A long post and the last of the Barcelona posts before we head Southwards in the blog. One of the meals at Velodroma and the cooking class in Espai Boisa were hosted by the folks there and Barcelona Turisme. Not part of the plan though so a pleasant surprise
Like many middle class middle aged men across the world, Manel Casonavas has a job where he works to earn a living to feed the family he loves.
Manel is the Director of Gastronomy with Barcelona Turisme.
You should know a few other things about Manel. He loves to cook. Every evening he goes to his local market. One of Barcelona’s 40 odd markets. Buys fish. “Always fresh, moving”. Goes home and cooks it for his daughters and his wife. Every day.
On Sundays, he cooks paella for his family, photographs it and shows it to his friends through the week.
He loves food so much that he went to the kitchen of a friend who runs a modern Spanish cuisine restaurant, “don’t say ‘molecular gastronomy’ that’s a French phrase!, and practised his cooking every day before coming to work for months. Honing his skills. When he gets to travel on work Manel goes to the kitchens of the hotels he is staying in and cooks with the chefs there. When he meets people from new cultures he tries to find out more about their food. Among his friends he counts the professorial culinary alchemist, Ferran Adria.
Strangely enough Manel gets paid to do what he does. Well Manel is a good man and may he continue to earn a living doing exactly what loves.
We hadn’t heard of Manel till the day we met him and vice versa I am sure.
Manel met us on our second morning In Barcelona after Montsi invited us over to the Turisme office and very kindly gave us the press passes. Surprio connected us overnight from India. Montsi then left for an assignment while Manel said that he could be with us for the next couple of hours to help us find our feet around Barcelona. He offered to take us for lunch. He also gave us a booklet on vegetarian restaurants in Barcelona. We politely returned it and broke some myths about ‘what Indians eat’ as the afternoon progressed.
We headed to El Velodroma, a place that Jeff had suggested to us too. As the afternoon progressed it became increasingly clear that while Manel was doing his job he seemed to be loving every bit of it and made us both feel all soft and fuzzy with the warmth of his welcome.
El Velodroma is a restaurant run by Barcelona based beer company, Moritz. Manel explained that brands of beer don’t travel in Spain and tend to be local. As we settled down, Albert from Moritz, joined us too despite the short notice.
As you walk into El Velodrama you feel that you have walked into a 1960s black and white Hollywood film. A, art deco building with huge ceilings. An opera house like balustrade leading up to the first floor. The kitchen is in the lower floor. The walls coloured a ‘residence of Don Draper’ olive green. They have not fixed the frayed paint on the walls which combines decor-wise with the billiards table in the corner that give this very sepia tone and feel to El Velodroma.
We first tried some tapas (or small plates) to go with our drinks. Some refreshing Moritz for me.
Manel consulted the folks at the counter and soon we had some brilliantly flavoured grilled prawns and pesto jewelled chiperones or squids and of course the tomato bread that they just love here and olives. The flavours very fresh and pristine. You could feel the sun shine brighter and the birds chirp more sonorously as each bite took you deeper into the Garden of Eden.
In Manel’s world the cuisine of Spain can be divided into three. “Everything is fried in the South. Here, in Cataluña we try to ensure that the flavours of the produce come true and we don’t overcook or over spice. Then there is Galicia where everything is boiled”.
Gross generalisation? Well Manel is a proud Catalonian and is given to the sort of airbrushing I am prone to when comparing Bengali food with other cuisines in India. So I got where he was coming from.
More food came out. A bouncy cod salad with loads of olive oil, onion and tomatoes…pleasantly effervescent for the usually reserved meaty fish and then eggs on sausages and chips which Manel gratinated on our table as they love to do in this part of the world….that combination of chips, egg and gratinated sausage mince had all the passion and zest of a good Flamenco number and was my favourite part of a blockbuster lunch.
As we chatted we get to know more about each other’s cultures. Manel and Albert were rather bemused by the fact that when we meet socially in India, we drink, then eat, then leave. Here apparently they meet, eat, then continue the night over drinks and conversation.
Manel also wanted to know if Indian tourists would be as perturbed as those from the US and UK are when they see locals wander around in the nude on the beaches in summer.
What say folks?
What did he think of Vicky Christina Barcelona?
