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We should feed the kids by midnight: Spain trip [many pics]

We should feed the kids by midnight: Spain trip [many pics]
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  • We should feed the kids by midnight: Spain trip [many pics]

    Post #1 - April 17th, 2007, 10:36 am
    Post #1 - April 17th, 2007, 10:36 am Post #1 - April 17th, 2007, 10:36 am
    Image
    Fig. 1: Spain.

    So I get back from Spain on Sunday and go to Whole Foods so the kids will have something to take for lunch the next day, and I see that I could have saved myself a whole lot of money on airfare. Because Whole Foods has a whole Spanish theme going this month, wines and cheeses and a little brochure on tapas (not bad, really) containing helpful hints like this. Which could have spared me the whole bother of actually going there:

    Whole Foods wrote:Spread toasted bread with a dollop of roasted garlic aioli and top with:
    Grilled or marinated anchovies or sardines
    Piquillo peppers
    Serrano ham and Manchego cheese
    Marinated tomatoes with garlic


    And, well, there's the problem. I've tried to buy jamon serrano at Whole Foods and they don't carry it, and somehow I've missed the pile of fresh anchovies every time they've offered them, next to the wild-caught sockeye and the farm-raised tilapia. And I sure haven't seen a Rockettes' line of pig legs lining the walls:

    Image

    With the current one bolted into a torture device like this:

    Image
    What the hell am I eating, hoof?

    I've said before that I suspect Spanish food is destined to become the next popular ethnic cuisine, to pop up in mall parking lots everywhere. To do that, to become Americanized and systematized that way, restaurants will need to zero in on some iconically recognizable flavors that can be added indiscriminately to dishes, the way oregano and garlic make everything "Italian," the way "Cajun" became synonymous with blackening spices.

    Yet the challenge is that that isn't, at all, how I experienced Spanish food. Paprika was in a lot of things, but it wasn't in a lot more things. What Spanish food seemed mainly to be about was the real tastes of meats (and, to a much smaller extent, a few vegetables like red peppers)-- funky, waxy pieces of parchment-like ham, seafood wrestled straight from the sea onto a plate in all its tentacled and antennaed glory, tangy grass-fed beef served with no more than a crust of salt, if that. Sometimes it was bland as a result, mostly it was the flavor of the meat like you haven't tasted it in a very long time. And that's not something that's easily reproduced in an American chain restaurant or grocery, even a yuppie one-- or something that's likely to win much favor with its audience, either, who prefer a sanitizing distance from the reality of the creatures who died for their dining pleasure. As opposed to the sight of the creature's severed leg, bolted into a slicing device, like you see everywhere in Spain.

    Image

    * * *

    Acknowledgements

    Before I left I collected many recommendations, especially from these two threads on Madrid and the Barcelona-Tarragona region, and also from Chowhound (some very good ones scattered about on the Spain board, though as always careful evaluation of the poster's likely level of sophistication is advised) and eGullet (more about the celebrity high end, the most useful threads were about shopping and cooking more than restaurants, though one guy had some really good photo essays). So thanks to all who posted about places, you'll see I used many of these recommendations, and especially thanks to Pigmon, who hooked me up with Rafa, who hooked me up with the charming place we stayed near Tarragona, more about all that in the second half, but for now, thanks, Rafa, for all your help. Now, on to Madrid.

    * * *

    Image

    Madrid (pt. 1)

    After we'd been in Barcelona for about two hours I looked at my wife and said, "Madrid is Chicago, and Barcelona is San Francisco." And she nodded and pretty much agreed; and indeed, as glib generalizations go, it seems pretty inarguable. Madrid's in the middle, Barcelona's on the coast; Barcelona's bohemian, self-consciously (maybe self-congratulatorily) transgressive, artier and dirtier and more likely to confront you with the smell of urine and the sight of a homeless person sleeping in front of a sex shop; Madrid is tidy, a little more proper and orderly, yet if it was stuffy once (and as the seat of Franco's power, it surely was) today it's fun-loving and easygoing and enjoys life just fine (and doesn't require you to be under 30 to do so). Well, I love Chicago and I loved Madrid.

    Image

    I wondered at first about the party atmosphere and the insanely late hours Madrileños keep, what we would do about feeding the kids in a city where the early bird special starts at 9 pm, but it actually worked out extremely well-- we just didn't bother to adjust for jet lag, or very much anyway, and settled into a pattern of sleeping till 10 or 11 (the sun doesn't rise and set till well after 8 anyway), having lunch around 2 or 3, a snack somewhere along the way and dinner after 10, and we were really not that far off our normal Chicago schedule. The kids enjoyed being out on the streets at midnight, and they saw plenty of other families out and about at the same time. More of a problem was the fact that it was rainy in Madrid (and quite drizzly the whole time we were on the coast), pace Lerner and Loewe, and if Madrid in the sunshine with people thronging the streets is like a 40s musical about New York, when it's gray and empty it's Bulgaria.

    Image
    Rene G would like Madrid for some of the same reasons I did.

    Fortunately it was sunny the day we arrived and after a nap we headed straight for the Retiro, the Central Park of Madrid, and picked up some picnic stuff along the way at the 24-hour OpenCor, which during Easter Week would prove to be a lifesaver since other shops were closed more often than not.

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    Salami, cheese, bread, plus (to my point about Europeans taking food-fakiness too far) smily-faced chips con Ketchup Flavour-- all amazingly tasty for having come from the equivalent of 7-11. Things were off to a good start.

    Image

    For dinner, we tried a Galician seafood place called Ribeira Do Miño, though other than bread and dessert, there was precious little to suit the kids, and they were not exactly happy with Dad by meal's end. Although there's a menu, basically you just order Big-Ass Platter o' Seafood, and get this:

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    Susan's comment when we got this was "We brought dental floss." Here was seafood, in its unadorned state: crab (with way too much goo in it for my taste), shrimp, langoustines or Dublin Bay prawns or whatever you want to call them, crab claws, and then there's this creature(s):

    Image

    They looked like asparagus tips made of chain mail; I never did find out exactly what they are, but I did try them. You have to break them open, and then there's, disturbingly, a little pink meat inside, which tasted like a briny pencil eraser.

    Image

    The atmosphere was lively, raucous enough that signs on the wall said "Prohibido Cantar" (no singing). Good if you like seafood and nothing but, I guess, but my score with the family for the day was plainly 1 for 2 (and we would have seafood that would leave this far behind before we were gone).

    Ribeira do Miño
    Santa Brígida, 1
    Tel: 91 521 98 54
    www.marisqueriaribeiradomino.com

    The next night I wanted to dive into tapas, and picked (not entirely aptly, as it would turn out) the Calle Mayor, one of the main drags in the medieval city (and, as it turned out, Tourist Central). I chickened out early and fed the kids Burger King to win their indulgence for Dad figuring this tapas thing out, and then we started walking the Calle Mayor looking for tapas bars. Well, they weren't that many, especially on Monday night-- it seemed more like full-fledged restaurants. Just off the Calle Mayor I spotted a name I recognized from a Chowhound post: El Escarpin. The four of us went in and admired the old school bar and the fellows standing there munching on whatever-- and then two seconds later, being a party of four at 9 pm, we were whisked right past the tapas bar and off to a bland, central-Iowa-style dining room, seated next to the table of Brits who were the only other fools eating dinner that early, there to consume our food to the Lite music of Lionel Richie and the like.

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    One of the rooms we did not dine in.

