Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Saint Nicholas is Coming to Town

Even though Barcelona's Christmas lights have been up since the end of November, Christmas-time in the city really begins on December 6th.

December 6th marks the rather prosaic Constitution Day in Spain, a national holiday commemorating the signing of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, three years following the end of Franco's dictatorship. Practically speaking, it's the last long weekend before Christmas. If the 6th happens to fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, todo el mundo hace el puente--that is, everyone takes a vacation day on the Monday or Friday to make it a four day weekend...five day if the holiday falls on the Wednesday. As a result, the day is sometimes referred to as El Puente de la Constitución.

Most everywhere else in Europe, December 6th is St. Nicholas' Day. St. Nicholas--patron saint of children, students, sailors, archers, merchants and pawnbrokers--is the less commercialized version of the modern day Santa Claus.

Legend has it that St. Nicholas was an infamous anonymous present giver. Preferring to eschew gift giving glory, he deposited his parcels after nightfall, long after prying little eyes were fast asleep. One story has it that he took pity on a poor farmer who wasn't able to afford dowries for his three nubile daughters. On three consecutive nights, St. Nicholas crept up to the family home and tossed gold into stockings that the sisters had hung out to dry thereby funding their dowries and saving the maids from a certain fate of prostitution--not to mention giving a whole other meaning to his signature "Ho! Ho! Ho!".

St. Nicholas is often depicted with three sacks or balls of gold in a nod to the legend. In certain countries, the balls of gold have been transformed into oranges in the popular imagination leading to the tradition of giving oranges as gifts on December 6th. Conveniently, it's when oranges happen to be in season.

While St. Nicholas' Day is not particularly celebrated in Spain, the Dutch seem to believe that Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of St. Nicholas) hails from these parts. Dutch legend has it that after Sinterklaas gives presents to all the good little children, he packs up all the bad little children in his empty sacks and takes them back to his Spanish lair. Presumably to work in his sweatshops...I mean workshops.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Weather Outside is Frightful


It's blustery and cold here in the Ciudad de Condal. The waves breaking on Barceloneta beach are impressive, as are the few surfers brave or crazy enough to venture in with their boards. Felipe and I are content to watch them, huddled into our coats and scarves, warming our hands on hot chestnuts if we can still find them.

We've been going out for long walks as often as we can on these frigid days--a sort of boot camp for our winter holidays in Canada. The unfortunate truth--and one I haven't yet let Felipe in on--is that a blustery day in Barcelona has nothing on a Canadian winter. I'm trying to break it to him gently, shall we say.

Our night walks are now lit by Barcelona's myriad constellations of Christmas lights and, by day, we often pass through the cathedral square, where the Fira de Santa Llucia (www.firesifestes.com), with its gaudy holiday baubles and fragrant greenery, opened this weekend. Only the creche in Plaza de Sant Jaume remains a secret, though not one that's very well kept: you get a pretty good idea of the state of things by surreptitiously peeking through the green netting.

These are the last days of chestnut season--the few Castanyada shacks that haven't yet closed for business will likely do so in the next few weeks or so--and the early days of turrones and other Christmas sweets. If you're keen, you can read about the latter here: No Ordinary Nougat, Peladillas, and The Dustiest of Desserts.

All in all, a wonderful time to be in Barcelona, despite the cold.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Oh Starry Night


A few months ago, my friends Allan and Trish were in town, treating Felipe and me to dips in the roof top pools of their swank hotels and multiple bottles of cava. We ate well in those weeks--tapas around town, a picnic on the beach, and paella on our terrace. But the most decadent treat (thank you Allan and Trish) was dinner at Cinc Sentits (www.cincsentits.com)--a restaurant owned by Catalan-Canadian brother and sister, Jordi and Amelia Artal (pictured).

The dinner deserves a considered post and you will get one in time. Before that, however, one piece of news: last week, Cinc Sentits was awarded its first Michelin star...an honour that locals have long thought deserved and one pounced upon by Catalan newspapers following the release of the new Michelin guide for Portugal and Spain.

The star is all the more bright because of the widely prevailing view (at least in the Spanish press) that the awards of stars were "stingy" this year--stingy in that few new stars were awarded in Spain, of course. But what would food industry accolades be without a little fodder for bellyaching, I say.

You can read my article about Cinc Sentits in the Globe & Mail until I get a chance to fill you in further. Here's the link: Catalan-Canuck chef makes Michelin magic.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Churros and Chocolate in Barcelona


I rarely write about blogging per se because, let's face it, qua activity it's a little on the dull side. That is not to say that the blogging world doesn't hold a sway over me. Nor is it to say that I don't follow my blog statistics with a greedy fascination. It's simply that the mechanics of blogging are normally best left out of the blog.

Except today. Today, I'm going to tell you a little about what I learn from my stats. While the statistics don't identify visitors, they do let me know generally where visitors to the blog are from and, in some cases, what they were searching for when they came to me. You may be surprised to know that an alarming number of my blog's visitors are searching for "girls' pepes", which I suppose is a misspelled euphemism for vaginas. They are directed to the post titled Pepe's Paella. I can only assume that they are sorely disappointed. Not unlike those searching for "sexy nuns"; they end up at Nuns Cook.

More importantly, I've discovered that there are many desperate souls searching for the best churros and chocolate in Barcelona. They have to date been misdirected to this blog because of a post about churros in Seville.

Churros are deep fried pieces of dough, usually in stick form, which are typical of the south of Spain; they're not part of Catalan culinary tradition, even though there are a handful of churrerias sprinkled around Barcelona. My Seville churro post simply says that Barcelona's churros just don't reach Seville's standards and, with that, leaves those hopeful souls hanging

That ends today. For those of you who must know, there is one Barcelona spot that nearly reaches Seville standards (nearly). The pace is rather laconically dubbed Xurreria (the Catalan spelling of Churreria). You can find it a few doors down from a place called La Granja (c/ Banys Nous 4, Gotico).

La Granja (pictured above) is, well, a granja, that is to say, a milk bar--a little like a cafe, but with offerings that usually include a variety of hot chocolates and milk based beverages. For those looking for a break from bars, there's no alcohol and no smoking. Many granjas are holes in the wall; La Granja is one of the more charming and offers a variety of chocolates, milks, juices, teas and coffees as well as pastries, sandwiches and home made desserts. An excellent option for a light breakfast or a merienda (an afternoon tea, usually taken at around 5pm in Barcelona).

But back to churros. The Xurreria makes some of the lightest, freshest churros in Barcelona and La Granja--which sells a a thick melted chocolate so dark it's nearly black--lets you bring them in for dipping.

An individual portion of churros is a euro. The chocolate is 2.50. I have no doubt that your taste buds will thank you...your arteries, not so much.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Foie Gras (Rant Free)


I've been working on a post about old school Catalan restaurants recently, dutifully consuming butifarra, suquet, pigs' feet and a variety of other Catalan classics without writing a word.

Luckily, the Globe has come through by publishing another article that I can share with you on-line. This one is about "ethical" foie gras. It's a costly rarity, even in Spain, but you (assuming you are European) can get it through this site, if you fancy: www.ibergour.com.

If you have a hankering to read all about it, you can find the Globe article here: Spain's no-guilt delicacy: foie gras minus the force feeding.

If you simply cannot suppress the need to rant about foie (one of the most rantable foods, to be sure), feel free to let it all out in the comment section of this post.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pigs for Obama


It's a little hard to wrap your mind around pigs on the glorious morning of the Obama victory. Believe me, I know. But, if any pig can take your mind off history-making, righteousness and the single largest ray of hope on the world political stage, it's the wooly, totally improbable Hungarian mangalica. I like to think the mangalica would have come out for Obama in droves were they human and registered voters in key swing states.

In any case, here's a link to my story about them (voting history not addressed) and the Spanish production company that helped save the breed: Mangalica: The Next Big Pig.

In case you're wondering, I do still have a piece of sausage left from the mangalica samples that Jamones Segovia sent me, the ham samples having disappeared a long time ago. The pork is delicious, even if the picture of the wooly critter on the packaging creeps me out a little every time.

Friday, October 31, 2008

La Castanyada


Felipe and I went out today fully decked out in our finest wiggery to confirm reports that Spaniards are quickly catching on to Halloween. We were fiercely stared down by dour Catalans and thoroughly drenched with rain--a punishment by a dour Catalan god, no doubt.

