Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La Cuaresma

We're in the middle of Cuaresma, Ladies and Gentlemen. That's right, the seven weeks of Lent are upon us--well, upon the unlapsed Catholics among us anyway.

In case you're unclear, Lent is the 40 day period of abstinence and fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The modern rules of Lent require fasting on Ash Wednesday (Miercoles de Ceniza) and Good Friday (Viernes Santo) and abstinence from meat on all other Lenten Fridays--that traditionally includes eggs and milk, but not fish. Apparently, that's the reason Fillet of Fish sales spike in North America before Easter.

Why doesn't fish fall within the meat prohibition? Some say it's the shedding of animal blood during Lent that's really the issue and, in particular, the blood of warm blooded animals, which tends to arouse the passions; that's not so much of a problem with fish apparently, which are as cold blooded as they come. Others think that meat was prohibited during Lent because it was historically a sign of wealth and power and its removal from the diet was a true deprivation; again, not historically the case with fish.

Sardines, salt cod, herring and eel are typical of Cuaresma. So are stews of chickpeas and beans. The staples of fast food cuisine--bread (flour), water and oil--are also commonly used in Spanish Lenten cooking because they are viewed as "poco nutritivo" and therefore in keeping with the tradition of abstinence.

That brings us to the ushering in of Cuaresma on Ash Wednesday, which occurred in Barcelona with the Entierro de la Sardina (the Burial of the Sardine). I guess if you're going to bury something, a sardine is as good as anything else.

The burial, I must divulge, was not as much a burial as a cremation, which this year took place before a couple of hundred spectators in Parc Clot, where I dutifully took myself a few weeks ago.

As legend has it, the tradition of the burial of the sardine goes back to the 19th century when Carlos III allegedly ordered the burial of a shipload of spoiled sardines on the eve of Lent. The burial acted out today recalls this event and symbolizes the letting go of all vices in anticipation of the traditional religious period of spiritual cleansing.

In modern day Barcelona, the burial is accompanied by a parade celebrating the end of Carnaval and the beginning of Cuaresma. La Hijastra de Cuaresma (the stepdaughter of Lent, pictured above), an emaciated hag whose seven legs symbolize the seven weeks of Lent, carries with her seven sardines reminding spectators of the Lenten diet. In case that doesn't bring the message home, the seven stooges that accompany her menace innocent bystanders with raw sardines. (A related aspect of Spanish Lenten tradition, by the way, is the hanging of a cardboard Hijastra de Cuaresma in the kitchen and the cutting off of one of her seven legs on each Sunday of Lent to mark the passing of the time of deprivation.)

La Hijastra de Cuaresma and her seven companions vanquish the seven days of Carnaval and send the Carnaval king (King Carnestoltes) off to be buried along with the sardine following the reading of Carnestoltes' will by his weeping widow. This is all very dramatic and really gets the crowd going, as does the samba over to the sardine's funeral pyre.

The whole spectacle is finished off with a sardinada (a sardine grill up), for which eager Barcelonites line up for hours. This isn't as much an indicator of popularity as it is a side effect of the 2 hour tardy start of the sardine cremation; así es la vida en España, Cuaresma or no Cuaresma.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Nuns Cook

Nuns cook. I mean, if you're signing on to keep yourself forever free of sin, you have to keep a little something under your habit to put a smile on your face every once in a while. So nuns cook. They cook things like Flan de Santa Teresa and Tortilla Maravilla (Marvel Omelette) and Sopa del Obispo (Bishop's Soup). They make jams and use up day old bread and they really seem to love sweets, especially the Augustines.

The Benedictines make a rice pudding that sounds pretty tasty. They heat 1 litre of whole milk in a saucepan with several pieces of lemon peel. When the milk starts to boil, they add 75 grams of rice (previously washed in cold water), lower the heat and let it cook for 1 hour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. After about half an hour, they incorporate 125 grams of sugar into the rice. Once the full hour has elapsed, they remove the lemon peel, put the rice into a serving bowl and sprinkle with cinnamon. They let it cool and serve.