    Because of my dislike for the atmosphere (anti-mosphere is more like it) I was sort of mad at this paella at the time, but in retrospect, it was very good (if unfortunately socarrat-free). Still, this seemed like another missed opportunity that was keeping the real Madrid experience out of my reach. We would have to do better the next night.

    Image

    El Escarpin
    Hileras 17
    Tel: 91 559 99 57

    more to come...
    Last edited by Mike G on April 17th, 2007, 5:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #2 - April 17th, 2007, 10:58 am
    Post #2 - April 17th, 2007, 10:58 am Post #2 - April 17th, 2007, 10:58 am
    The weird, armored-looking item was a gooseneck barnacle. I've seen them growing on rocks, but haven't had them appear on a plate before. Your description doesn't make me want to go out of my way to try them. ;-)

    Thanks for the tour. It makes me want to jump on a plane.

    And I think it's great that you took your kids. It's amazing what it does for a child, growing up as a citizen of the world. Everything seems possible.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #3 - April 17th, 2007, 5:48 pm
    Post #3 - April 17th, 2007, 5:48 pm Post #3 - April 17th, 2007, 5:48 pm
    Wow, that barnacle photo brought back some prep cook nightmares for me. My first job in Chicago was as a prep cook at Everest. After I'd worked my way up from shelling favas, cleaning softshell crabs and de-boning frog legs, I was allowed to assist the pantry chef. Joho had a barnacle salad on his menu at the time. Man, did I steam, peel and slice a lot of those suckers! I remember them being tossed w/ minced shallots, chives, and (I think) walnut oil? This was well over 10 years ago so I don't know if it's something he still does. Thanks for the memories. ... :roll: Lynn
  • Post #4 - April 17th, 2007, 6:16 pm
    Post #4 - April 17th, 2007, 6:16 pm Post #4 - April 17th, 2007, 6:16 pm
    From Wiki:

    "In Spain and Portugal they are known as percebes and there is a percebes festival in Galicia (on Spain's Atlantic coast) every summer. Every year people are drowned as they try to collect the delicacy from wave-washed coves."

    [Thus evolution thins our gene pool...]

    "The taste is said by some to be similar to crab claws, although the texture is very different, something more akin to snails, soft and chewy, and moist, unlike crab."

    [or briny pencil eraser...]

    Very cool photos; I thank you for sharing... I look forward to seeking out gooseneck barnacles...
  • Post #5 - April 17th, 2007, 8:52 pm
    Post #5 - April 17th, 2007, 8:52 pm Post #5 - April 17th, 2007, 8:52 pm
    The weird, armored-looking item was a gooseneck barnacle. I've seen them growing on rocks, but haven't had them appear on a plate before. Your description doesn't make me want to go out of my way to try them.


    Thanks! We saw a picture on a poster with that name, but it didn't quite look the same, so I still wasn't sure. To me, they seem like a pretty low effort-to-reward foodstuff, even if you like the taste, which didn't do that much for me.

    something more akin to snails, soft and chewy, and moist, unlike crab.


    Yes, it did kind of retain seawater, like an oyster, while having a snail-like texture. It's a lot more work to get out than snails, though...

    As for the kids:

    Image

    Spain proved to be a wonderful choice for taking the kids to their first European country-- the people are as friendly (and kid-friendly) as the legend has it, things were pretty laidback everywhere, and the kids can at least sort of relate to the historical stuff insofar as it involves kings, castles, knights, Romans, Jesus, three-masted sailing ships and other figures of their historical imagination. (We watched The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn before we left so they even knew who Philip II was, though as we toured the palace, Liam seemed unsure if "the bad king" was still king. I assured him that Spain most definitely had a good king these days.)

    Myles, the little culture vulture, even tried a couple of art museums and seemed to get a bit out of them, though Liam would pretty much collapse by the second room in any museum and announce that his legs hurt from so! much! walking! (I'll post some quick notes on non-food stuff like museums at the end.) It was hard sometimes, especially on those gray days, and we had one wild goose chase in particular where we never did find any of what we were looking for; and there were days we divided the kids and conquered to cut down on the whining and nobody feeling like they were getting to do what they wanted to do, but I was really proud of them for being pretty indefatigable (and I'm an admittedly relentless tour guide), for Myles at least being so willing to try stuff (he loved the Spanish hams* and sausages, which I would have guessed would be too strong for him), and for being as open to and interested in another culture as I think you're ever going to be at their ages (8 and 5). So it was really rewarding for me, and I hope was so for them, and will help broaden them in ways no one can entirely foresee....

    * Several lunches were grabbed at Museo del Jamon, a chain of Spanish ham delis/restaurants (that's where the picture of the Rockettes line of hams comes from) which is all over town. I don't really have anything to post about the specifics of those meals or restaurants, there's lots of them and I've talked about ham already, but as with In-N-Out in California, there's usually one close by just when you need something above average on a tight schedule, so anyone going to Madrid should know they're there.
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  • Post #6 - April 18th, 2007, 6:02 am
    Post #6 - April 18th, 2007, 6:02 am Post #6 - April 18th, 2007, 6:02 am
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    Madrid (pt. 2)

    Sensing my frustration, and sensing the ordeal it was likely to lead to for her and the kids if I persisted in forcing them to hunt for tapas with me, my wife graciously and/or strategically opted to fix dinner at our apartment for herself and the kids the next night while I was released to go find my own dinner. I studied my sheets of food board printouts carefully to find the area where I was most likely to hit paydirt, and among the best leads was this post by Happy Stomach, so I focused on the Plaza Santa Ana area and started my quest at La Trucha.

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    It proved to be a wonderful choice, not because the food was exceptional (it wasn't, though it was pretty good), but because it's just the perfect little tapas experience-- the cramped yet convivial bar smaller than my living room, the two guys smoothly manning the bar like they've done every night for 40 years, behind them the babushkas (as my sister calls all older European women of that build and work ethic) slaving in the kitchen to dish up plate after plate of stuff. I started by ordering a glass of fino and, per Happy Stomach, "verbena," not knowing what it would turn out to be:

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    Olives. Why is that "verbena"? I don't know, but they were good. I also ordered pinchos morunos, pork skewer, then stared at the menu painted on glass (still with peseta prices) for a long time, trying to think of something more unusual to try.

    Finally a man near me got a plate of little fried balls of something or other. I pointed to it and said I'd have that. The barman said something to the effect of "Are you sure?" and when I failed to get the word he said, something like "cesesitos," he reached for a tray to show me-- a tray full of neatly arranged, egg-sized brains. (Lamb would be my guess, I suppose veal is possible too.) Okay, maybe I don't want that, I gestured, but the man who'd ordered them, seeing a chance to extend the laugh at the gringo tourist's expense, offered me one. Now, I've pretty much avoided eating brains up till now, figuring someone needs to be able to run LTHForum when the rest of the moderators have succumbed to mad cow, but American honor was at stake, and so I took it and popped it in my mouth. You like? they asked, still amused. I shrugged and then pantomimed chugging my sherry to wash it down. They laughed at that, by now laughing with me more than at me. As my pork skewer arrived, I felt proud I'd passed the test.

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    My next stop was around the corner more or less, La Taberna de la Dolores, I forget where the recommendation came from, but I think maybe the Rough Guide said something that suggested it might be the asparagus with roquefort place that Happy Stomach talked about.