“Well it’s not all true. I am a Spanish man but I don’t have two women”. Then he broke in to a smile, “but it brings in the tourists. That’s good”
More food. The mother of ham and cheese croquettes…tantalising stuff and then a smoked aubergine dish, similar to babagonoush but topped with anchovies. I told Manel and Albert about the Bengali begun pora which was a smoked aubergine dish too but used mustard instead of olive oil.
For desserts we had a lovely warm creme catalan which was rather different from the frozen one that I had had in Madrid.
“Er this is Catalan” said Manel when I pointed this out.
The other one was very interesting too. A sort of flaky puff with intense dark melted chocolate on it, olive oil and rock salt…this was a seriously grown up dessert…very sophisticated.
We went back to El Velodrama the next night ourselves we liked it so much the first time. On both occasions the place was packed. This time we had a huge plate of the jamon iberico (ham from pork fed only acorns) whose deep distinguished elegant tastes with the bewitching flavours of acorn I have got addicted to. That huge plate wasn’t enough and I have managed to get some vacuum packed jamon home and am opening it in a very miserly fashion.
With that we had the eggs, chips and this time choriz…having your breakfast for dinner is never as a good an idea as it in Barcelona. The folks at Velodroma warmly welcomed us back and plied us with tomato bread and a meat stock broth which was so welcome in the cold.
For dessert our young waiter suggested the strawberry cheesecake. We’ve never had anything like this. The cheesecake was perfectly balanced in flavours and consistency and taste and the ginger biscuit was placed on the side and not at the base!
Yes, El Velodroma was our spot in Barcelona.
We had asked Manel for suggestions on where to bring in my birthday. He pointed us a Martini bar “to drink…which you people do first…we after” and then Greska.
“This is my favourite restaurant. I used to come here in the mornings to learn new kitchen skills.”
The owner of Greska, Manel told me, was into new age Spanish cooking but hated the phrase ‘molecular gastronomy’.
Manel dashed to the restaurant making our booking and then mumbled, “this is my favourite restaurant…if you blog about it, it will become crowded…that’s a problem”.
Well sorry Manel but I have to thank you for this great reco. It was our most expensive meal in our trip but it’s not that we have had not had more expensive meals in India..
What we got for this budget buster of a meal is the sort of meal that one never forgets. The sort of wondrous stuff one sees in Masterchef Australia which is the yardstick for many of us back home. The stuff on TV that teases our senses but we know is not in our reach.
That’s the sort of culinary artistry that adorned our plates that night in this small, no fuss restaurant with a couple of waitresses managing the show and another young woman cooking inside, well trained evidently by the head chef.
Dish one. Egg soufflé with a potato puree. Shaped like a delicate flower which you nudged apart with your fork as a river of golden yolk bathed the airy frothy diaphanous egg white foam shell. Combining with the mystical potato puree and potato pasta. A Stradivarius plate no doubt.
Then came the pigeon with ginger, Manel’s fav. The texture of the meat was celestial. I say this because while it had all the flavours of pigeon and ginger…the texture was something which I had never come across before. I have no idea about what this cooking method was which transformed the meat into something so red so pure and so basic and yet anything but raw.
It was born on a shrine to the gods of cooking.
We felt a bit hungry and the manager requested the chef to make something more for us though they took last orders by 10.30 pm and it was past 11. We were very graciously given a rare steak of veal which was as primordial as meat gets…seasoned just with salt… the great produce being at the centre of this dish. Paired with mustard infused mash.
And the dessert to bring in the birthday? A spicy chocolate cake with spices and tangerines and then the Masterchef Australia redolent petals of flowers. After seasons of food cooked on the show with flowers garnishing them here we were actually having a dessert garnished with flowers.
Does ‘experience of a lifetime’ sound clichéd?
Too bad, for this was one.
We returned to our hotel that night to get an email from Manel.
“I have arranged for a cooking class for you”
I had mentioned to Manel that I had wanted to attend a cooking class in Spain but couldn’t find any that worked for us.
The Genie set off to work.
So the day before we left we headed to Espai Boisa which is close to El Velodrama. It is run by a very lovely couple. The Catalan Pep, a warm host, and his beautiful wife from Venezuela, Claudia. Both worked in the corporate world before and then decided to do something about their love for food and their desire to share their knowledge of local customs with others.