It all makes us think that rumors of Spanish Halloween have been greatly exaggerated. Or perhaps that Catalans remain fiercely anti-Spanish, which in this case may also make them anti-Halloween. Nonetheless, we will venture out again tonight to conduct further investigation. The Gangsters of Love are playing at El Monasterio (Passeig Isabel II, Born) and you might remember their hip swinging, slow drawling, harmonica playing singer from the Got Bail post. I know, I know, I'll be accompanied. But one can always look...particularly when a harmonica's involved.

In any event, that still leaves us with La Castanyada. I really should have mentioned it when I last wrote about panellets, but for sheer laziness I left out that part of the story.

Since we're temporarily trapped at home by the pouring rain, I'll tell you now.

Loosely translated, La Castanyada means something like The Chestnut Season. Strictly speaking, it occurs on October 31 and November 1 when Catalans partake not only in panellets and moscatel wine, but also in roast chestnuts (castanyas in Catalan) and sweet potatoes (boniatos). As such, October not only sees the cookie market flooded with panellets, it also sees the installation of tiny shacks on select street corners where robust, soot covered women (and sometimes men) tend charcoal grills for roasting said chestnuts and sweet potatoes. The women store the chestnuts, once roasted, in giant drawers insulated with the rattiest blankets on God's green earth. And, by golly, they're brimstone hot and diabolically delicious. The chestnuts, not the blankets. The blankets you'll just have to overlook.

You can pick up a packet of 12 chestnuts for about 2.50 euros and a sweet potato for between 3 and 4 euros. Mauri Pastissería has its own chic stand at the corner of Provença and Rambla Catalunya and can also supply you with some tasty panellets. For a more authentic Castanyada experience, however, try a stand that's not a name brand. Central spots include the stand on the southwest corner of Plaça Catalunya and the one on Calle Bailen, a few blocks south of Travessera de Gracia.

But hurry! The shacks disappear soon!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Days of Almond and Potato

Remember last year at about this time? I know, it's asking a lot. I hardly remember it myself. I have the archives for this very reason...to aid memory.

My archives tell me that at this very time last year I was writing about Cookies for Saints and Dead People, otherwise known as panellets.

As I recall, I stiffed you on the recipe. You can't blame me, this blog doesn't really pay. However, the Globe & Mail does. So, this year, I developed a recipe for them. Here is a link to the story: All Saints' Day cookies are an almond delight. You are welcome to try the recipe. The photo above is of the finished product.

By the way, my friend Trish tested the Globe recipe out of the goodness of her heart and palate. Click on the link to check out her delicious website, The Seasonal Gourmet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cooking for the Financial Crisis


A few weeks ago now, my sister informed me that the world was in a financial crisis. I can't blame her for assuming that I had been in a partial vegetative state since my arrival in Barcelona and therefore unable to access communication media or converse with other humans, it hasn't been a particularly productive year for me after all. However, I managed to put her mind at ease by letting her know that I was on top of the crisis thing-a-magiggy and will now go even further by offering my thoughts on crisis management...food-wise.

Luckily, this is a topic I know much about as I have been trying to keep the lid on a personal financial crisis for, well, about a year and a half now. No one's turned off my lights or, God forbid, blocked my internet access, so I do believe I boast about as much success as the US Treasury Department. Perhaps more.

My secret to creative crisis management: the chicken carcass. You'd be surprised the excellent return you can get on a mere skeleton with a few scraps of meat hanging off it. At 50 euro cents a pop, it's really all economic upside.

Actually, it's all about strategically combining the carcass and seasonal vegetables. This week: the pumpkin at 1.50 euros a kilo at the farmers' stalls outside the Boqueria market.

So, to the management. Well, basically, the carcass (two carcasses, preferably) goes into a pot with a good four litres of water and a selection of stock vegetables. (See the Chicken Soup post for additional thoughts on chicken soup--while that post deals with an already cooked carcass and this one with raw carcasses, the technique is largely similar.) This week I used 2 carrots, 1 parsnip, half a turnip, a couple of leaves of cabbage, 1 rib of celery, a leek and some parsley. The whole thing cooks and cooks until it becomes delicious chicken stock--you'll have to skim a little scum off the top when the soup first boils, but once you've reduced the heat to simmer and salted the whole thing well, there's little more to do but wait for the flavour to take. I usually pick the meat off the carcasses and throw it back in along with the carrots and parsnips (chopped up) for a home style chicken soup. I also put the soup in the fridge overnight so that I can skim off the fat the next day, but you can do as you like. If you leave things here, your investment has been approximately 2 euros ($3) and about an hour to an hour and a half of time. Your return: four very healthy and delicious meals for two.

But you can really take crisis management to the next level with the pumpkin and just one litre of the clear stock (i.e. just the liquid, none of the bits). For this, you'll need the following:

1kg pumpkin
1 litre chicken stock
2 tbsp smooth peanut butter
3 tbsp maple syrup
1 400ml can coconut milk
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
cilantro and roasted pumpkin seeds to garnish (optional but delicious)

You first cook the pumpkin, seeds and goo removed, in the microwave for 5-6 minutes to soften so that you can remove the skin more easily and chop it up. Once chopped (coarsely), you toss it into a soup pot with the stock and cook until soft enough to easily mash. You mash (or puree with a hand blender for a smoother soup), add the peanut butter (dissolved in a little of the hot liquid first so that it doesn't clump), maple syrup and coconut milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with a little chopped cilantro and roasted pumpkin seeds.

By the way, I found great instructions for roasting pumpkin seeds and general pumpkin manipulation at this site: www.pumpkinpatchesandmore.org. I tossed my seeds with a little bit of olive oil and salt before roasting and they came out a treat.

Should you be wondering, your additional investment is 2.50 euros ($3.75) or so and you get two to three additional meals for two...well, you reduce the meals with the chicken stock by one or two, but you gain some variety and deliciousness so it's all net profit in the world of nutritional accounting (it's a little Enron-like, the nutritional accounting, you see).

Anyway, that's up to six meals for two for the price of 4.50 euros ($6.75) by my count and don't even get me started on how you can vary, stretch or even freeze the chicken stock--it's a world of infinite possibilities.

I will now sit back and wait for my Nobel Prize in Economics, thank you very much.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Fishies


I wonder sometimes what it would like to be a fishmonger. Spending your days in the pungent world of fish, crustaceans and mollusks. Gutting. Scaling. Filleting. Removing ink sacks. Slicing and dicing. And god knows what other manner of deft knife work. It's a trip to see it all live at a Barcelona market, where fish and their cousins are available at their freshest and only the unworthy open on Mondays. (Everybody knows that there's no Sunday catch to sell so whatever shows up at the market (or on most restaurant menus) on Monday is usually already past its prime.)

I use a two pronged method to choose market seafood: price and lack of overall scariness. Lobster (bogavante) and crayfish (cigalas) generally fall off the list based on the first criterion. Eels (anguilas) and their fanged friends based on the second.

Doradas (gilthead breams) have been reflecting the light off their pale silver scales with an intensity that can only be termed provocative of late. They're a firm fleshed white fish from Atlantic waters and popular choice with Catalans...and, what, they're just 9 euros a kilo (and half that price at the Boqueria market)? A veritable bargain. A healthier, better value lunch or dinner one could not find. (Should you wish further information about this or any other fish (including species vulnerability), check out www.fishbase.org.)

The other day, I asked my fishmonger to clean a couple of doradas inside and out and took the little beasts of the ocean home to stuff and roast. Felipe eats the insides of their heads--it's a little Hannibal Lector, I know, but, to amuse us both, I asked that the heads be kept intact. It's not a popular choice, I'm afraid. I personally relish the drama of the intact noggin for presentation purposes (as do most Spaniards), but I have friends who would run screaming after one look at those blank fish eyes. So, follow my example at your own risk.

I turned the oven on to about 200C and made a little stuffing. I grated a carrot and about half a medium onion. I chopped a handful of parsley and another handful of hazelnuts. I mixed it all together with the juice of half a lemon (plus a little of its rind), a tablespoon and a half of olive oil, and pepper and salt to taste. Then after greasing the doradas inside and out with oil and sprinkling them with salt, I stuffed them with my carrot mixture, hollowing them out a little more than the fishmonger had in the process. I baked them in the preheated oven on olive oil greased aluminium foil for about 20 minutes and served with mashed potatoes and tomatoes sprinkled with sugar that I had roasted along with the doradas and dressed with basil, black olives, olive oil, pepper and salt.

My little dorada friends were a smashing success. And I scored a few points when I let Felipe have my dorada's head. I must say, it was no skin off my dorada.

(For a variation on the stuffing, try a handful of chopped pineapple, a handful of chopped cilantro, a handful of chopped tomato and some chopped peanuts mixed with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper (in the quantities suggested above).)

