cookies for Saints and Dead People

I'm missing Halloween this year: the one day a year that you can give free rein to your fantasy life in public. However, I was heartened to see, on visiting a Barcelona costume shop, that the Spanish fantasy life appears to incorporate rubber-clad nurses, French maids and sexy devils to the same degree as does the Canadian fantasy life--that is to say, mucho. Unfortunately, except in certain English speaking enclaves of Barcelona and some nursery schools (where presumably the fantasy life tends more in the direction of pirates and My Little Ponies), Halloween isn't really celebrated here. October 31, or All Hallows' Eve, hasn't taken on the proportions of the North American Halloween. It's November 1, All Saints' Day, that's celebrated as a holiday. And, since celebrating All Saints' Day really means spending the day at a graveside, it doesn't have the same kind of resonance in the imagination.

On the upside, there are treats. These are known as panellets: tiny cookies of varying shapes and flavours, traditionally accompanied by sweet wine and eaten on November 1, and really, throughout the fall. The basic recipe for panellets requires the preparation of a paste of ground almonds, sugar and mashed potato. The paste is subsequently flavoured with more almond, coconut, chocolate, coffee, pinenuts, orange or whatever else leaps to mind or hand and baked into tiny (usually circular) shapes.

The provenance of panellets is somewhat obscure--that is to say, the internet doesn't have anything definitive to say on the subject. Some say that the cookies have origins in Spain's Moorish past because of the use of almonds. Others relate them to ancient funereal or religious rites celebrated during this time of year. Luckily, no one's going to test you on the subject before allowing you to eat them.

If you are buying panellets, be prepared to drop a lot of cash on some very tiny cookies. Bakeries in Barcelona (the panellets pictured are from La Boulangerie at Bailen and Corsega) typically charge by weight and a kilo of panellets can cost between 30 and 40 euros. Don't worry. It's money well spent, particularly since you won't have to spring for a costume.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Japanese Lunch in Spanish

I may not have mentioned this before, but I'm taking a Spanish class. It's kind of an obvious thing to do, living in a Spanish city. Speaking the language, as you can imagine, is helpful.

Actually, my class is a little more than just a class. It's four hours of Spanish a day. And, between discussions of the subjunctive tense and what it means to be a putero, you get to know people. As it happens, the people in question are virtually all girls. Beautiful French, Swedish and Brazilian girls learning a foreign language. Oh, and one gregarious 60 year old American stock broker whose name is Tom--Tom, who is a very happy man.

Now, don't misunderstand, I'm still telling people to close down the sea port instead of shut the door, to shoot instead of disappear and that there's a masturbator outside my window instead of a bird. The subtleties of the language have not caught up with me, as it were. But at least I know that I may not be perfectly understood.

By way of continuing on my path toward self-improvement (at least in Spanish), the other day I suggested to my classmates that we continue our Spanish conversation over lunch. We settled on Japanese, fearing that so much Spanish may be demasiado.

We were all girls--two French, one Brazilian, one Swedish, one Romanian, one Japanese and me, the Canadian. Tom, I think in fear for his own well being, declined to join us.

Between the 7 of us, we spoke 12 languages perfectly, none of them Spanish. The situation was complicated by the fact that some of us also only had a passing acquaintance with Japanese cuisine. We were all, however, very enthusiastic.

All this the waiter at Kibuka (C/Verdi 64, tel. 93 415 9217) came to understand quickly. While he wore a slightly stunned looked for most of the meal, the man was also a paragon of patience and good humour. We got more or less what we wanted, none of the mistakes being the fault of the waiter, you understand. We learned the word erizo (hedgehog)--for the shape of the sushi. We got to know the details of each other's love lives. And our broken but sincere Spanish was like a free trip to the comedy club for the other diners.

We have plans to repeat the experience.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

More Cures

Last night I was holed up at home with my orange juice and a half eaten baguette when I got an email from my friend David offering to bring me soup--for the plague, you understand. Where are you going to get soup, I asked. Leave it to me, he said. I know a guy. I'll be over at 930.

He called at 1000. There were some problems, but the guys are working it out. The guys? The guys at the restaurant. Working what out? It's a little complicated. OK. Don't worry. I'm not worried. We're coming. Who's we? Me and the soup. OK. You'll love it. OK.

