We were in Madrid two weekends ago for just a short time, from Saturday night to Monday night. How gorgeous is Barajas Airport? It’s possibly my favourite building in the city.

Barajas

OK, I did say we were there for 48 hours. The first 24 hours were spent on Blai’s work, which was why we were in Madrid in the first place. Now let’s ignore the fact that for the first 24 hours, we only ate Italian food. You know how it is when eating with others! Luckily there were a few good pizzas consumed but I’m not here to write about pizzas in Madrid!

The next 24 hours though were fantastic! We took the metro from our hotel to the Puerta del Sol and then started wandering. It was Sunday night and all the locals were out, making the most of the weekend.

Puerta del Sol

We made our way first to the Chocolatería San Ginés, in operation since 1894. We couldn’t leave Madrid without having chocolate.

Chocolatería San Ginés

While I held down our table outside, Blai went in to order our churros y chocolate (about €3,60 for both). The receipt is handed to our waiter and he zooms there and back with our plates. The chocolate seemed less dark than the types I’d encountered in Barcelona but I loved the look of their long churros though Blai did miss the Barcelonan ones with their showering of sugar. I was still very happy with my fried dough.

Churros y Chocolate

Chocolatería San Ginés
Pasadizo de San Ginés, 11
Madrid, Spain‎

Continuing on with our stroll, we happened upon Calle Cava Baja – the name of a street that a Madrileño I worked with recommended we check out on Sunday night. It’s close to the metro station Latina, where there are many tapas places, all filled with people in total denial that the next day was a working day.

We fell into one that looked busy but where we could still grab seats by the bar. This place turned out to be the Taberna los Huevos de Lucio, offshoot of the more famous restaurant Casa Lucio, located just across the street. I recognised the name from a list of recommendations from another Madrileño on Twitter and knew we had to order their eggs. Everyone in the place was ordering the eggs.

The eggs are their huevos estrellados or ‘broken eggs’. This was a few fried eggs broken on top of a base of chips, coating them in their glorious yolks. It seems like such a simple idea but the eggs were of fantastic quality and they were fried in a way I can never achieve at home. They were delicious!

Huevos Estrellados

We also tucked into an order of their croquetas, all crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. They too were excellent though a bit heavy on which to end the night!

Croquetas

After a couple of hours at the bar (total bill of about €23 for tapas and a couple drinks), we could barely keep our eyes open (it had been a very long day) and headed back to our hotel. People of Madrid, I salute your ability to party on a Sunday night.

Taberna los Huevos de Lucio
Cava Baja, 30
Madrid, Spain

The next day, after a big hotel breakfast, we spent the morning at the Museo Reina Sofia, which was just the right size for a couple hours. This sculpture (Wheat and Steak by Antoni Miralda) will be pleasing to carnivores.

Wheat and Steak

Afterwards, we walked across the centre of the city to the oldest restaurant in the world, Restaurante Botin, established in 1725. It’s look exactly as you’d expect the oldest restaurant in the world to look – all dark wood and cramped insides. For the oldest restaurant in the world, however, it was easy to get a table for lunch on a Monday as walk-ins, service was very professional, and the food was very good!

To start, we shared an Ensalada Botin, a great big pile of lettuce, jamon, chicken, tomato, potato, asparagus, artichoke, beetroot and egg in a light vinaigrette that absolutely hit the spot. Sometimes you just need your vegetables.

Ensalada Botin

For mains, we had an excellent Cochinillo Asado, about a sixth of a roast suckling pig (a speciality from Segovia) complete with crispy tail! Crispy skin, tender meat…it’s all you want from a roast piglet.

Cochinillo Asado

Our other main course of Revuelto de la Casa were scrambled eggs with morcilla (black sausage) and potato. This sure beat the horrendously dry revueltos mixed with half-raw ingredients served at our hotel at breakfast.

Revuelto de la Casa

We split a homemade Tarta de Queso con Chocolate Blanco (cheesecake with white chocolate) for dessert. It was incredibly light and went down all too easily.

Tarta de Queso con Chocolate Blanco

Total lunch bill (it was a big lunch) for food and a bottle of water was about €60.

Restaurante Botin
Calle de los Cuchilleros, 17
Madrid, Spain

We continued walking around the oldest parts of the city until our time in Madrid was almost up. Our last stop before we headed for the airport was at the oldest square in the city – Plaza de la Villa. It’s got lots of personality, this square, and I felt it was quite neglected by most of the tourists. This is the Casa de la Villa…

Casa de la Villa

…and this is the Torre de los Lujanes. See that tiny alley on the left of the tower? You want that alley.

