I was recently in Barcelona as a guest of Casa Asia.
I was there for the 3rd International Congress on Asian Tourism where I was invited to speak on how to use Social Media to drive tourism from India. I used our recent holiday to Spain as a case study. A holiday where everything from the choice of destination to the choice of hotels to the choice of walks and the tours and of course, the choice on what and where to eat was driven by social media.
I was really impressed by the fact that the Spanish and Catalonia governments were taking such pains to foster tourism and their focus on Asia was very welcoming. Sitting in a tourism congress was a new experience for me. There was a speaker from Madrid who said, ‘it is time for the tourism sector to develop a soul’. I was quite impressed as I don’t think there would be too many industries where people would bother about the ‘soul’.
As I sat in the conference I wondered if the Indian government would ever learn from the experience of countries like Spain and get really serious about tourism. There is so much that is there in our country. Someone quoted a US government study which apparently said that for every 10 tourist visas that the US issues there is a new job created in the US.
We need to get serious about this in India too.
In the conference one met folks from different countries, cultures and sectors including academics and entrepreneurs. During the coffee breaks we had some interesting chats on immigrant cultures and the cultural differences between the North and South of Europe.
I pointed out some similarities that I saw between Spain and India over my two recent visits. To start with, in Spain folks share food at a table, including in restaurants, as we do in India and large parts of Asia. Apparently in the North of Europe people stick to individually plated meals. Then there is the family orientation of the Spanish which seems to be a lot closer to ours than that of Northern Europe where apparently folks live more nuclear lives.
Then we both have our national rice dishes. Biryani in India, Paella (the ll’s are silent so you say pa-ee-a) in Spain.
Of course, just as there are many versions of biryani, as are there many versions of paella too. Both dishes lead to intense debates in their respective countries about the ‘right’ version. I would like to believe that in India, Calcuttans are the most finicky about their biriyani. Which is of course because that’s the best biryani in the world. The equivalent of the chip on the shoulder Calcuttans in India would be the Valencians in Spain. The difference being that unlike Calcutta which adapted the biryani of Lucknow, Valencia is apparently the home of the paella.
There will be Valencians who say that paella shouldn’t have peas, should definitely have seafood, shouldn’t be too firm…just as we in Calcutta say that Biryani shouldn’t have masala, shouldn’t be veg, should have potatoes.
My sense is that the rest of their respective countries politely indulge both the Calcuttans and the Valencians when it comes to biryani and paella fetishes.
Paella by the beach
I had two great paella experiences this time. First was courtesy Guillermo Martinez of Casa Asia. Guillermo was the one patiently guiding me right up to the trip and the conference and was the key coordinator from Casa Asia’s side. At the end of a successful conference, the very exhausted I am sure, Guillermo kindly said “you are a special guest and I would like to take you out for lunch”.
Turned out that we were in a bit of luck as Guillermo is originally from Valencia and took us to a paella place he approved of. He took us to the beach of Barcelona which K and I couldn’t go to in February as it was too cold then. This time in April there was a pleasant nip in the air, the beach was full of joggers, surfers, happy families… the sky and sea the sort of blue that you have only seen in colouring books…the sand so picture perfect.
“This is a restaurant where tourists go. We will go to the next one where locals go. I don’t know the logic or how it turned out to be this way” said Guillermo.
A bit like the more touristy Leopold in Colaba here versus the favourite of locals, Cafe Mondegar, I guess.
We were at L’escamarla by the beach at Barcelona. So that’s where you should head if you want to go to a Valencian approved paella place.
We started with mussels…cooked for just a minute or so and with every bite tasting of the freshness of our surroundings. I had once heard of a Chinese chef talking condescendingly of his Spanish counterpart in a culinary meet. He scorned the lack of ‘Asian’ culinary art in Spanish cooking which he apparently dubbed as ‘simplistic’.
Well with produce as good as this I don’t blame the Spanish for treating the mussels with such tender, love and care and serving it to us the way mother nature meant things to be.
I wanted to try out the famous Gazpacho and Guillermo ordered one for me. Again all about the freshness and quality of the tomatoes and cucumbers which made this cold soup special. The had served some cucumber and capsicum bits on the side which gave a great textural contrast. Seemed to make so much more sense, and yet be healthy, in contrast to croutons in soup. Just as the Catalan in pan tamate (tomato bread) is in comparison to bread and butter.
Like the mussels earlier, the paella too, was shared by us. In fact in restaurants in Spain, paella orders are normally for at least 2 portions. The paella at L’escamarla had this incredibly buttery texture which came from the starch of rice and the creamy goodness of great seafood…the prawns, squids, mussels….all elevated the dish to a celestial level…on the side was some garlic pureed aioli to give a more rustic flavour.
This paella was the sort of dish that gave supreme pleasure. Then again, I was brought there by Guillermo, an excellent host. A big heart, as i always maintain, leads to a great meal.
The Sunday Family Lunch Paella.
My brush with paella didn’t end with the feast at L’escamarla. The next day I headed to the house of Manel Casanovas. Manel is the Director of Gastronomy for Barcelona Tourism and last time he met us in his official capacity.
This time Manel called me and said “Kalyan, i couldn’t meet you during the week but would you come to my house tomorrow? I will be making paella for my daughters, my wife and a friend. Will you join us. This is not official. This is personal.”
I immediately said yes fully aware how big an honour to be invited home for the Sunday paella which is so precious to Spanish families.
I landed at Manel’s beautiful house close to 2 pm on Sunday.
'”Come Kalyan, we will cook together”.
Now the thing to know about Manel is that he is a trained chef. For two years he used to go to a restaurant called Greska to train in their kitchen before going to work. The result of this was that by the time I had finished chopping one artichoke Manel at Superman speed had cooked the most delectable chicken and cheese croquettes (best i have had and I had many), made tiny fried fish and tossed some mini clams together…aperitif on the lovely balcony by the sun…while the paella got ready.
Manel told me that they normally have dinner in the kitchen but on Sundays it was in the dining room. That’s where Chef Manel brought out his delectable work of art….a squid ink based paella which was again so buttery and creamy thanks to the starch of the rice combining with the fresh seafood which had been cooked with great love.The paella at L’escamarla was good but this was cooked by a Masterchef. The flavours and taste were so majestic, so royal…it was a true privilege to taste this.
Incidentally Manel had put only seafood and not meat as his eldest daughter is ‘vegetarian’. Seems that the Catalan of vegetarian is similar to that of the Bengali one where fish is not really considered to be non-veg.
Lunch done and many hugs and kisses later it was time to say goodbye to Manel’s family as he and I rode off on his bike to see a bit of the city .
Manel looked at my squeamish face and said “Kalyan, many writers (his words) are taken around the city but you are the first to see it on a bike” as we drove away first to a hill for a breath taking view of Barcelona and then down to the city centre, past Universitat and Las Ramblas and the Pakistani quarters which the locals call ‘Kashmir’ to the Moritz Beer factory bar.
Not exactly scuba diving, or air gliding or the bull run but this pillion ride was my Zindagi Na Milega Dobara moment!
As I think back on the recent trip of Barcelona and London, I think of how lucky I have been. For the trips to happen of course. And the love and warmth with which folks at both places welcomed me and made me feel at home. I was truly privileged.
All thanks to blogging in case you needed a reason to start blogging.