A little after 1030, my doorbell rang. It was David and the soup: a seafood stew hailing from a Galician* restaurant called Medulio in Gracia (Avda. Principe de Asturias 6, tel. 93 217 3868). Medulio doesn't typically do takeout, but they obliged David. It's hard to say no to the guy. He has a way.

They gave him enough soup for approximately 12 people, all of it poured into an industrially sized container, which was likely the only thing in their possession resembling takeout ware. For a negotiated price, they also threw in a little something extra, which was to be revealed post-soup.

The soup came with instructions. Under no circumstances was it to be reheated in the microwave. Any application of heat was to occur on the stove top and nowhere else. At David's insistence, we dumped the soup into a pot and heated it to steaming for maximum healing efficacy.

The soup was amazing, a rich garlicky fish stock with mussels the size of my palms, baby clams and what I believe to be haddock, but identifying fish in stews isn't one of my strengths so it could have been just about anything. Small mysteries of content aside, it was delicous.

The soup was followed by the revelation of a bright yellow liquor sent to us by Medulio in a plastic cup. This, I learned, was Licor de Hierbas de Galicia or Galician Herb Liquor, which is a little bit like Jagermeister, but more tasty...and Galician. David insisted that the liquor was purely medicinal in purpose before we proceeded to polish it off--him with a presumably preventative intent.

The next morning, I felt like a new woman. I stopped myself from eating the rest of the soup for breakfast with a well deployed chocolate croissant. By the time lunch rolled around, I no longer felt the need to make such heroic efforts.

The rest of the soup is now contributing to my miraculous recovery. I have Medulio and David to thank for their ministrations on my behalf.

(* Galicia is a region in northern Spain known for its excellent seafood.)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Cure for the Plague

I'm sick. It's not an excuse. I promise. I've been sick for the past week. I think it's the flu. Or pneumonia. Or the plague. Something serious, in any event.

Luckily, the plague hasn't prevented me from venturing out in order to randomly spray the air with plague particles (by way of grow-your-own presents for hapless passers-by) and to purchase the best plague cure known to man: freshly squeezed orange juice. It's so good and so available that it hasn't occurred to me to purchase oranges here to squeeze myself. (Actually, that's never occurred to me.) The exertion is completely unnecessary. Nearly every cafe and bar has a juicer at the counter and most will only charge a euro or two for a glass of juice. You can watch them squeeze you a litre at the market for 4 or 5 euros; and they'll even let you take it home.

So, little by little, the plague is abating, which is for the best; so much phlegm does not become a food girl.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The (Personal) Best of Barcelona

Four of my Canadian friends found themselves in Barcelona last week. Not a large number, but one requiring some organization. Reservations were made, itineraries were planned. We walked, we sat, we ate and we drank, rather a lot. The unemployed Barcelona Food Girl was treated to many activities beyond her usual means due to the generosity of her friends, for which she is very grateful.

Over our last dinner, I asked each friend to give me his/her list of Barcelona high points. There were two boys and two girls, two singles and one couple. In no particular order and leaving off the Sagrada Familia and the Picasso Museum, the high points were (more or less) those below.

An afternoon picinic in Parc Guell: Parc Guell in its time was a failed gated community. Gaudi conceived a garden city, but nobody bought in. After his death, the city turned it into a park filled with glittering mosaics and fantastical aqueducts of yellow stone. In a remoter corner, along the top of one of the aqueducts, run stone benches, which vaguely resemble restaurant booths, at least to the hungry. After the climb up, we recovered in one of these with slightly squashed ham and cheese sandwiches and marzipan cookies. Estimated recovery time post 15 minute walk was 2 hours, give or take a few dozy minutes.

Drinks in Placa Rius i Taulet (Gracia): We sat in one of the cafes bordering the square one afternoon. The famous clocktower was the impromptu goal pummelled by next decade's Diego Maradonna and his five companions. That is, until two beautiful Lolitas sashayed over and put an end to all that silly boy stuff.

Dinner at La Candela in Placa de Sant Pere (Born): The square spreads out intimately at the feet of a beautiful old church and is hushed and empty at night except for the candle lit tables of La Candela. It was my friends' first time in Barcelona and they were silent with wonder at the old square (girl friend) and the young French women at the next table (boy friend). [P.S. See update in Losses post.]

