Spanish Food 101: Introducción

Hola de España, where the sky is blue, the sun shining, and the food is fresh. The year is 2017 and the month June. I am 26 years old, British, and until three months ago had never set foot in this fair land, a rarity for a British passport holder. Memories of “what I did on my summer vacation” talks primarily consist of the majority of the class regaling us with tales of Iberia. Not I; I walked in mountains.

Food, architecture and fashion are the artifacts of everyday life that tell you about the people. The fashion tells you that it is a hot, body-comfortable country; the architecture that it is a hot country that has been blessed with some genius architects over the last century, less blessed by a dictator over the same period, and walking the line between European and North African throughout its history. Now, to the food.

tapas

Please enjoy this stock photo from Wikipedia that came up on Google images when I typed “Spanish Food”

For all that I enjoy eating out, Spanish food is a great gaping hole in my knowledge. Exhibit O: I only found what a tortilla was in 2015, have never eaten in a tapas restaurant, and the only paella that I have eaten was more of a failed risotto.

So welcome, and join me on my journey out of ignorance.

Note: this is born of my experiences living and eating with a Spanish family, and eating in restaurants with an English person who has lived in Spain for 13 years. It is therefore a subjective journey through Spanish cuisine and not intended as being an actual how-to in Spanish cooking. There are plenty of other websites and books for that. Anything that I haven’t personally tasted will be expressly stated, and other lame disclaimers. 

Como Comer el Español

Or, how to eat like the Spanish.

Mañana, mañana. It’s the Spanish way of life. southern Europe is far more relaxed than we tense northern Europeans. In northern Europe we need to eat – science tells us so – but in southern Europe eating is an event to be cherished, to be loved, to be celebrated.

As such, it is usually late.

Breakfast (desayuno) is (as with the rest of the world) usually eaten when you wake, which for this family during the school holidays is 8am. It is not much of an event. Usually bread with butter and marmalade, or with olive or, or some kind of sugar treat. Based on my experience with Italians, the Portuguese, and now the Spanish, it would seem that the morning is the time to load up on sugar. Biscuits or whatever was bought from the pastelería the day before, and chocolate milk is a perfectly acceptable breakfast for a child.  It’s the teachers I feel sorry for. The bread my host family has is usually a quite standard farmhouse or baguette. The marmalade is made from Seville oranges, I am told. And coffee, always coffee. I eat cereal.

Around midday you may have a piece of fruit or some yogurt, or if you start your day drinking early you may get a tapa or two.

Lunch (comida or almuerzo, depending on where you are. In Catalonia it is comida) is the most important meal, particularly on Domingo. It is served during siesta time, usually around 2pm or 3pm. The day is too hot to do anything else, and shops won’t open again for another couple of hours. This is a full meal, with a primer plato, such as a salad or a soup, as well as a plato principal – your protein of choice. Bread is on the side, and oil is abound. The family tends to have fruit or a sweet treat afterwards. Never have I met such a fruit-loving family.

After a swim, or whatever you do in your afternoon, you may have la merienda, or afternoon snack, some time around 6pm. Mostly this is for children. I am considering myself a child for the next few weeks. More fruit or pastry, or an ice cream (helado) if we’re out and about, and horchata or juice.

Then finally to dinner (cena). For an English person who was advised to not eat after 6pm, this is served impossibly late. Usually it is around 9.30-10.00pm. Last night for the Festa de San Joan, cena commenced at 11pm. Usually cena is smaller than comida, but still encompasses a full meal, though this may be more tapas-y in style. If you have to choose one meal with alcohol for the day, it tends to be cena. For a feast day – lest we forget that Spain is still quite influenced by its Catholic past – such as yesterday, cena is by far and away the biggest meal. I go to sleep at midnight and my body asks me why it must digest food in my sleep. With siestas, I suppose the Spanish must be able to take a two-part sleep enabling a later bedtime. I am yet to develop this skill.

Hands are used for tapas and plates are mopped with bread, but this isn’t Malaysia and cutlery is utilised for meals.

