I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving last week here in the United States and that you’re gearing up for more holiday celebration. Hannukah falls on December 16th, also Beethoven’s 224th birthday, and I’ve already got a dinner party planned for six with roast goose. And I have one more reason for celebration this season. Jan and I are preparing a wonderful dinner in honor of my father’s 100th birthday December 8. Cooking with his cast iron pan brings him back to life.
Food shapes the destiny of my memory. When I brew a coffee from Cong CaPhe I return immediately to Hanoi. Add chipotles or guajillos to a dish and I’m back in Mexico. Lemongrass and galangal takes me to Thailand. Put a cheese course together and I’ll start dreaming in French. Make any soup and I’m working again with my parents.
Barcelona? What took me so long!
The Catalan capital adds to my memories of tastes in ways that aren’t going away. Ever. In fact I’ve got some reminders at home in the form of various chorizos and jamon ibericos and a few Christmas nougat bars from Torrons Vicens, founded in 1775. Which is a good thing, because the chocolate bars from Escriba (see my last post) disappeared long ago!
But let’s start off the beaten path. My wife Jan explores endlessly, and traveling with her is a delight as she reads a map like most people read a comic strip. I think all those childhood bus rides from New Jersey to Port Authority in Manhattan, her wandering endlessly around Greenwich Village and Washington Square as a teenager every weekend, paid off big time as we take on any other big city.
Barcelona is full of nooks and crannies. What I love about those Catalans is that the city looses steam after the Gothic Era. No mirrored royal palaces that make me want to read Lenin and Trotsky. It finally picks up steam in the late 19th century with the world of Gaudi and Modernisme. Modernisme and all its potential gets violently mugged by the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship (Catalonia was, to put it mildly, on the losing side in a big way – don’t even ask for a Castillian garlic soup). George Orwell makes a fool of himself wishing that Franco had blown up the Sagrada Familia (maybe just stick with words, Father of Big Brother) but like a fairytale, Barcelona wakes up like Sleeping Beauty with its successful Olympiad in 1992.
Through the ages, Catalan cuisine stayed, thrived, got reinvented by molecular genius Ferran Adria and is still easily found and enjoyed. Jan wandered through those nook and cranny Gothic alleyways (the stage set of Barcelona is inspiring) and found Casa Gispert. Those holidays around the corner are enjoying some juniper berries from here (spice rubbed planned for my Hannukah/Beethoven’s Bday goose and gravy).
And the greatest roasted hazelnuts in the world. Here’s the roaster. It’s been working since 1850. So thank me in advance if you’ve not been to nor heard of Casa Gispert. The aroma is a memory. I will use them in a crab salad with comice pears. You can go to Roasted Nut Heaven in Barcelona’s El Born District.
Have I mentioned that Barcelona is on the Mediteranean Sea?
And where there is salt water there is fish. Don’t miss the inner sanctum of La Boqueria. Though I wish all the food shows on television would calm down – it’s not even close to Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo – the fish in Barcelona is fantastic, incredible and the Catalans know how to do great things with Neptune’s bounty.
I always wondered when I was young how the Spanish explorers had food on their ships for those long uncharted voyages, the astronauts of their time. Silly me. I’d not thought of dried cod (bacalao) or cured meats. As in the masterpieces of acorn raised Iberian pork, raised with love as to provide food for us.
The recent pork cage politics of New Jersey’s Chris Christie brings to light the reality of Big Agriculture and its heinous treatment of animals. Which reminds me of the last meal I cooked for my father in 2010 before he went into the hospital at 95 (we did spring him and he died at home). There was a Big Agriculture egg contamination story all over the news. He was born on a family farm in Kansas in 1914, despised Bible Beaters of all kinds (no wonder he left for California in the 1930s) and loved beef brains and all the gory bits being revived now. For their 60th anniversary dinner my folks asked for sweetbreads. I asked him what he thought of the story about the egg contamination on the news, which had pictures of huge chicken coops.
“Those farms are too damn big. You can’t take care of animals like that.”
Common sense Americans are best. Here’s to a smart renaissance of food values in the U.S.A. Traveling can help that inspiration. If you need convincing, try some jamon iberico at La Boqueria. Rather certain the Spanish don’t use cages. You’ll find this shop, one of many, right next to Pinotxo Bar.