Torre de los Lujanes

If you go down that alley, you’ll end up at a square with a church. On the right hand side, you’ll come across this door (I really do have to thank the gypsy woman outside the church who helped us find it!). This is the door to the Convento de las Carboneras, a closed order of nuns. From 09:30 to 13:00 and 16:30 to 18:30 every day except Sunday, you can buy sweets and biscuits baked by the nuns. Press the buzzer during this time and wait for a reply – this might take a while as the nun who deals with the public is elderly and has to go down a few flights of stairs.

The Door

She’ll buzz you in and you follow the signs until you reach a dark corner where there’s a wooden grille through which you complete your transaction with the nun on the other side. Put your money in the grille, the nun will spin it around and collect it and give you your change and your order. There’s a menu of biscuits that they make but that day, the nun told us (all in Spanish) that they had only baked one type of biscuit and we gladly accepted that.

Your reward will be biscuits like these! £9 for 500g of Mantecados de Jerez, lardy biscuits with dry sherry. They were crumbly and excellent with their heavy coating of powdered sugar and their fine scent of lemon oil.

Biscuits

Inside

A fine end to our trip to Madrid!

Convento de las Carboneras
Plaza Conde de Miranda 3,
Madrid, Spain

All my photos from this short trip can be found in this Flickr photoset.

Blai and I had decided to head out of Barcelona during our recent visit and with the weather in the city improving over the Easter weekend (my flight arrived in a downpour), we decided to visit Sitges, only a 40 minute train ride away. I had always thought that Sitges was just a place for tourists looking for the beach but was corrected and told that it was indeed a beautiful town and well worth a visit. It was still a bit too chilly to actually partake in traditional beach activities but it was a beautifully sunny day to stroll about with no cares in the world.

Walking from the train station to the beach, we encountered a number of very grand houses, many of them built by Indianos, the name for residents of Sitges who went over to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century to make their fortunes. On their return, they used their newfound wealth to build big beautiful houses that add to the uniqueness of the town.

Untitled

One particularly famous Indiano was Facundo Bacardí Massó, who yes, founded the Bacardí rum company in Cuba. I was surprised to see both a Bacardí distillery tour (Casa Bacardí) and a sculpture on the beach commemorating him.

Apart from the big grand houses though, the rest of the old town of Sitges was very pretty with its small winding streets and illustrated tiled street signs.

In Sitges

We ended up by the beach, of course – it’s impossible not to. It really was a stunning scene and I was again surprised to see lots of artwork scattered about by the beach. I can imagine how crowded it must be in the summer. Strong winds that day certainly didn’t stop the sunbathers though!

The Beach

The church of Sant Bartolomeu i Santa Tecla, overlooking the beaches, wasn’t open that day and I’d like to return to see inside.

Sant Bartolomeu i Santa Tecla

By this time, it was about noon. Blai’s brother had suggested that we go to fer el vermut, a Catalan tradition of having a drink and a bite at one place before moving on to lunch at another (lunch being the main meal of the day in Spain). It’s particularly popular on Sundays and can be had when going out or eating at home. He recommended a chiringuito (beach bar) and it was to that we went to – El Chiringuito, right by the beach and established in 1913. It was only when I got back to London that I discovered that this Chiringuito was the first in all of Spain and it was its name that was given to beach bars all over the country.

Chiringuito

Vermut

We didn’t drink any actual vermut but had a couple of Cokes with olives and fried calamari, both very traditional snacks to have. Other common things to have are potato crisps and anchovies.

After our vermut, there was time for a little stroll again before heading to La Marinada, our chosen restaurant for lunch. When by the sea, it’s hard to resist all the local seafood available. This seafood restaurant was right by the beach but not overlooking it and was very popular with locals looking for high quality seafood all caught nearby. We nibbled for quite a while on delicious little arbequina olives as we perused the menu full of amazing fruits of the sea, finding it very difficult to decide what to eat.

We’re both suckers for crispy, creamy croquetes though and we had to start with these excellent ones.