Losses

I have to take a moment to mourn the passing of a couple of favourite spots that perhaps I'd neglected a little in the past few months. For this I feel guilt and remorse and even a little shame. But so it goes in the cut throat world of Barcelona restaurants. Not all survive.

First, Mosquito, of the Hold the Meat post, has given way to La Mosca (Spanish for Fly...insert your own joke). I haven't tried La Mosca, but I will admit that at least it's keeping Mosquito's spirit alive by naming itself after another insect. Unfortunately, it's one that's even less appetizing than the last. Oh well. [P.S. I'm afraid that news of Mosquito's demise has been greatly exaggerated here. It is alive and well in a new location: Jaume Giralt, 53 (Born), tel. 93 315 1744. La Mosca is a sister enterprise, serving French influenced tapas. My apologies for the confusion.] [P.P.S. Mosquito did, in fact, close on July 1, 2009. We are to watch the website, however, for news of future ventures by its owners:www.mosquitotapas.com.]

Second, L'Espigall, the little neighbourhood bar that served me many a manchego cheese sandwich and cafe con leche seems to no longer be opening its doors. If they're just on holiday, which is always possible, I beseach them to put up a sign. [P.S. I have since discovered that L'Espigall opens for the summer tourist season.]

Besides those changes in my food landscape, I was sorely disappointed with dinner at La Candela--see Terrace Days and Personal Best of Barcelona posts--last time I went. Don't get me wrong, the food hit the spot. I was craving a hamburger and, even if theirs is a little unconventional, they serve it topped with some of the most delicious carmelized onions know to man and a healthy slab of goat cheese. Fantastic. The plaza had changed, though. In our couple of hours in the square at the foot of that formerly peaceful old church, we were witness to what appeared to be several drug trades run from a nearby bench, teenage drinkers on the church steps, a couple of untidy construction zones and a steady stream of scooters and other traffic where there had been none before. Presumably, these are in part the effects of police crackdowns on dealers in the centre of town, which have resulted in more activity on the formerly quiet peripheries.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Loose Ends


More than a month without a post. Shameful.

Let this be a warning to all of you singles out there. Get into a relationship and all of a sudden all of the really important things, like your obsession with food and writing about food in a vaguely sexual way, start to take a back seat. Not that I'm knocking relationships--there's a reason the food takes a back seat...well, it bides its time, anyway.

I believe I owe you a few things. Overdue things. Shamefully overdue things.

First, I need to wrap up the ice cream story. Just because I haven't been writing about it, doesn't mean that I haven't been researching it...with gusto. And these October days are just like summer lately so there's really no reason not to get out there for one last cone.

To sum up: Gelaaati! in the Gotico is a big yeees! as Marco said in his comment on the How to Lick an Ice Cream Cone post, mainly because it was the first ice cream parlour where the employees were actually happy. One of them even made a joke. Having had the laughter scooped out of us at every other Barcelona ice cream spot, we just turned away in horror, not knowing how to react to this unprecedented dairy industry faux pas.

We also swooned over Amorino at 53 Gran de Gracia--possibly the creamiest vanilla and most delicious amaretto ice cream in Barcelona.

If you forced me to rank the ones we liked most, I would say it was very close, but that this was my order of preference:

1. Cremeria Toscana (there's also a location in the Born now)
2. Amorino
3. Gelaaati!
4. Gelateria Caffetteria Italiana

Second, you should know that I could now do a full month of seafood stories. Shoals and shoals of fishes and cuttlefishes and their cousins, the crustaceans and mollusks. I have recipes. I won't tell you that they're coming because I wouldn't want to let you down when I fail to post them. Let's just say that I may surprise you with them.

Third, I think we could revisit tapas. There are a hell of a lot of tapas bars in Barcelona and I've been to more of them than I care to mention. But I will mention. That will be the whole point...to mention.

Finally, I've been to a couple of fancy shmancy places of late. Some even on my own dime--a personal failure, to be sure. I will report my travels as fully as possible. The posted pic is a hint.

I hope to be more prolific in the future. But I can't promise.

That is all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Things I Ate in Cantabria


You may not know this, but the Iberian peninsula was once hopping with Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons--Cantabria, in the northern part of Spain, in particular. They lived in caves. They hunted wooly mammoths, bison and the like. Some of them painted incredibly sophisticated pictures with metal oxides and plant extracts...of mammoth, bison and the like.

In the Cuevas del Castillo, just outside of the pretty spa town of Puente Viesgo, we saw some incredibly preserved cave art, some as old as 28,000 years. It was mind blowing, to say the least.

But, more importantly, I ate cow stomachs. Perhaps the stomachs of cousins of the two cows pictured not far from Casa Sergio (Puente Viesgo), the restaurant where said stomachs were consumed. Impossible to say.

In any event, the stomachs (innocuously monikered "callos" in Spanish) were tasty. While, as you can imagine, the beige gumminess of your typical cow stomach is not particularly pleasing to the eye, these particular stomachs came in a rich beefy stew which lent them a little cover and, one might even say, nobility. The callos themselves were less chewy than expected, with a soft, part meaty, part fatty texture and an interior resembling a fleshy shag rug, which was particularly nice.

Judging by their depictions of cow ancestors, I think the cavemen would have approved.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Whatever Became of the Palacios Chorizo Challenges?


My musings on ice cream may have lead you to wonder how I'm doing with my fridge full of sausage. Believe it or not, I am almost all the way through the Palacios chorizo. However, as I recently received another shipment of samples (of Hungarian origin this time), the fridge still remains practically full of cured meat.

How did I manage to use up my remaining chorizo friends? A variety of ways. I was not above slicing the chorizo into sandwiches of fresh baguette, tomato, basil and manchego cheese. I also served much of it as part of a cured meat tapa dish (alongside good Seville olives and slabs of tortilla--see the Tapas Episode). My favourite use, however, continued to be a chorizo based paella (see First Challenge), which I returned to again and again, particularly in times of ingredient scarcity.

Another impromptu invention, albeit one requiring more ingredient planning and therefore less frequently attempted and still requiring some perfecting, was the chorizo tart (pictured). While the tart does require a few things that you may not normally keep in your fridge (e.g. puff pastry), it is in fact ridiculously easy to make. Here is as far as I got with my experiments:

Ingredients:
1 sheet of pre-prepared puff pastry
2 small chorizo sausages, quartered length wise
10 small rounds of young goat cheese (about 1 cm thick)
1 handfull of asparagus (trimmed) or 1 cup of red pepper (roasted in 200C oven for 1/2 hour), sliced
4 cups of whole milk (you can substitute 2 cups of creme fraiche for the same quantity of milk for more deliciousness)
2 large eggs
salt and pepper, to taste

Press the puff pastry into a greased 9 inch pie pan. Precook according to package directions. While the pastry is baking, beat together the eggs and milk; season with salt and pepper to taste. Once the pastry is out of the oven, place the rounds of goat cheese evenly across the bottom of the pastry. Top with milk and egg mixture. Lie the chorizo and the asparagus (or peppers) evenly across the top of the tart; they should be only partly submerged in the egg mixture. (To convert this into a vegetarian friendly delicacy, simply omit the chorizo.) Bake in a 180C oven for approximately 20-25 minutes or until the tart is set.

Accompany with a crisp white wine, perhaps an albariño.

More Musings on Ice Cream


It's mid-August. There's no denying it. Though ice cream days are limited, they're not coming to an end in the immediate future--we can all take comfort.

Felipe and I are continuing our search for a favourite ice cream spot. Cremeria Toscana of How to Lick an Ice Cream Cone is in the lead without question (try a scoop of cinnamon gelato, if you go). It's closely followed by the resectable gelato and frozen yogurt of Gracia's Gelateria Caffetteria Italiana (Placa Revolució 2). Pictured above are the Gelateria's banana and blackberry flavours--the former a perfect demonstration of superior licking technique, the latter not so much.

In the old town, I feel the absence of Heladeria La Campana, black listed for reasons explained in detail two posts ago. Tomo II (c/ Argentera) is very good (the mango sorbet is all succulent mango, for instance), but its minimalist, gizmo focussed approach to ice cream doesn't appeal to me--when it comes to ice cream, I'm a traditionalist.

Wandering the Born and Gotico, we tried to get satisfaction from Gelateria Pagliotta (c/ Jaume I 15, Gotico), but the gelato didn't come up to snuff--a little watery and of middling flavour, not to mention the disappointing scoop size.

