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Barcelona Eats

At 7pm, no one is home in Barcelona. Instead, each and every one of the city's 1.5 million inhabitants have migrated en masse to the old town, where they pack the narrow streets in slow-moving throngs: laughing, gossiping, window shopping, popping into bars for a quick drink - and a bite to soak it up - before rejoining the tide of ambling humanity. For agoraphobes, it's a nightmare. For everyone else, it's a party, a chance to drink in the last warm rays of the sun, a chance to socialize, a chance to unwind after work. And of course, it's a chance to get ready for dinner.

Manuel and I were witnessing this daily ritual gog-eyed, a factor of our lack of both sleep and food, thanks to our early-morning flight from Newcastle (itself a two-hour drive through predawn darkness) and no meals along the way. Budget airlines have many points to recommend them, but general comfort in getting to your destination is unfortunately not one of them. Anyhow, our amazement at this sea of humanity was only momentary, because what we were really concerned about was food, and where to find it quickly.

If you have spent much time in Spain, or anywhere else on the Mediterranean for that matter, you know that mealtimes are a bit different from our cold northern climes. In Spain, for example, you wouldn't even think about thinking about dinner until around 10pm, and often upon thinking about it, you would decide to postpone it for another hour or two. Knowing this, we were in a bit of a quandry. We knew we wouldn't make it until Spanish dinnertime on our mounting sleep deficit. On the other hand, the only places open to serve dinner at 7pm are usually those that deal exclusively with tourists. So what to do? I skimmed through our guidebook, prepared to confirm what I already knew about restaurant opening times, except that instead that I encountered a surprise. A restaurant we had heard about in connection with its famous paellas, the venerable Set Portes, was open all day.

After battling out the other tourists for a table, we found ourselves in a palace of a restaurant, being led through a labyrinth of cavernous rooms, dodging waiters in impeccably crisp uniforms who were ferrying around table-sized paella pans at breakneck speed. They have several different kinds of paella at Set Portes, including paella de mariscos (seafood paella), paella parellada (lazy man's paella, i.e. all bones and shells removed for your eating convenience), and fideua, which is basically paella made with tiny noodles instead of rice. They have other food as well, but I didn't even stop to look. We ordered a two-person dish of their 'normal' paella, which had meat and shellfish and sausages and the tenderest, most succulent langoustines I've ever tasted, nothing peeled or boned and thus requiring some serious finger-licking. It was unbelievable. And it was easily enough to feed four people. I don't know how we ate it all, but there was no question about leaving any of that garlicky, saffrony goodness to end up in the trash. And as if that weren't enough, we finished things off with another local specialty, mel i mató, a mildly tangy ricotta-like goat's cheese drizzled with local honey. I told Manuel it was quite possibly the best meal I'd ever had.

For me this trip and the food involved had particular significance, because I was making good on a promise I had made myself last time I visited this city, exactly ten years ago. Last time I was here I was only seventeen, fresh off the bus from the northern Spanish province of Bizkaia (otherwise known as the Basque Country), where I had been living for nearly a year as an exchange student. I was setting out on a round-Europe adventure and although I had enormous appetite and enthusiasm, I had painfully little money. At the beginning of each day I would count out my tiny food budget and make a trip to the neighborhood supermarket to buy what I could – usually a loaf of bread, some pungent Pyrenean cheese, a couple of oranges or tomatoes, yogurt and a pack of cookies. I would survive on that, consoling myself as I longingly passed those innumerable restaurants and bars in Barcelona that seem to exude from their walls the ethereal smell of garlic frying in olive oil, with the thought that some day I would return, and someday I would eat everything I could.

Over the next few days we made good on that vow, and ate our way through the entire city. Catalonia has some seriously good food, and it's a wonder it still languishes in obscurity for so many of the world's gastronomes. I have in fact heard it said recently by those in the know that Barcelona is giving Paris a run for its money as the culinary capital of Europe. This may be so, but in contrast to Paris, the culture of food and restaurants in Barcelona is largely devoid of snobbery, and has stayed true to its Spanish roots in remaining hearty, honest and tremendously good value. And if it's not, you won't find locals eating it. Apart from this grounding in Spanish no-nonsenseness, however, the food you will actually encounter in Barcelona bears very little resemblance to the rest of Spain. Have you ever eaten squid with chocolate sauce in a Spanish restaurant? How about goose with pears, or salt cod with honey? Catalans make chile- and nut-thickened sauces, stuff meat with seafood and vice versa, and love to put sweet and salty in the same dish probably more than anyone else on the Mediterannean. And the quality of their food is unsurpassed. Just visit the Boqueria market, off the Ramblas, to see how fantastic the produce is that these local cooks have at their disposal. I promise you'll be jealous.