Restaurants of Choice

Now for some blog post padding.

Spain has some of the finest restaurants in the world. I have been to none of them as a) I haven’t spent much time in Spain, b) am not yet wealthy enough to, and c) don’t make plans far enough in advance to secure a table.

Here is a quick whip through three of the most famous, all of which my hosts have visited and generally gave the review “excellent food, but they told us how to eat. I suppose you have to get something extra for the high price you’re paying [even if it is just that you are yet to be sophisticated enough for this type of restaurant]”. Ah the sweet finishing schools of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Cinc Sentits – one star

Contemporary Catalan cuisine in Barcelona. Considered Barcelona’s best restaurant, with Barcelona itself being apparently (to some websites and magazines that have time to consider such things) one of the world’s top food cities (many cities that I have visited this year have made similar claims). It is run by the self-taught chef Jordi Ardal and was established in 2004.

cinc

Cinc Sentits

El Celler de Can Roca – three stars

Back when I was in a sketch group, there was a single sketch performed a single time which referenced El Celler de Can Roca (mostly because it is expensive and sounds terrible when spoken by an English person. Our mouths do not work the same as Spanish people’s as I am learning in my attempts to improve my Spanish and teach children English), and now here I am, a mere 60km from it. It was established in Girona in 1986 by brother Joan, Josep and Jordi, serves ‘creative’ traditional Catalan cuisine, and was voted best restaurant in the world in 2013 and 2015.

celler_1

El Celler de Can Roca

elBulli – three stars

Possibly one of the most famous restaurants in the world when it was open, and even now anyone that seriously considers themselves a foodie (ick) should have encountered elBulli. It was opened in 1964 by Ferran Adrià and closed in 2011 for financial reasons (it’s hard to make a buck in the restaurant biz). Along the way it became renowned as being, and I quote Wikipedia which quotes the Guardian, the “most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet”, specialising in molecular gastronomy. Have it, Heston. There’s a documentary on Netflix, elBulli: Cooking in Progress, about elBulli’s creative team and the launch of creativity centre, which opened in the restaurant’s existing location in 2014 (I gave it 3*, or a half-hearted thumbs up).

elbulli

 

So here begins my delectable journey into the gastronomical delights of the lands of matadors, flamenco, fake Hollywood, and the modernista movement.

Buen Provecho!

 

Advertisements

La Dolce Vita: Hotel Bars

Or, a love letter to the high life.

I have no idea what people spend money on. Or maybe another way to put this is that I spend money on different things to other people.

Among the most common gripes that people have about their lives, money is usually at the top of their list. People that are relatively well off seem to complain more about money than actively poor people in my experience. Maybe this is because actively poor people are in a survival mode whereas (for ease’s sake, I will call them) the upper middle classes have more time to consider that they could have a better blender, and time to visit their friends who have better stuff than them. How fortunate we are to be in a position where we don’t have to worry about whether we will be able to pay bills or feed ourselves every month yet we still stare desolately at our bank accounts worried that it could all go away.

I am probably more guilty of this than most. But my year of not earning and travelling has taught me, if nothing else (and really I have learned a great many things) that people just piss their money away on shite. We are no longer a need society – not in the socioeconomic that I and my peers fall into anyway – and all the hypotheses of my dissertations have come true: as a society we are now fully conflated in the complex web of wants and needs.

If, dear reader, you were wondering what I was doing right now, you’re in luck and I shall tell you: I am au pairing for an upper middle class family near Barcelona. Mother is a doctor and father’s in business. All three children dress almost exclusively in Ralph Lauren. Or Guess Kids. Or any other designer children’s label you can throw a credit card at. Yesterday the mother bought them €100 worth of books. And they all have hobbies and toys and technology and what not. Children are expensive. If you didn’t know that, walk around a Toys R Us or the children’s clothing section of anywhere and take a deep breath. Sure, the family are pretty well off, but they are hardly plush plush. If people can afford to have children, people in general can afford to live a moderately comfortable existence.