Dinner at Pla (c/ Bellafila 5 (Gotico), 93 412 6552): They had given away our table by the time we arrived, half an hour late for our reservation, the fault of some poor planning and obscure directions. However, we tardied happily at the bar until a table was ready. Once installed, and by then quite tipsy, we proceeded to regale ourselves with our fantastic stories. Hopefully, the terrific food and ambient music softened the blow for the other diners.

Deluge: I had made a reservation at one of the famous Barcelona restaurants in the Born. The plan was to have a drink at Gimlet Bar (c/ Rec 24, 93 310 1027)) at about 9 (I hadn't yet been) and proceed to dinner at 1015. By 830, it had started to rain. No problem for those of us who are in the habit of procuring miracles: we found a cab...eventually. It toook us to Calle Rec, location of said Gimlet. The street's entrance being blocked by a truck, we got out early. By this point, someone had opened a giant tap directly overhead and the sky was spilling. We huddled under our umbrellas in pretence that they were more use than a couple of soggy yarmulkes and tried to tiptoe through the pooling water that was by then in danger of reaching our knees. We couldn't see where we were going. The Gimlet Bar seemed like a fantasy. After two blocks and in near convulsive panic at the strong likelihood of drowning or at least being swept out to sea, we all agreed to go into the next place we saw. And we did. I don't know its name, but they had beer and wine. They served tacos and empanadas. There were tables and chairs. The waitress was understanding. And it was dry. We called to cancel our fancy reservation and proceeded to have an amazing night. When the rain stopped and the state of our clothes improved from sopping to damp, we topped things off at the sultry Gimlet, which we had obliviously passed within seconds of getting out of our cab.

Honourable mentions go to our final dinner on the lovely (and well heated) beach terrace at Agua (Passeig Maritim 30 (Barceloneta), 93 225 1272); the mojitos at Elsa Bar (see prior post); tapas at Cerveceria Catalana (c/ Mallorca 236 (Eixample), 93 216 0368); the sights in the Hotel Omm lobby (c/ Rossello 265 (Eixample), 93 445 4000); the Buda Bar (c/ Pau Claris 92 (Eixample), 93 318 4252), where we mistook the Barcelona Juventud for the then visiting Toronto Raptors; and a take out Spanish tortilla from a neighborhood cafe.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Gazpacho - Take Two

It occurred to me as I was travelling around the South that perhaps my last post left a little too much to the imagination. Perhaps it could have shown a little more leg or just a touch of cleavage. Or maybe it could have allowed its thong to ride up instead of primly tucking its blouse into its flouncy skirt. But it was what it was, a coy post. I pondered its coyness at some length while strolling through Cordoba.

When I least expected it, mid-stroll and mid-ponder, I ran smack into my post's louche sister in the form of a postcard featuring not just a gazpacho recipe, but a graphic photograph of a deconstructed gazpacho with its base ingredients splayed out for all to see. Despite my blushing cheeks, I cannot help but picture the postcard and transcribe the English version of the recipe written in three languages on the back of the card:

(6 persons)
Ingredients: 1Kg. of peeling red tomatos [The Spanish version suggests that peeled tomatoes would also be suitable.]
1 clove of garlic
1 piece of bread
Olive oil, vinegar, salt and water
Tomatos, garlic and bread mixed to a paste. [If you're Spanish, feel free to use a blender.] Add salt, vinegar and water. [You're on your own as to the proportions of these and the use of the olive oil, which remain a mystery even in Spanish.] Served cold and garnished (optional) with cucumbers, peppers, onions and bread."

¡Que aproveche!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Campbell's Gazpacho

The baby, its mom and I are in the south of Spain, birth place of the Spanish Inquisition, bullfighting and gazpacho.

The baby appears partial to the gazpacho. On the subjects of the Inquisition and bullfighting, the baby keeps its feelings to itself.

The baby's preferred gazpacho comes in a glass, is the colour and consistency of Campbell's tomato soup and is flavourful like no gazpacho ever made in Canada. It tastes strongly of garlic and sugary tomatoes. Its consistency comes from day old bread soaked in water and seasoned with sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.

