It was our last week in Spain. I had been fascinated with every aspect of the cuisine and had been working my way through every recipe I could find for the past six months. I was starting to feel like I understood Spanish cooking a little better, but there was still one recipe I had yet to try. Paella.
Actually, let me back up, I had been making what I thought was paella for years. I would sauté onions and garlic in a stock pot, add rice, fish stock, and saffron and then at the last minute throw in chopped tomatoes and shellfish. I would mix it all together and transfer it to a deep bowl. It was lemon yellow, soupy and tasty. It was quick and easy and I served it often. Everyone liked it.
On our first evening in Barcelona, Patrick and I dined in a restaurant known for its paella. When my dish arrived I was shocked. It was served in a flat, double-handled pan. Inside were rust colored, singular grains of rice. Shellfish decorated the top. One taste and I knew, what I had been serving was NOT paella.
When I was six years old, my Uncle Dick taught me how to skip rocks on a lake in Muskoka; a cottage area carved out of the Ontario tundra. He had learned to skip rocks as a boy on that same lake and, when she was old enough, had taught my mother. It was a family tradition that I had all but forgotten until now.
We were sitting in a café in Cadaques, Spain; a sleepy fishing village that was on the verge of exploding with tourists for the summer season. The day was bright with the just warm sunlight of spring. Lemon yellow and mauve flowers bloomed out of the rugged scruffy cliffs that lined the far shore.
Patrick and I sat sharing a crème Catalan after our lunch of razor clams and calamari. We watched the muted colors of the shallow water of the bay blend from navy blue to aquamarine. Three young boys rocked back and forth in a painted wooden boat while they fought for control of the oars; their squeals reverberated over the water. Another boy sat quietly in his own boat watching, as envious of their fun as we were. On shore, a man with silver frosted Antonio Banderas curls taught a young chubby-cheeked girl to skip the flat rocks of the pebbled beach. One, two, three, four, five, his rock skimmed the surface before disappearing. One, two, her rock sunk early. Suddenly, I yearned for home.
We’ve been in Barcelona for a while now and have enjoyed every single morsel of the Spanish food we’ve tried. We started in tapas bars where tasty flavors of eggs with potatoes, blood sausage with chickpeas, and deep-fried chicken livers were piled on bread to soak up the alcohol of the cava and Rioja that was drunk around us. We moved on the kiosks in La Boqueria market where we imbibed on everything that came out of the sea. Razor clams sizzled on hot skillets. Plump, juicy mussels popped open with steam. We cracked the shells and sucked the heads of coral-colored prawns. In the afternoons, we nibble on slices of jambon Iberico and Manchego cheese. Five months of eating the Spanish cuisine has made olive oil flow through my veins and a ham leg cling to my hips.
Our friend, Rita Golden Gelman, has been living in Barcelona for the past two months of her nomadic life and has often explored Spanish fare with us. On one of her last nights in town we went to Inopia, a tapas bar owned by the pastry chef of El Bulli (the number one restaurant in the world).
We pulled bar stools toward the high counter in the brightly lit room and found ourselves devouring skewers of spiced lamb; so tender they practically evaporated on my tongue, creamy bowls of potato salad spiked with salt cod and grilled sardines on a toasted baguette that ruined my favorite tuna fish sandwich for life.
Patrick has an internal food clock. He must be fed every six hours. My heart goes out to those around him if we push the time limit. He growls and scowls and becomes unbearable. It is not pretty.
But, with the first bite, he is back to his old self. His blue eyes twinkle; the laugh lines around his eyes scrunch with delight. He is a pleasure to be around once more.
It was on one of these nearing the six-hour deadlines that we wandered over to Cal Pep. It was already a late hour: Spain does not even consider eating dinner until long after the sun has retired for the evening. We wandered through the old Roman city of Barcelona, past stone buildings with more history than we could remember, to a tiny square where tapas bars crowded every corner.
It was my cousin’s first trip to Europe this week. Escaping the cold snows of Canada, she came to Barcelona for spring break. Each new thing we did was an eye-opening experience, from the depths of history to the rapid-fire speech. But, the biggest contrast from her life at home was my morning foray to the market.