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    It wasn't, and there was kind of an unfriendly vibe (I think the bartenders were annoyed by a loud party at a table nearby) but I persevered and ordered a couple of tapas on bread. The "roquefort" proved simply to be roquefort smeared on bread, no asparagus involved, but the lightly cured anchovy fillet on some kind of fresh cheese strikes me now as almost a platonic ideal of tapas-- an incredibly simple, but utterly fresh-tasting, combination of ingredients.

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    I was pretty full so I ended the night with what was reputed to be the Madrid equivalent of a late-night sack of White Castles-- greasy churros and a cup of almost pudding-thick hot chocolate. It was exactly what you'd expect it to be. I enjoyed it, and did not do it again.

    Image

    I felt like I had finally cracked the Spanish food code, I knew how to spot a tapas bar, fight my way to the barman's attention, and order a few things. At the same time, I couldn't help but feel that it was hard work, that it took more energy and planning than I entirely wanted to put into dinner every night (and that's even by my own standards, where I can agonize over the perfect choice of restaurant for hours, especially in another city where I know each choice is a decision of momentous consequence). I'm sure it's all second nature to folks who've been doing it forever and know the various strengths of the places in their neighborhood, but good as it was, I wasn't sure this was how I wanted to eat every night-- and it certainly didn't seem like a way I could feed my family on the nights to follow.

    Before we get to that, here are a couple more food shots I snapped walking around, from places where I didn't eat:

    Image

    Another seafood place; Ribeira do Miño's window looked like this, except five times as much stuff.

    Image

    Saw this in a window, no idea what it is-- tripe maybe?

    La Trucha
    Manuel Fernandez y Gonzalez 3
    Tel: 91 429 58 33

    La Taberna de la Dolores
    Plaza de Jesús 4
    Tel: 91 433 29 43

    * * *

    The next night wasn't a particularly outstanding meal but I discovered the area which would be the main focus of our dining for the rest of the week: La Latina, two streets of which in particular-- Cava Baja and Calle Almendro-- are perfect dining streets, packed from one end to the other with lively places and folks strolling from one to the next, extending the party into the street. That night, because it was me and my older son going solo, I picked a restaurant which seemed to be historical and thus likely to appeal to him, La Posada de la Villa. The meal was decent enough but pricey and rather ordinary-- a plate of jamon de bellota slices for Myles, for me a beef stew no more interesting than the ones I've been making in all my dutch oven cookery of late-- and the place, though not without charm in an old-inn kind of way, was empty and a little forlorn; maybe after 300 years or whatever, it's finally had its day. I had noted a sharper looking place (which Rafa had also mentioned in this post) across the street, Julian de Tolosa, and kept it in mind for the next night-- most fortuitously, as it worked out.

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    The next night was Holy Thursday, when processions would take off from various churches, and we staked out a spot near the Plaza Mayor, directly opposite the home of the playwright Calderon, to watch something probably not changed all that much since he would have watched it 400 years ago. The crowd quickly grew dense enough to be more than a little alarming, though being Spanish, polite and very solicitous of our children. A little after 8, still light out, the procession came down the street:

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    Okay, I know that guys in pointy hoods are usually considered an ominous sight in America, and we were just a couple of blocks from where guys dressed like this used to burn people at the stake (a popular use for the Plaza Mayor back in the day). But it wasn't creepy, it was really moving, the mournful brass band playing, the slow marching of the penitentes, then behind them women dressed in black:

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    And then the statuary from the church, of Jesus and Mary, carried by teams of men in purple robes with white gloves (and, as in a race, followed by attendants offering bottled water and replacement white gloves):

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    The procession is very stately and there came a point where younger son simply couldn't take it any more. Unfortunately by now we were wedged into the narrow street like a cork in a bottle and it took 15 minutes of very harried and nerve-wracking pushing and shoving to make our way to an escape. We rewarded the kids with gelato and gave our nerves a chance to settle, then tried to think of somewhere to go to dinner, and all I could think of was the Basque restaurant I'd seen the night before and wished I'd gone to. Then, I was concerned about not being dressed well enough for an upscale-looking place. By now, I no longer gave a rip, and we made our way there and, looking like what the cat dragged in, we nevertheless succeeded in snagging the last table at Julian de Tolosa.

    The menu was simple enough that the hostess simply recited it to us-- twice, because we just sat there staring at her after the first time (is that it?). There was hake (a white fish), a couple of beef choices, a plate of jamon (okay, Myles was covered), and-- since I knew by now that you got exactly what you ordered and not so much as a spoonful of veggies or rice more-- a vegetable side of roasted red peppers which she highly recommended. Frankly, I was a little disappointed by the sound of it all-- basically it was Wisconsin supper club food, steak or whitefish-- but we ordered.

    They brought us some little chunks of chorizo to start. They were terrific, smoky, porky, Spain's answer to a Barbara Ann's hotlink. Myles got his jamon-- it was the best ham we'd had and would have, more supple, more depth of flavor, more jamonerrificness.

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    The hake arrived-- some nuggets of fried white fish, plain and simple but delicate and fine of their kind. A T-bone steak arrived-- massive, perfectly prepared to a crusty outside and a purple interior, grass-fed beef full of tangy flavor, funky bits around the bone, truly one of the two or three best steaks I've had, ever. Yet of everything, the standout might have been this:

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    That's not beef or jamon, that's the red pepper, roasted till it was caramelized-sweet, melt in your mouth good. I don't know what else was done to it-- not much, a little oil, maybe nothing-- but it was a masterful job of simply taking an ingredient and finding and releasing every last bit of flavor within it. An outstanding meal and one that completely redeemed the idea of Spanish cooking as simply a matter of great ingredients handled with sensitivity and love.

    As we sat there, eventually we became aware that the procession was still going on... and indeed, going right up Calle de Cava Baja, outside the door of the restaurant. By now the crowd was a fraction of what it had been over by Calderon's place, so after a particularly fine anise eau-de-vie (most upscale meals ended with a complementary sherry or liqueur, a custom I approved of tremendously):

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    --we took our well-stuffed, pampered, earthly-delighted selves outside again to watch the penitents and ascetics of Holy Thursday.

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    My advice for Holy Thursday? Forget the crowds near Plaza Mayor-- snag yourself an early table at Julian de Tolosa, have a leisurely fine dinner, and then step outside to watch your gustatory indulgence being atoned for in the relatively crowd-free comfort of Calle de Cava Baja.

    La Posada de la Villa
    Cava Baja 9
    Tel: 91 366 18 60

    Julian de Tolosa
    Cava Baja 18
    Tel: 91 365 82 10

    Image
    A couple of pentitentes chat while the team of bearers is changed.
    Last edited by Mike G on April 18th, 2007, 6:10 am, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #7 - April 18th, 2007, 6:08 am
    Post #7 - April 18th, 2007, 6:08 am Post #7 - April 18th, 2007, 6:08 am
    What a great experience for your kids. It looks like you had a great time. I sure did reading your post and will have many hours dreaming and savoring over your trip.
    Bruce
    Plenipotentiary
    bruce@bdbbq.com

    Raw meat should NOT have an ingredients list!!
  • Post #8 - April 18th, 2007, 7:04 am
    Post #8 - April 18th, 2007, 7:04 am Post #8 - April 18th, 2007, 7:04 am
    Great pictures. I was in Madrid last year, had the same experience you had - lots of research, resulting in a lot of underwhelming meals. The food in Seville is even worse. But I admit I didn't eat at any of the high end foam/molecular places. I believe the Spaniards have passed a law forbidding the serving of fresh vegetables.

