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Archive for the ‘Spain’ Category

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In the words of jazz singer Fats Wallace, “One never knows, do one….”

Truly, no clue presented the palate-bending event about to transpire, even walking down this delightfully deserted and quaintly picturesque street in the Barcelona neighbourhood of La Barceloneta.

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In fact, we’d headed out in the evening intending to visit a little hole-in-the-wall eatery near this corner but found it closed. Asking the proprietress of the little groceria above for a worthy restaurant recommendation directed us down the street to a similarly unassuming storefront.

Now, if you’re reading this post from the comfort of the western hemisphere it’s likely you’re looking at this photo and thinking, “Oh those two! Heading out so late for dinner! What could they possibly expect to be open at that hour?”

Well, yes, the time was about nine o’clock in the evening, late for supper by any schedule with which I’m familiar.

However, here where palm trees line the beach, where the latitude of this city lines up with that of Rome, where olives and oranges hang temptingly from trees in the park, heading out to eat at 9 pm is sadly, head-shakingly, barely forgiveably early.

Unless you’re a tourist (and opening one’s mouth removes all doubt) and if that’s the case, it’s likely they’ll let you inside where you’ll see empty tables or a spotting of another foreigner or two.

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It was predictably vacant when we landed inside the Restaurante Somorrostro but the young woman who met us as the door smiled kindly and placed us in a cosy corner. Then she asked if we were hungry.

Instinctively I said, ‘No.’ I don’t usually think about eating when I’m spending my energy on staying vertical. My dining companion honourably did not contradict me but would have ordered bigger had he had the chance.

However we were sufficiently alert to order a glass of bubbly cava which we sipped as we told the waitress we’d like to order from the menu degustacion with a couple of requests — no gambas (shrimp) for him and no carne for me.

No problemo.

We relaxed and sipped our cava.

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The first dish of the tasting menu was this beautiful salad:

Thin slices of fennel, a couple of slivers of anchovy, some dry roasted chickpeas, cooked beets, fresh tomato, two cooked mussels, toasted walnuts, red cabbage, some salty cheese and a dressing of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

So simple and lovely, the tastes blending together so well we looked at each other across the table and thought, ‘How can it be that we found this place so late in the game?’

When the empty plate was removed it was by the fellow whom we’d seen just a minute before at the stove — that’s him in the third picture — who smiled but didn’t seem particularly surprised when we told him in our broken Spanish how happy we were with the first course.

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The second course arrived with as much simplicity and stunning savoury flavours as the first:

Cream of potato soup as thick as custard, dotted with mushrooms and cauliflower that had been sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and garnished also with tiny mounds of pesto and roasted garlic.

If this already sounds exquisite — good. That’s how we felt after just the second course.

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For the fortunate ones who don’t have to taste everything in a single evening the menu board is carried to each table. In speaking with one of the owners/waiters/cooks the next day he told me each day the menu changed — each day!! — depending on what struck his fancy at the mercat. Be still my heart.

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Third course was tuna tataki, lightly seared with lemon and garlic. I do not have a picture.

Fourth course was fish — of course I have no idea — with clams. I can’t tell you more but that it was pretty and it tasted fall-off-your-chair wonderful.

Or was that the cava speaking? Or perhaps by now we’d switched to a Rioja . It didn’t matter as we were in gustatory heaven.

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This course — perhaps it appears an uncommon combination, but allow me to tell you, my foodie friends, it worked just fine. Mystery fish, egg, hummus, balsamic vinegar. That would be roasted garlic atop the fish.

Nope, your wouldn’t think it would work but I assure you I would not be labouring over this post had it not been a successful combination. Praise those cooks for their daredevil ways!

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These are happy diners. The wine, the garlic, the friendly cooks…

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All right folks, time for a tempo change. The cheese plate. On a a plate of slate. Oh those clever clever people.

It was just a sampling but take a nibble of each and follow it with a swirl of Rioja. Please.

From left to right, cow cheese, goat cheese, mixed cow and goat cheese, cheese with liquor… That’s the best translation I could do. And artfully dotted with fig coulis and golden raisins.

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Dessert: Chocolate. Three kinds, three ways, topped with an orange marmalade. Even for a non-fan of chocolate it was a fitting end to the meal.

Caramel would have been better. Just sayin’.

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Please: Copy down this information and put it with your passport. You may some day have a chance to eat here. Please. You don’t have to but you will thank me. The owners have already been there eight years and said they’re not going anywhere. They’re having too much fun.

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One last glance backward as we walked away.

Sigh.

A fitting finale.

Bon profit!

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Foraging

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Now, if every time you approached your friendly neighbourhood Safeway, Save-On, Fortino’s or Overwaitea parking lot and it looked like this, wouldn’t rooting through bruised apples and overpriced cheese be just a little more pleasant?

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The building of this Mercat de Santa Caterina was completed in 2005, replacing a predecessor built in the 1800s.

What is in the water that so inspires these Modernista architects? Or is it simply the sunny blue skies? (If I’m not on the return flight to gritty grey Vancouver you’ll know where to find me.)

