I was in Barcelona recently on my way back from a safari in Kenya. The contrast of being out in the bush in the Maasai Mara and then thrust into the urban intensity of Barcelona was rather jarring. I adjusted to this new environment by indulging heavily in what Barcelona is rightfully known for -- great food and wine. After an incredible night at the ever-fabulous tapas bar Cal Pep, we stumbled into the Boqueria Market the next day for 'breakfast' at Bar Pintxo. It was 10:30 AM and the place was teeming with tourists and locals alike.
Though neither of these places is news to anyone who travels the world looking for good food, both have the most wonderful combination of delicious simple dishes that makes me wonder how Barcelona can still wow me in the way that it does. I live in San Francisco, one of the greatest food cities in the world, no one can argue that, but there is something in how the Barcelonians delight in their ingredients that makes me wonder how something so simple can be so good?
Let's just take for example sardines, anchovies and squid. These are a staple of the Barcelona food scene -- something I look forward to eating when I go there because they are ubiquitous, everywhere in every shape, size and preparation -- en escabeche, salted, pickled, in tins, fried with guts and without.
But here in the Bay Area, do we appreciate food the way that they do in Barcelona? I often serve these same items which are abundant, local and sustainable at Jardinière, but truth be told they are still a hard sell, particularly the sardines and anchovies. Maybe it is because so many people have strong icky memories of what was served in their youth, but it makes me as a chef want to convince people to leave behind their preconceived notions, trust our dishes and know that we are only going to serve you something great.
Which brings me back to the breakfast scene at the Boqueria Market. We were seated at the counter with solo female diners on either side of us, both probably in their late sixties and most likely local. The woman to my left started her meal with a sweet roll, coffee, braised veal cheeks, garbanzo beans with blood sausage, followed by a nice big bowl of tripe. The woman to my right also dug into a bowl of steaming tripe served with a healthy glass of Albariño. Both of them went with the recommendations of the extremely animated and charming proprietor Juanito, they trusted him and didn't seem to care that it was only 10:30 in the morning!
I so wanted to join them but was feeling a bit tender after too many mojitos and glasses of white wine from the night prior. I went with some fried Padrón peppers and a big bowl of the garbanzos and blood sausage, but held off on the wine. I just wasn't ready for an ambitious Barcelona breakfast like they were enjoying, so opted out of the tripe and Albariño that morning.
Throughout my stay in Barcelona, I ate so many great things. We feasted on tiny fried fish with a fried egg on top; shrimp a la plancha, octopus, many different sizes and preparations of squid, and sardines (both grilled and cured) with pan con tomate. We had a delicious shrimp and rice dish (it was just that -- shrimp and rice and nothing else) prepared paella-style. We also did a little of the Spanish modern thing at 41 Degrees, where we were served amazing little bites 0- the highlight of which was Jamon Iberico with Air Baguette. They also made beautiful cocktails that were tasty with elements I had never encountered, including a delicious Margarita with Salt foam that was like a whisper of the sea on top. (I thought this was fabulous even though I am not at all keen on foam.) As I ate my way through Barcelona I was happy to find both the classic dishes that make me want to come back again and the inspired new food concepts I rarely find in other places.
We may have a lot going on in the Bay Area food-wise, but I was so inspired by the food in Barcelona, particularly the ladies in the Boqueria Market that morning -- the way they enjoyed their food that day, regardless of the hour, drinking the wine without guilt, and trusting the proprietor for steering them the right way and ultimately giving them a most pleasurable dining experience. It made me think about appreciation and how in Barcelona I had ample amounts of this quality. I continue to ask myself how we can appreciate things here with as much gusto as they do there?