Blurry-eyed we stumbled through the doors, quiet with the early hour. I rallied with a shot of strong café solo. Rachel struggled through her hot chocolate that was literally a bowl of hot melted chocolate instead of the milky drink we thought we ordered—my direct translation led to strange breakfast.
Soon enough Rachel’s eyes grew wide; not from a jolt of caffeine or sugar but from what lay before her. Like wind chimes, legs of ham hung from the ceiling in front of us; the black hoof of the pig still attached.
“There’s an art to eating the calçot,” Helena, our friend in Barcelona instructed us. Plastic gloves, like those of a cafeteria worker, covered her manicured nails. A white bib was strung around her neck to protect her designer jacket. “You must dip and then swallow it whole.” She unwrapped a spring onion-like calçot from newspaper, peeled the charred outside with her fingertips and dunked it in rust-colored pepper and almond sauce in. She tipped her head back and dangled the long flame-grilled snack above her open mouth. With surprising grace, she swallowed nine-inches of the onion before biting off the green tip.
I looked over at Patrick. He was visibly impressed. He had been hesitant about attending an onion festival; but once there, he enjoyed himself. How could he not?
We had arrived to find the fires roaring. Flames danced high above the grill. The vines and hard woods crackled as the coals began to glow. Dirt from the field still clung to the long white onions as they were placed in large batches over the fire to roast. Beers were poured as fast as we could drink them. Laughter filled the air. In the courtyard, families gathered around tables laden with the discarded green tips and charred outside of the calçots. This was a winter festival enjoyed mainly by locals. Our English voices were in the minority. In fact, even Spanish was minimal. This was a Catalan festival.
The sun came out in Spain this week. And with it, market shelves bloom with oranges—actually, the oranges were there through the gloom and rain of the dreary days but I took them for granted: they were ubiquitous. Now, as the sweet-smell of orange blossoms fill the air on my walk to the market I am much more aware of the piles of sunshine on the counters in front of me.
Each morning, I fill my cloth bags with tiny mandarins and larger, perfectly round Valencia oranges from the Iberian Peninsula just south of here. I’m barley out of the market doors before peeling the thin skin from a mandarin and popping a segment in my mouth. Citrus explodes. Juice flows down my throat. The flavor is rounder and softer than its acidic cousin. I can’t help but smile and say “Buenos dias,” to the people on the street. Happiness courses through my veins. I polish off the second one by the time I walk the short distance back to the boat.
I squeeze the larger oranges for juice, saving a few for a salad. I dance around the galley. I run the pebbled skin over a razor-sharp grater to extract the zest for an almond cake.
It is cold and rainy here in Barcelona. A dreary winter is upon us. The sun rises late and sets early. I wake in the morning to darkness and stumble to the market in a haze. It’s not until the smell of my café solo hits me that I begin to smile.
“Hola Guapo,” Armando the barista greets me. I smile at his use of the slang ‘Hey good looking’. Wrinkled, dowdy old men with sour faces and poor dental hygiene surround us. “Café solo?” He raises his bushy dark eyebrow in question but has already started my morning coffee. I have the same each day.
“Si y una tortilla por favor.” It’s the little Spanish I know. I’m much better speaking food in a different language than with conversation and tortilla has been a favorite since long before setting foot on the shores of this country.
I have an affinity for Spanish cheese. On our second date, Patrick and I packed a picnic of Idiazábal, crusty baguettes and strong red wine.As we told each other stories and got to know each other we munched on the nutty sheep’s milk cheese from Northern Spain.It was the first time I’d tasted an unpasturized cheese. The strong flavor swirled through my mouth and straight to my heart.
Here it is ten years later and Patrick and I find ourselves in Spain, at a cheese seminar, tasting the same sharp flavor.Memories flood my mind.I’m reminded of the innocence and excitement of first dates.
We are in Barcelona for a damp, bone chilling winter.For the first time in a decade, I wear long johns and wrap myself in a scarf to leave the boat.Tonight we wore an extra layer of wool.The first glass of Rioja warms my blood.