In the heat, you can knock one back easier than you can a mojito, especially if you're a baby.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


There's a baby staying with me this week. It came with its mom.

So, I haven't been able to write much. You know how babies are--small, of varying smells, egocentric and extremely time consuming. Babies seem not to drink much alcohol or eat octopus. They also don't appear to enjoy smoky bars. They hate it when you sit at your computer typing. Apparently, that's not entertaining.

Maybe next week.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Perfect Mojito

In order to make the perfect mojito, you first need to spend a lifetime developing a career as a star of stage and screen. In Cuba, of course. Nowhere else. You might end up an actress when you're done. Or you may develop a strong singing voice. Either way, you'll have a presence and a little bit of seed money.

Next, you'll need to take the seed money overseas. Set up a little bar off the beaten path. Don't worry if you don't get much traffic at first. They will come.

Hire a hot bartender half your age (by now you'll be in your sixties). Teach him the ways of Cuba and the world. Make him wear a pony tail and a well tailored shirt.

When you've built up a good clientele--preferably of young Spaniards, who are scantily dressed and just a little sweaty because your bar doesn't have air-conditioning--you'll need to set up an assembly line.

Line up eight tumblers. (You can't truly enjoy a mojito on your own.) Put several sprigs of fresh mint in each. Then, a table spoon of sugar. Add an ounce of lemon syrup and mash with a pestle. Get the eager young bartender to help. Tell him to put a little muscle into it. Once the mashing is done, fill the glasses to the top with crushed ice. Top with three different types of rum (in equal parts); start with a young rum and work your way up to one that's quite mature. Make sure the glasses are full by the time you've added the third rum. Swirl a little grenadine on top with a sexy flourish. Stir. Serve. Drink. Sing along to the Cuban rythms filling your bar. Enjoy life. Repeat.

For further instruction in mojito making and life, proceed to Elsa Bar along C/ Del Torrent L'Olla in Gracia.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Even Food Girls Get the Blues

It's been a little rainy in Barcelona and, from time to time, drizzle makes a girl a little melan-choly, thinking of lost loves and such. The melancholy, very quickly, turns to thoughts of food. Comfort food to be exact. Food from home, the ultimate source of comfort and a cure for most things that ail a melancholy girl, at least for a moment.

While home for me is Canada, Canada is not my food home. My food home is Poland. My Polish grandmother made perogies that would make you think you had died and gone to heaven sealed in the perfect Polish dumpling. My mother, as her mother before her, rolls cabbage in the most supple and succulent ways. And for dessert, and sometimes breakfast, I still dream of nalesniki, crepes stuffed with home-made yogurt cheese flavoured with vanilla and studded with plump raisins.

If I were to create a hierarchy of Polish foods, mushrooms would be right up there--the viceroys of Polish cuisine (serving King Potato and Queen Cabbage, with the greatest dignity): mushroom stuffing, mushroom sauce, mushroom pickle to accompany almost any variety of food, mushrooms.

Mushrooms at their best are self-sourced. That is, to get the best mushrooms, you really have to pick them yourself. Until last month, when I was visiting relatives in Poland, I hadn't been mushroom picking for at least 15 years. My uncle, an expert mushroom gatherer, took me out with him, liability though I was to his efficient progress through the forest.

Chanterelles, or "kurki" (little hens) as they're called in Poland, were most plentiful. In the forest, the chanterelles peek out at you from underneath thick layers of moss or needles, a coy game of hide and seek. Their circular growth patterns make them more predictable and easier to find than other species. As it happened, even though the forest had been picked over by earlier risers, we were awash in chanterelles (our bucket pictured above).

My aunt had washed her hands of the whole business so, when we returned, my uncle did all the dirty work. He cleaned the mushrooms and pickled them himself. I tasted a few before I returned to Barcelona, but luggage weight restrictions prevented me from bringing a jar back.

To my delight, a week or two ago, chanterelles started to appear in my local food market. Nice ones, at that. In my lowest moment, I bought a half pound. I wasn't about to stuff perogies with them or make cabbage rolls. Even a simple sauce was beyond me. None of these would have been suitable for the hot and humid Barcelona days, in any event.

