Spanish Food 101: Arroz

A culinary journey through Spain via the unparalleled medium of informal oral testimonies. This is written in English. If you would like a Spanish/Spanglish translation may I recommend reading slower, louder, and adding the letter “o” intermittently to the end of words. This is the fourth part in the series of this crash course in Spanish cuisine. An introduction to this tale can be found by clicking here, and you can see the earlier forays of this adventure by scrolling down and reading more of this blog, which I would recommend that you do anyway. 

As a proud half Chinese person, I am always at least half willing to sing the praises of rice, one of our finest grains and the most widely eaten food in the world. This being the case, it is a wonder that so many people cook it poorly. Not the Spanish though, no, far from it. One of their national (and by national I mean a dish that someone would list if they were to think of food from Spain) dishes uses it as its base ingredient. Far different from the types of rice I had growing up, but different is scarcely a bad thing.

 

Paella

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Paella on the terrace. Living my best life.

“Did Sophia like the paella?” asked the Abuela to the children.

“She liked it so much,” replied Olivia, “that she finished every single grain of rice on her plate. And had two helpings.” – a poorly translated non-verbatim translation from a Spanish conversation during a car journey.

Ah yes, paella. Pie-yay-ah. What good is a Spanish food blog if it were not to feature paella. They say that the best paella is in Valencia, where it originated, but I challenge you to give you a paella better than the one that I tried in Vilassar de Dalt. Homemade on a summer’s day, accompanied by a tinto.

This paella came with everything. Rice (of course), prawns, mussels, squid, cuttlefish, chicken, duck, (“pollo y pato!?” exclaimed the Abuela) pork, peppers, olives, and beans. Muy bienMuy, muy bien. 

Timing, they say, is everything. This was cooked on a special paella dish, of course, with a special gas burner brought in for the occasion. Once the ingredients have had their first preparatory cook, all should be left to simmer for eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes. Remember that, for I have been told that it is this that is the real secret to a good paella.

And my was it good.

The last time that I can remember having a paella was in Greece. It wasn’t my paella, but my friend couldn’t finish it because it was too much like a risotto. Indeed it was, but I quite like a risotto. Paella beats it for me. The fresh seafood. The complexity of flavourings.  The fact that it is an occasion in Spain.

“On the third Sunday of the month, we will have paella. Make sure you are around.” I did.

Another au pair for another family apparently proclaimed that the paella she tried was just the same as that she tried in America. The one she tried in America was just with chicken, and in America. She has now left Spain. For something unrelated, but it is a better story that this type of sacrilege is reason enough for deportation, and so that is how I will end this story.

 

Arrosejat

receta-arrosejat

The dish that is possibly the reason that I decided to start this Spanish food writing endeavour, which has become a much bigger task than I had anticipated.

“Next week we have paella.”

“Believe me, I know. It’s highlighted in my calendar.”

“Yes. Well for now this is paella for the poors. It is just the rice with some fish stock.”

And served with aioli.

This dish originated from fishermen, men who have likely always come somewhere under the economic umbrella of “the poors”, especially considering how hard they worked.

At the end of a fishing trip, fishermen would have found that they had a number of fish which were too small to sell. What to do with these fish? They are still caught, and as the old adage goes: waste not want not. And they did not. They used the smaller and poorer quality fish to make stock, and would then use the stock to cook arrosejat. The next day they might have a stew or similar with the remainder of the fish bones, but “nutrient stew” doesn’t travel well through time, especially as it is liable to replaced by “nutritious, more palatable stew” at a later date.

Arrosejat stayed. And it is best served as a side to seafood.

 

Arroz de la Cubana

arroz-a-la-cubana

The salsa which my arroz de la cubana was served with looked less pureed than the representation in the above photo. Imagine a chunkier, less garishly red salsa.

Here’s a dish for the kids. Sausages, tomato salsa, eggs and rice. It harked back to the nasi lemak of my Malaysian breakfasts, and the sausages, eggs and chips of my childhood. In a more traditional Cuban style, it would be served with a fried banana. But this isn’t Cuba, and banana isn’t a main course in mainland Europe. Supposedly it is also popular in the Philippines, which would go some way to explaining the nasi lemak similarities.

A simple, moderately spicy dish for the kids. Not to be confused with the cubano, a merienda drink for the kids.

Spanish Food 101: Ensaladas y Verduras, Le Secunda Parte

Read the first part of ensaladas y verduras here

 

Pimientos de Padrón

pimientos de padron

A more aggressive, quick and surprising thing to do with a pepper. Galician padrón peppers range from sweet to fiery, yet on the outside they all look the same (theme for another children’s book?).

Heat some olive oil until practically smoking. Throw in the pimientos. Fry until they blister. Take them off the heat. Throw on some salt and pepper. Mix. Put them on a plate. Serve immediately. Try not to scald your fingers. Play the low-stakes roulette of whether you’ll be getting a sweet or fiery pepper. Enjoy. Action! Action! Action! Peppers! Peppers! Peppers!

Pisto de Verduras

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A Spanish equivalent of the more famous French ratatouille. I imagine a Pixar film called ¡Pisto! (it would need the exclamation point) wouldn’t have gone down so well – a lot can be said for branding, and this must be one of the few words that sounds better in Spanish than French. In my attempts to learn Spanish, I have concluded that French and English people have quite lazy mouths, while the Spanish and Italians have more active, passionate mouths, which is pleasing to the ear and a good mantra for the self.

