“It’s not a concept, it’s common sense” (Part Two)

Barcelona. This was a very different proposition to my road-trip, a city break with my girlfriend, also a chef, which was inevitably structured around eating, and took in a far greater variety of eateries, from scuzzy diners to deceptively posh-looking restaurants. The one thing that seemed to unite them was an abundance of ludicrously cheap wine.

We started out at the more comfortable end of the scale, at Senyor Parellada, a restaurant that is all white tablecloths and ties, but with a cheap and robust menu of Catalan dishes and – yes – a very cheap house rosé. We had a gigantic plate of snails, sharp and sweet with garlic, oily, rich and earthy, and a comically large octopus tentacle – it must have been at least 8 inches long – that had just the right amount of resistance, sitting in a creamy pool of mash. Maybe it was the wine (or the gigantic cocktails that followed), but this is held in my mind, in a hazy sort of way, as one of the nicest meals I’ve eaten. Everything was so perfectly itself, from the tiny purple olives we were brought with our drinks to the deep, nutty coffee and the just-so crema catalana, fragrant with cinnamon and orange, we finished with. Catalan cuisine, I subsequently learnt, largely does without the backbone of smoked paprika that defines Spanish cooking in my, and I guess most people’s, minds, a restraint which allows the main ingredients to express themselves more freely.

That restaurant was a lucky find, just round the corner from our apartment, but for our next night we ventured a little further, to the much-recommended Lolita Taperia. Clean, tiled, definitely cool, this is at the lower end of the more up-market tapas bars (the top probably being the Adrias’ Tickets) that are the hip thing in Barcelona. Just as Paris’ modern bistros find top chefs applying their skills to more casual cuisine, so Barcelona’s bright young things (many of whom trained with Adria) are turning their attention to plates of food that are small, accessible, and fun. Not that there was any molecular gastronomy on display at Lolita – the considerable skill of the kitchen was confined to getting a number of small things very right. We had little meat and potato bombas with a deep and satisfying crunch, and a beautiful burrata with that wide, rich blandness elevated by pitch-perfect seasoning. There were pleasingly trashy chicken strips tossed in crushed-up crisps, and, best of all, tender little rabbit ribs, deep-fried in a KFC-style coating. It wasn’t perfect – the burrata came with a distractingly bitter tapenade that overpowered the excellent cheese, and, more worryingly, they seemed to be using Hellman’s as the base for all their sauces – and it certainly wasn’t cheap, although that was partly our own fault for treating tapas as dinner. Pretty damn good, all told, although we resolved to be a little more frugal with our remaining meals.

Having started off in this upmarket fashion, we went more local the next day with one of the excellent Culinary Backstreets tours. My girlfriend had been on one of these in Istanbul and found it a really good introduction to the city’s cuisine, and so it was in Barcelona. The tour took us round the slightly less known Gràcia district, focussing on local cuisine and neighbourhood haunts, and involved more food than I can easily remember. We had churros and hot chocolate by way of breakfast, then coffee, nougat and ‘gypsy’s arm’ cake – I forget the reason for that name – at a long-established patisserie (everywhere we went was at least decades old and family-run), the simple Moorish sweetmeat and the elaborate cake showing two very different strands of Barcelona’s history; after that we went straight on to brunch, or “fork breakfast” as they call it, another favourite of hip young chefs. In a bare room with industrial lighting, we had jellied pig feet and head terrine, fried until crisp and served with soft white beans, and a plate of sobrassada (a sort of spreadable chorizo, rather like the Calabrian n’duja) topped with eggs and honey. The salted minerality of Vichy Catalan water settled our stomachs, and after a quick jaunt around the market (and a tasting and explanation of Iberico hams) it was time for lunch.

This took place in a rather stately old neighbourhood bistro (or whatever the Spanish equivalent is) and was a deliberately unusual menu of of traditional Catalan dishes. We had some sort of aubergine salad to start (I forget what exactly – I had stopped taking pictures by that point, and we had already taken in a lot), then snails, cooked the same as at dinner the first night. This time, though, we learned that in Spain (or at least in Barcelona) they don’t purge or clean their snails before cooking, instead just not eating the guts – which explains the occasional grittiness of the first ones. These were accompanied by a pale, fluffy allioli and a punchy salsa verde. Our main was a hefty chunk of salt cod, coated in more allioli and browned under a hot grill. This was both weird – I’d never seen cooked allioli before – and incredibly delicious. The grilling gave the sauce something of the texture of baked bèchamel or a soufflé, while the cod, insulated from the direct heat of the grill, came away in soft pearlescent flakes. A dish of breathtaking simplicity.