Croquetes Casolanes

To follow, a plate of navalles (razor clams) cooked on a planxa and drizzled with a picada made with parsley, garlic and olive oil. They were, hands down, the finest razor clams I’ve ever eaten – perfectly tender, not at all rubbery and so delicious. Underneath the clams was a bed of lettuce and grated carrot and we ate all this salad that had soaked up all the fabulous oil and clam juices.

Navalles

For our main course, we ordered Arròs amb Llamàntol for two, thinking that this was a rice made with a particular type of fish. Imagine our surprise when this arrived – it turned out that a llamàntol was a kind of lobster (llagosta)!

Arròs amb Llamàntol

It was amazing though – the freshest fish, clams, giant prawns, that lobster all mingled together in the pan and the rice was infused with all their gorgeous flavours. And it was huge – we managed to finish most but not all of it. It was quite the feast.

Other dishes that were very popular at the restaurant were their simple fishes cooked on a planxa, their anchovies with escalivada and their paella. Most of the other tables were sharing huge seafood paellas. Of course, all that seafood came at a pretty price and with just sparkling water, a lemon ice cream and a coffee, our meal cost about 90 euros.

After lunch, we waddled our way over to a temporary exhibition set up with the major pieces of art in Cau Ferrat, a house once owned by the Catalan artist Santiago Rusiñol. It’s beautifully set by the sea but unfortunately, during our visit, it was closed for refurbishment. The art is well worth a visit but I need to return to see inside the eclectically decorated house.

We continued strolling along the beach and back through the old town, wishing we had more stomach space for the goodies we saw. As the sun slowly started to lose its warmth, we walked slowly back to the train station and caught the first train back to Barcelona. I’ll be seeing you again, Sitges.

Sitges

All my photos from Sitges can be found in this Flickr photoset.

El Chiringuito
Passeig Maritim
Sitges
Spain

Restaurant La Marinada
Carrer Rafael Llopart, 49
Sitges
Spain

Last weekend was our first wedding anniversary and to celebrate this happy occasion, we headed for lunch at the best known restaurant in Girona in Catalunya – our big blowout for the end of July. I’d made the booking at El Celler de Can Roca, the 4th best restaurant in the world (if this ranking is to be believed), way back in January. It was a much less stressful affair than trying to get a booking at El Bulli – I just sent an email to them requesting a booking and they sent one back confirming it. Of course, with the restaurant being in another country, it was also a bit of an excuse to have a long weekend away. (I was mentioning to Blai that booking a restaurant six months in advance to celebrate a first wedding anniversary must seem overly optimistic in this day and age!)

El Celler de Can Roca

After a journey to Girona from Barcelona on a crowded train (turns out every person with a Eurail pass goes to Portbou to cross into France), we arrived in the city with about an hour to get ourselves to the restaurant. If you’ve got sensible shoes, the walk takes under half an hour and we had enough time to wander through a gorgeous park on our way there. The restaurant is located in the new part of the city in a residential area and if it’s your first time to Girona, I would encourage you to give yourself more time to explore the old centre too.

The Kitchen's on the Ground Floor

The Restaurant

I love that the restaurant is family run – three brothers Roca are involved: Joan the head chef, Jordi the pastry chef, and Josep the sommelier – and that hints of the Catalan cuisine they grew up with are prevalent in their cooking. Their restaurant is absolutely gorgeous – and from what I’ve read, it’s believed that the move to this new space a few years ago was one of the main factors that pushed it from two to three Michelin stars. We were seated at a generously sized table with a wonderful view of the central “courtyard” space. As you can see from the photo below, the tables were well spaced and it’s impossible to feel crowded.

View From Our Table

Almost immediately after we had settled in, the activity commenced around our table. Glasses of cava were proffered and duly accepted – hey, we were celebrating after all! Then came out own little olive tree, with caramelised olives stuffed with anchovies hanging from its branches. What a fun presentation and it was a great start to the meal.

Cava

In an Olive Tree

Soon after came little Campari and grapefruit truffles that were to be popped into our mouths immediately so no photo for you. I remember a very strong alcoholic hit as the contents burst in our mouths and I giggled at the surprise of it all.

Huge menus were brought to us (in Catalan and in English and I’ll give both names for the dishes here), followed by even more little snacks: fried anchovy bones in a rice tempura and sesame and cocoa crisps. The menus were a little unwieldy and I almost knocked over my champagne with mine but luckily Blai saved it in the nick of time. But really, we had no need for menus as we’d already decided what we were having in advance – the festival menu, advertised online as consisting of 9 savoury courses and 2 desserts, their largest tasting menu. The waiter taking our order looked every bit as excited as we were for ordering it! Soon after, the sommelier came by with his wine menus but Blai turned him down and he looked not at all offended that he was not required. In fact, he looked positively happy – there are no problems ever to be had at this restaurant!