If you're going:
As for what we learned about choosing a good restaurant, probably the best advice is to look at a place at Spanish mealtime and see how crowded it is. The more people dining there, the better it'll be. You'll might have to make a reservation for the following day, however, because if it's really so good, you probably won't get a table on the spot. And if you're new to the Spanish restaurants be prepared for two things:
(1) Since tipping is not customary, your waiter may make no extra effort to charm you. Don't be put off by aloof service - that's just the way it is.
(2) Everyone smokes. Constantly. Ask for a table in the non-smoking section and you'll be met with blank stares. Just vow to breathe a lot of fresh air when you're back home. A funny story, however, which proves there's an exception to every rule is that one day at lunch Manuel and I had just been served our post-meal coffees and he lit up a cigarillo. There was an audible sigh of relief from one of the women who had just sat down at the table next to us. "I'm so glad he did that," she leaned over and said to me, "we were holding back because we didn't want to disturb you." They then proceeded to smoke half a pack before their first course arrived. That was the first and probably last time a Spaniard has ever refrained from smoking in my presence!

Regional dishes to add to your 'must try' list:
Romesco sauce (salsa romesco)- thick pungent sauce made from dried or roasted peppers, tomatoes, nuts, garlic, bread, oil and vinegar. Usually served with seafood or vegetables - but delicious on everything under the sun.
Alioli - similar to the French aioli, which is a mayonnaise-like sauce with garlic and olive oil, but much more potent. Also, the Catalans often add quince (membrillo) or apple (manzana) to their alioli.
Salt-packed anchovies (anchoas en sal marina) - see my previous post about these little gems, and take home a jar or two.
Marcona almonds - flatter and thinner than California almonds, these are fried and salted and usually served as a tapa.
Pimientos stuffed with salt cod brandade (piquillos rellenos de bacalao)- Another dish far more than the sum of its parts. Sweet piquillo peppers stuffed with a potato-salt cod paste and covered in luscious pepper cream. Often available in bars as a tapa.
Salt cod with honey (bacalao con miel)- you'll never believe this could be good, but it is. Culinary genius.
Paella - it's technically from Valencia, but who's splitting hairs? Probably the best place (okay, aside from Valencia) to get the real thing.
Spinach with raisins and pine nuts (espinacas con pasas y piñones) - who ever thought spinach could taste so good?
Goose with pears (oca con peras) - an ancient dish, cooked for hours until the goose and pear seem to fuse into a single substance.
Zarzuela de Mariscos - a spicy shellfish stew, the western Mediterranean version of Bouillabaisse.
Black rice (arroz negro) with alioli - This is sometimes listed with the Paellas, but it is really quite different. The rice is black from squid ink (delicious, honest!), it's often served with squid or other seafood, and should come with a dish of pungent alioli on the side. Maybe gilding the lily, but hey...
Mel i mató - dessert consisting of local goat's milk cheese with honey.
Crema Catalana - Catalan version of creme brulee, custard and crunchy sugar.

Here is a very biased list of places we would highly recommend submitting your stomach to in Barcelona.

Set Portes - the Godfather of paella. Any kind you try will be good. 14 Psg d'Isabel II, Tel. 319 30 33.
Pitarra - Listed in the guidebook as expensive, but actually encompassing an enormous range of prices. Wild boar with chocolate, or rabbit with cherries, anyone? Carrer D'Avinyo, 56, Tel. 301.16.47.
El Gran Café - Fantastic value lunch with three courses and wine for around 10 Euros. The food on the lunch menu was pretty good; supposedly the more-expensive dinner menu is exceptional. Wonderful old Europe atmosphere. Carrer d'Avinyo 9, Tel. 318 79 86.
Can Culleretes - Our favorite lunch spot. Get there by 1:30 if you don't have reservations. The place is enormous, but manages to retain a cozy character in its multiple rooms on multiple levels. They serve huge portions of rustic local food, at very very good prices. Most of Barcelona seems to be eating here on any given day. Carrer Quintana, 5, Tel. 317 30 22.
Senyor Parellada - another famous Paella place, more elegant and expensive than Set Portes. We didn't eat here but have heard a lot of good things. Carrer Argenteria, 37. Tel. 310 50 94.

Also don't miss:
La Boqueria Market - whatever you want to buy foodwise, you'll find it here. Off the Rambla about halfway down.
Xocoa - a chain of boutiquey chocolate shops serving cakes and the most wickedly good hot chocolate in the world. Several locations around the city, including Carrer de Petritxol 11.

Give it a wide berth:
Estevet 15 - listed in Lonely Planet, which probably explains a lot. Warm welcome, but steep prices for the 'someone's living-room' experience that it is. Food is okay, but very high prices and an owner who suggests additions to your meal without indicating the steep hike they will cause in your bill. Ate with the Japanese tourists and left with a bad taste in our mouths. Calle de Valldon Zella, 46.
El Hostal Pintor - a tourist trap we somehow got sucked into. We should have known when they were out of Paella at 10:30pm. Really nice candlelit atmosphere inside, but very snooty service and fussy dishes whose taste did not justify the prices we paid. Carrer St. Honorat, 7.