“This is the vegetables incredible!”

is the verdict of the son, who said this as he scooped another spoonful onto his tostada.

A rustic Spanish dish served year-round either hot or cold. Fry up diced aubergine, courgette, onion, peppers, garlic and chopped onions, leave to simmer, season with oregano, salt, pepper, aceite and, optionally (an option that we did not go for), eggs ¡ya està! there you have it. Try this with or without the help of a cartoon rat, or, as we are in Spain we shall say mouse in homage to their Mexican hermano Speedy Gonzalez. ¡Pisto! con Speedy Gonzales: potential title of a kids’ cooking show.

 

Guacamole

guacamole-recipe

Technically a Mexican dish, though the first time (that I know of) that I ate guacamole cooked by a Mexican person was in Spain. We spent a morning at the market in Carboneras picking out vegetables. The price difference between very good avocados and relatively standard avocados was around €3 per kilo. The Mexican’s girlfriend stole three oranges from a stall we had just spent €30 at and she seemed inordinately proud of this; it’s the little things in life, and those oranges tasted all the more sweet because of it even though we had ready access to free oranges on nearby trees.

The Mexican guacamole was the spiciest that I have ever tasted and, yes, the best. Whether I consider it the best because it was made by a Mexican person and subconsciously I think it should therefore be so or because it was actually the best I have ever tasted is an argument I’m not willing to have with myself. Chunky, spicy, and with 80% superior avocados, and the remaining 20% standard for bulk.

With the family, the avocado was very mild, smooth, somewhat sweet, and a rather vibrant pea green. Here lies the difference between a guacamole for a child’s palate and for a fiery adult’s.

To hell with the $10 Whole Foods guac. Guacamole tastes better homemade.

Spanish Food 101: Ensaladas y Verduras, La Primera Parte

A culinary journey through Spain via the unparalleled medium of informal oral testimonies. This is written in English. If you would like a Spanish/Spanglish translation may I recommend reading slower, louder, and adding the letter “o” intermittently to the end of words. This is the third part in the series of this crash course in Spanish cuisine. An introduction to this tale can be found by clicking here, and you can see the earlier forays of this adventure by scrolling down and reading more of this blog, which I would recommend that you do anyway. 

Onto the more healthy eating. The Mediterranean diet* is often cited as among the healthiest diets in the world. Indeed, if you ignore the stomach virus that I have been going through these past few days, I can scarcely think of a time that I have felt better. Everything is cooked from scratch using fresh ingredients, the only oil they use comes from the magnificent olive (aceituna or oliva), and all meals are served with a side of ensalada or verduras, or both.

The nearby town of Premià de Mar has an annual festa pirata, or pirate festival; surely their pirates would never have suffered from scurvy, especially when you add the family’s love of fruit to this loose comparison.

*What is the ‘Mediterranean diet’ or the ‘Mediterranean’ really? Spain sits beside the Balearic yet we still call it the Mediterranean, and the cuisine of the Mediterranean covers Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, Mahgrebi, Levantine and Ottoman food. It’s this type of specificity that I lost love in life.

 

Ensalada Mixta

ensalada

Mixed salad. The staple of the table. The durable, changeable, simple salad which acts as accompaniment to the plato principal or the primer plato unto itself. Lettuce is the base, then add your choice of  pimiento (pepper), tomate, radish (I have never eaten so much radish in my life), cucumber, olives, onions, green beans, or frijoles. Then drizzle with aceite y vinagre as you like and you have yourself a salad. The tuna in the picture is not representative of the salads that I have had.

In my attempt to try to learn more life skills I have been reading a number of listicles. Illuminating as they undoubtedly are, they advise learning how to make salad. I am yet to meet anyone who is unable to make a salad. If you know anyone who doesn’t know how to make a salad (a salad for goodness sake), please write to me. Other advice included “being able to shake hands”, “being able to talk to others”, and “knowing how to dress”. Illuminating.

If the time of year is right, you might also add calçots, a special Catalan spring onion which they love so much that they even have an annual celebration in honour of their harvest. To eat them traditionally, as you would do at the Calçotada (celebration), you barbecue them until charred, wrap them in newspaper to steam, peel the skin, and dip the remainder in romesco sauce. But my visit hasn’t coincided with calçot season, so here I am lumping it in with salad after coming across it as a note in my notebook.

 

Ensalada Rusa

Ensalada rusa

The salad for those of you who are feeling that salads are too healthy. Trust the Russians, eh.

I recall once passing a window on a lunchtime where a man was drowning (drowning) his salad in salad dressing. So close yet so far to achieving the aim of healthy eating.

Ensalada Rusa (Russian salad) is potato, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, olives, parsley, and tuna, all chopped, mixed and slathered with (handmade) mayonnaise. Extra mayonnaise was available on the side in our case, and it was served with nachos.

The kids liked it a lot. So parents, take note, all you need for kids to eat their greens is some healthy, hearty mayonesa.

 

Escalivada

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A simple labour of love, and, in my humble opinion, las mejores verduras. Considering there seems to be escalivada on the table during at least half of the mealtimes each week, it would seem that the parents agree, too. This is also one of the few dishes that was made by my hosts in both Andalusia and Catalunya. In fact, maybe the only if we do not accept cheese and bread as a meal.