Anchovy Bones in Rice Tempura

Sesame and Cocoa Crisps

After a little wait, the first of our courses arrived – the Truffled Brioche with Pot au Feu Broth (Brioche trufat amb brou d’escudella). Now, thanks to the menu, we already knew the names of all the dishes that were to come; however, a lot of the names were quite vague or obscure and while we might know we were getting a brioche, we had no idea how that brioche was to be served and so the meal still remained a surprise throughout. This soft steamed brioche was filled with a garlicky, truffley liquid filling and was topped with lots of shaved black truffle – a beautiful mouthful. The escudella broth was a wonderfully rich and meaty hot drink.

Truffled Brioche

Escudella Broth

More snacks that didn’t appear on the tasting menu showed up. I loved the omelette with a bursty liquid centre containing caviar while Blai’s favourite was a meaty and olivey truffle thing whose details escape me. Actually, it was described to us as an olive but I suspect this was because it looked like an olive as it certainly didn’t taste of it – I think something was lost in translation there.

Omelette with Caviar and Meaty Olives

Another waiter then came by and presented us with a huge trayful of breads – olive, nutty, seedy, oily, round, sliced, buns. It was difficult to choose! We each chose variations of the most unhealthy sounding of the lot – a millefeuille of bread with olive oil (mine) and with tomato (Blai’s). They were indeed lovely and came apart in oily tender layers. A little warmer would have been better but I do understand that it would be near impossible to keep that tray of breads warm at all times.

Millefeuille Bread

The second course of the tasting menu was the Cherries with Fatty Tuna and Ginger (Cireres amb ventresca de tonyina i gingebre), which turned out to be a cold cherry soup with various bits and pieces. That cherry in the middle wasn’t a cherry but a cherry and yogurt ice shaped like a cherry – too cute! And its intense fruitiness did go well with the very fresh fatty tuna.

Cherries with Fatty Tuna and Ginger

The next course came in a clear sphere and its contents were masked by the smog going on inside. This was the “Escalivada” with Anchovies and Smoke of Ember (Escalivada amb anchoves i fum de brasa). The lids were removed with a flourish, with the waitress waving the smoke towards our faces and its fabulous scent of charcoal barbecue had me almost dip my nose into the bowl. The escalivada turned out to be spheres of each of the usual vegetables: red for tomato, green for pepper, black for aubergine and white for onion, all sitting in the juices that form when escalivada is cooked. While each element tasted delicious, the dish was a bit samey-samey at the end and as Blai pointed out, it didn’t improve the real escalivada dish in any way. Still, it was an unique presentation but was the least interesting dish of the afternoon.

Escalivada with Anchovies and Smoke of Ember

The Charcoal-Grilled King Prawn (Gamba a la brasa) sure sounded like it was going to be quite simple. It was far from simple. There was the grilled prawn, its head sitting in a pool of prawn veloute. There was a line of a thick prawn stock reduction. There was also what the waiter called the “land prawn” – that strip of sand with weeds in the front. That sand was like the best prawn cracker ever, all powdered, and had bits of seaweed, samphire, and cute, crispy, little green “plants” all on there. The grilled prawn too was superbly fresh with subtle encouragement given to you by the little moist towelettes provided to pick up the head and suck it – mmmm, prawny. I adored this dish and its quirky presentation.

Charcoal-Grilled King Prawn

Charcoal-Grilled King Prawn

Then there was a hot soup course – Onion Soup, Crespià Walnuts and Comté Cheese (Sopa de ceba i nous crespianes amb comté). Perhaps the heat of this dish was a little odd for summer but it was still delicious. We were presented with bowls of a thick caramelised onion sludge, a lump of walnut bread, bits of walnut and fennel leaves, all very prettily decorated. A waitress then came along and poured over a thick and cheesy soup of Comté cheese and walnut. It was intensely cheesy and then oniony and in a way, an interpretation of a French onion soup.