We have yet to try Gelaaati! (c/Llibreteria 7, Gotico), recommended by Marco by way of comment on the preceding post. It sounds promising. You'll be the first to hear how it stands up to the lick test.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

How to Lick an Ice Cream Cone


The best thing about ice cream on a hot summer day is that it doesn't let you waste a moment. If you neglect it even briefly, it's sticky sweetness doesn't delay in running down your hand, possibly to wreak havoc in the decolte of your loose summer top or mar the leg that's turning slowly from sun starved to sun kissed. No question: it must be licked.

Beware, however; licking in the heat is not a lackadaisical negotiation, it's a a battle--marshaled by the tongue. A skillful luchador will always, always start from the bottom, rounding the base to eliminate any hint of insurrectionist drips. From there, she will work her way up urgently, smoothing the surface of the ice cream into a cohesive mound, disappearing by mouthfuls any rebellious ledge or mutinous chunk until the ice cream finds itself confined to the limits of the cone, incapable of retaliation. Having contained the fractious fringes, she can rest and lick with leisure for a while, using her tongue to push what remains of the scoop down into the depths of the cone, biting down the edges as they become exposed. And if she's succeeded completely, a small core of passionate resistance will remain at the very bottom of the cone to be devoured in a single determined swoop or fed to her lover with a complicit kiss.

I might mention that I have been inspired by a new licking frontier: a little shop on the left side of the Eixample (corner of Muntaner and Córsega) called La Cremería Toscana. Mind boggling tubs full of worthy opponents.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Best Laid Ice Cream Plans


Felipe (the boy from the Pringles post) and I laid out what seemed like a perfect summer plan the other day. We decided that, over what was left of the summer, we were going to very seriously put our energies toward trying all of the ice cream flavours at La Campana (until recently my favourite ice cream spot in Barcelona). Because La Campana has at least forty ice cream flavours and because we both felt that daily visits were incompatible with swimsuit season, we laid out a considered, if slightly complex, scheme on our way to make the first purchase under the auspices of the 'plan'.

We agreed as follows: We would go to La Campana whenever we were in the Old Town. We would ask to try a sample of three flavours each time. Out of those three, we would choose a favourite on which to focus our attentions in the form of an ice cream cone. We would proceed systematically, starting from one end of the case and moving through the flavours sequentially. If we were ever confronted with a situation in which none of the three flavours tried that day appealed to us, we could purchase a cone from a previous selection that we hadn't had a chance to try. The last was a hotly negotiated point: Felipe originally thought that it would be more efficient to move on to the next three flavours at that point, while I wanted to extend the anticipation of the next experience. We hammered out the final accord hurriedly as we were nearing the shop, having decided that we'd stop in before seeing the excellent Las Meninas exhibit at the Picasso Museum (on until September).

When we arrived, we leaned in immediately to inspect the fruity case on the right, having purchased from the creamy case on the left last time we were there. With the sparkle of all the world's hope and anticipation in our eyes, we asked the laconic server for samples of the mango, cheesecase and black berry ice creams.

ONLY ONE TRY, she yelled, contorting her lips in what I can only imagine was an attempt to evoke a constipated coyote.

Oh, we can't try all of them?

ONE! (screeching baboon)

Oh, o.k., but what if we don't like the one we try?

ONE! (hyena still bloody from half eaten carrion)

One each?

ONE! (rattler...if there had been an S in "one", she would have hissed)

So much bitterness in an ice cream shop didn't bode well so, with fallen hearts, we left without a sample and without a purchase. We had been backed into an impossible corner--not because the server's position was inherently unreasonable (although it was), but because of the server's unchecked display of total contempt, which quite frankly would have robbed Homer Simpson of his appetite.

Perhaps we should have asked (quoting Lisa Simpson's conversation with the cafeteria lady) if the server remembers when she lost her love for the job. We didn't. But we did console ourselves with a delicately flavoured mango sorbet from Tomo II on c/ Argentera in the Born. Tomo II has a small selection of artisanal ices in a rotating case with minutely controlled temperature settings. It was very good, but could hardly make up for all of our melted ice cream hopes.

We are still in search of a suitable location to conduct our summer experiment.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Terrace Days


Summer in Barcelona cries out for late dinners on candlelit terraces, with the murmur of city life subdued by crumbling church walls and leafy trellises. Just you and a boy you know (or maybe don't know) gazing soulfully into each other's eyes over some terribly well roasted lamb or a succulent lobster claw while a gentle breeze ruffles your hair. Maybe you're sipping a rioja or maybe a chilled verdejo because it's hot and you can't possibly imagine it getting any hotter. Maybe you order a golden crema catalana to share and feed each other as a prelude to the not-quite-direct walk home and whatever comes next.

Oh, if only it could be so. The unfortunate reality of Barcelona terrace dining is a little less romantic. Most neighbourhood restaurants do with a few tables on the nearest street corner where one battles both street noise and fumes and many of the restaurants in Barcelona's prettiest squares merit little more than a scornful saunter by or, on a truly beautiful day, an overpriced cocktail.

There are a handful of gems, however. This is my short list:

Agua (Passeig Maritim 30 (Barceloneta), 93 225 1272) - By far my favourite, Agua's beachside terrace is romanticly lit, prettily turned out, well (if not quite cheaply) priced and complemented by a very competently prepared menu with a focus on seafood, as the name suggests. I urge you to reserve ahead--at least a few days beforehand for a decent time (i.e. 10pm or later).

Merendero de la Mari (Plaza Pau Vila 1 (Old Port), 93 221 3141) - It's by far the best of the tourist filled seafood restaurants lining the Palau de Mar, I say without having tried any of the others. I base my assertion wholly on the fact that the clientele during most of the year is Catalan in high numbers, with entire families often enjoying Sunday lunch port-side. Because of the enormous size of the terrace (a corner of which is pictured above), you can usually get a spot even if you don't have a reservation, particularly if you're prepared to wait a little. Get the parillada (mixed seafood grill) and the squid ink paella to share.

La Candela (Plaza de Sant Pere (Born), 93 310 6242) - La Candela has a pretty good "market" menu that leans to the modern, but the best reason to go are the candle lit tables in Plaza de Sant Pere, overlooked by the Sant Pere Church and a series of charming Born walk ups. [P.S. See update in Losses post.]

Café de l'Academia (Plaza Sant Just (Gotico), 93 319 8253) - L'Academia is an old Barrio Gotico stalwart, serving traditional Catalan cuisine to well heeled Catalans and tourists alike. There are a few umbrella shaded tables in the atmospheric Plaza Sant Just, just outside.

La Cafeteria (Plaza Virreina 2 (Gracia), 93 416 0457) - La Cafeteria has an enviable location on the leafy Plaza Virreina--once described to me as the most adult of Gracia's plazas, presumably due to the absence of hordes of drunk revellers sitting on the ground in the middle of the square as is wont to happen in the Plaza del Sol and Plaza Rius y Taulet. La Cafeteria serves minimal food, but its sandwiches are first rate. Try the warm pork loin with goat cheese and green pepper. (The same sandwiches are served in an equally pleasant ambience and less daytime sun at Tierra on the other side of the square.)

Cafe Salambó (C/ Torrijos 51 (Gracia), 93 218 6966) - On the pedestrian Calle Torrijos, just a stone's throw away from Plaza Virreina and next door to the indie Verdi Cinema, Cafe Salambo serves good salads, a varied selection of well prepared mains and yummy desserts. While the few tables that hug its wall may not make the grandest of terraces, they are a fantastic vantage point on Gracia's parade of life.

El Jardí (C/ Hospital 56 (Raval), 93 329 1550) - In the dusty courtyard of the Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu, El Jardi is a charming escape from the bustle of the Raval. It has a small menu, but the salads are outstanding and the pastas and desserts are yum-a-licious. They also make a mean sangria. Stay away from boring basics like patatas bravas and tortilla here and you won't go wrong. (What makes me love it more is that in the fall and winter months they bring out blankets that you can snuggle into to withstand the cold. And, yes, I know that this doesn't concern you now.)

Ra (Plaza Gardunya 3 (Raval), 93 301 4163) - I have yet to try one of Ra's famous breakfasts (of the American variety, a rarity in Barcelona), but I can attest to a pretty decent and well priced (prix fixe) menu for lunch. While the rear of the Boqueria overlooking a parking location may not give Ra the most picturesque view of Barcelona, the happy decor, relaxed crowd and tasty selection of "international" food make up for it.