    Best meal I had in Spain was in Jabugo. This is where they make the famous jamon iberico bellota. If you like jamon, this is ground zero. We got there at 2:30pm and a few of the places on the main drag were closed, but we walked into one of the open places (forget the name, sorry) and had an excellent lunch. A generous plato of the Jamón Ibérico Bellota Gran Reserva was only 15 euros, a bargain; in Madrid I saw it on menus and they wanted at least double for 100g. The jamon was just melt in your mouth tender, nutty and delicious, incredible - a real treat.

    Had MUCH better luck eating in Portugal.
  • Post #9 - April 18th, 2007, 7:45 am
    Post #9 - April 18th, 2007, 7:45 am Post #9 - April 18th, 2007, 7:45 am
    had the same experience you had - lots of research, resulting in a lot of underwhelming meals


    Well, if that's the impression people are getting I want to clarify that. Part of the reason I'm telling this chronologically, as opposed to talking about tapas in one post, sitdown meals in another, is to show the process of how I came to understand better how to get the best of what Spain has to offer. You can go into a charming tapas place yet be seated in a characterless addition if you're a party of four coming at the hour when only tourists eat dinner. You can hear a list of entrees that sounds pretty ordinary but in the right hands they're magical. It took some trial and error but a number of things I had were quite marvelous and, more encouragingly, my batting average went up over time. I think with any culture it takes some work to figure out how they approach food, and to get past any defenses they've erected to prevent that in order not to have to deal with dissatisfied foreign tourists.

    Now, I'd say that great food is not as automatically guaranteed in Spain as it may be in some other places, but hey, I'm the guy who invariably has great food in France and great difficulty in Italy, which seems to be counter to everyone else's experience, but may simply be a matter of my having more comfort and understanding of France by this point, based on more extensive travel (with better-informed traveling companions). In the end, I had a lot of really terrific food in Spain and I was sorry not to have many more days to try more of it. But getting to it was a process, no question.
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  • Post #10 - April 18th, 2007, 7:46 am
    Post #10 - April 18th, 2007, 7:46 am Post #10 - April 18th, 2007, 7:46 am
    Mike G wrote:Yet the challenge is that that isn't, at all, how I experienced Spanish food. Paprika was in a lot of things, but it wasn't in a lot more things. What Spanish food seemed mainly to be about was the real tastes of meats (and, to a much smaller extent, a few vegetables like red peppers)-- funky, waxy pieces of parchment-like ham, seafood wrestled straight from the sea onto a plate in all its tentacled and antennaed glory, tangy grass-fed beef served with no more than a crust of salt, if that. Sometimes it was bland as a result, mostly it was the flavor of the meat like you haven't tasted it in a very long time.


    This chronicle of your eating experiences is quite full of tantalizing insights, but this one struck me particularly. We've discussed before what seems a Chicagoan's penchant for perhaps enjoying food that may be a littler more chili-hot than folks in other parts of the country would prefer, and I wonder if our taste threshold is set so high (meaning: food has to pack some serious spice to get the tastebuds working) that just basically tasty food comes across as bland...at least on the first bite or two.

    You mention a meal at Julian de Tolosa in your second installment that seems to persuade you that Spanish food is more than just basic food well done, but what I've read continues to make me wonder whether eating the kinds of food that many of us do may not set the expectation for higher levels of spice than is common in many of the world's great cuisines.

    Anyway, I feel like I'm getting a taste of Spain 2007 here (last time I was there, jeeps of Franco's shock troops patrolled the streets with automatic weapons).

    Hammond
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #11 - April 18th, 2007, 8:03 am
    Post #11 - April 18th, 2007, 8:03 am Post #11 - April 18th, 2007, 8:03 am
    Yes and no, Jamon, sometimes stuff was bland, but you certainly wouldn't say that about Spanish ham (strong and funky) or sausage, for instance.

    Between this, my Belgian dinners, my bacon-making and dutch oven cooking and so on, I've come more and more to the idea that Americans just use too damn many seasonings-- partly to make up for our bland industrial meat, partly just because of a lack of discipline. You see the crudest example of this in chain restaurants, where an item has five contradictory flavors (Cajun blue cheese pesto pizzapeno bagel-poppers) to make up for the fact that no one flavor is any good. But it seems to be true of so much of our more-is-better cooking-- we keep adding and adding in hopes of getting somewhere. When in fact the best flavor is often had from the oldest, simplest thing-- roasting with oregano or rosemary, salting, adding a shot of vinegar or lemon at the end.
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  • Post #12 - April 18th, 2007, 8:14 am
    Post #12 - April 18th, 2007, 8:14 am Post #12 - April 18th, 2007, 8:14 am
    Mike G wrote:Between this, my Belgian dinners, my bacon-making and dutch oven cooking and so on, I've come more and more to the idea that Americans just use too damn many seasonings-- partly to make up for our bland industrial meat, partly just because of a lack of discipline.


    I tend to agree. I also think that it's very much a function of marketing pressures as well.

    As a counter-trend to the "molecular-gastronomy" movement, there is a slower-moving trend towards high-quality unadulterated ingredients. Shows like Chef's A Field really highlight this quieter movement. This kind of thinking is what really impressed me most about restaurants like Vie in Western Springs and Fore Street in Portland, ME.

    I'm very much enjoying your travel report. Thanks.

    Best,
    Michael
  • Post #13 - April 18th, 2007, 9:03 am
    Post #13 - April 18th, 2007, 9:03 am Post #13 - April 18th, 2007, 9:03 am
    De gustibus and so on, but IMO a food culture that prefers canned vegetables to fresh is flawed. And I love tapas, I love sherry, I love manchego, I love jamon - but these are individual items. When it came to assembling the equivalent of a three course meal there was always something seriously lacking.

    I hope I don't come off as parochial - I've eaten in at least 12 foreign countries off the top of my head and concentrated on eating local cuisine, and I've enjoyed every place immensely. Spain just happens to be the exception. Which is kind of weird, because I absolutely loved every meal I had in Portugal. Some similarities in the ingredients, they share the same peninsula. But it seemed that Portugal had that same lobsessive love of food that you find in Italy and France, you really sensed that they sincerely cared what came out of their kitchen. In Spain it seemed like whoever was cooking was just going through the motions.
  • Post #14 - April 19th, 2007, 6:22 am
    Post #14 - April 19th, 2007, 6:22 am Post #14 - April 19th, 2007, 6:22 am
    I´m glad to see that you had fun in Madrid. I think part of the fun is to discover what is good and what is not. Same with the restaurants. Some are good, others not. To me that is part of the fun, to discover by yourself.
    I´m happy you liked Julian de Tolosa, it has a reduced menu but the quality of the product is tops. Did you tried the white asparragus?
    It surprises me, somewhat, the comment from Fast Eddie about a culture that prefers canned vegetables. Maybe he had bad luck in the choice of places to eat. I can say, though, that I don´t agree with his assesment of the spanish culture, as being one as such.
    The unfortunately thing is that when a country depends so much of turism, there are a lot of turistic places that think that since visitors don´t know about the culture they can give anything as the real one.
    This is why the best thing is to try to get out of the turistic places.
    Did you ever make to Tarragona and Barcelona?
    By the way, if you are interested in the recipe for the Pimientos del Piquillo, from Julian de Tolosa, I have it. The real one.
  • Post #15 - April 19th, 2007, 6:48 am
    Post #15 - April 19th, 2007, 6:48 am Post #15 - April 19th, 2007, 6:48 am
    Just an additional comment on the seasoning question.In the US there is a tendency to think that Spanish food is similar to mexican, S.American food. Although a lot of the ingredients are common, taste wise they are very different. Food in Spain, is not what you would call spicy. Chile is something not very well known. The spanish cuisine is based on garlic, olive oil, Pimenton dulce (sweet paprika?), thyme, bay leave and some rosemary as more common herbs or spices. This are used to give slight flavor to the food, not to cover the original flavor of the meat, fish, etc.
    A little seasoning goes a long way.
    I find myself, when I get back to the US, that things like garlic, salt and basic herbs, taste to almost nothing, and I have to increase the portions considerably, to get similar results.
    I agree with the opinion that in the US, there is an excess of flavors added to the basic ingredients. In fact, so many that you can barely taste the flavor of the base product. On the other hand, maybe it is because a lot of products have lost their original taste or maybe people have changed on their priorities and forgot that the best taste of meat, fish, etc. is when they taste like meat, fish, etc.
  • Post #16 - April 19th, 2007, 10:12 am
    Post #16 - April 19th, 2007, 10:12 am Post #16 - April 19th, 2007, 10:12 am
    Rafa, yes, the Barcelona-Tarragona part is coming up.