Which brings me to bars. Aside from the cost of rent, the biggest shock when moving to London was the cost of drinks. In Manchester there are a handful of bars where you pay over £10 for a cocktail, and usually you’re getting a view or something on fire as an added recompense.

cloud 23

Cloud 23 in the Hilton, Deansgate

In London, it is not uncommon to pay £15 for a cocktail.

“£15 for a cocktail?!” I would spit, were I not drinking a £15 cocktail.

But hotel bars are among my favourite places in the world. Hotel restaurants are also somewhere in this camp, though there is a formality to them which means that you feel that you have to complete your purpose of being there (eating) and then leave.

I am yet to spend the night in a truly nice hotel, otherwise I would conclude that maybe I just really like nice hotels. Like a lot of the great writers. Am I Hemingway? I don’t have a shotgun and my liver is in better condition. Maybe I should put a pause on my love of hotel bars to keep it that way.

The first hotel bar that I went to was The Heights Bar on the 15th Floor of the Saint George’s Hotel. You’re paying for the view. This isn’t the best example to start with. If you’re in the area and want to see the view, go the 15th Floor, look at the view, go downstairs, cross the road and go to the Langham. That being said, the view is rather nice and the champagne cocktails good.

the heights

The Heights, Saint George’s Hotel

artesian the langham

Artesian at the Langham

A sommelier that I momentarily went on a series of dates with recommend Dandelyan at the Mondrian, which I have not gone to for lack of time and inclination. I am told that their bartenders have won several awards. And it’s on the South Bank. How convenient.

dand

Dandelyan

Slumming in a 4* hotel, the 1606 Bar and Lounge at the Rembrandt is my favourite hotel place to go for a coffee when I am soaking wet. I have only ever been in the rain. Both times were before the general election, so politics talk ensued. This isn’t my usual bar chatter, but with coffee you need to up the business. They also have free apples.

1606

1606 at the Rembrandt. Note the TV and difference in 4* and 5*

And now to what was to be the original focus of this post: a love letter to Scarfes Bar. Ah, Scarfes at the Rosewood on Holborn. Frequently cited as one of the best hotels in London, and the Standard’s Best Bar in London for 2017. Usually I write lists off, and in fact I write off most of their list, but this is one they have got right. Maybe it’s because it’s the hotel bar which made me fall in love with hotel bars. Maybe it’s the free water and bar snacks. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, the cocktail list which never disappoints, the bar staff who make me an off-the-cuff cocktail when the list doesn’t exactly match the mood that I’m in, the jazz, the chairs, the decor (a writer loves bookcases), the napkins (which, like pictures on the walls, feature drawings by artist and caricaturist Gerald Scarfe – no prize for making the link between man and name), or all of the above. Here, too, is possibly where I fell in love with London. Few other cities could match this. Few other cities are A++ 5* cities. And the view, were you to bother to stand and look out the window, is of Holborn. A good hotel bar makes you feel comfortable in being separate from the outside world. Here you can be your very own El Comandante (my cocktail of choice. Secondary choices are the Bubble and Shrubs, Bunga-Bunga and Diplomatic Immunity. These names, along with the “potions” book that describes them might otherwise irritate me, but I have a soft spot for dandy indulgence).

scarfes

The sweet splendour of hotel bars. No matter how busy they are, there is an air of seclusion, of privacy, yet of being somewhere, of living. I have no idea what people spend their money on. I don’t really have any idea of what I spend my money on (answer: I mostly save it), but denying myself the great joy of spending evenings in hotel bars is not something that I am blanket prepared to do at this stage in my life. If somewhere enriches and inspires your soul, shutting the door on it is shutting the door on life’s great beauty. My imaginary children will surely understand that they have to settle for Cotton Traders.

 

Everybody Got They Benches Out

Summer is here. I’m in Spain.