So, I made a salad. I sauteed the chanterelles in olive oil over a high flame; added papery slices of garlic, one clove to be exact; and seasoned with coarsely ground salt and pepper. Then I tossed the mushrooms on top of arugula, seasoned with balsamic and a tiny bit of olive oil, topped with thin broad shavings of manchego and said a little prayer. It was enough to bring comfort back for the night.

Now, who am I to say that more comfort could not have been gained from tossing the chanterelles with some fresh pasta and olive oil or perhaps overtop of some potato pancakes. These are personal choices, eschewed by those who are still contending with bathing suit season.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pepe's Paella

One of my favourite Spanish names is undoubtedly Pepe. Pepe is short for Jose, a variant of Josep (Joseph). As my friend Pepe tells it, historically, Spanish and Italian paintings featuring the biblical Joseph (husband of Mary) were initialled with the letters "P.P." for "padre putativo", or putative father (of Jesus, of course, whose true or non-putative father was God, so we're told). The initials P.P. eventually morphed into the nickname Pepe, which in Spanish is pronounced identically to the pair of letters.

I haven't investigated any of this so take it for what it's worth. It could be a well-conceived fabrication, which wouldn't surprise me coming from Pepe.

In addition to elaborating with erudition on the subject of his name, Pepe has imparted various other pieces of valuable information, not the least of which is his recipe for paella. This recipe was handed down to me one Sunday afternoon at my friend David's place, to which I had been invited to sample the famous paella. David provided a chicken; Pepe took care of the rest.

Now, before I give you the recipe for Pepe's paella, you should know a few things. First, this is an authentic paella recipe from the land of paella, Valencia. Valencia's marshy coastal regions are ideal for rice growing and rice, in all its forms, is a staple of the Valencian diet. According to Pepe, Valencians enjoy great health as a result. Second, it is possible to further pinpoint the origin of Pepe's paella to Pepe's pueblo, Castellon, each Valencian pueblo enjoying a distinct version of paella. For example, south of the city of Valencia, fiddleheads are added to paella, which Pepe confirms is quite delicious. Elsewhere you might taste snails, ones you yourself find in the fields; a rare commodity to be sure.

Finally, there are three secrets to paella making. First, the ingredients must always be fresh-issimo. As Pepe warns, do not allow yourself to be cheated by a dishonest food merchant. Always demand the best. Second, your reason for making paella, or the "purpose of the paella", must be pure. You cannot cook paella for people you dislike or whilst in an irritated mood--claro que no. Third, paella must be made with cariño. Cariño is a sort of corporeal tenderness that you might show a timid lover. Paella, above all, needs cariño.

Now, if you are prepared with a noble purpose, cariño in ample quantity and the personal resources to demand the best from potentially unscrupulous food merchants, you are ready to make Pepe's paella. This is the recipe. It serves approximately 4 hungry paella eaters. I might observe that, as Pepe's instructions were somewhat fluid, the quantities are approximate and you may need to adjust the amount of water needed to complete the cooking process.

1. Cover the surface of a flat bottomed, high sided frying plan with olive oil. Don't skimp; paella needs a good amount of fat. If you happen to have a paella pan, dig it out from the bottom of the closet; it is time for it to prove its worth. If not, a large frying pan will do.

2. Turn the heat to high and allow the oil to get hot. Add a finely chopped clove of garlic or two and season the oil with a teaspoon or so of salt.

3. Add half a chicken and about half a pound of rabbit, each divided into approximately four pieces. If you like, you might at the same time add about a quarter pound of pork rib, also in four parts. We didn't have the latter and it didn't appear to hurt the paella so do as you will.

4. Cook the meat on high heat until well browned on all sides (about 10-15 minutes).

5. Lower the heat to medium and, along with about a teaspoon of sweet Spanish paprika, add the following vegetables, chopped into bite sized pieces unless otherwise specified:

1 large tomato with all its juice
1-2 bell peppers (preferably red, though green will do)
1/2 lb of green beans, broad beans or white kidney beans
1 artichoke, quartered, well trimmed and cleaned with lemon to avoid colouring the rice

You might also add some fresh rosemary or thyme to flavour the paella. We didn't have any. Their absence was not felt by a first time eater of Pepe's paella.