My host in Andalusia excitedly told me about how crazy the Spanish were with this one “great, two-ingredient dish that was so simple and so mad”. That dish was Escalivada, and it is an accompaniment more than a dish, though with all the diets that are already out there in the world we might as well throw an exclusively-escalivada diet into the mix too. The “madness” that he was specifically referring to was that the first step in making the dish is frying it in a pan without any oil. The rest of the world uses oil, and the Spanish love oil more than the Texans, so to fry something without oil is frankly mind-boggling. Like many culinary trends in Spain, this came from a period of war and/or famine, when olive harvests were scarce or farmers otherwise preoccupied. You dry-fry the pimientos for 10-15 minutes, then oven roast them until the skin is blackened.

Yes, you roast them. In oil. My Catalunyan hosts do not do the dry-frying step, so I think my English host in Andalusia may have either been had or frankly just incorrect.

After roasting, watching, turning, and roasting some more, you take them out of the oven, wrap in newspaper and plastic bag and cool for another hour or so. Once cooled comes the therapeutic or infuriating task (depending on your disposition) of peeling the blackened vegetables. The mother spent half an hour doing this the first weekend that I arrived. She was very excited for me to try it. I was mildly excited to try it, though, more than this, was enthralled at the amount of effort that went in to cooking a vegetable. I am a lazy cook, but Spain more than anywhere else (possibly because I have enquired more about their food than elsewhere) has taught me that if you put in a pinch of effort and a dash of love, even the most simple ingredient can come alive; food is more than a vessel for nutrition after all.

“Have more, have more, the children won’t eat, is food for adults” she said, as I shovelled more and more onto my plate.

The family serves red bell pepper and aubergine escalivada, but you can also use this method on tomatoes, onions and, like my Andalusian host, green pepper. After roasting and peeling, you finish with yet more oil, a dash of salt, and a smile on your face.

The peppers have a sweet kick, and for the aubergines this method brings out the punch of the otherwise quite bland vegetable.

The simplest things are often the best (this is my subtle way of throwing shade at the croquembuche and some of my sentences). Grilled vegetables; a phoenix from the ashes – with escalivar being Catalan for “to cook in ashes”.

 

Find more on ensaladas y verduras in part two.

Spanish Food 101: Pescado y Mariscos, La Secunda Parte

Find the first part of pescado here or by scrolling down.

 

Almejas de Afeitar

razor clams.jpg

I have just read the following description of razor clams which makes me think that I need to up my adjective game: “phallic sand dwelling creatures from outer space”.

The mother thrust the plate at me and declared “taste this. They are the best. What you call in English?” (after some time, with this being a rare sighting of them for me and my word recollection laying dormant) “Razor clams.” “They are the best. Taste.”

Indeed, they were the best of the offerings on this Saturday seafood soiree. Sweet and salty and served in a garlic, onion (or scallion) sauce, maybe with a splash of white wine. The pile of discarded shells loomed high on my plate as I left to wash my hands, triumphant.

 

Crayfish / La Cigala

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I couldn’t quite get the right picture of the steamed crayfish I had so here is a picture of a crayfish. Like the razor clams, which I had at the same meal and so may suggest that I was tired or drunk, I forgot the English word for crayfish, going first through “prawn?” “big prawn?” and “crawfish”, the last being technically correct if I were from the American south. It was lightly fried and served in a light onion sauce and I cut one of my fingers open de-shelling.

I admire that the Spanish serve their seafood whole, or, to put it another way, hold some resentment towards British food suppliers for serving us censored, blanded animals which makes our knowledge of what an original animal product looks like quite limited: what does a plaice look like? bacon comes from pigs?? What came first, consumer disgust at looking at an animal’s eye and tail, or a savvy wholesaler who realised that they can sell worse produce if it no longer resembles the animal. This point aside, crayfish is fine and I don’t eat them nearly often enough.

For when prawns won’t do and there isn’t occasion enough for lobster.

 

Anchoas

tapa-de-anchoas

I enjoy how unappetising and functional the above picture makes my favourite tapa dish look. In a bar outside of Carboneras I had anchoas on bread served with a dollop of what I think was creme fraiche. It is so far the only dish that I have tried to recreate at home.

Anchoas are a quick and simple addition to many dishes and are popular to eat on their own. I have yet to see any Spanish people kiss in public. Maybe this is why. So keen are they on anchoas that many people even vinegar the critters themselves.

Mostly caught in the south, and indeed they did taste better in Andalusia than in Catalunya. Due to their preservation process, though, they are quite fine to eat anywhere.

 

Sardinas a la Barbacoa

sardinas

A 7pm thunderstorm doesn’t affect barbecue dinner plans. Take a lesson, England: rain hard and fast so we can get on with our lives.

The Portuguese are the biggest sardine lovers that I have come across, but the Spanish come a close second. They are cheap and tasty: what’s more to want. The first time I ate non-tinned sardines I believe was at a campfire on the beach near Almería. (n.b. fires and camping on the beach in Spain are both quite illegal).

At the family barbecue, plates upon plates of wee sardines were brought out. Then two bass (lubina), which I previously regarded as my favourite fish but either the barbecuing of bass is underwhelming, bordering on bland, or sardines are the tastier fish. Quite a meaty fish. Along with mackerel, it is possibly the one that I would most recommend for fish sceptics (for lack of a better term).

