“The gentle art of gastronomy is a friendly one. It hurdles the language barrier, makes friends among civilized people, and warms the heart.”
— Samuel Chamberlain
Moveable Feasts and Momentous Milestones
It is November 24 in Barcelona, and while friends and family in the U.S. were anticipating a celebration of roasting turkeys and eating pumpkin pies, Greg and I were eating lunch in a tapas bar in Barcelona. The closest thing to turkey from the selection of tapas was chicken wings. And I wasn’t having any of that because there were more tempting choices among the beautifully crafted tapas. Why settle for something close to American fare when you can graze on tasty, colorful, miniature mouthfuls of local ingredients? We worked our way through several tapas bars over our four days in Barcelona, sometimes opting to skip salad lunches and formal dinners in favor of the intriguing morsels showcased in long, alluring displays on a bar or buffet. The strategy here is simple: load up your plate to your heart’s content, save the toothpicks and leave them on your plate because that is the way the waiter counts your portions and tallies your check. Eat and enjoy. Guessing the ingredients is fun, too.
Greg’s 70th birthday fell on Thanksgiving Day this year. We were celebrating this milestone by just being in Barcelona. Thursday arrived and gratitude, the Thanksgiving theme, was conspicuous in our thoughts and conversation. When you reach 70, gratitude is a no-brainer, right? Yes, it is. Gratitude vibrated in reflections of a life of 70 years with a marriage of 31 years, a grown son, and our burgeoning life in Europe. The years were not always easy but they were good years for the most part. But aside from the important birthday, celebrating Thanksgiving usually turns on where and what are you eating this year? And I was obsessed with finding the perfect place to take Greg for his grand birthday dinner.
In spite of planning, I failed at producing the extraordinary dinner to celebrate the evening of the auspicious 70. I had browsed Trip Advisor and chose number 21 on the list of Barcelona’s top restaurants. I had chosen numbers 1, 2, or 3 in other cities only to be disappointed. The top-tier were also the most expensive restaurants on the list. So I read through and there was a cavalcade of compliments for La Gracias. Comments like “always the best”, “great place, we’ve been here many times”, “warm and friendly” and so forth. What I did not catch is that this was a restaurant that offered only a tasting menu. More on that later.
In the evening, we set off to walk to the restaurant through the brightly lit, busy Barcelona streets with a rough, mapped route in mind and directions from the hotel. When La Gracias did not appear at the end of the planned route, we interrupted a local resident, who was walking his cute, little Yorkshire Terrier, to ask if he knew the street or maybe the restaurant? Oh no, he never heard of it (yikes, that should have set off an alarm). He pulled out a Smartphone, we made adjustments and corrections, thanked the gentleman, and walked away into the night in the appropriate direction. And the little terrier resumed his evening saunter with his owner in tow.
At last, we made the turn into a narrow, dark street where it did not appear any shops were open. But there, a bit down the way, was La Gracias, small, chic and empty. The hosts and owners greeted us warmly and we were directed to take any table we fancied. It was only 7 pm after all; early for a Barcelona dinner. And here came the birthday surprise: it was a tasting menu and there were only two options: the printed menu with the details of every course in clear terms on the printed page. Or the Chef’s choice (call it surprise experience) where each course is prepared per the Chef’s whim of the day. It was to be presented and described in detail as the food was brought to the table. And then it’s yours to eat whether it suits you or not. I gave Greg the option of bailing at this point. But he bravely soldiered on even with his list of foods he absolutely does not eat. We chose the printed menu which was the Menú Tradición over the Menú Experiénca.
The tasting menu is a trend in the modern restaurant world that even I, a foodie, do not completely understand or relish. When we visited Le Atelier of Joël Robuchon in Paris a few years ago, we were thrown to the tasting menu wolves. Still, we had an absolutely, lovely experience. At Le Atelier, we were able to select each tasting course. It made a significant dent in our pockets but it was a 25th wedding anniversary event and it became an unforgettable food event. Every tasting course at Le Atelier had been delicious and unique.
The tastings at Con Gracias were to be a different experience. I won’t attempt to describe each course, I could not keep up with the myriad of ingredients. We started out well with a large mossy green seaweed chip dotted with aioli of two different flavors and colors. Interesting and palatable.