A few on Rambla Catalunya (Eixample) - Rambla Catalunya is a long leafy oasis of cafes of varying quality and price. My favourite time to go is at 5pm during the school year when the terraces fill with parents and grandparents, kids in tow, taking a break on the way home. I also love 6pm on weekends, when the clientele appears to be exclusively made up of well coifed Catalan ladies and gentlemen, most of them 70 and up, sipping orxata or tonic water. In terms of food, Ciudad Condal (Rambla Catalunya 18, 93 318 1997) and Taller de Tapas (Rambla Catalunya 49-51; also try the location at Plaza Sant Josep Oriol 8 (Gotico); www.tallerdetapas.com) offer the best quality; both serve tapas. Forn de Sant Jaume (Rambla Catalunya 50) has excellent Catalan pastry treats: try the cocas, buñuelos or chuchos with coffee or thick hot chocolate.

And some on Calle Enric Granados (Eixample) - The partly pedestrianized Calle Enric Granados, a few blocks over from Rambla Catalunya, also deserves honourable mention. There, Embat, Origens, Habaluc and El Trobador provide decent food on subdued, comfortable terraces. If you're early, pause in the pretty, gated university garden at the bottom of the street--be warned, though; neighbourhood cats tend to see its gravel paths more as litter boxes than walkways.

A postscript (August 26, 2008): In recent days, I've been enjoying the outdoor tables at Bar Lobo in the Plaza de los Gatos (c/ Pintor Fortuny 3, 93 481 5346) in the Raval. I don't actually think the plaza is called Plaza de los Gatos, everyone just refers to it as such because of the large cat mural on the wall of one of the buildings abutting the plaza. Bar Lobo has pretty wooden tables under a long canopy, with fresh white table cloths and pots of rosemary and thyme for adornment. For some reason, it makes me think of Provence. The food, if a bit on the pricey side for tapas, is very good.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Obsession with Octopus Continues


Despite a summer bout of procrastination that has been making my head spin, I recently managed to write about something that really matters: my love affair with the octopus, torrid and tempestuous as always and very much alive in the lazy days of summer. Here is a link to Calidoscopio (an on-line Spanish cultural review that has been kind enough to let me write in English and wise enough not to bother with a translation into Spanish): www.calidoscopio.net/2008/06Julio-Agosto/Miscelanea03.html.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dipping into White Beans


I have always loved dips: guacamole, hummus, babaganoush, tzatziki, taramasolata, raita, olive tapenade, black bean, artichoke, roasted red pepper, spinach (my mother's). A veritable pageant of freshly melding colour and flavour.

I have taken many a dip from stumbling beginnings to pinnacles of perfection...if only to later use it wantonly in antipasto platters.

The one that has always eluded me, however, is the white bean. I kept trying to coax it out of its shell for years, with little success. I persisted because I could see its potential. But, despite Herculean efforts, things always turned out deathly dull with the same ineluctable end: awkward efforts to eat through as much of the bowl as possible after everything else has disappeared and the resigned scraping of the remains into the garbage after all the guests have left.

But something happened in Barcelona. Maybe I changed. Maybe he did. Maybe both. It doesn't really matter. What's important is that we finally, finally, finally connected. The white bean has landed, it has blossomed and it is living the prime of its beany life. Both of us are smitten.

Here is what I can tell you about the how:

1 cup of canned white beans (rinsed)
1-2 tablespoons of minced fresh dill (or basil)
1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest
half a medium clove of garlic, finely grated or crushed
1 tablespoon of olive oil
a splash of cold water to loosen a little if necessary (no more than a tablespoon or so)
sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste (I used about 1/2 a teaspoon of the former and 1/4 of the latter)

Mash everything together with a potato masher or fork. (Don't mix in a food processor as it'll ruin the texture--you want it to be mashed to the point where it holds together, but with a few pieces of bean still discernible.)

The perfect summer tickle, particularly delicious paired with crisp steamed green beans or on olive oil slathered crostini.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What to Do with a Box of Pringles in Barcelona


A year ago this week, I arrived in Barcelona with a suitcase of my favourite shoes, a smattering of essential cooking utensils and an inflatable mattress. It was raining oppressively and Barcelona, at first sight, looked wilted and unkempt from the window of the cab. I undressed to my underwear in the hotel room, took a box of Pringles from the mini-bar, sat on the narrow single bed, ate the Pringles and cried.

I didn't return to Pringles until a few evenings ago. I was walking with a Colombian boy along the beach. We had a bottle of wine and a blanket, a backpack with books and sweaters. We splurged on the Pringles at the last minute. We ate some of them under the trees in Poble Nou park, while watching a kids' birthday party. Then, as the sun was setting, we took the rest to the rocks by the shore where we remained sitting into the night.

Port in Porto


There are many lovely things about Portugal. The ubiquity of port wine is one and the fact that many bodegas in Porto will give you a free tasting (Croft and Noval among them) is another.

A type of port that is rarely available in Canada and that I first came to try at Noval in Porto is a white. Unlike ruby or tawny ports, which are typically served as digestifs (though tawny, technically, can be served as an aperitif as well), white port is usually served chilled as a delicious and relatively inexpensive aperitif. It varies in sweetness: a regular white is the driest, a fine white is sweet, and a lagrima is sweeter still. The LCBO in Ontario appears to stock a few brands of fine white, though I expect that you might have to hunt for them.

When we checked into the stately Pestana Palace Hotel, overlooking the Duoro River in Porto, the staff served us a fantastically refreshing mixture of white port (approx. 1 part) and tonic (approx. 2 to 3 parts)--over ice and garnished with a lemon slice. Search the LCBOs, find the white port and make this your new summer drink.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Octopus in Portugal


It happened quite unex-pectedly, my last meeting with the octopus. It wasn't carefully planned and carelessly executed like the char grilled fiasco of last year. In fact, but for a gnawing hunger and a missing guidebook which might have led us to pre-tried options, we would never have settled for Cafe Paris in Sintra (Portugal). I mean, can you really expect an authentic Portuguese experience in an ostensibly overpriced restaurant named for a French city, particularly when it sits directly in front of one of the main attractions in town? Common sense dictates that you cannot. As it happens, however, common sense is a gift I lack.

Lucky for me. Cafe Paris serves a sublime grilled octopus. Certainly the best octopus I have ever had--and I am slightly obsessed with octopus so you can trust me on this. So redolent of perfection is it that it may well pave the way to heaven. Just one tentacle would certainly tempt St. Peter to open the pearly gates.

The octopus was just one of the highlights of a Portuguese trip filled with fantastic food and nightly Euro 2008 soccer. Other outstanding meals were had at the atmospheric Oliviers in Lisbon (a set menu of 9 excellent appetizers, of which the truffled tagliatelle and octopus carpaccio were the sensous stars, and a delicious but superfluous black pork main, all accompanied by an excellent bottle of Duas Quintas, a great Duoro red) and at the tiny Boquim do Mouraira in Evora (the owner of the bar, which seats no more than 10, himself whipped up a stack of tender grilled lamp chops, freshly fried potato chips and a delicious salad as he watched the Spain/Greece game and we sipped some tasty house red).

I must warn you, though, the Michelin starred Eleven in Lisbon was overpriced (expected) and unimpressive (unexpected) as well as over-salted (common in Portugal, but unacceptable at a restaurant of this level). Worse yet, the Pousada Solar da Rede in the Duoro Valley, while a stunning place to stay for the night, served some of the worst food we had on the trip (I suspect some of it pulled directly out of the freezer) and at a shameful price given the disastrous quality.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Last Meals


I've been contending with lascivious Spanish aristocrats, long lost Brazilians and male bunny boilers lately. It doesn't leave a girl much time for blogging, I must say.

In the midst of this fantastic soap opera, though, I've been contemplating the imagined last meals of famous chefs. Not out of the blue, mind you. Such morbid thoughts rarely occur to me if I'm left to my own devices. In this case, I was helped along by an article in El Pais. It came out a while ago, but it's been skulking around my head refusing to leave like a good fake news article should.

Sea urchins are big for chefs, apparently. Sushi in various outlandish guises. Much complication and a few nods to the simpler things: radishes with olive oil and salt, for example. (Let me just say that you read it here first: the Return of the Radish (November 2007).) Meals at home with family and friends, more attractive if at least one of your homes is on the Amalfi Coast. Micromanagement: half wanted to cook for themselves. And most of all, gluttony: not a single chef limited himself to one dish, not even to two. Why would he and why would anyone for a last meal? I think condemned men should followed the lead here and take greater liberties in placing their orders.

