The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee

I’ve recently returned from spending the holidays in Spain, which began with Christmas in Barcelona followed by New Year’s in Madrid. I also spent my summer vacation visiting both cities, enjoying time with family, great art/architecture, music, and of course, food. Yet a curious aspect of both trips was something which confused me and my traveling companions on both occasions: why was the coffee in Barcelona so good, and the coffee in Madrid so terrible?

Back in May/June, when traveling with an American friend with ancestors from Catalonia, I introduced him to what is called a “tallat” in Catalan, and a “cortado” in Spanish, which is essentially espresso that has a shot of steamed milk mixed in with it. It’s similar to the Italian “macchiato”, although in Italy they use milk foam rather than warm milk. [NOTE: the flavored “macchiato” that you order in Starbucks bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.] We began at Francesco, my favorite local café on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, where we went for breakfast every morning, but we also ordered it in many places around town. It was always hot, creamy, sweet, and delicious, no matter where we drank it.

When we got to Madrid, it was as if we had moved to another country where the same word meant something completely different, like how in Spain a “tortilla” is an omelet, whereas in Mexico it is a flat disc usually made of corn. During our entire time in Madrid, every cortado that we ordered was terrible: tepid, thin, watery, and bitter, whether it was in a corner bar or in a swanky restaurant. I was genuinely confused and apologetic, and wondered whether we were just having bad luck, but this seemed improbable given the wide variety of places where we drank it.

Over Christmas break the situation repeated itself. We drank cortados at Francesco every morning for breakfast, but we also drank them elsewhere. We had cortados for elevenses or after a meal at various restaurants and cafes in Barcelona, and we had them at the seaside in the resort town of Sitges, about a half hour south of the city. While Francesco is unquestionably the best, even at these other establishments, the coffee was always good.

In Madrid, the cortados were once again a serious disappointment. We tried corner bars, nice restaurants, and even the café at The Prado, but the only place where we were able to get a good cortado was at an Illy café located across from the Mercado de San Miguel in Old Madrid. The fact that this was an Italian establishment was not insignificant, because unlike virtually every coffee chain in this country that claims to make espresso-based drinks – which in fact taste like burnt worm excrement soaked in muddy water masked by large quantities of corn syrup – Italians do it better, as the saying goes.

While café society in Madrid looked to France for inspiration, coffee culture in Barcelona was heavily influenced by the coffee culture in Northern Italy, Sardinia, and the Italian cantons of Switzerland. Although the French originally invented the espresso machine, Italians bring the hot water in their espresso machines up to about 195 degrees Fahrenheit, so that espresso drinks prepared in this way arrive at your table nice and hot. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that the inevitably tepid coffee in Madrid is at least partially the result of not getting the water in their espresso machines hot enough.

Many Italian restauranteurs opened restaurants and cafes for the Barcelona bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The now-gone Torino, for example, was an opulent establishment opened by the equally opulently-named Flaminio Mezzalama of Turin in 1902. It marked the only architectural and design collaboration between two of the greatest rivals for Art Nouveau outlandishness in Barcelona at the time, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch. As you can see here, it was quite a magnificent building.

And then there is the problem of the coffee roasting itself.

During the period of austerity which followed the Spanish Civil War, Spanish coffee importers began using a processing method called torrefacto, in which the beans are roasted with large quantities of sugar. This helps the beans to keep longer in storage, by coating them in a black film of burnt sugar. This coating comes off when the beans are ground for making coffee, and the result is the bitter, nasty aftertaste that we were experiencing. Even though the lean years of the Civil War era are long over, at least some Spaniards developed a taste for this abomination, I suppose in the way that many American GI’s during World War II developed a taste for spam, which is why you can still find this product on just about every grocery store shelf in America.

As a result, torrefacto-processed coffee is still widely and commonly used throughout Spain, either on its own or blended with other beans. You can even buy it from Spanish food importers in the U.S. (dear Lord, why would you do this?) However it turns out that Barcelona has long been in the vanguard of finally casting off this dark shadow. For years now, Catalan coffee importers and roasters have been rejecting the torrefacto process, in favor of single-source beans and bean blends roasted in the traditional way. This, in combination with the Italian coffee preparation methods that are a long-standing part of coffee culture in places like Barcelona, explains why the same drink tastes so much better in Barcelona, than it does in Madrid.