6. Sautee for another 10 minutes until the vegetables begin to soften.

7. Add about 1 litre of water (1 cup per person) and a pinch of saffron. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the meat is cooked through and has flavoured the stock.

8. Taste the broth for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed, being careful not to oversalt.

9. Add 2 cups of short-grain rice (1/2 cup per person) and cook uncovered for about 15-20 minutes or until just tender. The liquid should be absorbed at this point; you might need to sprinkle in more water if all the liquid has evaporated, and the rice is still hard. The goal is to achieve "el grano suelto", which is a closed, but flavourful grain of rice. If the rice is overcooked, the grain opens and, well, "el sabor se va."

10. Turn off the heat, cover and allow to sit for about 10-15 minutes.

We consumed our paella with several bottles of cava and a salad of avocado, tomato, onion and olives. Lunch lasted approximately 6 hours. Needless to say, it was delicious.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

To Hell for a Hotdog

In case you are ever in need of some oven mits or a bed frame while in Barcelona, the nearest IKEA is at Europa Fira station. From the subway stop at Plaza Espanya, you take the L8 train heading in the direction of Moli Nou. It's all very well marked, really, as I discovered on my third attempt to get there.

In my short time in Barcelona, I have been to IKEA approximately 5 or 6 times, each more resigned than the last. There are, however, two rewards awaiting me as I leave the store. The first is lingering damsel in distress validation, to increase which I always wear my lowest cut tops and make reasonably believable attempts to hoist 70 kg boxes into my cart within arm reach of some hot young guy or at least a dirty old man. My other reward is the IKEA hotdog, identical in Barcelona and Canada and no doubt the world over. Admittedly, the hotdog is a little limp and tired with a somewhat unappetizing hue. It's really impossible to do without condiments. It is, however, an improbably satisfying ending to a thoroughly trying day--a cheap thrill at the end of a root canal.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Breakfast at Barclays

The main Barcelona branch of Barclays Bank sits on the most famous block of the most prestigious street in Barcelona--the Manzana de la Discordia of Paseo de Gracia, where flamboyant modernista mansions vie with each other for a visitor's attention. Barclays itself is unprepossessing on the outside, imposing and somewhat splendid on the inside, as well befits a venerable financial institution. For better or worse, Barclays is now my bank.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, I visited Barclays almost every morning, sometimes for hours at a stretch. Not for some perverse diversion, mind you, but to arrange financing for an apartment. In Barcelona, particularly as a foreigner, a girl has to all but give up her first born to secure an apartment.

When I found my place, I was still naive enough to believe that I could be living in it the very next day. It was empty, after all. I had hauled an air mattress all the way from Canada for this very purpose. What else could be needed?

Apparently, what was needed in addition to the first month's rent and the agent's commission were four additional months of rent: two to be held by the landlord as a damage deposit and two to be held by my (Spanish) bank as a guarantee in the event of non-payment, a so called "aval bancario". Batting my eyes was apparently not an acceptable substitute. This I had not prepared for and arrangements had to be made.

The agent, sensitive to my total ignorance of all matters financial and Spanish, put me in the hands of a friend of his at Barclays, Aurelio*. Aurelio immediately passed me off to his co-worker, Utz*. Aurelio and Utz quickly became, for me, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the banking world.

Aurelio, possessed of all the information supplied by the agent, perpetually had the look of someone who had just jumped onto a fast moving train, having first chased it for several blocks. He was forever late, never returned my calls (hence the need for personal visits), and only occasionally delivered what he promised. However, he always apologized with passion and presented me with alternatives as to where to lay the blame for whatever had not come to pass (por supuesto, the blame never lay with Aurelio himself).

Despite his short-comings, Aurelio was really quite likable, as was Utz. Aurelio's opposite in every respect and undoubtedly of German parentage, Utz was neat, pink and unfailingly correct in all matters professional and social. Utz was the structure to Aurelio's storm and was charged by Aurelio with shepherding me along.

Between the two of them, what in Canada would have taken a day, Aurelio and Utz accomplished in just two short weeks and only hours short of my total nervous collapse.