Onion Soup, Crespià Walnuts and Comté Cheese

The Sole, Olive Oil and Mediterranean Flavours (Llenguado amb oli d’oliva i sabors del mediterrani) course was presented as the most delicate fillet of sole, cooked perfectly, served with five sauces; from bottom to top, these were fennel, bergamot, orange, pine nut and olive. The gorgeous way it was presented reminded me of a very efficient filing system, complete with little labels on the tabs! The “label” for the olive sauce tickled me the most – it was a little sugar pastille filled with extra virgin olive oil that coated the tongue as it was crunched. All the sauces were delicious though special mention must go to the beautifully floral and fragrant bergamot.

Sole, Olive Oil and Mediterranean Flavours

The name of this dish really had us guessing for a while: Baby Squids with Onion Rocks (Calamarcets amb roques de ceba). Rocks? Onion rocks? Was it going to be hard? Luckily, what arrived only appeared to be a black rocky island surrounded by a “sea” with tiny tender squids (xipirons). The dark rock was a moist bread and underneath was more onion confit – the sweetness of the onion and the sweet/saltiness of the squid and its broth paired well. I really enjoyed this dish.

Baby Squids with Onion Rocks

I suspected that the next course, the Red Mullets with Suquet (Catalan Seafood Stew) and Lard (Rogers amb suquet i sagí), was cooked sous vide or using some other similarly low and slow cooking method as the fish flaked away yet appeared raw and translucent. I loved the way this preparation caused this usually strong flavoured fish to mellow a little and we both really enjoyed this. The potato gnocchi on the side were lovely too though nothing very new or different.

Red Mullets with Suquet (Catalan Seafood Stew) and Lard

I was surprised to see steak tartare on the menu because… well, I have no idea why. El Celler de Can Roca’s version, specified as from 2009, was Steak Tartare with Mustard Ice Cream (Adaptació de steak tartar amb gelat de mostassa 2009). Anyway, it was made of veal and was like no classical French tartar. The little yellow bubbles on top were a mustard ice cream while each of the souffle potatoes on top was flavoured differently: there was chive, curry powder, smoked paprika and Sichuan pepper. Hidden between the big bubbles were a bit of spicy tomato sauce (the waiter announced it as ‘ketchup’ to our neighbouring table to their shock and horror!), capers, and a tiny chewy sack of Oloroso sherry which resembled a raisin but oof, what a hit of sherry that was! The dark sauce at the bottom was a thick veal reduction. Eating this dish was such fun as we started at the bottom and worked our way upwards and every bite tasted different for all the bits and pieces hidden throughout. Really excellent.

Steak Tartare with Mustard Ice Cream

Our final savoury dish was the Lamb, Peach and Apricot Terrine (Xai amb terrina de préssec i albercoc). The little cylinder was put together from tender morsels of braised lamb neck and the rich meat was beautifully complimented by the apricot conserve and peach slices. A cheese foam on the side gave another extra umami hit to the dish. That crisp of lamb skin was just divine – as thin as tissue paper and crispy and so rich and lamby. In a way, the dish seemed wonderfully simple for what I expected from El Celler de Can Roca but it was utterly delicious.

Lamb, Peach and Apricot Terrine

The Lemon Distillate Sorbet (Sorbet de destil·lat de llimona) announced that the sweet dishes were about to arrive. Rather stupidly, after reading the name of the dish, I expected just that – a little scoop of an interesting lemon sorbet in a dish. But duh, this restaurant doesn’t have three stars for nothing. The sorbet was lovely but it was the extras that were more interesting. The scoop of iciness sat in a pool of lemon cream and hovering on top of it was the thinnest crisp of honey that you can imagine. This was sensational and we only wished the portion was sized more like a full dessert! With our sorbets, we were also presented with a paper cone spritzed with a perfume. I’d heard that Jordi Roca, the pastry chef, was known for his dessert interpretations of famous perfumes but our waiter told us that this time, it was the opposite; he developed the dessert and then a perfumer crafted a scent from it. And so, that rather delectable scent was unavailable for purchase (I’m going to send an email to them asking again).

Lemon Distillate Sorbet

Perfume

Our first major dessert was a Rose Soufflé (Souflé de roses) with lychee sorbet and guava. The souffle was a light as air foam that just gave enough of a rose hint without it being too overpowering and this floral note complimented the fruits well. Hidden within the mixture were a couple of the most fragrant wild strawberries, which were a lovely surprise.