London gets much better weather than Manchester. This I learned very quickly on moving to our fair capital. My flatmate warned me that London rained a lot and oh how I laughed, assuring her that I was sure that I would be able to cope. She is from New Zealand, and even after 15 years in England she is still yet to acclimatise.

Better weather means better opportunities for outdoor dining, or al fresco dining if we are to use a European term. On a sunny day in Manchester you would struggle to find a seat outdoors anywhere, whether at a restaurant or otherwise, as every man and his wife/child/uncle/lovechild/friend/loose acquaintance and so on is outside. Castlefield is particularly bad, and Albert’s Shed and Duke’s must make enough money to cover the overheads for most of the year during the three good weather days Manchester gets per annum.

That isn’t to say that London is not busy during sunny days. Of course it is. Like moths to a flame, the British are pulled outside in as few clothes as is socially acceptable to wear in public whenever we get a glimpse of sun. But as London gets more sunny days, there seem to be far more opportunities for outdoor dining than Manchester. That is, good outdoor dining locations rather than the few outdoor chairs and folding tables that most restaurants keep in reserve for smokers and the hope of sunny days. Plus, of course, the more prevalent food market culture in London has trained weekday workers to enjoy sitting outside. Of course, London is bigger to, so a greater quantity of outdoor dining options logically stems from a greater number of dining options in general.

A walk through Clerkenwell, as I often did on my lunch breaks, shows just how ingrained al fresco dining has becoming during the three solid months of summer in 2017. I’m writing this from southern Europe, where al fresco is a way of living. Eating and drinking outside makes you more at one with your surroundings, gives you more of a sense of your place, bathes you in gratitude that you are not trapped indoors – we are animals after all.

exmo

Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell. Courtesy of exmouth.london

Google ‘al fresco dining London’ and you will get a full list of places to eat. I haven’t visited enough to give you a well-rounded recommendation.

For food markets, Southbank was closest to home. Southbank in general is one of my favourite places in London. Full of tourists, yet still very London, with its city vistas; full of people but never crowded. On top of the National Theatre is a rooftop garden with a limited bar. Then Brick Lane Market on a Sunday, where you sit kerbside and feel the pulsing throng of East London.

The most unexpected location for afternoon tea looks to be the Barbican conservatory, which is only open 12-5 on Sundays. Wikipedia tells me that it’s the second biggest conservatory in England, and I am telling you that it is one of the nicer places to read a book “outside” in winter.

barbican

Barbican Conservatory, courtesy of the Barbican. Apparently they do weddings too. Ceremony in St Bart’s, wedding in the Barb.

For proper dining options, I now turn your attention to the hidden city squares of London. Bleeding Heart Bistro in Bleeding Heart Yard, off Farringdon/Hatton Garden, is an evening sun trap and in summer quickly becomes full after its 5.30pm re-opening time. The pavement is cobbled, the square quiet, the food French, and I find myself surprised when I turn the corner on exiting and find myself either on Holborn or in Farringdon.

bleeding

Bleeding Heart Yard. For a business lunch or an evening hunch (??)

And topping most of the al fresco dining recommendations on Google is Boulestin. Here is another Google summary:

“At Boulestin you’ll find classic French cuisine served impeccably in convivial and relaxed surroundings. The French Restaurant in London.”

boulest

Boulestin. 

The French Restaurant in London. Convivial indeed. The food is French and fine (fine like “fine wine”, not a teenager’s response to how their day was), and the outdoor seating area is housed in what is apparently London’s smallest public square. It feels like a private restaurant porch (that is, unremarkable), but then a well-dressed couple saunter through from a Piccadilly jaunt and sure, maybe that is evidence of the public square. How public is a public square if it is so hard to find? The public/private space debate of London wages on. For the midsummer evening that I visited, it was surprisingly quiet, but remained wholly pleasant. Inside was completely empty, but why dine in when “the best outdoor dining space” in London has free seats.

In summary: eat outside, eat French, and the best outdoor dining spaces are the ones where you are outdoors but don’t have to deal with the riffraff of the general public. That’s what park benches are for.