To fortify myself for, or sometimes to decompress from, a morning at Barclays, I usually headed to one of the terraces on the nearby Rambla Catalunya (pictured above). The Rambla Catalunya (not to be confused with the chintzy chaos that is Las Ramblas, further to the south) is a leafy escape from the suffocating crowds of Paseo de Gracia, a street thoroughly inconducive to eating or relaxation of any sort despite the countless cafes lining its sidewalks. Admittedly, the Rambla Catalunya is full of over-priced touristy restaurants with mediocre food, but the relative peace and excellent people watching are usually worth the price. In any case, a glass of wine is never more than 2 or 3 euros away.

For a cheap breakfast or lunch (all my wallet could stand at the time), the best place was El Fornet d'en Rossend (Rambla Catalunya, 80), a Barcelona chain of French-style bakeries. Don't sit on the terrace and wait for someone to serve you, as I did for a good half hour. The service in Barcelona is of the "unexpected" variety and I have over-adapted to the point of no longer being able to discern when there isn't any. Eventually, the girl cleaning the tables put me out of my misery by indicating that you order at the back of the shop and bring a tray out to the terrace.

With a little more time and cash, you can have a much-better-than-average lunch at Taller de Tapas (Rambla Catalunya, 49-51,, an often recommended Barcelona restaurant. Don't be alarmed if the waiters don't smile at you. Despite my efforts, they didn't smile at me either. This did not affect my enjoyment of the food.

(*The names Aurelio and Utz are a fiction, but I like to think that they retain all the flavour of the actual names of my friends at Barclays.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Octopus Cookery

What you may not realize about octopus is that it needs to be pre-cooked for approx-imately 1 to 2 hours (depending on your method) before it becomes edible. Octopus, apparently, is a tough meat.

When I purchased my first octopus, really just a lone tentacle (enough for a single girl), I imagined that it was something like squid, which I have also never cooked. However, I have a distinct sense of how one cooks squid and no one has ever disabused me of this notion. Squid, in my mind, is cooked on a grill, quickly and with minimal fuss. This method is easily adaptable to a sautee pan at home, with a little olive oil and maybe a splash of white wine.

Having purchased my first octopus tentacle at my local fish market, I was ready to sautee myself a little octopus to accompany a salad of arugula and tomato with a lemon caper vinaigrette. With uncharacteristic caution, I checked the internet to ensure that I was correct in my views about octopus cookery. This is where I learned about the pre-cooking. That night, I ate bread and cheese.

I was prepared the next evening, however, and returned home sufficiently early to pre-cook the octopus. I tossed it in a pot with a few pieces of lemon and onion, left it on simmer and retreated to my computer to entertain myself for the next hour or two before my dinner was ready. Well, one thing led to another, and before I knew it more than an hour had passed without me having checked on my tentacle. When I did finally get myself into the kitchen, the water had completely evaporated from the pot, leaving a rock solid layer of brimstone on the bottom. The effect was somewhere between poaching and barbecuing and the octopus was delicious. I would recommend the method, but for the expense of purchasing a new pot.

Subsequently, I tried my first ever "melt in your mouth" octopus at Carballeira (c/Reina Cristina 3 (between the Borne and the Old Port), tel: 933 10 10 06). Go with someone you know and love as the lighting is a little searing for a first date.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Figs In Flagrante

If figs were sex, the ones available in Canada would be the equivalent of your Wednesday night appointment with a spouse of 20 years. You're not necessarily going to skip it, but let's face it, it's not really what you dream about.

In August, in Spain, the figs are those of your most indecent fantasies. Voluptuous and drippingly sweet. The parting of the dense purple interior, pure eros. Enough to make a single girl melt a little.

On my daily walk through the market, the figs are lined up in the stalls like dancing girls waiting to be picked: the lithe dark ones within reach of every wallet and the plumper green at twice the price. I buy a selection every morning, enough for the day. Figs, like women, don't wait well. Nor, God forbid, should they ever be exposed to the cold.

If, by dinner time, there are still a few available, I lie them in quarters on a bed of baby arugula, pair each with a piece of queso de cabra (a Spanish goat cheese, more firm and to the point than a French chevre), marry the whole with some thick balsamic vinegar and finish with leisurely streams of rosemary honey. Then I swoon a little, trying not to spill my rioja as I go.