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.