The lentil sauce on the next course was not bad but I can’t remember the other ingredients it was saucing. One, I think, was a bright red roe and there was a raw shrimp partying in there somewhere. This predominately brown dish was trimmed with a real viola flower which is edible and colorful. I got to nibble on two violas; my husband does not eat flowers. Our positive attitudes were crashing when the little stuffed-squid course arrived. The casing was a garish green color alongside bright tomato aioli presented on a vivid, blue glass plate. Greg just delicately sampled the stuffing and then shoveled off the squid baby to my plate. That dish had a splash of a light green seaweed called the lettuce of the sea which I could not finish.
The staff noticed our difficulty with the squid and kindly offered to replace it with a different tasting selection. Tentatively that was OK, especially when the word ‘cannelloni’ was mentioned. But the flavor and texture of this tasting did not impress me either.
Greg also ditched the lightly steamed duck breast so I got to eat two portions of that. The duck was raw even to my taste. I don’t think there was one tasting that appealed to him. Even I, who have watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain and Top Chef, and am not usually surprised by weird and unusual food combinations, must admit to having to soldier through to the end. My palate was not in sync with this unique, gracious, place and their interesting food-stylings. I owe someone a good steak dinner in Kraków, where we live. We do have some great steak places in this city. The 70th dinner was an experience for the journal and a memory we will not forget along with Le Atelier of Paris.
Looking for good food in Barcelona was not difficult. In fact, it was rather easy once we learned that you can always find something tasty among the tapas. After a long stroll along the elegant Passeig de Gràcia (one of the major historic avenues of Barcelona), we reached La Rambla, another renown pedestrian thoroughfare. La Rambla is for foot traffic only. It is replete with vendor’s stalls, shops, iconic buildings, plaças (squares) and people. It ambles from the very grand, massive, historic Plaça de Catalunya to wind up at the world’s tallest statue of Christopher Columbus at Port Vell, the waterfront harbor.
As you walk along La Rambla, slip into some side streets where palm trees might beckon and a seagull sitting atop an elegantly, sculpted fountain shatters the formality. And stopping at little, artsy coffee shops with amazing pastries is within bounds and easy.
The incredible and expansive, ‘must-visit’ market on the Rambla is called the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria. Simply called La Boqueria, it is a large, old, sheltered public market with magnificent spreads of food, color and noise. It feels like a celebration just to be there. Ambling through the crowded market, there is a live music score of accordian and/or guitar. You can buy little paper cones of ham, or salami, cheese and a variety of different chorizos and olivesto sample at a few Euros each. There are nuts, and fruit and freshly squeezed juices in all flavors of the fruit world. Mushrooms and vegetables, chocolates and candy, Serrano hams and salamis, olives and honey and more that I am sureI am forgetting. A few tapas bars are set right in the market with stools to face the glass-covered display of freshly crafted finger foods. It was crowded and impossible to find two stools, so we just ate from our paper cones of salamis and hams and stowed away snacks of fruit and cheeses for the hotel. It was a riot of color and texture, and a perfect setting for Greg’s camera work.
We received another food redemption on the day we meandered through the Barri Gòtic, the Gothic quarter, with it’s moody medieval and Roman roots. The quarter is marinated with intense, winding, narrow stone streets and dark, brooding, old buildings punctuated by the massive medieval architecture of several cathedrals. The shops looked like sets for the movie version of “Shadow of the Wind”.*
We found a tapas bar, “El Drac de Sant Jordi“**, on a corner in a square called the Plaça Sant Josep Oriol. A table outside offered us a view of the one of the majestic entrances to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Pi, a 14th century church. (There is a history of churches in this place back to 423 A.D.). History, tapas, art and rustic charm: this was really our kind of place.
The small plaza was a lively place to hang out. The tapas at the El Drac were a bargain and delicious. Our experience was capped with a street performer, a classically trainer dancer. She performed on the cobblestones right before the row of cafe tables. She danced barefoot on the stone with just a small portion of her upper foot wrapped with tape. Accompanied by a guitarist and a song, she leaped and whirled and threw out her graceful arms. She was costumed apropos to the medieval mood. It was delightful and beautiful. In this little corner of a historic square, we found the old and the beautiful was sometimes preferable to the young and the restless.
A history of tapas and some recipes from Barcelona: http://www.barcelona.de/en/tapas-recipes.html
For more beautiful photographs from our ex-pat life, make sure you click these links to enjoy Greg’s photos at:
http://bit.ly/1RsaN1M and http://bit.ly/1mtVVTW (Assignment 2016 and Assignment 2015)
“The greatest dishes are very simple.” — Auguste Escoffier, the “Emperor of Chefs”