A glorious life with foie gras: three days in Barcelona
I fondly remember one Christmas about four years ago, when having a work team lunch before break. I was sat next to my boss (Sicilian), and opposite the company COO (also Sicilian).
The mood of the lunch went a bit sour somewhere between the first and second courses, when asked my favourite cuisines. Without hesitation, I fired off “French — specifically Provencal,” no problem there. “English — we do game better than anyone else in the world.” Eyebrows were arching intensely by this point. “And then Spanish.” That was it. That was too much for my Sicilian friends. Spanish? Serving small plates of something? SPANISH?!
While I do enjoying being the provocateur in many a situation — especially that one — I maintain that sentiment to this day.
Spanish food will always hold a special place in my heart. Thanks mainly to family friends who live in rural Valenciano, I have visited Spain more than any other country. It is in Valenciano where my taste for seafood grew. It is there where I tasted saffron, salt cod and squid ink for the first time. And it is there where I finally discovered how dishes of rabbit and pork, chorizo and rice, and paella, should actually be done.
All of these great culinary experiences took place in tiny village bars, restaurants with flickering lights, and on the patios of English expats.
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I was pleased on the first day in Barcelona that my romanticised view of rural Spain would not be completely lost.
One Sant Antoni restaurant with a shabby and uninspiring decor, was rammed with locals by two pm on Thursday lunch time. The food was simple: I had monkfish tail with a garlic and paprika sauce, and roasted mediterrean veg. The veg I feared would be as oily as that I’d had in Palermo before, but in fact was perfectly balanced. The Fringe had a squid ink rice, which was as salty as the sea. If you’d knocked 20% off the bill, this could have been a small rural village bar.
But for that countryside longing, Barcelona is a city where food is served up to be so much more.
Foie gras is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. You can buy it in the equivalent of Pret at the airport with slow roasted beef. It was such a delight that animal rights hadn’t gotten in the way of food culture here. I can’t remember the last time I saw foie on an English menu, but in Barcelona I ate it four times -in three restaurants.
The oddest of those was eggs with foie I ate for brunch at Bosco. It was an underwhelming dish, which was a shame because the huge cubes of manchego with rosemary, and coca bread (olive oil and tomato), which came before it were delightful.
The foie served with ox cheeks at Bar del Pla the night before however could not have been better. Here, delicate ox cheeks which had been so wonderfully prepared were layered with foie which seemed to melt over them. It was one of the greatest dishes of the entire trip.
In fact it was in this bar, where we had six tapas, all as good as one another (a rare feat indeed). Huge anchovies which glistened in the light. A huge plate of iberico jamon whose marbling fat melted on your tongue instantly. Squid ink croquettes, providing the tiniest bit of relief from the meat-heavy flavours. Before another round of cheek, this time in a red wine reduction with a consistency of syrupy treacle.
Service in Barcelona is relaxed. In London, if you were supposed to give up your table to other diners at 10pm, you could count on waiters to be loitering with a card machine by 945. Not so in Barcelona. You’ll be lucky to catch your coffee within ten minutes of ordering it.
And by coffee, I of course mean, the carajillo. Carajillos are one of life’s great pleasures. A shot of espresso topped with a shot of brandy is a simple treat, but one I must have whenever I drink or eat in Spain. What an excellent awakening you get twenty minutes after drinking it as the caffiene kicks in and you have an odd brandy drunken buzz. Never leave a restaurant without finishing with a carajillo. And if you can find somewhere in London that does them, let me know.
Our final evening meal was at Igueldo. Here was the finest of dining we did all trip. White linen table clothes and soft, anonymous jazz played throughout. After perusing the menu for a while, we decided on the tasting menu.
Here we were presented with delicious Spanish style pigs in blankets (our name, not there’s). White asparagus with truffle and cheese (the truffle and cheese were great, but the asparagus and sauce too watery). Next there was beef carpaccio (the menu’s highlight), followed by hake and clams (overly seasoned). Then a pork belly, which had a heady fattiness beneath a biting crunch. By this time we’d forgotten how many dishes they said we were getting, and were hoping it was near the end. A lemon sorbet followed, and then an adequate but ultimately unnecessary cheese souffle with raspberry sorbet.
While the menu was good, it felt clear they were making it up as they went along.
The real highlight was the Priorat Cruor 2012. This was one of the best red wines I have had all year. Bold and warming garnacha, with a brilliantly silky finish. It was a beast at 15% and may have gone some way in explaining why that pork belly felt like a bit much. Buy this wine if you ever can, you won’t regret it. I’ll be buying a case for Christmas.
It’s a remarkable place Barcelona. Even if you don’t really like Goudi, or know enough about the Catalan independence, there is plenty to love in the city’s food and bar culture.
When I heralded Spanish cuisine as preferable to Italian years ago, it was based on a limited scope of the national dishes. Now, I have seen Catalan approaches to fish. I have seen the unrelenting boldness that Barcelonan chefs impart with their meaty dishes. And I have tasted more foie gras — and if I dare say so myself, more interestingly cooked than in France — than I have in years. Washed down with punchy, spicy and silky reds.
Mediterranean cuisine has had incredible influence in London kitchens over the past five years. You’ll struggle these days to find a restaurant which doesn’t encourage small plates over traditional courses. Yet it is in places like Spain where this comes to life.
Food can only be as good as the time and occasion you bestow on it. Foie gras and ox cheek would not work in the summer, when you want a light dish of peas and white fish. But as I stepped off the plane back in the single-digit-degree British weather, my heart was warmed by the memory of these hearty dishes. Rich sauces, big meat combinations, and salivating seasoning. But most of all, dishes which — like Barcelona — bridge an old world romanticism with a modern elegance. And few places I’ve visited can achieve quite that.