    And I agree that Spanish food in America gets pushed in a slightly Mexican and, to some extent, Italian direction, probably by cooks who just feel that they're not adding enough for it to be an ethnic cuisine. It is harder to pigeonhole than those (however accurately or inaccurately you may feel it happens in those cases anyway).

    On with the next installment (the final Madrid report)...

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    A candy shop window in La Latina.

    Madrid (pt. 3)

    It being Holy Week, one special in all the bakeries was Torrijas de Leche, an Easter treat, the guidebook said. We excitedly bought some late one night for breakfast the next morning...

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    French toast, soaked in milk and honey. That's all it was, honestly. Oh well, the kids ate it. I was more excited to find these at the OpenCor:

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    My much-beloved French raisin-custard-croissant thing, which the Spanish called not pain aux raisins but caracolla-- "snail"! Apart from the needless piece of candied fruit on top, they were very close to the Parisian real deal, certainly closer than I've ever gotten in this hemisphere.

    * * *

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    After a couple of fancy and definitely expensive meals (one of them well worth it), I was kind of eager to get the family to share in my newfound tapas mastery, not least because the kids had had a hard time finding much to eat at dinner lately. But fearful of ending up with Lionel Richie in Iowa again, I searched my papers until I found the magic words: "sitdown tapas."

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    Maceiras, on Huertas (another good restaurant strip) seems to have been recommended all over the place, from the New York Times to LTHForum, and it was easy to see why-- it has a fun, funky college towny vibe that's instantly likable. The crowd was still more Spanish-speaking than not, but go quick, I see a listing in Let's Go and ruination in its future. Maybe only the grilled chorizo and salsa was really outstanding--

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    and I was fairly unimpressed with the recommended albariño, but almost everything was at least pretty good, prices were reasonable and it gave us a chance to try a lot of the tapas classics, like roasted pimientos and patatas bravas:

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    or calamari:

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    We had a decent platter of Galician cheeses:

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    That signboard pretty much sums up the atmosphere right there. Once again, we snagged about the last table and by the time we left they were stacked up outside the door, and understandably so.

    The next night, returning to La Latina, we must have been just a few minutes later, because the first places we poked our heads into, like Lucio, were already jam-packed. We saw an open table at a chichi electronica kind of place, and decided what the heck, we'd actually try something that wasn't written about on my sheets of intel.

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    Basically La Turuleta was the chichi electronica version of Maceiras, with about the same result-- one or two outstanding things, several that were perfectly okay-- for about 30% more. Most unfortunate is that one of the outstanding things was the freebie amuse-bouche:

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    Whipped blue cheese and avocado, basically. Worked really nicely, avocado making the blue cheese lush. A nice combination. An assortment of arty hummuses was all right, so was a shrimp-monkfish skewer and a cheese platter, but none entirely wowed me:

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    The other outstanding one was probably dessert, a little apple pie thing with really good vanilla gelato, with 500 bonus points for playing to the kids despite being a chichi electronica place that could have just pulled attitude on us. It's so true, the Spanish really just are friendly, and nice to kids in particular.

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    Maceiras
    Calle de las Huertas, 66
    Tel.: 91.429.58.18

    La Turuleta
    Almendro, 25.
    Tel.: 91 364 26 66

    * * *

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    Easter was our last night in town and I wasn't sure if bars would be open. (Foolish me.) My first stop was Pigmon's recommendation, Cerveceria Santa Barbara, in business since 1815 and with the cool old marble bar to prove it, and to be honest they were just barely buzzing-- there was a good stretch there where I was the only customer of four barmen; I can only assume it's a whole different feel on other nights. That said, these slightly sweet shrimp were terrific:

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    And I enjoyed mojama, what Pigmon called "air-dried tuna (like jam)" and I'd call "tuna jerky." This was very spartan stuff, high-protein, high-salt bar snacks more than the appetizers I'd had at other Spanish places, and suggestive of more of a bar culture than a food culture.

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    By the time I got to La Latina, though, the streets were jammed with people released from Easter duties like schoolkids let out for the summer. I crammed myself into a Basque pintxos place, Txakoli, small and very popular with a youngsh crowd who were a bit harder to fight your way to the front of. I pointed and got this, this and this:

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    Not the most vibrant photo I ever took, I know, but the pork skewer on the left was quite good, really flavorful pork in the lightest of marinades, and the thing at right was a pepper stuffed with some kind of cheese, and absolutely wonderful. Can't say I have that clear a sense of the difference between tapas and pintxos, but this was place was packed for good reason. I should have ordered more rather than moved on after these, as I tried one more, cider-oriented place, El Almendro 13, but thought little of the house cider and less of the rather desperately drunken, Spring Break-like crowd, and left it quickly.

    Cervecería Santa Bárbara
    Plaza Santa Bárbara, 8
    Tel: 91 319 04 49

    Taberna Txakoli
    Cava Baja 26
    Tel.: 34 913 664 877

    El Almendro 13
    Calle Almendro 13
    Tel.: 913 65 42 52

    * * *

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    Final notes:

    We ate a lot of gelato, in fact we fell into a pattern of allowing the kids a pressert to keep their spirits up for dinner after 10. Giangrossi was one everyone talked about as the standard but I have to say their chocolate was not my favorite, too sweet and not dark enough, though that could be the Spanish style. (The red gelato on this one, which was fruit soaked in red wine, was much better than the chocolate.) I suspect it's the chichi lounge atmosphere-- Giangrossi is closer to the late MOD than Baskin-Robbins-- that makes it such a favorite. Anyway, there was lots of good gelato around-- N'ice (on Calle Mayor) and Ricci (La Latina) were two other places we especially liked, out of many we tried.

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    And as I was exiting Cerveceria Santa Barbara I spotted a name of a chocolatier someone on Chowhound had raved about-- Cacao Sampaka-- and breezed in for the last two minutes they were open. They had a number of interesting sounding collections of pricey bombons, and when I saw one which called itself "Gastronomic Innovations," well, how could I resist a box of chocolates containing such delights as anchovies or parmesan cheese? I'm not sure what occasion will lead us to actually eat them, but I figured it was as close to the culinary cutting edge as I'd get on this trip, and at about 9 Euros, a lot cheaper than El Bulli. I'll let you know how they were...