The best way to eat them is with your hands. This may not make it ideal first date food, but I wasn’t on a first day. And your hands may be left smelling fishy, but is that not the real smell of success?

 

Ostras y Almejas

civera-marisquerias

Ostras: a favourite for the fancy set the world over. The parents went on an anniversary meal to a Galician raw food restaurant. The downstairs of the restaurant was a traditional Galician restaurant, while the upstairs showcased their pandering to trends. Raw oysters were €5. I was told they were very fresh (they should be) and were served with a slightly picante sauce.  Raw is the more popular way to eat them. This is my preference as well, and I have worked in the oyster industry for one heady, youthful summer. The texture puts a lot of people off, but the taste, one of the purest tastes of the sea, certainly makes up for it.

Almejas, or clams, are served steamed as a dish on their own, with a light wine and onion sauce similar to that of the razor clams, and also added to dishes, most notably and enjoyably the paella. In my experience, the poor clam seems to be the most forgotten of the shellfish, with people tending to have a preference for mussels or oysters. Except maybe the Italians with the marvellous spaghetti a la vongole. Oftentimes it is to do with the quality of the ingredient. We need better clam suppliers.

Oh, clam, you are fine and don’t you forget it.

 

Mejillones

mejillones

As a child I would eat mussels by the bagful (the mussels bought from the supermarket came in a bag). Keeping with my “inner child is your true self” it came as no surprise that Spanish mussels are wholly enjoyable to me. Typically they have been served with salsa de tomate, or a squeeze of limón. And, of course, in paella.

No mussel stories. No mindblowing differences for Spanish mussels. Just their usual good selves. Mussels for your muscles. You deserve it.

 

Lubina al Horno

receta-lubina-al-horno-al-limon.jpg

Here is a note that I left to myself which you can now enjoy: Christmas Day is Navidad. Christmas Eve is Nochebuena. Epiphany Día de los Reyes Magos, and the most important day for children during the holiday period as this is when they get the most presents.

For a long time, sea bass was my favourite fish and I would rarely go to a restaurant which had bass on the menu and not end up ordering it. Over time, either from overexposure or getting a more rich palate, my love of sea bass has slowly begun to mute.

In Spain, I have only eaten lubina during the sardinas barbecue and at a meal with manta ray. Both times I preferred the other fish. Bass, alas, is quite bland. Gone are the days where I would describe my culinary life as “bland and tepid”.

And now an explanation for the first paragraph of this segment. The father usually cooks lubina al horno for Christmas Day. And sometimes turkey. Christmas Day  in Spain doesn’t have the rigorous dining traditions of the UK and the US. Maybe this is because we have less of a dining tradition in the rest of the year, so on the handful of times that we have a tradition we stick to it hard. Talk to me about turkey and roast potatoes and pigs in blankets and parsnips, heck, even Brussels sprouts. I shan’t be ordering the bass.

 

Manta Ray

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Con lubina, tomates y pimiento

If this picture and my lunch experience are anything to go by, it is quite common to serve manta ray with bass. It is relatively oily for a white fish, but if you serve it with a pepper it cuts through a little. A nicely rounded fish. If not a little flat in the water.

 

Lenguado a la Meuniére / Sole

Lenguado

A conversation that came about as a result of my broken Spanish.

Question I intended to ask: you mostly eat fish. Is fish much more expensive than meat? In the UK it’s notably more expensive.

Question I actually asked: what is the most expensive fish?

No sé.” Was their first response. Then a gap. Then they told me about sole. In Catalunya it has for the last thirty years or so been relatively popular among mothers as it is generally one of the more well-liked fish for children. Demand is high, so the price is high. In other parts of the country, the fashion for sole hasn’t caught on so much so it is cheaper.

The popularity in Catalunya may be somewhat explained in the influence that France has had over the region. The typical way of cooking the sole is a la meuniére, very similar to sole with beurre blanc.

 

Percebes / Barnacles

percebes

Blistering Barnacles! A phrase I finally understand the meaning of.

The father bit a barnacle and sucked it out its shell.

The mother snapped the barnacle and got covered in its juice.

I laughed. Then did the same.

The father told us to bite. I bit. She didn’t. I got covered in the juice of her barnacle. Extra laundry for me that day.

More appetising to the palate than to the eye, though a taste of the sea for both for where else on earth would something that looks as such come from.

The children weren’t keen. For children to like something you have to get at least two of the following: taste, texture, look, frequency.

A special treat for the grownups during the fin de semana will give the children nightmares.

 

And, as an extra treat for you and for me:

Thai Seafood Extravaganza

Seafood.JPG

My mother has an ex-work colleague who lives in Barcelona. His wife owns a Thai restaurant. She arranged for me to meet him, and he invited me to his restaurant.

The menu was quite extensive, so I did what I always do and ask what they recommended. He asked what I liked. I replied seafood, and said he’d come up with something.

To start was a light Thai prawn salad. Lovely. Work your way through those shells.

Next came the seafood platter as presented in the above picture. I finished it, save two clams (alas, poor clams).

“What did you think?”

“Really good.”

“Fresh yes?”

“Yes. You’re very lucky in Barcelona to have such good seafood. But it’s not very spicy for Thai food.”

“No, we get quite a few complaints because Spanish people can’t handle spicy so we only give it to them spicy if they ask for it.”