As for my imagined final meal, I'd want it to be as much about memory as about food: the chicken soup my mother would cook when I was sick, the perogies my grandmother used to make, the bacon heavy scrambled eggs that are part of my dad's limited repertoire and now only make the rarest of appearances due to my mother's cholesterol related fears, my other grandmother's nalesniki for dessert. I'd wash it down with some Catalan cava (sparkling wine) in celebration of this part of my life. I would probably be very very sick at some point, but you know, with the last meal and all, that probably wouldn't be my greatest concern.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hold the Meat


I've been a little bit meat obsessed lately. You know, with the fridge full of Spanish sausage and what not.

The problem is not so much the meat, but that I have no one to share it with. Many of my Barcelona friends are committed vegetarians. By committed vegetarians I mean not even a juicy piece of bacon filling the kitchen with its sizzle would make them stray. During my brief dalliance with vegetarianism, I had a roving eye, if you know what I mean.

All in all, it's a real shame. The committed part, I mean. Barcelona is a meat eater's city at heart. All those sweaty hams hanging over bar counters, the taboo foie gras, the pretty game birds, the muscular lamb legs, not to mention the row upon row of bulging sausage casings. A crying shame.

But it hasn't been a total loss. I'm not about to start pimping meat so I've been forced to do some vegetarian research. There are some fantastic veggie spots in Barcelona. They stand up to their meat slinging cousins in quality and generally beat them by a long shot in price. All of the spots listed below are inexpensive.

My favourite, La Bascula (c/ Flassaders 30, Born, 93 319 9866), was formerly a chocolate factory. It's a lofty, rustic-chic space (pictured above) with an excellent assortment of everything from pasta to sandwiches to curries to very delectable juices, shakes and sweets.

Mosquito (c/ Carders 46, Born, 93 268 7569, www.mosquitotapas.com), which isn't strictly vegetarian, is an Asian fusion gem that offers more than enough vegetarian tapas items to make it well worth the trip. Thai coconut milk crepes, plump potato filled samosas and a vegetarian version of Singapore noodles make an excellent mini-feast. They also usually have a fantastic little glass of tiramisu for dessert. [P.S. See update in Losses post.]

Sesamo (c/ Sant Antoni Abat 52, Raval, 93 441 6411), a little further from the centre, but still very accessibly poised on the outskirts of the Raval, is another terrific spot with an excellent prix fixe lunch. Their quiches are particularly tasty, but really so is everything on the menu. Please don't go away without a slice of cake for dessert.

L'Illa de Gracia (Gracia), by contrast, makes me remember why I left the meat-free life with its bland mixtures of rices, grains and seaweed. I keep thinking I haven't given it enough of a chance, but really, it's time to let it go.

I have yet to try the Indian Govinda in the Gotico and Juicy Jones in the Raval, both of which come recommended by the committeds.

You also might as well know about www.sincarne.net, Barcelona's one stop information site for vegetarians. The site includes listings and reviews of both shops and restaurants.

Now, let me go eat some meat.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Palacios Chorizo Challenges - First Challenge

So, to the Palacios Chorizo Challenges.

You may not be as familiar with Palacios Chorizo as you are with Louis Vuitton. The simple explanation is that Palacios is a large industrial producer of various embutidos (sausages) and prepared foods. One of the largest in Spain, if not the largest. Chorizo, in turn, is a spicy Spanish sausage flavoured with paprika, from which it gets its distinctive reddish hue.

As it happens, I currently have more than one girl's fair share of Palacios chorizo sausage in my fridge. A year's supply? Maybe slightly more. Who's to say? It occupies an entire shelf and comprises well over a dozen sausage links. Whether that makes a year's supply all depends on how much you like sausage, I suppose.

In any event, there's a perfectly simple explanation. And, no, it does not involve a bottle of tequila and a 24 hour grocery store...although, in other circumstances, it might have.

About a month ago, I went on a road trip with Mike Tkachuk, the CEO of the Canadian Serrano Imports, his good natured sales manager Art and Derek Bendig, the chef de cuisine of Toronto's Pangaea restaurant. The product of this trip was the Hog Heaven article that I've reproduced under the More Ham title below. As you can imagine, we spent much time touring the farm and production facility of the family owned Embutidos Fermin, the exporter of jamon iberico to Canada. We also stopped at the much larger Palacios, the exporter of chorizo to Canada.

At the end of our Palacios tour, we were kindly offered a box of Palacios samples. Due to some language barriers and our failure to understand what the size of a box of Palacio samples might actually be, upon leaving the factory, we were presented with four enormous boxes (one for each of us), each about the size of two cases of wine, neatly stacked at the back of our van. Reluctant to offend and even more reluctant to have our diminutive hostess carry three of the giant boxes back with her, we smiled politely and thanked Palacios for the kind gift. The boxes barely fit into the back of the van.

The kicker is that all this food was of course destined for my place because all three of my companions were flying out in a day or two and there was no question of them being able to take anything back. And so I found myself with a fridge full of sausage.

The logical resolution of this state of events was to set myself a challenge: I challenged myself to eat all of that chorizo this year--if I do, I may well buy myself a Louis Vuitton bag.

Just to make things a bit more interesting for you, I'm going to create new Palacios chorizo recipes as I go. The first one is a simple but delicious paella:

1 medium tomato, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, slivered
2 small Palacios chorizo sausage links, sliced (about 1 cup)
3-4 tbsp olive oil
2 cups rice
4 cups chicken stock
pinch of saffron
1 cup chickpeas
1 bunch asparagus, chopped into 1 inch pieces
salt and pepper to taste

Sautee the garlic and onion in the oil until soft. Add the chorizo and brown on all sides. Mix in the rice, coat thoroughly with the oil. Add the chicken stock all at once and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the saffron and distribute the rice evenly in the plan. After 10 minutes, mix in the chickpeas and adjust the seasoning. Spread the asparagus spears on top. When all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente, turn off the heat and let rest for 5 minutes or so. Enjoy with a fine glass of rioja and Louis Vuitton catalogue by your side.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Palacios Chorizo Challenges

A few months ago now, a couple of friends came to visit. They stopped in Paris on the way. After a particularly inspiring trip to the Louis Vuitton store, they found a cafe for lunch and, through error or inattention, ordered an enormous plate of blue cheese, a food item they both abhor. It was then that my male friend (the challenger) challenged my female friend (the challengee). The challenger promised that if the challengee ate the entire plate of cheese, he would buy her the 800 euro Louis Vuitton bag they saw that afternoon.

The challengee didn't trust that the challenger was sincere and didn't attempt to make a dent in the cheese. Later, after repeated assurances of good faith, the challengee came to believe that she had made a horrible mistake. To revive her chances of obtaining the coveted bag, she requested that further challenges be proposed. The challenger obliged, but he was no longer in a generous mood.

The second incarnation of the Louis Vuitton challenge involved the challengee walking into the Mediterranean (off of Barcelona's city beach) fully clothed, submerging herself completely and, once back on land, making the hour long trek home on foot in her soaking clothes. The challengee tried to negotiate this one to permit the leaving behind of personal items like her watch and purse, but to no avail.

Finally, just before they left Barcelona, the challenger gave the challengee one last chance. We were picnicking in Parc Guell, a tourist filled park of a hundred hectares or so situated on the side of a fairly steep hill. After we finished lunch, just as we were on the verge of getting a little restless, the challenger made this proposition to the challengee: run around the park twice in 10 minutes or less and the bag is yours. By way of reference, it had taken us just under 10 minutes to climb up the hill to where we were sitting (approximately a quarter of the route that the challengee--in flip flops--would have to run twice). The challengee couldn't say no. She raced off before we could shout "go!". We stopped timing after 15 minutes had passed and she hadn't yet completed the first circuit. Eventually, she showed up, pink and breathless, asking how she was doing on time.

In the end, all the challengee had to show for the Louis Vuitton challenges was a fairly impressive blister on her right foot. We photographed it alongside the mosaic tiled benches of Parc Guell--the mosaics are pictured above without the blister.

The challenges came to be known as the Louis Vuitton Challenges and their high brow nature perfectly sets the stage for a new set of challenges: the Palacios Chorizo Challenges.

I will have to tell you about those tomorrow.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

More Ham

Well, I'm not going to make further jus-tifications for my delin-quency. Nor will I try to appease you by posting original material. But I do feel sufficiently guilty to at least post a version of the story I wrote for the Globe & Mail about jamon iberico. It ran with a different set of photos on April 2. (The photos I've posted here are just for you.) By the way, the ham passed Canadian inspection and arrived in stores on around April 10th.

Hog Heaven

LA ALBERCA, Spain — The village of La Alberca, in the low mountains of the Sierra de Francia in western Spain, resembles many towns in the region: Locals still smoke pipes in the main square and donkeys tread the cobblestone streets carrying farmers and their products.