Rose Soufflé

Orange Colourology (Cromatisme taronja) was our final dessert and it was indeed a plateful of orange. That lump of carrot was actually fashioned out of orange ice and egg yolk ice cream with lots of apricot eau-de-vie – quite an alcoholic ending! A fresh carrot compote, orange segments, and beautiful pastilles of orange sugar with liquid centres finished this very different dessert – I never expected to enjoy a sweet preparation of carrot.

Orange Colourology

And that brought our tasting menu to an end. I spent a greedy few minutes wondering if I should order another dessert off the a la carte menu (as another table did) but closed the menu and settled for coffee. Blai asked for a tea and was presented with the most amazing tea menu we’d ever come across in a restaurant.

The Tea Menu

And then they came along and set this down on our table for us for our wedding anniversary! A freshly made sugar swirl and a candle!

For Our Anniversary

As spectacular and unexpected that was, it came with this box which got more attention from us. Hello, petit fours! It was only in hindsight that I realised that the little macarons, of which there were four, were based on classic perfumes, their names given above the combination of flavours. Each was a lovely little bite but our favourite was the intense yuzu milk chocolate at the bottom of the box.

Petit Fours

Mini Macarons and Chocolates

The coffee was excellent, very smooth and among the best I’ve sampled. Blai’s tea though was more exciting – a whole teapot was brought along with a little sample of the dried and steeped oolong tea leaves. An explanation was also given of the treatment the tea had received (steeped at 80 Celsius, if I remember correctly); I do like that they take their tea seriously!

Coffee

Oolong Tea

Soon, it was time to go – we were the second to last table to leave but don’t be mistaken, we were never rushed out. Reluctantly, we made our way to reception where we were presented with our bill. This meal cost us a little over €300, not cheap but I didn’t grudge the expense – it was 4 hours we both greatly enjoyed. If I could describe our meal at El Celler de Can Roca in one word, it would be this: fun! Honestly, I can’t wait till we have a chance to go back. We’ll be saving our pennies again!

Happy anniversary again, Blai! (Whoooo – one year married and nine years together!)

El Celler de Can Roca
Carrer Can Sunyer, 46
17007 Girona
Spain

As is usual now for us, we have a big meal with my inlaws for New Year’s Eve. We almost lost track of time with our feasting but did get the grapes on the table in time for the countdown. Once again, it was a big grape fail though I just stared hard at a cupboard chucking down grapes as fast as I could (I didn’t make it) while Blai gave up less than halfway through and burst out laughing. This year, our New Year’s Eve started again with plenty of seafood and croquetes and fried sliced artichokes – this last dish has been perfected by Blai’s mother and they are sublime.

Fried Sliced Artichokes

Razor Clams

The Table, Set

All this was followed by a second course of a retro classic: duck a l’orange. The sauce was lovely, with a fresh stock made by Blai’s mother, and just sweet-tangy and fruity enough to pair well with the gigantic duck breasts.

Duck a l'Orange

And the next day, the first day of 2010, we once again visited Blai’s extended family out in their village. Every year, the meal, cooked by Blai’s aunt, highlights food hunted and gathered by her husband and son and every year, it’s really quite special. We had xató (a Catalan salad of escarole and baccala with a dressing similar to romesco) to start with the escarole grown by Blai’s uncle, the leaves perfectly capturing the thick, nutty, spicy dressing. Even the small olives were their own!

Xató on the Table

The second course was braised partridge and pigeon, the birds hunted by Blai’s cousin. The game had been braised to impart some degree of tenderness to the usually tough meat but it had a great flavour. This was served with cabbage rolls – the leaves stuffed with meat and then rolled, battered and fried. So delicious and well, frying makes everything excellent! Alongside were some mushrooms also foraged by Blai’s cousin – there’s a great passion for mushroom hunting in Catalunya as evinced by this strange mushroom hunting game we found online. I forgot to photograph it but there was also a dish of roast beef, served with the most delectable onion sauce – Blai’s aunt is also a fabulous cook!

Partridge with Cabbage Rolls

Mushrooms

To finish, a whole selection of sweets from various torrons to little pastries brought by Blai’s mother from Barcelona (from Pastisseria Bonet). Blai’s grandfather and I both were most fond of these little frogs made of lots of buttercream and cake!

Pastries

When we got back to Barcelona that night, we could barely eat any more… I think I just ate a small piece of toast with pernil (that’s in Catalan: it’s jamón in Spanish). It was indeed feasting for new year’s eve and day!