Catering for western palates is he ruination of cuisines. Fair enough, it’s good to try new foods and if you can’t handle spicy food it may limit your options and if the demand isn’t there then the supply will have to do something about it or face closure. But to only make something spicy, to make it authentic and better, if you specifically ask for it seems a great shame. That they had to change their style because of complaints that the Thai food tasted, well, like Thai food is a minor culinary travesty.

Saying this, I can’t have too much spicy food and so this was one of the most enjoyable Thai dining experiences I’ve had. Al fresco on a terrace before going to the Magic Fountain and reminding myself again that touristic areas make me uneasy. Then back again for a beer.

Consider this a plug for Thai food in Barcelona: Thai Siam, Carrer de Béjar, 64, 08014 Barcelona. thasiam.cat +680 96 56 35.  Near Parc de Joan Miró.

Spanish Food 101: Pescado y Mariscos, La Primera Parte

A culinary journey through Spain via the unparalleled medium of informal oral testimonies. This is written in English. If you would like a Spanish/Spanglish translation may I recommend reading slower, louder, and adding the letter “o” intermittently to the end of words. This is the second part in the series of this crash course in Spanish cuisine. An introduction to this tale can be found by clicking here, and you can see the first foray of this adventure by scrolling down and reading more of this blog, which I would recommend that you do anyway. 

On coming to meat-loving Spain, some vegetarians split the difference and become pescatarians. I have only been to coastal Spain and they are certainly a fish and seafood-loving people. My host family even have a full set of fish knives and forks. I realise a lot of people probably have fish cutlery, but it hasn’t been a particularly common occurrence in my life thus far. In this last month, I have certainly used fish knives far more than in the rest of my life combined. One of their freezers is completely full of assorted fish. I’m grateful to have found a family that love fish as much as I do, and that they are much more formal in their appreciation and dining habits.

I remember on my first day in this house the mother showed me the cutlery drawer during a tour of the house and started to tell me what to use each of the items for. Now, you may think that this is a little patronising, but there were two full drawers and they do have rather specific cutlery (watermelon forks? Watermelon forks.)

I have been very fortunate in having Spanish hosts by the coast, where fish and seafood that is just two hours out of the sea is readily available. It would be a damn travesty to not revel in the wonder of the treasures of the sea. Such variety, such vigor, la comida para la buena vida.

And remember: ‘pesces’ en el mar pero ‘pescado’ en el plato (‘pesces‘ when a fish is in the sea, but ‘pescado‘ when the fish is on the plate).

 

Angula

anguila

Angula, or baby eel, is a Spanish delicacy which “I say no-one at this table has tried the real ones”. Apparently real angula costs around €1,000 per kilo. Thankfully one smart company has reproduced them, in looks at least, using pulverised fish. The only visual clue that they are not real angula is that they don’t have eyes, but the family commented on how impressed they were that the colouring of the top and bottom of the eel was reproduced.

Fake angula has a taste not dissimilar to, though milder than, seafood sticks, and was sauteed in oil and garlic. For real angula, San Sebastián is the place to go after a quick chat with your credit card company.

 

Atún a la Plancha

Atun-a-la-plancha-con-verduras-3

In brief, this is the family’s most often cooked fish dish. I would say favourite, but you can’t conflate ‘often’ and ‘favourite’ as you have to consider that ‘ease’ and ‘cost’ comes into ‘oft’, and if it happens to be your favourite as well then, why, that is simply some good luck, friend. Healthier than frying and quicker than cooking al horno, a la plancha is the cooking method for the modern woman.

I have a friend who doesn’t like fish. There is much more to his personality than this, but it’s not relevant for this particular segment. Now, were I to recommend a type of fish to him as a gateway fish, I would recommend a tuna steak. Heck, it even has steak in the name. Or maybe I would recommend mackerel, but no, for the purpose of this segment I would say “friend, you should eat a ton of tuna” (plus that helps you remember how to say tuna in Spanish).

Forget your sad tuna and sweetcorn sandwich from Sainsbury’s. Throw away your John West cans. A lightly oiled tuna steak will ignite seafaring dreams for even the most hardy landlubber. Serve with a salad, grilled verdurasescaliveda, or whatever your creativity compels you to.

Eating a filete de atún with a fish knife and the ensuing remnants of the bone and skin on the plate is one of my most vivid food memories of Spain. Take from that what you will.

 

Merluza Hervida

merluza

“I don’t like. It takes no effort.” One of the pitfalls of being a good cook is that expectations are high. The father of the family is on the whole quite an exceptional home cook, and his children have come to expect as much at every mealtime. So when one day he made a hake stew, the son commented that this dish wasn’t complex enough and that it was for poor people.

I like fish and I like stews, so a fish stew was perfectly enjoyable to me. Indeed, hake is one of the cheaper fishes and thus can stand being boiled asunder. The stew usually contains carrots, potatoes, onions and peas, as well as additional fish stock. For a simple stew it remains quite rich, tasting more highly seasoned than I would have expected. The somewhat rubberiness of the texture of the fish is overcome with its luscious moistness – fine, it’s a stew, but I have had many a dry fish stew.

 

Salmón: Sashimi o a La Plancha

salmon sashimi

“A la plancha or sashimi?” is a question that I feel wouldn’t have been asked of European children under the age of 13 ten years ago, and it would have been even less likely that they would all answer “sashimi”. But this is 2017, and it happened.