Anchovy Umami

Do you like anchovies? That was a question I took for granted until comparatively recently. Of course I don't like anchovies. Nobody does. Why else would the most often-repeated phrase that follows 'I'd like a pizza with everything', be 'but hold the anchovies'? I had probably never even tasted anchovies. I just knew that if they didn't go with pizza, chances are they wouldn't go with anything.

How wrong I was. Anchovies go with everything, as I discovered today.

If you're one of those people who think they don't like anchovies, you may be ready to hit the back button and find something better to read. I would beg you to hear me out, however, because I believe anchovies are one of nature's best-kept culinary secrets. I used to think that there are people who like anchovies and those who don't, a love-it-or-hate-it scenario if there ever was one. I now realize it's quite a bit more complicated than that. While it's true that there are people who really love anchovies for what they are (like Manuel, who eats them straight out of the jar!), there are far more of us who love the gutsy punch they give to food without realizing what we're loving. I find them impossible to eat straight, which includes basically any form in which the pieces are larger than a fingernail. I don't like them on pizza, for example - they're just too overpowering. But chop them up, add some garlic for piquancy, something creamy for smoothness, maybe some fragrant herbs to round out the flavors, and the humble anchovy is transformed into something almost ethereally good. To me it embodies the concept of the Japanese word 'umami', which translates variously as our fifth sense, savoryness or pungency.

I was impressed by Coleman Andrews' description in his book Catalan Cuisine of the marvellous anchovies caught and preserved in Catalonia; not filleted and packed in oil-filled cans, but simply beheaded and layered in salt with a few fresh herbs. He claims that after a simple soak, the anchovies you get with this method are 'near-miraculous': sweet, subtle, slightly tart, and hands down better than any oil-packed variety.

anchovies.jpgNot being able to find any such thing in my local Tesco supermarket, and being in Barcelona a couple of months ago, I took his advice and picked up a jar of salt-packed anchovies (which later leaked in my luggage and created a smell indescribably foul, but that's another story). They're whole fish, minus the heads, which means they have to be split, gutted and filleted before being used - but they're pretty small fish, so it's not much of a job.

I didn't have any particular dish in mind when I decided to finally pop the lid today, but I knew that I wanted to use them for something special. I got out my Larousse Gastronomique, and opened the index to anchovies. There it was, staring right at me - the most bizarre recipe for anchovies I had ever seen. Surely there was no better test of the salt-packed swimmers' merit than this:

Corsican Anchoiade with Figs

Soak 5 anchovy fillets in cold water to remove the salt, then wipe them dry.
Pound them with 450 grams fresh figs and 1 small garlic clove.
Spread this paste on bread moistened with olive oil.

I followed directions pretty closely on this one, save for the figs; fresh ones are just not in season in this hemisphere, so I substituted dried 'semi-reconstituted'. I processed the ingredients together in the food processor until I couldn't see any bits of anchovy or garlic. I then sniffed it with great trepidation - garlic and anchovy. Not an auspicious start to a mouthful you know will contain mostly fruit! But I couldn't lose faith now. I tasted it, and amazingly enough,  it was exquisite! The figs have a robust, raisiny, leathery flavor that is just assertive enough to balance the strong anchovy and garlic. It was sweet, but not too sweet. The fish was there, but the anchovy had worked its magic and melded its own identity with that of the other two ingredients to create something completely new. The salt-packed anchovies did seem to give it a subtleness I haven't tasted in anchovy preparations before, but I don't see why a good soak for the oil-packed kind wouldn't achieve the same result. I served it with a soft goat's cheese and bread; it was inhaled by everyone I served it to (and several asked me what 'that mysterious flavor' was!). I now stand humbled before this little salted fish, whose culinary dexterity seems to know no bounds!

Corsican Anchoiade with Figs

Here are another couple favorite ways with anchovies.

'Dragon's Breath' Caesar salad

3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3-4 filets anchovies, finely chopped (I don't bother to soak for this)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons lemon juice, and maybe more
1/4 cup fresh parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling

Romaine lettuce, torn in pieces
something crunchy: croutons are traditional, I also use toasted nuts

Mix the dressing ingredients, and mix a few spoonfuls with a bowlful of salad. This is one salad that's better to toss all together rather than drizzle on the dressing at the table. Sprinkle with the croutons or nuts and some extra parmesan cheese. Make sure everyone you'll be breathing around eats some too!

Anchovy-Rosemary Mayonnaise

5-6 fillets anchovies, finely chopped (soaking not necessary)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 cup mayonnaise

Mix everything together, and chill for a couple of hours to blend the flavors. This is fantastic with burgers, roast vegetables, grilled chicken, fish...