After that we went for vermouth (apparently the coming thing in young Barcelona) and pickles; we picked up some horchata, sweetened tiger-nut milk; and we stopped in another local bar for pan con tomate, warm, just-cooked tortilla, and some sheep intestine, wrapped around twigs, grilled, and served with lemon. A glass of cava in a wine shop stacked 15 feet high with bottles and casks rounded off the tour. I haven’t done justice to either the knowledge or the fierce pride of our tour guide – she peppered the trip with personal and historical anecdote – but we left with an impression of a cuisine that was both deeply rooted in the land and strongly tied to national cultural identity, every dish a little snapshot of history. We also left incredibly full, and I don’t think we had any dinner that day.

The next two days were almost as varied, if not quite as greedy. Both dinners were in small, slightly grotty diners, the first near the sea in Barceloneta, the second in a street off the Ramblas. These were neither trendy nor particularly traditional, at least in the deep historical way the previous day’s lunch had been. What they were was “authentic”, perhaps, and certainly cheap and popular – especially the first, Can Maño, where you queue outside with tourists and locals for a small table in a busy room, around which waiters dash, barely making eye contact as they slam down plastic bottles of wine and plates of grilled or fried vegetables, fish and sea-food. You can get meat dishes, but what’s the point? No-one else is. We had a fat tender cuttlefish and juicy, blackened sardines, scattered with parsley and garlic, fried aubergine, the apparently obligatory pan con tomate, and a salad of sorts. It was hot and fast and loud, and a great meal.

Looking for brunch the next day, we wandered into a food festival on the Ramblas, featuring chefs from a few dozen top restaurants offering tapas-sized dishes at €4 a pop. I’ve been to similar things in London, but they are usually both ticketed and tucked away in odd yards and corners of the city – this was right on the main tourist drag, where you could wander in and out as you pleased. Imagine ambling down Oxford Street or through Leicester Square and finding chefs from St. John, L’Enclume, Polpo, the Fat Duck, whatever, lining the streets and offering their signature dishes for a fiver to whoever was passing through! We had a few bites – salmorejo with anchovies and cheese, a deep broth of ox cheek and chickpeas, an astounding bun from Tickets, stuffed with the meat from a pig’s double chin – and wandered off past the still-busy tourist-trap restaurants feeling smug. Wanting to make the most of this opportunity, we came back for pre-dinner tapas, focussing on the “auteur” section of the festival – higher-end dishes from Adria’s disciples (still only €4 though). Yes, there were foams and things, a something of something on top of an escabeche of mackerel, but there was also a steak tartare of great depth and piquancy and some calamari that was just really, really good calamari. Our meal in the afore-mentioned diner, the Romesco, was something different again – although coming mainly from the grill and the fryer, and accompanied by rough white wine, the ingredients were, in the main, of the land – although we did have some enormous prawns. I had a crisp and succulent rabbit, and to start, half a sheep’s head, which I think had been braised and then deep-fried. Eating this was an extremely enjoyable activity that I would recommend to anyone. From the caramelised shreds of the cheek, to the juicy and fibrous tongue and the cloudy pap of the brain, it was like getting the whole hands-on nose-to-tail experience in one neat package, and, somehow, a fitting last meal.

If this all seems quite exhaustive, it’s because I wanted to convey the sheer variety of food available in a cuisine that has not ossified, as you sometimes find in France or Italy, nor lost the thread of its own tradition, as it has here. Yes, I know Barcelona is a major city, and I know you could find a similar variety if you knew where to look in London, say – but not, I think, in the same top-to-bottom and nose-to-tail way, where food is traditional and varied and good and accessible to all. We didn’t even eat a single paella.

Tomato & Pomegranate Ketchup

I’ve spent the last couple of days developing recipes for Pickle & Smoke, curing rabbit, salting and pickling various things. This ketchup was a late addition, as I wanted to replace the rejigged bought stuff we had been using before.

House-made ketchup has become pretty common in cafés and gastropubs, in a form that’s now almost as standardised as Heinz – based, I think, on the excellent recipe in the River Cottage preserves book, it is a roast tomato passata that gets spiced, seasoned and reduced. This results in a sort of relish, which is delicious in its own way but a little wholesome, and not much like the glossy, sweet sauce that everyone secretly loves. It also takes bloody ages to make, what with roasting and puréeing and boiling and passing and reducing.

I wanted something a bit more Heinz-y, a bit trashier, for Pickle & Smoke, so I though I’d try the recipe in Marc Grossman’s New York Cult Recipes, which is basically a stock thickened with tomato purée and cornflour. The result is satisfyingly shiny, triggering that gastronomic nostalgia, with the added bonus that you can add whatever else takes your fancy, at either the stock or thickening stage. A bit of messing around yielded this, heavily adapted from Grossman –

About 2 litres, but it should keep well. Easily halvable, anyhow.

For the stock –
2 sticks of celery
1 onion
6 garlic
1 carrot
1 tblspn smoked paprika
1 tsp allspice
900 ml water
400 ml pickle juice (I had some left over – half and half water and lemon, with a splash of vinegar and some salt and sugar. You could just use water and up the seasonings later.)