The family tells me that the only restaurant they like going to in Barcelona is a Japanese place. When I was 6, 8 and 12, my restaurant of choice would have been a Pizza Hut or a burger place (to paraphrase Marina O’Loughlin, children should have terrible taste). Kids have got fancier, though I remain the same. I would have preferred a la plancha (cooked on an iron plate) but majority rules, and to be fair it was more to do with my apprehension of home-prepared raw fish, a fear that I needn’t have had. We all, children included, dipped the sashimi in soy sauce and wasabi, dining in the sunshine.

As with most everywhere that I have been in the world, Japanese cuisine is proving popular here in the Barcelona suburbs. In Andalusia I also went to a sushi restaurant which also served dim sum, meaning that they did neither particularly well, but passably enough for Spain’s Hollywood.

 

Calamares a la Romana

calamares-a-la-romana-con-cerveza-1-1024x576

Or just plain old “fried calamari” in plain old England. When I was a kid (it takes nothing more than three weeks with children who were born after 2010 to make this thought come into your head more than several times a week) we had fish fingers. Now the kids are all about calamares a la Romana. Even the picky-eating cousin found herself going back for more and more. Squid? For children? Saying this, I believe that I liked squid as a child when going to Chinese restaurants I indulged in some squid, relishing in my exoticism.

But for Spanish – and I suppose Italian, as the a la Romana suffix suggests – children, calamari, breaded or not, is a more common part of the cuisine. They haven’t had to wait many decades for Waitrose to penetrate the depths of society and push sophisticated cuisine on us.

The children love it. I love it. Captain Birdseye’s vessel sinks.

 

Pescaíto Frito

pescaito frito

I don’t give a frying fish. I reiterate my comment about fish fingers from above. Here, fried fish is what it says on the tin, but not the tin as the fish are fresh and this is a blog. Take a whole sardiña, cover in a flour/egg batter, fry, serve, and watch the children eat with a fork and fish spoon, elegantly placing the bones at the side of the table.

Serving fish frito, as with serving meat frito is simply a way of making it more palatable for children. Good fish shouldn’t be fried: advice my mother gave me in the form of criticising a restaurant for ruining a perfectly good sole. Mother knows.

To do it the more Andalusian way, you can leave the fish (dark fish) in a vinegar and garlic sauce for two days or so beforehand. The family didn’t enjoy this so much. They are an a la plancha people.

 

More on pescado in part two.

Spanish Food 101: Carne, La Secunda Parte

Find the first part of carne here or by scrolling down.

Cerdo

cerdo

The family’s choice meat for cheap and cheat days (it is pork, not chicken, which serves this purpose, as you will read later and indeed are reading right now). The cuts for cooked pork are chuleta de cerdo (pork chop) or lomo (loin).

Like the steak, it is usually cooked a la plancha, chicken fried, or pan fried. Add a little bit of oil, a pinch of salt, chop some cebollas y/o hongos and badabing badaboom you have yourself some meat.

No stories to go along with this, so I will take this moment to talk about the Dukan diet, which the mother loosely follows.

“I am forty-five and have had three children. My body gets fatty. When I was young I was thinny, but my body is not the same any more. When I was 26, I could eat what I wanted and swim or run and my body remembers [how to lose fat].”

Dukan is similar to Atkins in that it champions protein and limits carbs. Following these basic rules, she avoids deep fried foods, bread, and pasta and rice for the majority of the time. Her meat and fish is always cooked a la plancha, and the desserts are limited. She’s in great shape, but women are always hard on themselves and their bodies. You see a slim woman, you are seeing a woman who is practicing denial of desire in some form. I am now going to give the mother a yoga lesson, so we can assuage some of this food indulgence. And later, nadaremos hasta la boya en el mar.

A quick aide memoir for how to pronounce my name:

Donde es Sophia?

Ella esta en la playa.

While I was Googling proper Spanish names for the cooking style, I also came across Chicharrón, an Andalusian dish which is generally made of chopped, fried pork belly or rinds. I didn’t try this. My arteries are thanking me.

 

Jamón

jamon

Cured ham.

Here is one of my favourite exchanges from the past year. It is both informative and highlights how devoid some people are of lateral, or non-literal, thinking:

“Did you know that Jamón Ibérico  means ‘fuck off, Muslims’.”

“No, it means “Iberian ham”. Jamón means ‘ham’ and Ibérico Iberian. Iberian ham.”

The story that I was told goes that when being invaded by the Moors, a centuries-long saga in Spanish history, the Spanish started hanging pork legs in their windows as a middle finger in the face of the Muslim marauders; pork is haram, after all. As further centuries past, the Moors left but the Spanish love of ham remains strong. Or, to bring a terrible pun here, the Spanish still find jamón irresistibly moreish.

The two most well-known varieties of jamón are the aforementioned Ibérico (from black Iberian pigs), and serrano (from the mountains). It is usually served in thin slices or cubes, and crops up on most all of the tapas and emparedado (sandwich) menus around.

On the first day of this stint in Spain, I accompanied the host mother to Mercadona where she spent a cool €50 on a hefty leg of Ibérico which is still yet to be fully consumed even though it has been used almost daily as an appetiser or snack.