I have a weakness that I am proud of, that keeps me permanently intrigued. If you love music, you probably love food. If you love Los Angeles’ favorite son composer John Cage, you probably love mushrooms. I love mushrooms. Autumn is always a good time of year, and Barcelona delivered the goods. Yum, yum, yum was the result in our apartment hotel kitchen, that’s for sure!
Need eggs for an omelette? All right, I’ll quit the French but don’t think about Mexico when you read the next sentence. Need eggs for a Catalan tortilla? La Boqueria has great eggs so no worries.
Though Jan and I feel the most important and essential element of being artists is change and moving things forward, we are not indifferent to traditions. As the 21st century goes through its teenage years, we are thinking a lot about the relationship we should embrace with the art, literature, music, poems, ideas and thoughts that inspired us in the first place. Many of the heroes and heroines of our youth have passed on and though we’ve been in the thick of things the last 30 years, we are exploring the best perspective for our 60s. We are not rushing any more to the drum of external momentum.
So to take a comprehensive view of Catalan cuisine, you have to engage your imagination with Barcelona’s architects, musicians and artists. And if you want atmosphere, if you want to try to stop for an hour and imagine a place where it all started for one of the great artists of the 20th century, you should head for coffee or tapa or a meal at Els Quatre Gats. The Four Cats.
Opened in 1897, bank rolled by artist Ramon Casas i Cabo, Els Quatre Gats became the City Lights or Shakespeare and Company of Barcelona’s Modernisme movement. Located on the ground floor of the Casa Marti by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch on Carrer Montsio, we’d recommend an espresso for a few hours. Let time stop and drink in the place that hosted the first exhibition of Pablo Picasso. You can’t make this type of thing up out of thin air. The atmosphere is why you go. End of story.
Sure, I’ve taken you on a trip to La Boqueria and the mushrooms, markets, jamon, and eggs of Barcelona. But for me the backdrop of those tastes is the impact of coming in direct contact with human ideas of incalcuable influence and inspiration. Viewing the Las Meninas series at the Picasso Museum, the only complete Picasso series in the world and kept together by Picasso his whole life for eventual public display after his death, simply put, changed me. The museum is close to all the shops in El Born which I’ve shown you in this blog (Barcelona, though a large city, is paradoxically compact once you connect the dots). So we aren’t just strolling around. Las Meninas represents version upon version upon endless version by Picasso on the iconic painting of Velazquez. How many solutions are there? For Picasso it’s endless and for us who take a privileged look, an inspiration that will pull us back to Barcelona.
I’ve got plenty of dinners planned for the next few months as the next Los Angeles International New Music Festival takes shape. I like getting older. You don’t have to have a perfect a strategy before you act, but you do have to have one. And talking over dinner is essential business for me now or I’m just not interested in the next bright idea.
It’s a lot like deciding what to cook (with the advantage that mushrooms don’t have scheduling conflicts). And as Barcelona demonstrates in spades, the possiblities are endless. Which makes life worth living.
Eleanor Roosevelt was on to something when she said that small minds talk about people, average minds talk about events but great minds talk about ideas. Barcelona is full of ideas and it’s not done yet.
I’ll be back soon with posts finding the home of Parsifal and Lohengrin on Montserrat, a side trip to San Sebastian, touring Sagrada Familia and other Modernisme sites.
That is after I make dinner in honor of my dad’s 100th birthday. On the menu? Slow braised oxtails with roasted garlic mashed potatoes. We are returning again to the last meal I made my parents’ before my mom needed care, and that meal was also my dad’s December 2008 birthday. We often cooked a meal at home and took it out prepared to their house, or cooked it with them, it was always flexible. When we arrived with those wine drenched slowly simmered oxtails for what was their last meal at the dinner table together, my mom had already set the table with all her best china and silverware, something she’d never done. And would never be able to do again. Somehow she knew it was a goodbye. Food is memory. Especially on December 8.
And Barcelona is a great new reference point moving forward! Cooking isn’t the same with all those smells and tastes and, yes, memories, leading me to new inspiration in the kitchen.
Best, best, best,