Finally, with lots of relaxing and thinking time during my holiday, I thought of a few food resolutions for 2010 and beyond and instead of just storing them in my head, where they’ll linger and grow mold, I thought that perhaps sharing them here will give me that extra little push to follow through with them.

1. Eat more fish.
2. Make sausages.
3. Learn more or come up with more super fast weekday meals. Try not to resort to takeaways so often.
4. Bring lunch to work more often.
5. Stop being so lazy and cross town more often.

Generally, I want to cook more and save a little more money. Of course, none of these is helping with my aim to lose a little weight; I’m not sure whether it’s due to my excessive greediness or a losing battle with age and a reduction in my metabolism or probably a mixture of both but I ain’t what I used to be. Roll on, 2010.

Happy New Year, everybody! What a London I returned to – when I did manage to return from Barcelona, that is. The winter wonderland at the airport was quite breathtaking but my journey to get there took a while when my first flight home was cancelled and the second was delayed, delayed, delayed until we were sent off for the night and told to return the next day. It was strange to have to say our goodbyes to Blai’s family twice! But we made it back safely though it’s sad to leave such a fabulous city and lovely family too.

But the food! Oh, the food in Barcelona is always fantastic. Mangolisa sent me a link to a New York Times article on Barcelona where they describe its citizens as food-mad. Mad seems like quite a strong word to use but it’s not far off the mark! I love the culture of their long lunch breaks, their food markets and the city’s numerous little independent food shops, all not common in the UK.

The day after I arrived in Barcelona, Blai had booked dinner for us at Gresca, the first on a list of restaurants I’d provided him previously. Gresca went right to the top of this list when I first saw a review at Aidan’s blog. This was going to be my first visit to one of the bistronomics (offering modern cuisine at affordable prices) popping up around the city and this little bistronomic (9 tables) was run by Rafael Peña along with his wife in front of house. We were going to have their tasting menu – a relative bargain at €50 for 9 courses and as it turns out, two extra appetisers. I don’t even want to think about how much this would have cost in London.

In Gresca

We were told that the first two appetisers were not officially part of the tasting menu. The parmesan and pimentón crackers were lovely and buttery but the real standout of the two was the sardine fillet (very lightly salt cured, I think, but mostly raw) and topped with a thin slice of butter with spices. This was a good start.

Parmesan and Pimentón Crackers

Parmesan and Pimentón Crackers

Sardine with Spiced Butter

Sardine with Spiced Butter

Then it was on to the tasting menu proper. First came a few slices of cured duck topped with herbs. Oh, but no, the roll was stuffed with raw prawns. Ah! We saw that the chef had recreated the look of a prawn with the slices of duck – clever! This was my first go at uncooked prawns which, surprise surprise, tasted like the cooked version only squishier. This was followed by foie gras marinated in anchovies (that’s what we were told – there was no paper menu). The foie was stunning – rich and creamy and melt in your mouth tasty and whatever it did with the anchovies, I don’t want to know but it was all the better for it. The portion was small but I think it was just right – any more and I would have started feeling too full and possibly a bit ill. We munched on some wonderfully crisp and warm bread with this as well as the rest of the meal.

Cured Duck, Raw Prawns, Herbs

Cured Duck, Raw Prawns, Herbs

Foie Gras Marinated in Anchovies

Foie Gras Marinated in Anchovies

The vegetable fondue was a very meh dish. Cauliflower, courgette, carrot, cornichons, and spinach were cooked and topped with melted cheese and a foam that added nothing to the dish. Unfortunately, the result was not more than the sum of its parts.

Vegetable Fondue

Vegetable Fondue

One of the chef’s signature dishes seems to be the souffled egg below – this time served on creamed potatoes. Blai’s egg came out perfectly intact – the cloud of puffy egg white perfectly surrounding the liquid yolk. My poor one was already starting to droop and reveal itself shamelessly. I suppose mine started coming apart somewhere between the kitchen and our table and it was a bit of a shame as the surprise was thus ruined. The potatoes were very lightly cooked and so still crunched in the mouth and were coated with a creamy sauce. Not fantastic on their own but very nice with a burst egg yolk all over them.