The Cistercienses make a Nuns' Soup (Sopa de las Monjas). They heat 6 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan and brown a finely diced medium onion along with 4 finely chopped cloves of garlic. They add about a 1/2 a pound of thinly sliced day old bread (chiabatta is best) and brown it along with the onion and garlic. They place the whole mixture in a clay pot, add one peeled and ground tomato, a touch of paprika and 1 1/2 litres of water. They bring the whole thing to a boil and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. They season to taste with salt and pepper and serve hot. (Don't be afraid to substitute a diced unpeeled tomato for the peeled ground one and to add a little tomato concentrate (3-4 tbsp.) and chicken stock in place of water (or an oxo cube) for additional flavour, even though the nuns would probably abstain. It's also just fine to make the whole thing in a high sided frying pan and forget about the clay pot altogether, charming as it is. It would, however, be a deadly sin to skimp on the olive oil or the bread so don't even think about it.)

I know these things because I bought a book. It's called La Cocina de las Monjas (Cuisine of the Nuns) by Luis San Valentin. If it came out in English, it would be called something like Divine Cuisine or Convent Kitchen Secrets or Godly Food, but in Spain, it's just Cuisine of the Nuns. The recipes are stripped down and require some divine guidance to make up for the lack of precision (e.g. cook at a sufficient heat for a sufficient time until it looks sufficiently done), but they do give one a sense that convent life isn't entirely about deprivation. Apparently, there's also a lot of eating.

What's more, I've been frequenting Caelum in the Barrio Gotico (pictured above, c/ Palla 8, near Santa Maria del Pi, 93 302 6993). Caelum is part shop, part tea room. They sell and serve items made exclusively by French and Spanish nuns: preserves, biscuits, cheeses, olive oils and honeys. (I say little prayers of thanks for their tomato confit and walnut bread with goat cheese.) They make good coffee and pretty decent tea and you can snack on delicious nun made sweets and savouries to your heart's content. It's the ideal spot for a merienda (afternoon tea). It's no convent, but it does have a peaceful, contemplative feeling about it...even if all you're contemplating is whether you can manage another macaroon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Struggles with (Tele)communication

Those of you who check in regularly may have noticed a heretofore unexplained flurry of blogging activity this month. This spate of productivity is the result of Telefonica (after weeks of struggle) finally reconnecting my internet and telephone, thereby giving me unimpeded access to the blogging world.

I'm afraid I can't blame Telefonica for disconnecting my service in the first place. There may have been a bill or two that went astray, if you know what I mean. I'm lucky they reconnected me as quickly as they did.

In any event, my dealings with Telefonica, though ultimately successful, once again reminded me that I'm no master of the language. Here's a roughly translated excerpt of part of the conversation--I'm embarrassed to say, I'm embellishing not at all:

Alright, I've requested that your line be reconnected, but you need to go to the post office right away to pay the outstanding bill.

How do I get in touch with this “post office”?

Well, you have to go to it.

This is a Telefonica department, this post office?

No, it has nothing to do with Telefonica. It’s, you know, the post office.

What do you mean “post" office?

You know, the post office, the place you go to send things by mail.

Oh. Well, where do you find this "post" office?

Well, there are many of them. You can go to any one.

I see. It’s the city’s "post" office?

Well, I suppose. You know, it’s the post, where you mail things, packages, letters, you know.

Oh, I see, the POST office. Why didn’t you just say so?


So, what can I tell you? Between meals and trips to the market, life's a struggle. Fortunately, it's mostly a struggle for those who have to deal with me, but a struggle nonetheless.

*Although the post office box pictured above is located in Madrid, apparently this same "post" office has also placed such boxes all over Barcelona.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Churros and Chocolate

I've been wandering around the south of Spain again (more on that later). It's a good time visit: the weather is temperate, the oranges are ripe, the almond trees are in bloom and the tourists are scarce.

The one thing that I can never deny myself in the South are the churros. They're just not the same in Barcelona. [But if you must know where to get the best churros in Barcelona, click here.]

Churros are long pieces of fried dough (some wheat flour based, some potato based), best eaten with a cup of pudding-thick hot chocolate.

In Seville, there seem to be as many churrerias as there cafes and the best ones that I've encountered pull the churros out of hot oil while you wait and serve them up in parchment paper to take away or on metal trays to eat standing up at the counter. This time I bumped into La Esperanza on calle Feria, just off of Relator, which did just so. For 2 euros, I had churros and chocolate enough to satisfy a construction worker twice my size.

Afterwards, I snatched up an orange that had just fallen onto the grass from a nearby tree and degreased myself a little internally.