But La Ablerca stands out for the stone statue of a pig in front of its church – a sign of the region's veneration of noble Iberian swine.

The area around La Alberca is one of the few in Spain where black-hoofed Iberian pigs, descendants of the wild boars that once roamed the peninsula, are raised free-range in oak forests, where they feed on acorns. The cured ham produced from these pigs ( jamon iberico) ranks with white truffles and beluga caviar as one of the food world's coveted wonders.

At an expected $300 a kilogram or more (about $1,500 a leg), the highest (bellota) grade of this ham will have a commensurately wondrous price tag when it arrives in Canadian food shops and restaurants for the first time, probably this week, following one Canadian's five-year quest to bring it here.

“This product is really special,” says Michael Tkaczuk, president and chief executive officer of Toronto's Serrano Imports, the force behind the ham's arrival in Canada.

He's not the only fan.”It's absolutely fantastic,” says chef Massimo Capra of Toronto's Mistura restaurant, which will be among the first to get the ham. “Canadians should be really excited to be getting it. Something like that is really something to rejoice about. We're not used to making this type of ham here. We're not used to getting it here.”

Chef Martin Kouprie of Toronto's Pangaea, which will be involved in the official launch of the ham on April 10, echoes the sentiment. While he says he typically prefers to work with local producers, this ham simply can't be produced locally.

Last summer, Pangaea served fresh Iberian pork it obtained as a sample at $50 a plate (single chops were served over potato rosti and organic vegetables). The dish was so popular that the restaurant ran out of the meat in two days. “People said it was better than they ever imagined and they actually saw the value in it,” Mr. Kouprie said.

When the Iberian ham is sliced, ideally by hand and paper thin, it is a deep maroon colour, shot with creamy fat. Placed in the mouth, it barely needs chewing; the smooth, nutty flavour explodes and the meat nearly melts apart.

The flavour is so exquisite that Pangaea intends to serve it unadorned, with only roasted red pepper and artichokes as accompaniment.

The story that comes with the ham gives the experience another dimension. Iberian pigs are a singular race. Their black hooves, slim legs and shiny red-black coats are often-cited distinguishing features.

But it is a genetic deformity that makes the meat so coveted: The pigs' fat penetrates muscle mass so well that the result is a thoroughly marbled, richly flavoured and tender meat. The fat is said to approximate olive oil in the high levels of oleic acids it contains, and has properties that lower bad (LDL) cholesterol and increase good (HDL) cholesterol.

To produce the highest quality Iberian ham (called jamon iberico de bellota), Iberian pigs are released in the last months of their lives into oak forests indigenous to the low mountain ranges of southern and central Spain.

Between November and late March, the pigs approximately double their weight by feeding on fresh mountain grasses and acorns that fall to the ground, which infuses the meat with its prized nutty flavour.

Traditional producers approach the slaughter of these pampered animals with great reverence, referring to it as “the sacrifice.” In a ritual that mimics an ancient religious rite, the pigs are not fed for 24 hours to remove impurities from their systems before being killed by the puncturing of the jugular vein. They are usually rendered unconscious with CO2 or stunned electrically before slaughter in order to reduce their stress and thereby preserve the quality of the meat.

In accordance with centuries-old tradition, legs of ham are cured in sea salt and dried at stringently controlled temperatures and humidity levels. The entire process can last for 24 months or more.

Even in Spain, where ham is a way of life, Iberian ham is prized.

When Mr. Tkaczuk first contemplated importing the ham to Canada in 2003, there were restrictions on the import of pork slaughtered in Spain. But by June 2005, concerns over various swine diseases in Spain were dispelled, said Elham Guirguis of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and “fresh meat and processed meat products derived from swine originating in Spain [were] eligible for import into Canada, as long as they [were] slaughtered in an approved plant.”

Once Canada opened its doors, the challenge was getting the first exporter interested and approved. Because the supply of Iberian ham is relatively inelastic, the demand in Spain and Europe is already high, and the cost of complying with North American standards is significant, this was no easy task.

Mr. Tkaczuk approached Embutidos Fermin, a small family-owned producer in La Alberca that is currently the only exporter to the United States.

“Fermin wasn't initially thinking of Canada,” said Raul Martin, who is responsible for Fermin's North American export business. “Michael approached us.”

Mr. Tkaczuk had to woo. “Fermin seemed a little nervous at first. We used the contacts we had in the Spanish government and others to help convince Fermin to work with us,” he said.

Ultimately, it worked, and Fermin applied for Canadian approval, a process that has involved the inevitable delays and expenses occasioned by two countries' bureaucracies.

The first shipment of Fermin's jamon iberico is now on the ground in Canada for CFIA inspection. It is hoped that the ham will be available for sale this week in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

In a rare jump on their American neighbours, Canadians will be able to purchase the highest grade of the ham (bellota, or 100-per-cent acorn fed) before the same product gets to the United States, expected in July. A lower grade arrived in the United States in December, 2007, and, at $1,000 (U.S.) a leg, the first hams sold out in the blink of an eye.

Based on buzz alone, the Canadian experience is likely to be no different.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Jamón Iberíco


So this is the story. Over the past few weeks, I've been tracking and writing about this crazy ham (jamón iberíco) for a Canadian newspaper.

As my friend Dave says, jamón iberíco is the Dom Perignon of ham. It's a delicious ham, no question. Best in the world? I'd say so. It's certainly priced that way.

It arrived in the States in December and is coming to Canada for the first time this month--likely in stores this week. It will retail for about $300/kg or more for the bellota (highest grade, acorn fed ham); and about $180/kg for a lower grade of the ham (recebo, which is partially acorn and partially cereal fed). (The bellota will not reach the States until July--it can be pre-ordered on-line at www.latienda.com, a supplier of Spanish foods in America.)

In Toronto, you can buy the ham at Pusateri's, Cumbrae's or Longo's or sample it at restaurants Pangaea, Cava or Mistura. Domus in Ottawa will also have it as will a few other locations across Canada. It's well worth the price if properly stored and cut--particularly as you only need a few paper thin slices, say $10-15 worth, to get a good taste.

This is just a bit of pictorial flavour. The photo is of the ham in a drying room in the Sanchez Romero Carvajal (5J) factory in Jabugo, Spain, which I toured in February with Roger Davies of A Question of Taste (www.aqot.com), a fantastic gourmet tour company located in Seville and can arrange jamón and other food tours as well tapas tastings and Spanish cooking classes. 5J is one of the best known brands in Spain, but not the one coming to Canada...at least for now.

More on the ham, Jabugo, and the tour as well as the Spanish supplier to Canada, Embutidos Fermin, and my trip with the Canadian importer (Mike Tkaczuk of Serrano Imports) to visit Fermin's farm and factory later.

Friday, March 28, 2008

No Excuse

I've been delinquent. There's no excuse. The least I could have done was send a note to let you know I was still alive.

I'm a heel and I know it. But I promise I'll make it up to you. Just not yet. Give me a week and I'll tell you all about it.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Artichokes


Barcelona really feels like spring lately. Even though most of the winter here is warmer than a Canadian May, there is a marked difference between the seasons. The first signs of change are in the light and the air and the sound of the birds. And the artichokes.

Artichokes originated in the Mediterranean, of course, and were brought by Spanish settlers to America, where they've firmly taken hold. Why, even Marilyn Monroe was once crowned Artichoke Queen by Castroville, California. Perhaps not her greatest claim to fame.

For the past couple of weeks, artichokes have been available in Barcelona markets for next to nothing. Normally, I'm a little loath to take the plunge with artichokes because of all the trimming and fussing that's involved, but Yukiko set me straight. Because these artichokes are young and beautifully tender, trimming is easier and you don't need to worry about the choke (the thistly interior).

This week, on Yukiko's recommendation, I bought a few. Then I incorporated them into a Spanish-style rice. Here's more or less how to recreate it:

Ingredients

3-4 young artichokes
1/2 lemon
1/2 pound of mushrooms, quartered
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, slivered
6 tbsp olive oil
2 cups Spanish short grain rice
small handful of chopped fresh thyme, parsley or oregano (optional)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp sweet paprika
4+ cups chicken or pork stock (I confess I used an oxo cube and didn't overly regret it; veggies, feel free to substitute a meatless stock)
salt and pepper to taste

Trim the base off the artichokes, remove the bottom 3-4 layers of tough leaves, and slice off the tops. Cut each artichoke into eight wedges and rub all over with the lemon to prevent browning, squeezing the juice into the artichokes as you go. (You can remove the choke by scraping it out, but I didn't bother.)

