January 25, 2012

Slurping, Sipping and Screaming in Spanish

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I used to think “simple,” as a descriptor for a cuisine, was a meaningless cliché. It was fashionable to call a few grilled mushrooms or a bowl of clear broth simple, like it was the new “delicious.” But when urged to find a word to describe the food I savored in Barcelona over winter break, I could hardly find more suitable adjective. I had borrowed a few books on Mediterranean cuisine from the Hotel School, and the pictures of produce, seafood and a culture extremely proud of its unique cuisine inspired me to make a pilgrimage to the capital of Catalonia. And there I found true simplicity.

It must have been the roasted whole artichokes, drenched with olive oil and gently kissed with a heady char, smoke still drifting from their leaves. Or it could have been the dish of pulpitos marinera, a blissful marriage of essentially two ingredients — whole octopi and whole tomatoes. A side of pa amb tomàquet was just rounds of baguette rubbed with tomato and olive oil, as ubiquitous as bread and butter in Britain. The simple grill stealthily coaxed the sweetness out of the red peppers and eggplant in a dish of escalivada, and teased out a whisper of the sea from sepia a la plancha — grilled whole cuttlefish — with a dusting of garlic and parsley picada.

Simplicity is not that simple after all, if you consider the many things the Barcelonians eschew to let the key ingredient in a dish take center stage. They treat spices with respectful disdain, because spices mask rather than accentuate. Pureeing and mashing an ingredient beyond recognition is taboo in the kitchen. Similarly, the rich bounty of seafood from this part of Mediterranean Spain doesn’t need to be airbrushed with a sprig of chive, and neither does the occasional dessert in its cuisine require a fancy swirl for dramatic effect. Presentation is a mere distraction, unless you are into the whole Michelin-star pretence. Instead, beauty comes from the rustic collage of artisanal breads on display at  the city’s many bakeries — so randomly arranged but visually alluring. Beauty comes from the raucous, uninhibited exchanges between owner and diner at the smoky bar as plates of anchovy, sardines and ibérico ham are passed and washed down with endless rounds of sparkling wine. Beauty comes from the fact that Spanish cooking remains characteristically straightforward and unique — even if its history is an eclectic mix of influences from the Romans, Moors, Aztecs, French and Italians.

They say you never get hungry in Barcelona. The generous portions are one thing. And like the rest of Spain, Barcelonians are always eating. There’s the cursory affair of coffee, sandwich and cognac for breakfast, an obligatory noon aperitif, a heavy, sometimes multi-course lunch paired with wine, an afternoon berenar, or snack, of hot chocolate and churros and a light dinner before sleep. Not to forget that tapas, America’s best import from Spanish culture after paella and Zara, are available throughout the day to fill you up with small bites of delightful snacks.

I like that this culture is so out of step with the rest of the world, floating in its own time and space. With lunch no earlier than 2 pm, a late dinner at 9 pm and clubs purring to a start only at 1 am, Barcelonians are not afraid to define their lives in their own terms. No one is screaming to offer the freshest, most exotic ingredients, like in Italy, or the sharpest, flashiest culinary techniques, as in France. Barcelonians combine their favorite ingredients in the style of mar i muntanya — sea and mountain — and strive to make a few gastronomic masterpieces extremely well instead of many dishes poorly. What emerges is a city moving in sync at mealtime, with shop shutters lowered simultaneously and people flocking to eating establishments of all kinds, converging in a kind of gastronomic Mardi Gras that recurs daily, or a few times a day for that matter. Although my five-day stay was hardly enough time to fully comprehend the country’s culture, the elements of togetherness, heartiness and conviviality were unmistakable.

The Barcelonians don’t really care what you think of their cuisine or table manners, even if celebrated chef Anthony Bourdain calls the Spaniards a people that start with fresh ingredients, “but somehow get lost from there.” Yes, they might be boisterous and oblivious to the world around them. But all they want is to share well-prepared, delicious food together. It’s that simple.

Original Author: Brandon Ho