School Food

An excellent program recently aired on TV in the UK, hosted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (i.e. the Naked Chef). I've never been much of a Jamie fan, mostly because I found his cooking shows pretentious and unrealistic (okay, maybe I was just jealous about his hordes of adoring friends always coming by for dinner...). This program, however, cast him in a new light for me because what the show centered around was not his cooking per se, but rather his struggle to bring healthy food into the public schools of one London borough. The basic premise of the show was that school by school, Jamie would be introducing the 'dinner ladies' (as the women in white are called here) to his recipes and then slogging through it in the kitchens with them until (a) they got the hang of preparing real food, and (b) the kids were actually convinced to eat it. No one said it would be easy.

nuggets.jpgThe stuff these kids were used to loading on their lunch trays is probably to familiar to most of us if we grew up in the US or the UK. Everything packaged, reheatable, loaded with starch, sugar, salt... Any vegetables? Not on your life. These kids had a daily choice of fish fingers, chicken nuggets, chips (fries), pizza, hamburgers and these processed meat-product spirals called 'turkey twizzlers'. Aside from the turkey twizzlers, it looks remarkably like what I used to eat for my own school lunches, twenty years ago. What Jamie was proposing to replace this with was things like thai vegetable curry, morrocan-spiced chicken legs, spinach foccacia and leafy green salad, and he wasn't going to give them any choice about eating it.

The central question was never whether these school lunches can be considered healthy for kids. In the first episode, one of the doctors Jamie interviewed stated point-blank that with current diet trends we can expect this generation of British children to be the first to die before their parents. He chronicled a skyrocket in incidences of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, ulcers and mental and psychological disorders that can be directly attributed to kids eating habits. School lunches were reviled by everyone Jamie spoke to as directly contributing to these problems.

The question the show posed, rather,  was if it's at all possible to convince kids to eat healthier food. Interviews with kids showed that many had never even seen things like broccoli or spinach. Others couldn't even identify a potato in its natural form. Things didn't seem promising for the new menu when kids at Jamie's first school were seen dumping plate after plate of untouched food into the trash. The most sensitive were seen retching into their plates. It was heartbreaking to watch. My hat is off to him though - he showed amazing persistence and tenacity, battling day after day to convince these kids (and the dinner ladies as well!) to believe in his food.

He developed a strategy which involved inviting the pickiest of eaters to help in food preparation and then asked them to eat what they themselves had created. He launched 'food awareness' activities at schools which presented kids with an exposé of what really goes into their favorite foods. He developed recipes that presented foods in imaginative, colorful, ways, and placed them on the lunch counter day after day after day... And what do you know - it finally worked! The kids were converted. Those we had seen retching two weeks earlier were now beaming and scarfing down whatever Jamie put in front of them. Teachers were amazed at how attentive and focused their pupils became. One parent even said her son's aggressive outbursts had miraculously ceased. Jamie also triumphed by showing it was possible to do this within the measly budgetary guidelines set by the government, which dictated not spending more than 37p (about 60 cents) per meal.

The issues this program brought to light have created something of a shockwave through this country. It seems that people have finally had the wool lifted and seen what disastrous consequences this cavalier attitude to nutrition is having. Since the program aired, dozens of local councils across the UK have signed on to 'better school meals', and the government has finally responded with a promise of nearly £280 million to improve school meal quality and pay for more staff to make it. I'm wary, however, that all the fingers are being pointed at the government for its cost-before-nutrition policies and none are being turned around at ourselves.

There are some uncomfortable questions begged by this program, seeing how relatively easily even staunch junk-food junkies could be converted over to the pleasures of real food. I've heard it so many times from parents that they just give kids what they want to eat, that they gave up the struggle because 'the kids are just so picky'! Is this really true, or do we make up these excuses to exonerate ourselves from the responsibility we have to teach our kids good eating habits? Do we even have good eating habits to teach them? What kind of message are we sending about the importance of eating well when all the time we're willing to invest is what it takes to open and close the microwave door? Kids all over Europe are developing obesity and diabetes at an alarming rate; in US schools the overweight by now outnumber the slim.

I don't know how easy will be to convince other governments to spend more on school lunches. I don't know if when they do it will really be any healthier. I don't know if it's possible to get rid of the vending machines, the fast-food outlets and the off-campus passes to go and grab some junk somewhere else. All of this is just treating the symptoms anyhow. What I do know is that our fundamental relationship with food is formed at home, and that what we teach and show our children will go a lot further towards modifying their eating habits than a government budget change will. I know it may seem like moving mountains, but I do think it is possible to change kids' preferences about what they put in their mouths. Good food nourishes us body, mind and soul, and cooking and eating it should become such an integral part of our lives that our children simply don't know any other way of life.

Photo of Jamie Oliver copyright © Channel 4.