Friday, May 22, 2009

A Picnic in Heaven

Heaven, I'm in heaven

And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak

And I seem to find the happiness I seek


And then, of course, there's the "cheek to cheek" business of the Irving Berlin classic, but I never get to that part when I'm singing the song in my head these days. "I'm in heaven" is on a permanent loop.

Indeed, heaven is the luscious slice of bliss that is currently Barcelona: cotton candy cumuli bobbing on periwinkle skies, whispering oak canopies shading the grand boulevards, terrace gardens erupting in flower, choirs of birds singing the city awake, a heat that hasn't lost its kindness, and a slight breeze ruffling the scarves that cling stubbornly to Barcelona necks despite forecasts of a balmy 25C. It's the kind of ephemeral perfection that leaves one wandering the city in a bemused trance hoping that the reverie never ends.

Actually, the best part is that it's only just beginning. Tourist invasion aside, spring and summer in Barcelona are an absolute wonder and, whether you're a hardened Barcelona resident or a wide eyed visitor, I recommend celebrating their glory with a picnic.

Your picnic need not be elaborate. You can make do with a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of wine or maybe even a cava if you're hoping to get lucky. Throw in a brownie or a punnet of strawberries or perhaps both and you have a veritable feast. All you need to worry about is the blanket as I'm about to take care of the rest.

In terms of ready-made picnic supplies, Barcelona abounds with bakeries and food shops to cater to your every need. In a pinch, try the sandwiches and cakes at the Eixample's Mauri Pastelería (, tarts and croquettes of all kinds are a particular treat)) or at Garriga (c/ Consell de Cent 308, tel. 932 157 215, the plum cake (in Spanish, "ploom cake") is particularly delicious); more elaborate take away plates and generous American style desserts at Born Cooking (, excellent if you're missing carrot cake or chocolate chip cookies); a variety of ready made dishes, including traditional favourites, at Pim Pam Plats and its sister restaurant Pim Pam Burger in the Born (; delectable baked goods at the recently opened Atlanta bakery (c/Princesa, just off of Via Laietana, beware of the baffling lack of reasonable take away containers, particularly as there's nowhere to eat inside) [NOTE 17-08-2009: Atlanta closed as rapidly as it opened; in its place, and under the same name, you can now find a women's clothing store]; wine and just about any canned product at the Eixample's Colmado Quilez (Rambla Catalunya 63, tel. 932 158 78; in a nod to old timey redundancy, get the cashier to total your purchase, take the receipt to the woman at the door to pay and return with the stamped receipt to pick up your purchase from the cashier); and, if you're feeling a little more hands on and up for adventure, anything and everything at the spectacular Boquería Market (

Ferreting out the perfect location is also a breeze these days. Some of the best picnic spots in Barcelona can be found on the steamy beaches with their buzzing boardwalks and chiringuitos (venture past Barceloneta and Puerto Olympico for fewer American teenagers); on the shady slopes of Montjuic--best experienced while watching an outdoor movie with your picnic dinner (check out for this summer's movie schedule, screenings start June 29 and continue to the end of July); amid Ciutadella Park's tree-lined hive of activity, whether during a concert (the Musica Classica als Parcs concert series is scheduled for Thursdays and Fridays at 10pm in Ciutadella and Turo Parks between July 2 and 24, 2009) or an impromptu juggling rehearsal; within the idyl of Gaudi's Parque Guell (brave the crowds at the entrance and on the fabulous tiled terrace and make your way to the rustic aqueducts lined with alcove benches); and, if you're in the mood for a subway ride (Mundet or Valldaura metro stops on the Green Line (L3)), lost in the childish pleasure of the the living labyrinth in the Parque del Laberinto de Horta. For more information about Barcelona parks, gardens and beaches check out the Parks and Gardens portion of the City's website at

Oh, and one more thing, if you're lovers, or maybe even if you're not, take along a book of the now deceased Mario Benedetti's poems, as Felipe and I did this week, and select a few to read out loud over a glass of wine on the grass.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Charred and the Seedless (Escalivada)

By way of adding to your tapas repertoire, I'm going to tell you about escalivada. And, yes, this too is inspired by Jordi and Deirdre's calçotada, which featured deliciousness far beyond mere calçots.

The word escalivada comes from the Catalan verb escalivar, which means to roast over hot embers or, in the approximate language of today's world, char grill. A true escalivada, which has peasant and country roots, involves placing whole unwashed vegetables (generally, eggplants, peppers and tomatoes) into an open fire (or, better yet, hot ashes) to roast--as in the photo above--, then peeling and serving them with a sprinkling of oil and salt. This of course requires access to an open fire, which I will assume most of the readers of this blog don't readily have.

Fortunately, an open fire is not absolutely necessary to make a slightly less authentic version of the beloved salad, a version that is easy peasy and open to fiddling and interpretation. I, for one, often dispense with everything but the eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and salt (particularly when I'm feeling an excess of weight in the thigh region) and use quantities of vegetables that reflect what's readily available in my fridge rather than exact amounts. Please use what follows more as a spiritual guide than as biblical escalivada truth.


2 large or 4 small eggplants
4 red peppers
4 tomatoes
1 onion (optional)
2 cloves of garlic (optional)
1 tsp finely chopped parsley (optional)
olive oil, salt and pepper (to taste)


Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C. Slice the eggplants in half and set aside for half an hour sprinkled with salt to remove the bitter juices. In the meantime, cut the peppers in half, remove seeds and place cut side down on a baking sheet lined with oiled aluminum foil. If you are using onion (I don't), place it--sliced in half, drizzled with olive oil and wrapped in aluminum foil--in the oven with the peppers. Roast for about 30 minutes or until the skin of the peppers has blackened and is coming away from the surface. Remove and set aside. Roast the eggplant in the same way once you have rinsed off the salt and dried each piece. Slice the tomatoes in half and roast for about 15-20 minutes--if you have room, you can slide the tomatoes in with the eggplant about 10-15 minutes into the eggplant's roasting time. Remove the skin from the roasted vegetables, slice into strips and combine in a serving bowl, being sure to include the juices. Dress with salt and pepper, the minced garlic and a little olive oil. (Leave out the garlic and oil for a lighter salad and, if so inclined, sprinkle in some finely chopped parsley.)

As for final touches, I often top escalivada with a soft Catalan goat cheese. I place the escalivada in an oven proof container, cover with large slices of goat cheese and brown under the broiler for a couple of minutes or until the cheese is golden. This version--as well as the cheeseless one--is delicious as part of a meal of tapas or alongside any meat dish.

Another common way to serve is on toasted bread topped with good quality anchovies and, if you like, olives.

Come to think of it, the always packed Cerveceria Catalana (c/ Mallorca 236 (Eixample), 93 216 0368) has terrific examples of both versions for those who'd rather forego the cooking altogether.