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Beneath the undulating roof it’s just that oh-gee conglomeration of family slow-food stands, fresh produce trucked (as in not-flown) in and a good reason to stop and shop.

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And to take time to smell the fungi. Which I did.

As mushrooms top the list of my favourite food groups I was more than happy to make like a local and sniff my way down the row. Many different varieties — large and fleshy, small and perfect, yellow, red, black, decisive (‘trumpets of death’ was the translation on one) and each had a distinctive aroma. Pine, earth, humus (not hummus), wet leaves…

And my favourite was this stand below where, next to the multiple mounds of mushrooms were pre-chopped, pre-packaged, pre-planned and ready to toss in the pan with a little butter and olive oil — garlic and parsley. Oh my.

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Still on the topic of food, we returned to the Mercat de la Boqueria, the place of the crushed bull heads, remember? Recall, my friends, that for one half of the travelling party this trip was about eating the food, not just looking at it.

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This little stall — whose name escapes me now; I’ll update later — is popular with tourists and locals because the food is fast, fresh (how could it not be, surrounded by all the stalls above?) and because the guys behind the counter are pretty obvious about not taking life too seriously.

While I struck up a conversation with the good ol’ boy sitting next to me, who was leaving for New York the next day and whose wife was aghast that I would have no wine with my midday meal, the following plates of food appeared before me, fresh, sizzling and truly tasting and garlick’d beyond compare:

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A plate of seared calamari made its appearance as well but clearly not long enough to be captured for posterity.

Yesterday’s vegetarian is easily swayed by today’s fresh catch.

Tomorrow I will tell you, in such painful remembrance because it is too possible that I will never ever set foot there again, about the best tiny restaurant on the planet, where the owners are the waiters and the waiters are the cooks and the cooks are creative and meet you at the door when you come back the next day because you left your scarf behind but maybe you just hoped they’d be open for lunch so you could eat there one more time…

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Up and up

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Considering the ear-popping height of the monastery at Monestir de Montserrat perched in the Montserrat mountain range, one might not think there’d be any reason to travel higher. And certainly, at 725 metres, why would anyone?

We’d be wrong, my friends, because the human spirit simply has to strive altius, fortius, citius — oh wait, wrong event. You’ll take my point, however.

These limestone pillars were whipped into shape by millennia of wind and rain and call to those looking for a greater — and in this case, spiritual — challenge.

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Taking that little funiculaire (top photo) to the top was a 20-minute journey with a distinct temperature change at the top.

This little sign let informed us there was more to see so we followed the stony path upwards.

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We walked up to this little stone structure, the Saint Joan Chapel, which was built adjacent to a series of caves where a hermit lived in seclusion after wandering for 70 years on a spiritual quest.

My information is thin here as was my success at reading the Spanish information posts.

The caves skittered along the side of the mountain — and I write ‘side’ very literally — and while one was able to walk kilometres along the steep and narrow path littered with loose rocks, the physical challenge of doing so caused my travel companion to remark with some concern (remembering his, ahem, Human Resources Professional designation) that the absence of any sort of railing or guard to prevent from from falling straight to a colourful death (I believe his exact words were, “Are they kidding?!”) make this hike somewhat more risky than one taken in our home and native land.

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Pretty, si?

But did you think the climb ended here? Not so, amigos. The human spirit must always aim higher.

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So we tackled this little puppy. Not straight on, mind you, as did a gaggle of climbers with harnesses, ropes, climbing shoes and helmets.

No, we opted for a decidedly more adventurous way, on a little goat path studded with loose sand, loose pebbles, loose rocks, fairly loose boulders and a briefly helpful four metre length of rope.

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When leaving the Barcelona train station early in the morning, the agent was very careful to remind us that we should not miss the 4.15 p.m. train down the mountain…. for then we would miss the last possible option to return to the city….

The reality of that possibility struck our little brains up high on that pile of limestone and we hastened to the funiculaire, cleverly, or perhaps not so, stationing ourselves in the first of three cars.

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Precipitous comes to mind.

Human ingenuity is another.

On our wee island back in Canada our house sits at the top of its own rocky outcrop, our driveway a 500-metre quest to the 475 m height of our kitchen window. My father always wonders aloud on his visits, “What would ever possess someone to build a place up so high?”

Closer to heaven. What else could it be?

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To market, to market

It must be the farming blood in me as I do love a good day at the market.

This old one in central Barcelona (and there are many) was reportedly established in the 13th century as a good place to crush bull heads… Before you feel too askance at the appellation, do recall the bullfighting history of this country.

La Broqueria is a bustling arena of fish stalls, fruit stalls, red meat stalls and candy, chocolate, olive oil and — you did not know this many varieties existed — salt. I thought fancy salt was the sole obsession of the foodies’ culture. Not so, my friends. The colour of your salt, its shape, its provenance, these features are apparently important to discerning cooks everywhere. And that will explain too why we dropped five euros (it occurs to me now, ‘what was I thinking?!’ while on the other hand, compared to its neighbours, this little box was actually on the cheap side) on a box of ‘pyramid’ salt. I’m inclined to think the pyramid has more to do with the shape of the crystal rather than the gasp-inducing thought that it travelled here from the land of the pharoahs.