Souffled Egg with Creamed Potatoes

Souffled Egg with Creamed Potatoes

Souffled Egg with Creamed Potatoes

Then followed three richer courses. Firstly St Peter’s fish with a pinenut puree and roasted onions. We had to google the fish afterwards…turns out it’s tilapia. On it’s own, the pinenut puree was reminiscent of peanut butter, only with a pinenut flavour of course. But with the fish and the sweet-sour roasted onions, it made for an amazing and unexpectedly successful combination; this more than made up for the vegetable fondue dish. Afterwards, sweetbreads with lemon and potato puree – not mind-blowing but very well cooked and delicious. I think I got the better piece as mine had lots of crispy crust! The last savoury dish was a pigeon with ginger. A breast cooked medium and a well cooked leg was covered in a dark, thick and unctuous sauce with a hint of bitterness from the ginger that went well with the richness of the game bird. A couple of chanterelle mushrooms underneath the pigeon breast made for a lovely surprise.

St Peter's Fish, Pinenut Puree, Onions

St Peter’s Fish, Pinenut Puree, Onions

Sweetbreads with Lemon and Potato Puree

Sweetbreads with Lemon and Potato Puree

Pigeon with Ginger

Pigeon with Ginger

The two desserts were light and refreshing with the lemon sorbet roll being much zingier than expected (this was not a children’s dessert) and the pina colada one of the most fun things I’d eaten last year. The latter was a frozen coconut foam with pineapple juice within; the shell was made of a thin layer of chocolate and crispy pastry vermicelli. I wanted to demand the other half of my ‘coconut’!

Lemon Sorbet and Cream with Pistachios

Lemon Sorbet and Cream with Pistachios

Pina Colada

Pina Colada

Overall, the meal was fabulous with some really fantastic and often surprising dishes coming out of the kitchen; I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the city. However, there is one little problem that I had: the restaurant allows smoking and we had to continually smell the smoke from other tables as the diners lit up their cigarettes and pipes between courses. Not cool and I wish the Spanish government would just ban smoking in all restaurants once and for all.

Gresca
Provença, 230
Barcelona, Spain

This was one of the New Year’s messages in Catalunya, where I was for the past week, that plays with the double meaning of vuit (eight) and nou (nine), the former sounding like the word for empty and the latter also being the word for new. Anyway, we saw in the new year in Barcelona with plenty of fabulous food, some of it new to me.

Blai’s family and I had a fabulous feast on New Year’s Eve, laced with plenty of wine and champagne. The first course was a veritable spread in itself: octopus with paprika, foie gras pate, prawns cooked on a planxa, and salt cod croquetes. The octopus was beautifully tender, the prawns so red and flavourful and the croquetes, oh, the croquetes! Those were chock a block full of shredded salt cod and bechamel and fried beautifully – crunchy and crumbly on the outside and smooth on the inside.

Octopus

Grilled Prawns

Salt Cod Croquetes

The second course (not photographed) were beef filets cooked to a pinky medium, served with a pepper sauce with brandy and mushrooms. Yummy! And finally, for dessert, plenty of turro (Spanish almond candy usually served at Christmas time) and polvorons (a crumbly flour and almond sweet), and the usual coffees to finish. When the clock struck twelve, we each tried to down twelve grapes, one with each chime of the clock. Unfortunately, a laughing fit struck each of us in turn and I found myself spraying more grape than swallowing.

More feasting was to come the next day when we visited Blai’s extended family in the Alt Penedès, who then proceeded to fill us to bursting again.

To start (not photographed as I was trying to be polite – but then Blai told them all about the blogging and photographing and I was told to take photos!), xato, a very Catalan salad involving frisee and romesco sauce. Salt cod again on the side as well as a slice of a white bean truita (tortilla). There were also olives, delicious home cured anchovies and platters of exceptional escalivada (grilled aubergines and red peppers – you can just see the plate of them in the last photo below).

To follow was a lovely stew of wild boar (they hunted it themselves!) and potatoes. It was my first time having boar, I think, and I would definitely have it again. Stewing it made the meat fork tender and with prunes and toasted pinenuts too, it was altogether gorgeous.

Wild Boar Stew

The Table

And afterwards, there were two braços de gitano (the politically incorrect Gypsy’s Arm) from a Barcelona pastisseria – one filled with plain nata (cream) and the other with nata with turro. They are rolled cakes (roulades, if you will) filled with plenty of cream and are both light and rich at the same time. Modern ones come filled with ice cream!

Everything I was fed was excellent and I do believe Blai’s family is filled with talented cooks! However, it took me an entire day to recover from all this eating and festivities – my stomach just refused to take in very much the next day and I spent most of it dozing. Luckily, this was just for one day…

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