If you ever get the chance to visit both Barcelona and Madrid, visit any corner bar in the morning, and you will quite literally be able to taste the difference between the coffee cultures of these two cities. Taste is largely individual, of course, so it may be that you prefer the inky, oily taste of Castilian coffee. But for my money, when I’m back in Madrid this summer I’m sticking to the Italian coffee shops – or ordering a cup of tea.

Caffe Francesco, Barcelona

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​Savoring Spain: A Beautiful Painting Of St. Joseph And The Christ Child Comes To Market

We live in a time in which amateurish assemblages such as this are considered “worthy” of winning major art prizes, while childish nonsense is viewed as a “major” donation to an art museum. So let’s take a moment away from the madness to admire a beautifully painted, rather serene work of art by a great Old Master painter, which is coming up for sale tomorrow evening. While it’s not something that most of us have the space to hang on the wall, I would happily rearrange my entire house around it.

On Thursday Christie’s in London will be auctioning a private collection which, particularly if you love Spanish art as I do, will make your mouth water. The sale includes works by a number of both well-known and unknown Spanish artists, including Pedro Berruguete, Juan de Valdés Leal, and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as pieces by a number of other European and American artists. Decorative objects in the collection include things like Gothic chests, Persian carpets, Etruscan statuary, and just about everything else you would need to furnish a very well-appointed residence.

For me the highlight of the sale is a magnificent, life-sized painting of “St. Joseph and the Christ Child” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682), one of the greatest of all Spanish Old Master painters. In this picture we see St. Joseph holding the young Jesus by the hand, bringing Him forward for us to see. In the background is the base of a square column, while up above golden light pours through thick clouds, which are filled with little angels.

This painting is a perfect example of the Baroque art that was created during the Counter-Reformation, which sought to forge an emotional connection between viewer and subject matter. Murillo has provided a sharp contrast between the weight and solemnity of the two figures standing on terra firma, and the weightless movement of the heavenly figures floating up above. While over time the Baroque became more and more overwrought with gesticulation, ornament, and fussiness, until it eventually turned into the Rococo, here it is very dignified, while still carrying an emotional impact.

Take a moment to step back and notice the palette in this picture, and you’ll realize that the primary color in this piece is gray. Unlike in Gothic or Renaissance art, where colors were usually extremely bright and vivid, this piece is almost monochromatic. Murillo punctuates this by using a mustard gold for St. Joseph’s cloak, and a pale lavender for Jesus’ robe, but even these colors are somewhat toned down. His  artistic choices were entirely in keeping with the more reserved court dress and social etiquette that held sway during the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, when this painting was created.

The auction estimate on this painting is roughly $4-6 million, which admittedly sounds like quite a lot – well okay, it is quite a lot. However, when you consider that this pointless (if admittedly attractive) dropcloth…er, painting sold for $34 million recently, then the Murillo is really quite a bargain. Plus, no one will accidentally throw it in a corner of the garage.

Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

One of the pleasures of eating is knowing when to eat, as I recalled often when in Spain. By this I do not mean the time of day as such, although I doubt I could eat a lasagna for breakfast. Instead I refer to those occasions when certain foods have traditionally been available. Today, thanks to innovations such as refrigeration and transportation infrastructure, we can enjoy foods all year-round that were once considered rare treats for our ancestors. Yet there seems to me to be a greater good, beyond that of healthier ingredients or supporting local businesses, in enjoying what we eat at the time and place in which we are meant to eat it.

There is a beautiful scene in the BBC mini-series “Cranford” in which Miss Smith presents her hostesses, the spinster Jenkyns sisters, with a crate of Spanish oranges as a thank-you gift. While familiar with the fruit, its comparative rarity in early Victorian England made it such a prized commodity that, for small-town residents like the Jenkyns, hot-climate produce was viewed almost as a luxury item, reserved for the Christmas stocking or special occasions. In the film, the dour Deborah Jenkyns commands the ladies to retire to their respective rooms, in order to consume their oranges in restrained silence. The camera subsequently shows us Deborah’s younger sister, Mathilda, sucking out the juice from the fruit with childish glee. However it is Miss Deborah, a tower of almost Calvinist propriety, who ends up savoring the first slice of her orange with the kind of sensual pleasure that only a gourmand can truly recognize and appreciate.