How can anyone not love Seville?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Birthday (4) - Dinner

More birthday wishes from loved ones woke me from my nap. And, as it was still raining "a cantaros", I decided to finish On Chesil Beach instead of going out again.

There are many things that amaze me about McEwan. Two leap to mind ahead of others. The first is his ability to minutely capture the awkwardness with which we translate our desires into actions and the tragedy of that. The second is the denseness of the backdrop he draws for his stories, which at the level of plot can usually be reduced to a confrontation between two forces and the consequences that flow from it. In the case of On Chesil Beach, the story is of a young English couple in the early 1960’s on the first night of their honeymoon and what comes to divide them.

This story is in some ways a more quotidian version of McEwan’s other novels, one in which the characters’ choices lead to loss that is much more familiar than the violence that marks his earlier work, but perhaps more poignant for its familiarity. It left me disconcerted and sinking a little at the end, as some of his other novels have done, but in a deeply satisfying way, if you know what I mean. I walked around the apartment holding the book for a little while after I’d finished and then I put it away, thinking I wanted to write something about it.

Then, of course, my mind turned again to food. Since lunch had been so excessive, dinner was more of a snack, but a pretty one. All of my market bought goods came out, as did the wine. I had the cheeses with quince paste and tomato confit and the fruit, which was perfect and sweet. I didn’t have room for the cheese cake or chocolate, but, you needn’t worry, they won’t go to waste.

It was a good birthday, after all. And I’m not sorry I shaved my legs; they felt quite nice against my crisp, clean sheets.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Birthday (3) - Lunch

My intention was to have a fancy lunch, birthday befitting. While my prep- arations had stopped short of reservation making, I felt confident about my ability as a single to get a spot, particularly if I went early.

I hadn’t counted on the following things: most of my imagined lunch spots (Cinc Sentits, Moo, Comerc 24) being closed for lunch on Sundays; the one open on Sunday (Can Sole) being fully (and I mean fully, no negotiations about a table) booked; and a rain storm which left me soaked and shivering in Can Sole’s entry way, wondering what I was going to do after the hostess kindly and patiently explained that there were absolutely no circumstances on earth under which she could give me a table. These minor set backs, I must confess, almost (almost) brought a self-pitying birthday tear to my eye, but I regrouped and determined not to be so easily vanquished.

I trudged forward in the pouring rain (and, please allow me to note with some indignation, it has not rained in months Barcelona!), umbrella-free, toward the Old Port. I thought I might try Merendero de la Mari (Plaza Pau Vila 1, 93 221 3141, reservations recommended), which according to me and without the burden of having tried any of the other places, is the best of the string of expensive seafood restaurants edging the Palau de Mar. I make this statement based on the always fresh and carefully prepared seafood, the relatively attentive service and the flood of posh Barcelona families that always descends on it come the weekend. Also, the terrace overlooking the Port is among the best in the city on a sunny day. Needless to say, not quite as good when it rains.

At Merendero de la Mari, a further negotiation occurred. This time I would not take no for an answer. My exchange with the Napoleon-sized maitre d' went a little something like this: Table for one please. I'm sorry, miss, we are fully booked. You have absolutely nothing. Nothing. Nothing at the bar, nothing coming up, nothing for a short time...I'd only be an hour. Well, perhaps you can have a table in 20 minutes; there's a gentleman who just received his second course, but if he orders a dessert, who knows how long he'll be. I don't mind waiting. Alright then, you can stand over there by the kitchen, maybe you'll learn something. Muy bien. (A full minute and a closer glance at the reservation list later.) I suppose I could seat you now. Perfecto. (And away I went, slightly sorry to be dragged away from the kitchen window just before the final touches were put on the excellent looking paella simmering briskly on the range.)

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, there was no malice or attitude in the initial response to my request for a table. This is just the way it sometimes goes in a land where the laws of service are still more or less developing. The full universe of possibilities doesn't emerge until you test the initial premise.

So, quickly and happily seated in the bustling dining room, I ordered myself the following: a tomato and mozarella salad with shrimp; a parillada (pictured above); and the dessert trio (small, decadent vials of dark chocolate mousse, cheese cake and guava cocktail). The waiters were supremely attentive and polite enough not to allow their amazement at the quantities of food I was consuming register perceptibly nor to judge me too harshly for pulling out my camera to photograph the food.