Mercadona is a normal supermarket, but the supermarket which supposedly does the best jamón, or, if nothing else, a dedicated counter for it. Point to one of the hams hanging from the back and the deli girl (do we have a word for this?) will adorn rubber gloves and a chain mail apron to open the jamón and give you a taste. After you approve, she will then go about wrapping it in a breathable bandage-like fabric for transportation. Pay and try to get home before it stinks the whole car out permanently (n.b. Thai fish curry is the very worst smell that I have come across for trying to get out of a car, as I learned the hard way my first night in Andalusia having got covered in fish sauce as part of a catering job gone awry).

Serve with melon for a more fresco experience during a hot summer night.

 

Carpaccio de Manitas de Cerdo

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“What is this?” “You guess.” “Something pig?”

Nearly there.

Pig. Trotter. Carpaccio.

It was quite tasty and less rich than, say, pâté.  But a carpaccio is thin, so this may be why this is the case. It is supposedly not too fatty either as during production it is processed in a way to get rid of a lot of the fat.

Serve on a small, crisp piece of bread and contemplate how much of the animal we waste in the UK.

 

Xai de la vall a la brasa amb saltat de bolets

xai

A lamb chop. “Lamb from the grilled valley with mushroom skewer”. This was one of the house specials at a Catalan restaurant that we visited in the mountain town of Ribes de Freser. In the habit of eating fish, I picked a fish dish.

“You can eat much better fish at [our] home. Here is for meat.”

She then talked through the entire menu, all of which was in Catalan. Yet to eat lamb, I went for lamb. Locally sourced lamb. I remember the days when I hated lamb: lamb and asparagus being the only two foods I actively disliked. Now I like both, go figure – time changes us all. For fresh asparagus, Andalusia is your place in Spain. The white asparagus is particularly palatable. But I am here to talk about lamb. Which was unremarkable but plentiful. The father was rather pleased when I told him that his cooking was better than that of this restaurant, which had come recommended by his favourite carnicero.

The mountains are for meat, but I suppose there is a reason that this is the only time I have seen lamb on a menu.

 

Pollo

chicken

Here’s one for the kids.

We very rarely ate chicken. So rarely did we eat it that my primary memory of chicken in Spain is as part of  Jamaican dish that I ate in Andalusia. I doubt this is traditional Spanish fare.

The father in the family is, as the mother puts it, a “gourmet” (pronounced “gore-met” rather than the usual French pronunciation that we Englishes have adopted) and insists on buying quality ingredients wherever possible. Good for the plate, a strain on your pocket and diary. His family raised chickens as he grew up – and I believe still do – chickens which were free to roam around the yard, eat well, and grow to be several years old having lived fulfilling lives. Shop- and market-bought chickens, on the other hand, are force-fed for a few months, given limited if any space to move during their short lives, and are killed mercilessly more profit (surely the best way to kill). Such is the difference in quality between the chicken of his boyhood and the chicken on the shelves that he refuses to buy it.

The only time I ate chicken in Catalunya was as part of a paella (glorious) and some nuggets for a picky-eating cousin who was guest for a week. Even then the chicken was brought farm fresh from the grandparents’ house in San Carlos de la Rápita then frozen in preparation of these two occasions.

As recompense for a lack of primary experience of chicken and as my final note on carne, here is an infuriatingly catchy song that I used in my English lessons with the children for your enjoyment. It includes the word “chicken” and therefore is relevant here. Plus it has been in my head for the past few days, so now you can share that joy with me:

Spanish Food 101: Carne, La Primera Parte

 A culinary journey through Spain via the unparalleled medium of informal oral testimonies. This is written in English. If you would like a Spanish translation may I recommend reading slower, louder, and adding the letter “o” intermittently to the end of words. . This is the first in the series of this crash course in Spanish cuisine An introduction to this tale can be found by clicking here, or by scrolling down and reading more of this blog, which I would recommend that you do anyway. 

Even in this, the year of our Lord 2017, being a vegetarian in some western European countries is not unchallenging. As my host in Andalusia put it: “the Spanish don’t actually understand what being a vegetarian means. To them, fish is vegetarian, chicken is vegetarian, and some even think that pork is vegetarian. They just about acknowledge that steak is a meat and that some people might not eat it.” In Andalusia this is moreso the case than in Catalunya.

With this in mind, it came as somewhat of a surprise when my host in Andalusia told me that he hadn’t eaten red meat for over 20 years. He mostly cooks at home, and eats a lot of cheese when dining out. I managed to try morcilla when I was in Andalusia, otherwise my Spanish red meat experience is limited to Catalunya. Regardless, I will boldly say that meat is something that the Spanish do well across the country. Being that I have stayed in two coastal areas, I can but wonder what additional treasures the interior holds. But for now, here are my carniverous cavorts in Catalunya.

 

Steak / Fielete / Tall Que es Pella

steak

Steak, glorious steak! The special occasion meal ad infinitum. The family’s meat of choice, consumed at least twice per week. Indeed, it would surely be all of our meat of choice were finances and blood pressures were not issues that we had to take into consideration. My reason for trying to cut down on red meat is based loosely on an article that I read about cows being one of the greatest environmental risks facing our planet today. As it turns out, my concerns over the environment aren’t nearly enough to necessitate me to turn down a steak whenever there is the potential for it, which, as it turns out, is pleasantly often.

A friend of mine once sang the praises of Slimming World as under its guidelines most of her meals were steak and chips. As far as I can tell, she did not lose any weight. But it’s the thought that counts, as they say.