Finely dice the vegetables and sweat in a little oil until the onions turn translucent and soften slightly. Add the spices and cook, stirring, until they lose that raw smell. Add the liquids, bring to the boil, and simmer for 10 minutes or so. Strain, discarding the spent vegetables, and make the stock up to 1300ml with some water if it’s reduced too much.

For the ketchup –
The stock
280g tomato purée (2 of those little tins)
250g caster sugar
4 tblspns pomegranate molasses
1 tblspn really hot hot sauce, or to taste. (I used a home-made West Indian style one with loads of scotch bonnets in it)
2 tblspns mustard powder
4 tblspns cornflour
400ml white wine vinegar

Put the stock in a pan with the purée, sugar, molasses and hot sauce and bring to a steady simmer, whisking as you go. Let it bubble away for about 5 minutes, giving it a stir occasionally.

Beat the mustard powder and cornflour into the vinegar, making sure there are no lumps, then add to the pan. Simmer for another 5 minutes or so until nicely thickened. If you didn’t use pickle juice, it’ll need a fair bit of salt, so give it a taste, remembering that it’ll be less aggressively sweet when it’s cold, and that inhaling hot vinegar is not fun.

Done. Put into bottles or jars or whatever (you should do the sterilising thing if you want it to keep for ages) and you have minor gifts sorted for the next year. Or keep to yourself for secret chicken nugget feasts.

“It’s not a concept – it’s common sense” (Part One)

I haven’t posted anything here for a while, partly because I’ve been going through a fairly major life upheaval, and partly because of a couple of holidays I’ve been on. Both gave me quite a lot to think about in terms of food and culture, and it’s taken me this long to sift through my impressions of the two.

First up was a trip around Europe with two of my brothers, taking in France, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, not a place I ever thought I’d have occasion to visit. This wasn’t a particularly food-based trip – the reason or excuse for it was a journey round various WWI and WWII (and some Napoleonic) battlefields and monuments, some with a family connection, most not – but obviously we had to eat every day, and I was put in charge of finding places to do this.

I don’t really know what place French food has in the popular imagination any more – obviously it will always have a certain cachet, but I think the rash of bad or indifferent restaurants, serving 3-course set menus to tourists, have long since damaged France’s (or at least Paris’) reputation as a place where it is impossible to eat badly. Away from the denser tourist areas, though, and across the border into Belgium and Luxembourg (both places that suffer less from the weight of reputation), the general standard of restaurant food is still very high. Aside from the endless and ever-changing parade of continental breakfasts, which were ever bad so much as peculiar, and fascinating in their minor regional variations, I think we barely had a disappointing meal. There was one, I think in Cambrai, where I had a serviceable andouillette, my offal-sceptic older brother accidentally ordered veal kidneys, and my other brother an indifferent carpaccio.

That was a blip, though, and at any rate somewhat our fault. In the main, guided partly by recommendation, and partly by a mix of instinct and slightly mystical criteria – the only restaurant that had no English reviews on tripadvisor, a green rather than a red frontage – we managed to eat very well in a succession of small towns about which we knew nothing. Granted, I think our best meal was in Luxembourg City, at a place which came recommended by the Guardian – a wood- and leather-lined place called Mousel’s Cantine, where we ate pig feet in a rich and sharp mustard sauce, roast hock, salt-pork shoulder, with choucroute and beans and potatoes, swilled down with stone mugs of beer overflowing with foam – but we dined almost as well in Verdun, where the first place we happened to walk past (away from the main tourist strip) turned out to be a tiny, slightly hipsterised bistro with excellent pastis and beer, and a great set menu featuring an outstanding salad of confit gizzards and a lovely plate of guineafowl. Even the one obviously touristy restaurant we went to, on the main touristy square in Metz, had, on an illustrated and laminated menu of ‘local specialities’, an impressive dish of whole veal head, boned and rolled, with a punchy sauce gribiche and something else, garlicky and sharp, that I couldn’t quite place.

Fergus Henderson likes to declaim that the idea of nose-to-tail eating is not a “concept” but merely “common sense”, which I think is slightly disingenuous on his part. Over here, it is a concept, and one which he has done extremely well out of. But it really is in France, on the Continent, along with the idea that food should be good, and affordable, and the entire process of eating it pleasurable and satisfying. Many of the places we went to were small, boring, provincial towns, famous because Verlaine had been born there and never come back, or Rimbaud had grown up there and hated it, or for their proximity to heroism, some glorious act that had little to do with the sleepy bourgeois town it is commemorated in. Imagine going on a tour of Civil War battle sites in the Home Counties and the MIdlands, and finding, in every village and commuter-belt ghost town, a cuisine that was rooted in tradition and place yet alive, moving with tastes and times and fashions, animated by quality of ingredient and pride in technique. Imagine that was common sense.

I think that’s enough for now. More on Spain soon.