The specialness of a food or a dish is meant to be part of the reason one consumes it, no matter how good it may taste when eaten outside of its usual context. Canelones, the rolled pasta tubes stuffed with meat and baked in a béchamel sauce, are available in Catalonia any time of year. The fancier canelones de festa major, on the other hand, were traditionally served on December 26th, St. Stephen’s Feast Day (a public holiday in Barcelona), using the leftover meat from the Christmas soup the day before, along with special ingredients such as a fine brandy or shavings of black truffles. Eventually the custom of making these slightly more special canelones spread to other feast days on the Church calendar, such as the Feast of St. Joseph. On my last night in Barcelona then, dining at the venerable 180-year-old Set Portes restaurant, I ordered canelones de festa major as one of the courses, rather than the regular canelones that were also on the menu, because it was the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a feast day which Barcelona still celebrates with great pomp and many ancient customs.

On two occasions I went outside the rules a bit by having a xató – a Catalan salad typical of the beach town of Sitges, made with escarole, tuna, anchovies, and a sauce that is roughly a variant of romesco, among other things – even though technically the season for this dish had ended the month before I arrived. The salad is cool, crisp, briny, savory, and sweet, resulting in a veritable explosion of flavors. Despite my being slightly out of season, that at the Mare Nostrum restaurant in Sitges was probably among the best I have ever eaten, while the second time I ate the salad it was fine, but nowhere near comparable.

When I arrived in Madrid, other seasonal and off-season choices awaited me. It was the beginning of cherry season, and on a scorching hot day I thoroughly enjoyed an extraordinary chilled gazpacho at the Madrid country club a few miles outside the city, where cherries were used as the base for the soup instead of the tomatoes most of my readers are probably familiar with from the Andalusian-style gazpacho. The sweet and sour soup glowed like a rich, dark ruby, albeit only for the few short moments that it glittered in my dish before I consumed all of it with gusto.  

Although the season for white asparagus had ended a few weeks before, I nevertheless still managed to savor the last of some gigantic white asparagus spears having the diameter of a bratwurst at the Cerveceria Santa Ana, a famous old brewery just across the square from one of Madrid’s most prestigious theatres. On the other hand, I had also arrived a little too late for artichoke season. Few people love an artichoke more than the Castilians; there is even a rather grand 18th century fountain in Madrid’s Retiro Park dedicated to it. It did not surprise me then, that the fried artichoke I ordered as a starter for lunch one day at a rather UHB restaurant in the north end of the city was okay, but nothing special.  

All in all my food experiences were such that, the seasonal choices were always a hit, while the off-season choices were a mixed bag. This reinforces the often-repeated concept in travel writing that eating in a traditional, seasonal fashion lends greatly to the experience of travel. By sticking to what should be eaten when he finds himself where he is, the traveler can adapt to, and hopefully better understand, the rhythms of life in the place in which he finds himself.

By the same token, whether you are a frequent flier or an armchair tourist, the foods you choose even at home have a deeper meaning than the mere consumption of calories. Without giving much thought to it, we have created a society in which foods that were once viewed as special, have lost much or all of their significance. Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong about the fact that we can go to the supermarket and pick up fruits and vegetables out of season. Nor is there any real reason why we could not cook a Thanksgiving-style turkey in April, if we really wanted to.

Yet as these sorts of things are so often of a piece in our society, I do wonder whether making all kinds of foods and dishes available all year round is a reflection of the way in which we have come to avoid the seasonality of life, including our own. The natural world, in which we ourselves must be included, has an inescapable structure and pattern to it, from birth to growth, maturity to death. When something created is no longer considered to be something special, we risk not only becoming ungrateful for the bounty of Creation itself, but of imagining that we ourselves exist outside of it.

One hallmark of a true appreciation of the life we have been given can be found in those fleeting moments of pleasure that we all find in eating good food enjoyed in its proper season. By trying to live more in the place and time in which we find ourselves, we have a better chance of savoring a hint of the goodness of what Creation was originally intended to be, and what we believe it will be again one day. Until that day let us feast as best we may, but always in due season.

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