The Spanish do not, I am sure, put so much thought into the relative merits and pitfalls of filete. They like it so they cook it and they eat it. If we look at the new Spanish, particularly the Argentinians, their love of carne de vache is so great that it forms a substantial part of their national identity, dammit.

At home, the steak is either cooked a la plancha or frito.

Filete a la plancha (griddled steak) is the healthier of the two options, and the style they serve it most frequently and with the better cuts of meat. Adults have ribeye, rump or top loin and the children a softer cut. Everyone takes it bloody as hell. If we’re having steak, we’re having it properly. When you have good meat, treat it with respect. A little bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and flash cook it. There is nothing specifically Spanish about this, but it is a lesson to be taken in life (something which in theory I would like to do when trying out a steak restaurant is to order a steak well done and see if they let me. If they do, I will leave).

Approximately once every nine days, when the family either decides to cater more to a child’s palate or see that they need to use up the inferior meet, the steak is served frito, or breaded and fried: “chicken fried” if we are to go with the American term. The mother told me that the Catalunya for the cut of meat which they use for this is tall que es pella, or onglet/hanger, a popular cut for the carnicero and customer alike due to its value, ease of preparation, and durability. Even chicken fried it is served quite bloody, and is bloody tasty as a result. I put this down to the skill of the chef.

Mop up the juices with some bread, and feel that your intermittent iron deficiency is being remedied.

The mother says that she likes the eat her steak with white wine. My wine knowledge is lacking to be able to formulate a strong argument to the contrary, but I will say that my wine pairing of choice is either Malbec or Rioja. I accept the argument that for summer it is too hot for red, and I also accept her statement “I can have Cava any time. Cava for breakfast” but white wine over red for steak is not something that I am willing to accept.

 

 Blood Sausage / Morcilla

Morcilla

A favourite tapas of the Italian girl at my Andalusian Workaway.

With her limited English she was unable to communicate to me what morcilla was other than that it was “like sausage”.  It is indeed like sausage in that it is a meat and is sausage shaped, but it is a blood sausage which can better be described as essentially an (oftentimes) spicy black pudding. She was able to express, however, that the morcilla that we had was not representative of how good morcilla could be (and, in this particular case, also not spicy).

As with all the other tapas at this restaurant, it was served on small slices of white bread that was neither big enough nor strong enough to act as a useful vessel for the morcilla. But it was a preferable choice to that taken by two other members of our convoy, who opted to not stop for food so that they could get back to the homestead more quickly but instead ended up lost in a rambla for two hours. And that, kids, is how I came upon the life lesson that you should never not stop for beer and tapas.

Pork blood, onions, fat and rice / is twice as nice / as having lice. Add some spice? / That’s my vice.

 

Chorizo

choriz

Take a look at my Spanish sausage.

One of the most famous and well-traveled of the Spanish ingredients, featuring regularly in menus and supermarkets across Europe and the Americas. If a chorizo has never made its way into your shopping basket, you should take a long, hard look at yourself and ask “why not?”. Even vegetarians and vegans have options.

As we all know, a chorizo is a type of cured, smoed sausage which can be eaten cooked or uncooked, on its own as a tapa or added to dishes to add a certain je ne sais quoi  (meaty, spicy goodness). It is seasoned with pimentón (smoked paprika) and its flavour profile ranges from sweet to spicy depending on type.

At a food festival in Canterbury two years ago, the only thing that my mother bought was some uncooked chorizo which I believe she proclaimed was “deee-licious”. It is far less common for chorizo to require cooking before eating, but this is preferable for those of you who may have found the traditional chorizo too tough on the old chompers.

The uncle of the host mother brought along a gift basket which included five types of chocolate, a cake, candy for the kids, and a chorizo. Spot the odd one out; spot the beloved national ingredient. And hold for surprise as I tell you that it was the chorizo not los dulces which were finished first.

 

Fricandó

fricando

Here is a girl who loves a stew, hurrah hurrah. A Catalan stew is just for you, hurrah hurrah.

My broken Spanish review: “Possiblé paella o esta es mi, como se dice “favourite?” “favorito.” “Si. Mi favorito.” “Vale. Bien.”

As I took another piece of bread and was offered more sauce, the mother declared “now here is a girl who definitely likes the Spanish food!”

My hypothetical death row meal used to be ribs, corn and fries. It was later amended to a really good steak, then intermittently crispy seafood noodles, but on reflection – and I have had nothing but time to reflect for the past few months – it would probably be a good stew. My mother’s stew is one of my favourite dishes in the world. Then Chinese hotpot, boeuf bourguignon, scouse, yadda yadda yadda: I am a girl who mucho gusta stews. A humble dish. A peasant dish. A perfect dish. One that satisfies our basest instincts, which sings to our primal desires. Mwah, with some red wine. Perfecto. A rich, Autumnal traditional Catalan dish eaten in the mountains of the French-Catalan Pyrenees.

Now for some vague cooking instructions: lightly fry beef; fry onions and tomatoes and then add the strips of beef; add wine, reduce, add water; add mushrooms (the family pick their own mushrooms); simmer for at least one and a half hours. Meanwhile, prepare the picada sauce – one of the typical sauces in Catalan cuisine. There are many different ways to make the picada, but commonly it includes garlic, saffron and parsley; add just before serving.

Serve. Eat. And just try and stop a smile from creeping over your face.

 

 

Find more carne in part two.

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!

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.