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Now, I know (better than many, as a long-time veg-head) that a visual reminder of the cotents of a cow’s gut may not be necessary, I do think tripe is actually very pretty.

It has a underwater pink seashell quality to it, don’t you think? Yes, I’ve seen it cooked to a most unpalatable grey and smelled it too…. but here, for the moment, well, it’s quite attractive.

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And again.

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Now getting more to the heart of the matter …

My mother used to quite enjoy most organ meats, especially heart. High in iron, or something like that. I did like when she cooked it.

Seems quite strange to be writing about all these innards when it’s been more than a few decades since I was in the same kitchen as a pot of stewed bovine parts.

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Okay. Caveat time. The pictures are about to get worse. Do not let the easily queasy close to the monitor. Trust me. This is Europe, the home of the best sausage makers du monde. Trust me.

And another disclaimer — there isn’t anything in these pictures I have not eaten at some time in my life except for the very last picture which I why I am warning you so I feel I have some freedom not to be accused of disingenuity. Just sayin’.

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Tongue and then brains. Again, my mother liked tongue. Must have been the leanness of the meat. I remember Mom peeling the skin off the surface (I have a much better understanding of the structure of a taste bud, thanks to her) and then sending my brother and me thin slices of tongue between slices of rye bread.

Brave woman. But I wonder why it gives me shivers now.

And brain. I remember my grandfather bringing it over to our house and my mother frying it up. Don’t recall much else. Repressed memories for sure.

Okay, here we go. Last chance to back out.

For my part, I’m not precisely sure what. I would guess goat.

Anyone?

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Suffice to say, I was not the only one to be startled on walking by. On the other hand, I don’t frequently make my way into butcher shops.

Enjoy your dinner!

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Overview

What is travel if not for the food?

Here I give you a delicious sampling of the local cuisine:

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Salud!

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Gaudi primer

When I first mentioned to someone I was headed to Barcelona and asked what I should see she replied, “Gaudi, Gaudi, Gaudi.”

Well, I must confess to all my enlightened friends, I had no idea of what she spoke. I did, however, quickly make my way to that savior of the great unwashed, Wikipedia.

And while I am no expert I can at least bluff my way though a blog post or two.

Antonio Gaudi i Cornet personified a trend that came about in the late 19th and 20th century architecture, a movement called Modernisme, with he himself becoming known as one of the Modernistas.

Elements of Modernisme show up (according to the literature) in Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Austria. Gosh — more reasons to travel.

Once you see a couple of the buildings which epitomize this whimsical style, you’ll recognize the vitality and youthfulness which absolutely makes the trolling worth all the kilometres we’ve logged (on foot, BTW).

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La Sagrada Familia This church of the holy family is so tall I could not fit it in the camera’s viewfinder as I was within the gates surrounding the building. Trust me when I tell you that it inspires a rush of awe through its sheer verticality.

Still under construction after 100 years, the church was Gaudi’s all-consuming obsession until he died — and work on it now still keeps true to his plans and vision. On the day of our visit the cranes were busy mobilizing supplies from one sky-scratching outlook to another.

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The building’s interior has the swirling feel of paper cut-outs, and Gaudi planned every element of design, from stained glass to overhead candelabra to choir loft.

A note: The columns above are not actually curved. That’s the effect of the camera’s panorama feature, the only way to capture the floor-to-ceiling expanse of stone and concrete.

And an interesting note about the columns — they’re made of four different materials and vary in load-bearing strength. Gaudi designed the columns to branch out at the top like trees so that when the light poured in past the stained glass windows, the mottled effect on the floor would echo that of sunlight on the base of a thick forest. Such foresight.

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The devout Gaudi used the exterior of the church to tell the biblical story of Jesus, set in little scenes around the four sides of the building. His own mortal remains are in the church’s crypt, viewable from above through a small plexiglas window.

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All quite extraordinary.

The good news is that there will be even more to see should I ever return. The ever evolving tourist attraction!

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Two weeks of good fortune

My friend Mary once noted in an email that she was never truly happy except in the times she was in an airport, waiting for the plane that would whisk her somewhere far away.

Her comment may have included just a splash of poetic license given that she was planning a forthcoming trip with her family to a palm-tree lined beach. However, it’s likely she’s in good company with most of us — anticipating that rush of shivery excitement before heading somewhere new.

Well, I am somewhere new and pretty darned happy about it.

He Who Pays The Bills (hereafter known as Best Husband Ever) has some business in the sunny south of Spain and life evolved so wonderfully that I’ve been able to come along and ease an itch to explore beautiful Barcelona.

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The first thing I noted on our first walkabout was the pervasiveness of public art. More research required but decorated buildings — many whimsical from the Modernists early last century — dot the cityscape along with lots of free standing sculptures, a treat for the eye.

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But in the not-so-cool department I am forced to be on an Internet diet — the hotel allows a mere one hour’s use of wifi. So until I am able to hunker down at a Starbuck’s somewhere these little posts will be just that — little.

In my next post I may even have a moment to tell you where I stashed my children!

Clock’s ticking.

Adios til tomorrow!

Lois

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