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,, 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, 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.