Search for the Perfect Pizza: Chapter

You can also head this “New Openings: Chapter” if you’re into alternative titles.

Something along the lines of “Do you want to be a food taster / come to our launch party / have a job?” but more compelling and attractive was on a banner on the restaurant-formerly-known-as Elsie Mo’s one day in late May. The building had been empty for a year and within seemingly a week of building works was up and running again with a new sourdough pizza restaurant.

Sourdough pizza is very in at the moment. You can see Franco Manca’s ever growing success for more information on that.

“I like pizza and being a food taster sound grand,” is in the neighbourhood of what I wrote in an email, “it’s good that sourdough pizza has made it to Canterbury.”

Sourdough pizza, I immediately found out, had already made it to Canterbury. Ask, the worst of the Italian chain restaurants, has sourdough on its menu and Zintino also specialised in sourdough pizzas. Walking past Zintino the following day, however, showed instead an American diner, surely making it one of the quickest turnovers in one of Canterbury’s difficult retail unit spaces. Or possibly the owner of Chapter, Elsie Mo’s, Zintino and new American restaurant that isn’t yet easily googleable or on TripAdvisor is the same person and has done a straight swap, albeit with different names, of their American and pizza branches. I expect this would be easy to find out, but I’m not a journalist.

As with new American restaurant, Chapter is neither easily Googleable nor is it on TripAdvisor. The name doesn’t stick in the brain, and, aside from my being able to cross “be the first ever customer of a restaurant” off the bucket list, neither does the dining experience. Plus it was free for the tasting.

The waitress recommended the lasagne and garlic bread. She was a picky eater. It is a pizza restaurant.

The menu is limited and I like that. Stick with what you know. Savoury ingredients are all very good, fresh, what you need for Italian food. If you buy bad olives, there’s no hiding when your starter is olives; ditto prosciutto. The garlic bread was indeed good, though garlic bread followed by pizza is very much my Pizza Hut-enthused eleven-year-old self rearing her sloppy self again.

20170602_181630

I am still yet to fully understand the hype about sourdough pizza. They prove it on premises. Good, you have to do that. It is better for your digestion than regular pizza. Great, but still no carbs before Marbs (I am writing this from Barcelona where bread is very much a way of life). I prefer the crust here to Franco Manca but made the mistake of going for a vegetarian pizza. The vegetables were cubed. It was unremarkable and a little overpriced, particularly when comparing to Franco Manca, which I constantly am. The San Daniele is fine and the star of the three tried is the Salsiccia e Friarielli, both of which are made by the good ingredients, with a big shout out to the fennel sausage. I wish I had ordered the Napoletana, though I will go ahead and assume that my worry that it would be too salty (it was at Franco Manca) and enjoy the views towards the Spanish countryside. My how hot it is today, like the pizza when I added the chili  oil (loose, lazy writing).

20170602_185232

I was full prior to dessert and should have skipped dessert, not least because it was a terrible dessert. Had it not been free, I would have sent it back. Even though it was free, I could only eat a quarter of it. There are few things in this world I dislike more than food waste, but the thick, hard pastry was practically inedible and the scorched figs brought little delight. The tiramisu was not a tiramisu. If the tiramisu is how you judge your Italian restaurants (I am semi-inclined to do this), then poor Chapter fails quite spectacularly.  Pierre was recommended the Cantucci e vin santo, then told that it wasn’t available. The chocolate pot that he got instead was the standout dessert. It’s not hard to do a chocolate pot.

All the critiques I give Chapter are said with love and reserve. This was an opening night, so mistakes are to be expected. The staff were friendly, if not a little overwhelmed, and it is one of Canterbury’s better restaurant spaces. Wood, large, a lot of light, casual with rustic charm as the estate agents might say. Time will tell if a restaurant can finally make this space work.

A nice place, I expect, to drink and snack in the afternoon. For pizza, as ever, A Casa Mia.

Forza!

Chapter, 11-12 Burgate, Canterbury.