    * * *

    Some other basic travel info which might be useful to somebody someday:

    Madrid has a great Metro, fast, clean, quiet, well interconnected, and pretty cheap if you buy the ten-ticket things from the machine (you can use them for more than one person at a time). By far the best way to zip around town. The Spanish train system, RENFE, is fine once you're actually on it, too, but it provided the two most frustrating, straight outta Kafka moments of the entire trip: one was that buying our ticket to Catalonia took nearly as long as the actual journey, literally, and the other was that the train to Tarragona actually goes to a brand new station in a cornfield far outside of town, a fact which is apparently unknown to any of the taxi companies in Tarragona, since no cabs are waiting there for the passengers disgorged daily, and you can't rent a car because half the trains arrive during the three hours in the middle of the day when the car agencies are all closed for siesta. They have truly built a high-speed train to nowhere; I guess we were lucky there was a station at all, and it didn't just pile up trains in a ravine.

    Especially given the rain we kept running into, we did a LOT of the museums, more than we might have otherwise. There are three big art museums, each large enough and comprehensive enough (holy crap, Goya painted a lot) that it's worth knowing what you're there to see to avoid early burnout. At the Prado, don't miss the Boschs (pretty much his whole career is in one room, and it's well worth seeing things like The Garden of Earthly Delights for real), a disturbing Botticelli allegory in which a woman is hunted down, and a fine Rogier van de Weyden in the Renaissance galleries; then hunt through the forests of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens (all of whom bore me) to find the better Spanish paintings (El Greco and Zurbaran si, Murillo no), and wind though the acres of society Goyas to track down the darker later paintings, semi-hidden in a side gallery. The Reina Sofia is the modern art museum, famous for Guernica, but housing on its main floor a marvelous collection of mostly Spanish modern art from the years when Spanish painters (Picasso, Gris, Dali, Miro) were the most important figures; there's another floor of postwar stuff which is a huge letdown by comparison and, frankly, skippable. Then there's the Thyssen-Bornemisza, vast numbers of paintings vacuumed up by a fabulously wealthy German industrialist and his literal (she was Miss Spain) trophy wife; they checked off every famous name you can think of, and the Rough Guide tried to convince me of the significance of the collection, but I found masterpieces somewhat few and far between, compared to the other two.

    The Archeological Museum isn't as comprehensive as, say, the Field, but it has a nice collection from all the different civilizations to have interacted on the Iberian peninsula, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, etc., and it's worth it for some wonderful Visigothic gold work alone, including a crown that looks like a Hollywood prop it's so perfect. And I took train-loving Liam to the Museo Ferrocarril, the train museum, in an old station, and he loved everything from ancient steamies to a lavish Wagons Lits train from the 30s, whose dining car serves as the cafe.

    The Palacio Real is still used for state occasions if not living by the royal family, and is definitely worth a tour, wildly over the top baroque decor from the age when Spain had money to burn. The adjacent cathedral is on the dull and oppressive side-- it says all you need to know about Madrid's Victorian staidness to know that its construction roughly occupied the same period as Gaudi's fantastic Sagrada Familia in Barcelona-- but try to visit the Basilica de San Francisco, which, like the Palacio, is another baroque phantasmagoria from Carlos III (and has quite an art collection of its own). Of course the main sight to see is simply walking the old, medieval part of town, touristy as it can be, but full of winding streets and things that transport you back in an instant.

    One note: I found a lot less English being spoken than elsewhere I've been in Western Europe; any Spanish you can muster will be helpful. At least tapas lend themselves very well to simply pointing and saying "por favor"....

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  • Post #17 - April 19th, 2007, 11:29 am
    Post #17 - April 19th, 2007, 11:29 am Post #17 - April 19th, 2007, 11:29 am
    MikeG wrote:The Spanish train system, RENFE, is fine once you're actually on it, too, but it provided the two most frustrating, straight outta Kafka moments of the entire trip: one was that buying our ticket to Catalonia took nearly as long as the actual journey, literally, and the other was that the train to Tarragona actually goes to a brand new station in a cornfield far outside of town, a fact which is apparently unknown to any of the taxi companies in Tarragona, since no cabs are waiting there for the passengers disgorged daily, and you can't rent a car because half the trains arrive during the three hours in the middle of the day when the car agencies are all closed for siesta.


    Just curious - how did you end up getting into Tarragona?

    MikeG wrote:One note: I found a lot less English being spoken than elsewhere I've been in Western Europe; any Spanish you can muster will be helpful. At least tapas lend themselves very well to simply pointing and saying "por favor"....


    I found that, too, during my trip. In fact, one bartender commented to me that they love Americans because they always know some Spanish. My understanding is that, for Europeans, Spanish tends to be below English, French, Italian and German, and just above Romansch ( :wink: ) in the list of languages to pick up. Also, I found that the young Catalans were adamant about speaking their dialect and nothing else which I couldn't understand from, well, Romansch. The older Catalans, schooled in the regime of General Franco, were willing to switch back to Castilian, which is much easier for the little-trained American ear.
  • Post #18 - April 19th, 2007, 12:01 pm
    Post #18 - April 19th, 2007, 12:01 pm Post #18 - April 19th, 2007, 12:01 pm
    Yeah, a group of very cute, very gueras, very naive college age Madrilenas were on the L from O'Hare a few months back and assumed, quite incorrectly, that the Chicagoans on the train could not understand their candid, loud and non-PC observations about fellow passengers. In fact, however, I'd venture that as many as half of the other folks on the train understood them quite well, though they were not of European heritage. The irony is too deep to contemplate.

    Mike -- great, great reports. Travelling like this with the kids is endlessly rewarding (and challenging) for all. We have a similar trip to make sometime before too long, albeit to the northern cradle of the relatives' families. Your Madrid stuff is winning me over to the point of view, which I had seriously questioned, that meaningful time should be spent in that city before shoving off for the countryside and provincial towns.
  • Post #19 - April 19th, 2007, 12:33 pm
    Post #19 - April 19th, 2007, 12:33 pm Post #19 - April 19th, 2007, 12:33 pm
    Just curious - how did you end up getting into Tarragona?


    Oh, what a shaggy dog story. We pestered the customer service desk (the only thing open at the train station) to call for cabs. (As if trains weren't arriving every day with passengers needing them; yet our problem seemed quite novel to them.) Slooooowly, they whittled away at the number of passengers waiting. We were actually staying in another small town called La Selva del Camp, and what we should have done then is taken a cab straight to our hotel-- or just waited three hours until the siesta was over and rented a car. Instead, I made the driver take us to Tarragona on the theory that there would be a rental car company open there. Well, there wasn't, even by the OTHER Tarragona train station, the one in the city. Maybe everybody was taking Easter Monday off. So then we took a cab from there to our hotel. Eventually the hotel owner took me to the airport in Reus to rent a car from a place that was actually open... all I can say is, it got better from there... :D

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  • Post #20 - April 19th, 2007, 1:29 pm
    Post #20 - April 19th, 2007, 1:29 pm Post #20 - April 19th, 2007, 1:29 pm
    Mike G wrote:
    Just curious - how did you end up getting into Tarragona?


