Its been a month since the freezing of my butt in Barcelona, and its interesting to look back at the food.
Tapas and ham is what everyone knows of Spanish food, and my first experience of Barcelona did not disappoint. Tapas bars were everywhere, and even my hotel had three prominent signs advertising tapas. The room service menu had tapas. In the land of actual Spaniards, tapas seemed to be on tap. As I’ve said before, my first confrontation with Spanish food did not go well. I’d never heard of it in New York, but Barcelona insisted that pan tomato, or tomato bread, was THE tapas to go for – and my first impression was one of huge disappointment. Crusty bread, drizzled with olive oil and a squish of tomato – it seemed to barely be cooking, leave alone a delicacy. Aghast as that made my friends, toast and ketchup is indeed what came to mind.
A month later, however, that is one thing I look back to with the greatest nostalgia. It took a few rounds to get what the deal was but it is one of those simple but magic combinations that just attach themselves to your tongue, like roasted peanuts or aloo tikki. There really is nothing to it – good crusty bread smeared with a ripe tomato and drizzled with olive oil – but after a few tries you realize it happens to be one of those utterly addictive combinations - and the Spaniards are addicted to it. More than a tapa by itself, its the base for everything else; platefuls of these are served along with all the other tapas that we would think of as tapas. You can make it at home (though crusty ciabatta really helps and can be hard to get in Mumbai) and even at breakfast, whole tomatoes and olive oil was on offer for you to make your own.
My first few days of hispanic culinaria are already described in the previous post, but I was keen to explore further, and thus came to the famous wet market - La Boqueria - and its nearly-as-famous Bar Pinotxo (Pinocchio, but the Spanish aren’t good at spellings). The old man Pinoxto himself served me some excellent white beans & baby squid along with red wine and some forgettable snails (those seem even more popular in Barcelona than in Paris).
In the middle of the historic district, the fantastic Bar El Xampanyet (say Champagne and remember again about Spaniards and spellings) introduced me to outstanding cold plates (mostly hams and fishes including a sashimi-like platter of cod and salmon) drowned by a great Cava made by the bar itself - not to mention loads of buzz both tourist and local (even standing room was an exaggeration). The highlight among a range of excellent tapas were these addictive baby pimentoes filled with goat cheese.
Also in the same evening, the much celebrated chain Sagardi had pinxtos (toothpicks – who knows how they got that spelling and no its not related to pinocchio). These turned out to be small bites on crusty bread with a toothpick through it all, apparently more Basque than Catalan.
A few rounds of tapping later, I decided to take a wider look at Spanish food. Ubiquitous it may be, but tapas is not the end all of cuisine here. There were, as far as I can make out, four threads – tapas, traditional, fusion and (of course) nouvelle cuisine. It may also be said that Spain has always had a disproportionate influence on world cuisine. First they claim to have invented the ham, and see how well that turned out. Then was their insistence on worldwide introduction of coffee, chocolate, onions, tomatoes and chillies (the very lost Columbus discovered these in the Americas). Finally some catalan decides to mix chemistry and food, thus adding foams and emulsions to every fancy table on earth (yes, even amchi Mumbai has it). But nouvelle cuisine was going to have to wait – tradicionale was my first stop. The cheerful lady at the hotel reception recommended tradiocionale restaurant Set Portes (or Seven Doors) not far from where I was as the place to go.
Set Portes turned out to be huge, consciously 'tradicionale' and apparently a specialist on Catalan paellas - a massive plate of rice with two humungous crayfish that I alas, had to discard. Paella is the Spaniards equivalent of our pulau – vegetables, fish, meat and rice cooked into an aromatic whole with saffron as a key ingredient. Fat-grained, chewy, al-dente rice here (none of the long fluffy basmatis thank you) loaded with chunks of meat or fish, each a surprise. Its the local mainstay main course and can be made infinitely variable depending on what goes in; there’s even an official vegetarian version. Personally, though I liked the paella I wouldn't rave over it; I thought the roast meats were more rave-worthy.
I was also fed some excellent Spanish sausages at a friend’s house and a very nice traditional duck roast at the conference. I tried salt cod too, but didn’t manage to take a shine to the powerful fish smell. On the dessert side, catalan cream (crema catalana to those in the know) tasted and looked just like creme brulee.
Which brings me to Nouvelle Cuisine in the long shadow of the greatest chef in the world. Lots of Barcelona restaurants have links to Ferran Adria - the chefs either worked with him or for him – and it is no surprise therefore that nouvelle cuisine is big here. Barcelona has no three-michelin-stars (for one of those a pilgrimage of at least a hundred kilometres is necessary) but it is sprinkled with two-stars and generously endowed with one-stars or notable-mentions (quite remarkable, given that it is smaller than Bandra in population). Purely out of geographic convenience rather than any sustained research, I managed to squeeze myself out of Sagrada Familia and into the short-walk-away-one-star-michelin Alkimia led by ‘it’ chef Jordi Vila.
The three course pre-fixe lunch service started with a pleasant but unremarkable artichoke-n-ham salad crowned by that gourmet touch - lots of different edible flowers (I regret not having chosen the veal brain option though – sounded meatier). Course number two was my first encounter with Iberian molecular gastronomy – a fried egg bon bon with celery foam -the egg an odd texture (I’m still deciding if I liked it) but the vegetables and sauce underneath was outstandingly good. The foam just added a bit of twist, nothing much. Finally as course three came oxtail in a wine reduction. Molecular may not have been involved but gastronomy it was indeed – the dish was spectacular, one of the best I’ve ever had, anywhere, ever. Drool is too mild to describe what I would do if faced with it again. At my obviously touristy grovelling, they (some mildly raised eyebrows later) also served me their version of pan tomate. With the bread tossed on heat and made crustier than usual, this was the nicest version I had.
Spanish is not all I ate. On my last day there I had a meal at Bembi, my friend Sanjay’s modern Indian restaurant steps away from Gaudi’s extravagant Casa Batillo. I would have ducked (as in avoided) Indian food, but Sanjay promised more – some Catalan touches and some duck (as in the bird). Sanjay doesn’t pretend the menu is ‘authentic’, lots of tweaks have been made to fit the Spanish palette and some dishes are outright fusion.
Bembi is a beautiful restaurant, with plenty of twists on the menu to make the visit worth it even for an Indian. The promised duck came medium-rare in a tamarind sauce (coconut rice on the side) and worked very well. Sanjay tells me even the regular choices such as palak paneer are tweaked – dishes have milder flavours, stuff like duck or scallops get added and (in the land the brought chillies to us) there’s very little heat. Everything is paired with a long, very Spanish, wine list (though there is Cobra beer). Chocolate samosas (in the land that brought chocolates to us) finished off a delicious story.