The parillada, which was a 35 euro proposition and could easily have been shared between two, deserves some further comment. It featured langoustines, shrimp of two varieties, mussels, squid, and two kinds of white fish (one of which I believe to have been bass and the other of which was a mystery). All were grilled to perfection, lightly seasoned, and sitting on a shallow buttery lake, ideal for dipping. The scaling of this seafood mountain was well worth it, even if I did need a little rest half way through.

Afterwards, I rolled myself home, changed out of my once again wet clothes and, since it was still raining, forgot about my plans for the Carnaval and took a little a birthday nap.

(To be continued in the next post.)

Birthday (2) - Breakfast

First thing in the morning, a birthday phone call from someone close woke me. The best start.

Coming to slowly, breakfast setting waiting, I made myself French toast. I soaked dry chiabatta bread in milk, then coated it in egg and finally browned it in a little butter. I topped it with the honeyed walnuts, the Cape gooseberries (apparently also known as physalis or ground cherries) and (indispensably) maple syrup (luckily, the visiting Canadians of the past 6 months had supplied me with virtually infinite quantities). I served red currants and yogurt with strawberry sauce on the side. And I brewed Cream of Avalon tea, also from Canada, an orange, vanilla and bergamot flavoured black tea that my dear friend Shuli introduced me to a couple of years ago and which I brought back with me on my last trip.

It was a lovely and nostalgic breakfast and, once it was done, I felt no compunction about going back to bed for a couple of hours to start Ian McEwan’s last novel, On Chesil Beach. I allowed myself this in English, lifting (for the day) my six month long ban on English language reading. On Chesil Beach, conveniently, is little more than 160 pages and an easy day’s indulgence.

(To be continued in the next post.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Birthday (1) - Preparations

In life, it’s always important to have a Plan B. My father never tires of telling me this. Really, I think he’d probably be happy with a reasonable Plan A, but since he often doesn’t much like Plan A, he emphasizes Plan B.

This Sunday, Dad, I’m pleased to tell you that a Plan B (well, actually Plan C) was not only conceived, but was carried out with great success--well, quite good success, which is your best hope for Plan C.

Sunday was my birthday. My first birthday in Barcelona. A lot rides on first birthdays in a new place. In a sense, birthdays away are a measure of how well you’re adapting and it was important to me to have a good plan. As it happened, I ended up with several.

Plan A: Since in Spain it’s customary to throw your own birthday party, invite all available friends in Barcelona for grand birthday lunch at home. Impediments to Plan A: Of the handful of friends I have in Barcelona, none were planning to be around on Sunday.

Plan B: Check into expensive hotel and spend the day being pampered. Really, what I envisioned were clean sheets, a television with many channels and somebody bringing me things to eat whenever I picked up the phone. Impediments to Plan B: After making a reservation at Gran Hotel La Florida for the day, spasms of fear over impending destitution forced me to cancel the booking.

Plan C: Pamper myself with food and celebrate by participating in Carnaval festivities in Barcelona and Sitges. There were no anticipated impediments to Plan C; however, preparations were required.

Prepartions comprised, first, a thorough cleaning of my apartment on Saturday with the goal of giving myself the gift of freshly laundered sheets; a bath ready tub (I never take baths, but who knew what kind of strange impulses might overtake me on my birthday); and a sparkling, organized kitchen, in which it would be a pleasure to cook. Second, a trip to the markets: the Boqueria (Las Ramblas, Barrio Gotico), Barcelona’s most famous market, for fresh strawberries, red currants and what I refer to as goose berries, but what are really a mysterious orange fruit that no one can ever confidently name; and the artisanal food market (pictured above), which takes place every second weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) in front of Santa Maria del Pi (Barrio Gotico). At the latter, tasting all sorts of interesting and yummy things at each stall, I bought two types of goat cheese, walnuts in acacia honey, membrillo (quince) paste, tomato and vanilla confit, chestnut marmalade, a piece of traditional Catalan cheesecake and some dark chocolate. I also picked up fresh flowers and a bottle of pretty decent if slightly tart Syrah, the latter on the recommendation of a sweet shop boy.

As final preparatory acts before I went to bed on my birthday eve, I set the table for breakfast and I shaved my legs. Who knew what might come to pass.

(To be continued in the next post.)