    Oh, what a shaggy dog story. We pestered the customer service desk (the only thing open at the train station) to call for cabs. (As if trains weren't arriving every day with passengers needing them; yet our problem seemed quite novel to them.) Slooooowly, they whittled away at the number of passengers waiting. We were actually staying in another small town called La Selva del Camp, and what we should have done then is taken a cab straight to our hotel-- or just waited three hours until the siesta was over and rented a car. Instead, I made the driver take us to Tarragona on the theory that there would be a rental car company open there. Well, there wasn't, even by the OTHER Tarragona train station, the one in the city. Maybe everybody was taking Easter Monday off. So then we took a cab from there to our hotel. Eventually the hotel owner took me to the airport in Reus to rent a car from a place that was actually open... all I can say is, it got better from there... :D


    Sounds shaggy indeed. :)
  • Post #21 - April 19th, 2007, 9:37 pm
    Post #21 - April 19th, 2007, 9:37 pm Post #21 - April 19th, 2007, 9:37 pm
    I had a very similar experience as Fast Eddie in Seville. As for Madrid, I was only there for a day so I only had one meal there. My brother and I split a King Crab, steamed then served chilled at a tiny neighbourhood bar. It was quite good, and contrary to Mike G's distaste for the "goo" I rather enjoyed the organ-y slosh that remained in the body as well as the roe. I'm not sure that I recommend eating half a king crab to yourself in the middle of the afternoon if you are planning on doing heavy walking afterwards, but I was able to rest for some time on the train to Seville.
    In Seville, I was quite disappointed in the food. I found it to be completely unremarkable. I had some better experiences in Barcelona, dining along the beach (aside from the fact that I developed food poisoning during one of my meals and still cannot stomach the thought of squid ink). I am glad that the next time I go, I'll have this guide to refer to!
  • Post #22 - April 20th, 2007, 10:09 am
    Post #22 - April 20th, 2007, 10:09 am Post #22 - April 20th, 2007, 10:09 am
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    Seafood has been popular in Catalonia for a long time.

    Catalonia

    Eating was, as you may have guessed, something of a focus of ours in Madrid; for various reasons it was a bit less so in Catalonia, unfortunate as that may be, so I should be able to finish up these posts in one post today. Nevertheless, in the best teaser fashion, I can promise that the best meal of the entire trip lies ahead. Don't miss it!

    Ironically, since we had originally planned our trip around visiting Barcelona, we wound up going there only for one day trip. The reason things got changed around have everything to do with LTHForum-- I asked Pigmon for suggestions, he put me in contact with his friend Rafa, who put me in contact with a hotelier in a small town outside Tarragona, an hour south of Barcelona, who needless to say I never would have found on my own in a million years.

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    And so this became the rural half of our vacation, at the charming 400-year-old farmhouse B&B-ish inn Mas La Trampa, with our affable and helpful host Pablo Mendez. And much of our time was spent tromping around his small farm (when it wasn't raining-- a few especially wet days seriously hampered our food-exploring), or visiting things like the walled medieval town of Montblanc and the restored monastery at Poblet (which, I related to the family with great glee, was reputed to be the most debauched in the Cistercian order before the local townspeople rose up and tore it down 150 years ago), while dining at the hotel. The most notable thing about that was that Pablo taught Myles how to make pa amb tomàquet-- he could have just read LTHForum, of course-- and that became the staple of our breakfasts as well as quite a source of pride for him that he was making something authentic by himself. (This picture is actually from a restaurant, but I put it here for illustrative purposes.)

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    You take them halfway across the world to see great and elaborate things, masterpieces of art and architecture... and then you know that the things they'll come away remembering are the dog on the farm and how to make "Spanish toast." Not such a bad way to take in a big world after all, I suppose.

    Barcelona

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    As I said, we did manage one whirlwind day in Barcelona, seeing all of Gaudi's greatest hits including the very moving Sagrada Familia cathedral, some of whose lesser spires are topped with fruit, which is at least as logical as putting angels or kings on top of a church. But that wasn't the only pilgrimage I was in Barcelona to make. There was a restaurant I was determined to eat at, even if it meant lining up outside before it opened...

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    First in line.

    Some people, especially people on food boards, go to this part of the world to eat at a place like El Bulli. I have nothing against a meal like that, if the opportunity fell into my lap I'd happily take it, but at the same time if I wanted that kind of food that badly I'd have already eaten at Alinea in my own town, and that's not why I went. I went to eat the food that is the bedrock of the culture, to gain that base of understanding and essential experience for everything else I might eat there. I went to eat the kind of food they've been eating since the Romans put it in a mosaic 2000 years ago. I went to eat the fresh simple seafood of the Catalonian coast. And early on, I decided that that meant I wanted to eat at Cal Pep.

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    There's plenty of argument on food boards as to whether Cal Pep is better than this or that place, on eGullet some trendier-than-thou people seem to kind of pooh-pooh it as a tourist place, the Billy Goat of Barcelona, but the thing was, discussion kept coming back to it as a kind of standard, the Kilimeter Zero of Barcelona food against which the others' positions are calculated, plus people on LTHForum had all been very positive about it and of course I trust them over any other site by definition. So that was why I decided we would be there a half hour before opening, standing in line to grab four of those few bar stools at the first seating. And so we were.

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    Billy Goat Schmilly Goat, this is a great frickin' restaurant, full of personality (the young guy running our end of the counter was very funny, across several language barriers at once) and serving up simple but utterly sublime seafood. If you're smart you don't try to order anything, you just tell them to keep bringing what they have today until you're full. It started with fried fish:

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    The lightest, most evanescent of coatings, hot fish and calamari and shrimp, even the kids ate the calamari, and credit to my wife for believing me when I said the way you ate the fish was, you ate the whole fish.

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    Clams in the simplest broth, a little salt, oil and herb (parsley?), but a broth that was soul-filling, blissfully perfect and complete, I'd have drunk it from a glass.

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    Tuna tartare, again my wife had doubts but I urged her to conquer them and she was rewarded. I hardly expected a 90s California-dining cliche like this to turn up here, but I guess this is the kind of original where the cliche came from, and again the freshness and balance of the dish put it in a whole other class from thelast versions I've had. Interestingly, the barman made sure to tell us that the tartare was for the grownups, and there would be some beef for the kids (displaying an American level of food-safety-worrywartism otherwise completely absent on our trip). Myles ate the beef, Liam (who by now knew there was something about Spanish beef he didn't like-- the grass-fed flavor, basically) ate the potatoes. There was also a small tortilla, with a very gooey interior, which was the only thing I wasn't wild about. But it was followed by this:

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    Baby octopi and chickpeas, cooked together till the starch from the chickpeas produces a kind of sauce/gravy, and served in the little paella-type iron pan it was cooked in. Another fantastic dish I dream about now, even though we were close to stuffed by this point, chewy and a little fishy and hearty and comforting.

    There may be better restaurants than Cal Pep in Barcelona. I hope there are, because it gives you even more to hope for after a meal as simple in its materials and near-perfect in its execution as this.

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    Cal Pep
    8 Plaza de Olles
    Tel.: 93 310 79 61
    www.calpep.com

    We decided not to stay in Barcelona for dinner, partly because we didn't really want to drive the manic (but at least well signposted, unlike France) Spanish highways in the dark, partly because it seemed wrong to try to top Cal Pep, we could only risk tarnishing that memory. But the last thing I did before we left was hit the market, La Boqueria:

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    Half the stands were closed already but it was still one of those great markets that just makes me whimper why we don't have something like this in Chicago:

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    Now, having tantalized you with these photos... I was actually disappointed in some of what I picked up, relative to other things I'd had on our trip. That ham stand looks great but it wasn't as good as many others I'd tried, some sausage and olives I bought weren't either (the sausage offered with our breakfast each morning was better, for instance). (I did get some amazing strawberries, though.) But it's a huge market, I'd love the opportunity to spend weeks getting to know it and finding out where the really good stuff is. We need one like this in Chicago, even though it'd never quite be like this.