In a paella pan or large frying pan, sautee the onion and garlic in hot oil until golden (about 5 minutes). Add the artichokes and mushrooms and sautee for a further 3-5 minutes, browning the vegetables slightly. Season with salt and pepper and add the rice and herbs to the pan, combining well with the vegetables. Cover the mixture all at once with hot stock and leave to simmer, uncovered, for approximately 20 minutes until all the stock is absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you go. You may need to add more stock (feel free to use water) as the rice cooks if the stock is evaporating too quickly. Do not stir. Once all the stock is absorbed (the bottom should be lightly browned and just beginning to get crispy), turn off the heat, remove the bay leaves and let sit for a few minutes before serving.

Try it with a crisp white wine like a Spanish Rueda and a dish for discarding any tough artichoke bits that remain. I promise you'll feel the imminence of spring even though you may still be stuck in drifts of snow.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Night Classes in Geography


The other night David and I wandered over to one of his many locals--another Cuban place in the back streets of Gracia (Raim, c/ de Progres).

We were already three sheets to the wind when we found ourselves at a table with two Argentinians, one of whom was wearing a fedora and claimed to be a psychiatrist. Not a bearded, pipe-smoking Sigmund Freud type but an if-they-need-a-replacement-at-Seattle-Grace-they'll-call-him type.

I believe David had asked for the stir sticks from their mojitos so that I could take them home along with the three half dead roses that David's friend, the rose seller, had left on our table. The stir sticks are a fine move, Ladies. Commit it to memory.

As it turns out, the Argentinian, despite his supposed psychiatric training or perhaps because of it, was one cocky cabrón and decided to start an argument about the continents--as in, the large land masses into which we divide the world. His opening gambit was four; mine was seven, which is what they taught me in grade school. Before we knew it, half the bar was in on the action and we had additional bets of 5, 6 and 8--though the last originated from a miscount and was not taken seriously.

Contrary to my Argentinian friend's claims, the idea of continents and their number is one of convention, not definition. If you consider the world in terms of four, you might believe in Afro-Eurasia, America, Australia and Antarctica (though these were not the ones the Argentinian himself listed). If five, then you might split Africa off from Eurasia or you might split Afro-Eurasia into three and forget about Antarctica because there's too much ice and not enough land. If six, then suddenly Europe and Asia are distinct, despite the absence of any physical separation between them. And, if seven, well, you're as nit-picky as they come and it's North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica, all separate and apart. Australia and area, by the way, are sometimes referred to as Oceania around these parts--an ill defined region which purports to encompass a variety of islands in the general area of the Pacific and which quite frankly does not fit into the unified land mass theory of a continent.

Interestingly, the Olympic rings are something of a red herring as they omit Antarctica--the penguins aren't much for sporting competitions, though they do have some excellent uniforms--and consider the Americas as a single region.

The upshot is that, by the end of the evening, the Argentinian had me so riled up that I forgot my stir sticks and my roses when I left the bar in a huff. A good lesson about keeping my priorities straight next time.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Lent Lunch


So, I decided to try it out. You know, Cuaresma. Why not? I can abstain with the best of them (for short periods and when large quantities of food are available).

I bought a book: La Cocina de Cuaresma (The Cuisine of Lent), Raquel F. Moran. It's from the same series as The Cuisine of the Nuns, if you must know: a little murky on the details, but altogether a fine source of ideas.

This Friday, I invited Yukiko, an accomplished cook in her own right, to try my Lenten creations. The imagined menu was a salad of some sort to start (I had an eggplant in my fridge so it was going to feature); Arroz de Cuaresma (Lenten Rice); a seafood item; Judias Verdes con Pimientos (Green Beans with Peppers); and, for dessert, Bollos de Semana Santa (Easter Rolls), a traditional Lenten sweet containing no less than half a litre of olive oil.

Predictably, and despite my best intentions, the last two items were dropped due to time contraints. Let's face it, the beans would have been excessive. And we were really much better off going for a coffee and buñuelos at Forn de Sant Jaume (Rambla Catalunya, just south of Arago), one of my favourite places for fresh buñuelos (bunyols, in Catalan) and outdoor people watching. Buñuelos, by the way, are delicious balls of fried and sugar coated dough and are also typical of Lent.

The on-the-fly eggplant salad went a little something like this: on a bed of mizuna, a.k.a. Japanese mustard greens (could have been arugula), I arranged three slices of eggplant (brushed with olive oil and roasted the night before in a 220 C oven for half an hour, flipped once), a piece of fresh goat cheese (could have have been ricotta, queso fresco or another mild, soft cheese), and the honeyed walnuts I had purchased at the Santa Maria del Pi market a few weeks ago. I drizzled the whole thing with balsamic cream, which is easily found here, but which could substituted by a good balsamic reduction where it's not available. And presto: simple, beautiful, scrumptious.

In contrast, the arroz (think of it as a vegetarian paella) was complicated. But I decided to follow the recipe to the letter this time--more or less. Here's the tweaked version.

Ingredients:

For the stock:
1/2 kilo sardines
2 onions
2 bay leaves
6 cups of water
salt

For the rice:
1 large red pepper
1 medium onion
3 tomatoes
1 green pepper
3/4 cup fresh or frozen peas
2 cups short grain rice
6 tbsp of oil
pinch of saffron
1 finely chopped garlic clove
handful of chopped parsley
salt and pepper

First, prepare the fish stock (caldo)--The recipe doesn't give instruc- tions, but I used sardines (any cheap and flavourful fish will do--Spanish markets have inexpensive "pescado de sopa" or "pescado de roca" which will remind you a bit of the fish you used to have in your aquarium, but which are perfect for stock), quartered onions, bay leaves and salt (as above) covered with about 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil then simmer slowly for 30-40 minutes. Strain out the solids and keep warm. (Actually, I give you permission to use a pre-packaged stock--fish, chicken or vegetable--if you want to save yourself the hassle and your home the smell of boiled sardines.)

While the fish stock is simmering, roast a large, red pepper (I halved it and left it skin side up in a 220 C oven for 30 minutes). Remove from the oven, peel and slice into thin strips. (If you don't want to fuss with the roasting, just slice the red pepper and add it at the same time as the green pepper.)

Also by way of preparation, finely chop the onion; peel and chop the tomatoes (score them on top and immerse in boiling water for 30 seconds to peel); cook the peas; and slice the green pepper into strips.

Once everything is ready, heat two table spoons of oil in a large paella pan or wide bottomed, high sided frying pan. Add the onion and sautee until soft (about five minutes). Add the chopped tomatoes and cook until they start to take on a sauce like consistency. At this point, remove from the heat and, according to the recipe, puree the whole thing and set aside. (I pureed half because I have a crappy manual press and it was proving too frustrating a process. I believe the rice would be just as good if you didn't puree at all.)

Add another 3-4 tbsp. of olive oil to the pan and sautee the green pepper until soft. Add the rice and tomato puree. Shuffle the whole thing around in the pan for a bit then pat down evenly and add the stock along with a bit of salt and pinch of saffron. You'll need about twice as much stock as rice (you can play with the rice and stock quantities and add more stock through the cooking process if it's evaporating too quickly). Allow to simmer for about 20-25 minutes until the stock is fully absorbed by the rice. Do not cover. And be careful with the heat: it needs to be high enough to keep the pan simmering, but not so high that it burns the bottom of the rice (my perennial mistake).

Do not stir. This is not risotto.

About 10 minutes in, add the roasted red pepper, peas, and the parsley and garlic moistened with 2 tbsp. of warm stock. Now you can stir. When everything is incorporated, distribute the rice evenly around the pan again and pat down. If you need to add more stock, this is a good time to do so. It's also a good time to check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary.

Cook on low heat until all the stock is absorbed. When done, set aside to rest for a few minutes and take the opportunity to make the chipirones (baby squid).

I picked up the chipirones the day before at the Boqueria and cleaned them ahead of time by rinsing under cold water and pulling out the crystalline spines.

I had no particular recipe so I sauteed a finely chopped garlic clove in 2 tbsp of hot olive oil for a minute or so, tossed in the chipirones (about 1/2 to 3/4 pound) for 2-3 minutes (until just firm) and sprinkled with half a handful of fresh, chopped tarragon and some salt about a minute before I turned off the heat. The tarragon gives them a delicate sweetness and they are great alongside the rice. They're also a quick and easy tapa.

You can serve all of this with cava (Catalan sparkling wine, comparable to champagne), as I did, or maybe sauvignon blanc (I like the ones from New Zealand).

And, if you're not as much abstaining as indulging, no one will be the wiser.