The result, Espai Boisa. A beautiful, airy, meticulously designed cooking studio which had a mix of modern equipment and traditional Spanish furniture with a lovely Mediterranean sit out. Pep was conscious that he was in the city of Gaudi and didn’t compromise on aesthetics even when functionality came in our way. A true believer in the Catalan way of life, Pep regaled us of stories of the countryside where he grew up including that of his dad who would make paella for 40 people at a go. Or of his grandmother who would give people exactly fifteen minutes to get to the table as she cooked her paella. It had to be eaten hot.
Our teacher at Espai Boisa, our guru to Catalan cooking, was Alajandra, a globally travelled chef, originally from Venezuela. A livewire in the kitchen. Humorous. Encouraging. Would explain things and what lay behind them. Would engage with you and suggest options on what to do when at home with no access to Catalan markets. It was more a conversation than a lecture. Alajandra is sort of teacher who would keep breaking into a smile and giving you a hug as if you were one of her two kids at home. While the cooking class was originally meant for me, Alajandra, with her warmth got even K excited as K donned an apron and joined the class and looked even more excited here than when she was in Zara…and that takes a lot.
In class we learnt how to make tortilla or the Spanish omelettes, a seafood salad with Romanesque sauce, a Catalan arroz or rice made with meat, different from the seafood and saffron infused paella from Valencia and therefore brown and not yellow in colour. An amazing bacon, date and walnut starter which, as Claudia pointed out, for some reason is served in weddings but not in restaurants. A brilliant odyssey of contrasting chapters of taste on a toothpick. And of course creme catalan which looked ludicrously easy. Alajandra told us that the difference between creme catalan and the French creme Brule was that the later used vanilla while Catalan was flavoured with the local favourites of cinnamon and orange zest.
In return K told Alajandra how to make batata vada while I told her how to make alu posto.
Cooking lessons were followed by us eating our class work for lunch with some lovely red wine in this entirely organic kitchen.
This class was specially organised for us but from what I understand they offer classes every Wednesday and Saturdays at Espai Boisa which you can join. The rates and availability is on their site.
We would strongly recommend joining this as a way of sampling Catalan food cooked by yourself the ‘right’ way, understanding the philosophy that lies behind it, meet some very wonderful people and to get your bearings about the city.
K and I were wondering where to go for dinner after we finished her Zara and me my El Corte Ingles food store shopping. Which is when I looked in to the list sent by Shamita who had sent me some really good suggestions through the trip on facebook. I decided to go with her number one pick, Paco Meralgo.
Meralgo is halfway between our Hotel Zazz and Velodrama and we cabbed it this time. We walked into the place with its lovely mellow buzz…with the sort of happy sad feeling which one has at the end of a spectacular holiday.
We were seated by this most jovial waiter who, with his broken English, gamely looked after us that evening making us feel completely at home just as Spain had for the last two weeks.
Jamon done the previous day we decided to revisit some of our favourite tapas through the trip which I paired with a spicy Catalan wine that evening.
One of our picks…gambas pil pil…prawns served in a frothing base of olive oil, garlic and wine… to be mopped up with thick chunks of bread. A dish of amazing simplicity which we first had at Gamboa in Granada and which I have successfully replicated at home since.
We then had some steak tartar which we first tasted in the Bern beau Stadium in Madrid…a raw temple of bewitching flesh.
With this we had grilled foie gras. The much revered pleasure of the world of food which I discovered in this trip and to which I gave a part of my heart. The rest went to the jamon. My Vicky and Christina.
We enjoyed this so much that after a rather chewy rabbit on the bone…we repeated the tartare and the grilled foie gras for dessert much to our waiter’s amusement, approval and joy.
So far away from me
It was time to say goodbye to a country which we had made our temporary home for two weeks. A country which had taken us warmly under her wings as we cut ourselves off from the realities and rigours of everyday life. When we switched ourselves off from an art house realism mode to a happy escapist 70 mm screen. Two weeks of colour, joy, richness, big smiles, rediscoveries and of feeling good about ourselves and about life.
Yes, we lost the camera at the end in Mumbai but honestly I remember each snap that we took…engraved in one’s memory to dip into from time to time.
Hell. who am I kidding?
PS: No Vicky, but we did come across someone called Christina towards the end of our trip in Barcelona.
More importantly, K spotted an Iberico Jamon specialist shop at the Barcelona airport and I could have a last nibble of this meat from heaven before we boarded the flight home.