    Tarragona

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    Tarragona was the most important Roman town in that part of the world and has a number of Roman ruins in and around town well worth seeing (including an impressive section of aqueduct comparable to the more famous ones in France). Rafa, among others, had recommended eating seafood in the small, densely atmospheric area near the fishing port, La Seralla (does that mean harem-- like Seraglio-- and thus imply that, er, a large number of women were employed there at one time, do you suppose?). More or less randomly, we picked a place called Ca'l Brut, which proved to be exactly the kind of old school, stucco-walled, courtly silver-haired proprietor place I wanted at that point, the kind of place that has celebrity pictures like this on the wall:

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    Well, if it's good enough for Pierre of Madrid, haircutter to the society of the Franco era, it's good enough for us.

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    I had an assortment of seafood in romesco sauce (the pepper-based sauce widely used in Catalan cooking), Susan had all the same critters fried, and if it was no Cal Pep, a good time was had by all as the Cesar Romero-like owner doted on the boys and plied them with ice cream on the way out.

    Ca'l Brut
    Sant Pere 14
    Tel.: 34 977 241 405

    Reus

    Reus is a medium-sized university town near Tarragona, and we headed that way for dinner one night and had some trouble finding something that didn't just look like a bar-- until we came upon an Italian restaurant called Trastevere, one in a small regional chain, which was just the break from Spanish meats and seafood that we needed at that point. (As one of the guide books points out, Catalonia actually had more connection with Italian ports than with Madrid and the rest of Spain for much of its history.) Actually, what it seemed like was an American Italian restaurant in a lot of ways-- it was big and a little sports-bary, dark wood and hunter green, with many stations, kind of reminded me of Maggiano's or Portillo's or something. The menu, too, which offered a mix and match list of housemade pasta and pasta sauces, seemed American in a lot of ways, not to say that you couldn't get similar things in Italy, probably, but the way they were offered up seemed more like a restaurant here. I'd just bet the guys who started it have worked in this country at some point. I just had to pray it wasn't at Olive Garden....

    That said, it was really quite good. I had a black truffle pasta and sauce which I found too salty, but my wife had a sweet pumpkin ravioli sauce with almonds which was really excellent, and the kids had a fettucini with red sauce and sausage and orrechiete with red sauce, all of which were quite good (indeed, when I hit the wall on mine, I poached a good portion of theirs and liked them a lot). Pizzas looked good as they came out too. We didn't need much of a break from Spanish food on this trip, other than the occasional hamburguesa at lunch, but this one was ideal.

    Trastevere
    Batán, 32
    Tel.: 977 77 13 90
    www.trastevere.es

    La Selva del Camp

    Image

    The tiny town we actually stayed in only had one restaurant of note and no cafe that I saw, but it had a number of bakeries, butcher shops, etc. and we picked up a number of snacks. Perhaps the most pleasing surprise was that on Saturday morning, before lunch, pizza, or flatbread, or whatever you want to call it appeared in all the bakery windows:

    Image

    I bought the kind with onions and red pepper, and was very happy I did.
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  • Post #23 - April 20th, 2007, 10:26 am
    Post #23 - April 20th, 2007, 10:26 am Post #23 - April 20th, 2007, 10:26 am
    Mike G wrote:Image


    Image

    I am a little dizzy (and very envious) from reading this incredible food chronicle.

    Your mosaic reminded me of one I shot in Rome last year around this time. I was toying with the idea of enlarging it and putting it on my kitchen wall...but I think I'll use (steal) yours instead. Thanks,

    Hammond
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #24 - April 20th, 2007, 12:59 pm
    Post #24 - April 20th, 2007, 12:59 pm Post #24 - April 20th, 2007, 12:59 pm
    I just printed this all out in color for a friend who has lived in Madrid and made a career of leading tour groups there. He kept saying "where was this published originally?" It is a great account.

    But what are these?
    Image
  • Post #25 - April 20th, 2007, 2:15 pm
    Post #25 - April 20th, 2007, 2:15 pm Post #25 - April 20th, 2007, 2:15 pm
    Those are dragon fruit.
    Ed Fisher
    my chicago food photos

    RIP LTH.
  • Post #26 - April 20th, 2007, 2:56 pm
    Post #26 - April 20th, 2007, 2:56 pm Post #26 - April 20th, 2007, 2:56 pm
    Aka pithaya-- see here:

    http://www.oakleaf-european.co.uk/featured/thailand.htm

    Interesting that while most of what's in the market is local stuff, more or less, you occasionally find reminders that Barcelona is a port, after all. Several stands had these, not sure what might account for their popularity-- maybe the French-Vietnam connection.
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  • Post #27 - April 20th, 2007, 3:33 pm
    Post #27 - April 20th, 2007, 3:33 pm Post #27 - April 20th, 2007, 3:33 pm
    per Happy Stomach, "verbena," not knowing what it would turn out to be...Olives. Why is that "verbena"? I don't know, but they were good.


    Mike G,

    I'm so sorry all you got were olives! That was my boyfriend's recommendation, and when he read about your experience he said,

    they must have been having fun with gringo that night


    I think it could've been a more innocent mistake on La Trucha's part given the bustling atmosphere, but here's a quote from the owner of the place from August 2005:

    ¿Cuál es la especialidad de La Trucha? Una de las cosas más famosas es La verbena de canapés.


    What you should have gotten when you ordered verbena was--if you look at your picture at the counter, on the sign behind the counter to the left--a mixture of the things listed above verbena. That's why the price of verbena is so much higher than the other dishes on the list.
  • Post #28 - April 20th, 2007, 5:08 pm
    Post #28 - April 20th, 2007, 5:08 pm Post #28 - April 20th, 2007, 5:08 pm
    Oh great, now I'll have to go back.
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  • Post #29 - April 21st, 2007, 5:38 am
    Post #29 - April 21st, 2007, 5:38 am Post #29 - April 21st, 2007, 5:38 am
    Mike,

    To echo Hammond, I'm getting a little dizzy from reading the adventures of the G-Force family in Spain. Makes me more that a little regretful our one visit to Spain was limited to the highly tourist area of Costa del Sol.

    Incredible pictures, truly remarkable. The light crisp calamari and fish at Cal Pep (Billy Goat Schmilly Goat) seem as if they are floating.

    I did get into a wee bit of trouble with Ellen though. Aside from few weeks of this picture from Bob in Ga's farm, her picture, in various forms, has always been my computer desktop picture. I replaced it, short term, with this one from your trip.

    Question? In the picture of pa amb tomàquet Pablo taught Myles how to make is the green tint from the olive oil used? I'm guessing so, as I can almost taste the slight bitter flavor accenting the fruity tongue coating satin of the olive oil.

    Incredible travelogue, I can only hope there are additional installments.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #30 - April 21st, 2007, 8:07 am
    Post #30 - April 21st, 2007, 8:07 am Post #30 - April 21st, 2007, 8:07 am
    That pa amb tomaquet photo was actually at Cal Pep, I never managed to get a picture at the hotel, but yes I'm sure it was from the olive oil. Incidentally, though Antonius' post on pa amb tomaquet cites garlic as an essential or at least quintessential ingredient, the way Myles was taught-- at least for the breakfast version-- omitted it. I'm sure there are countless variations.
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