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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Travel Tip: Schedule Your Leisure

In a little over 90 days, I’m going on vacation. I know, that’s hardly news worthy of a blog post, let alone a mention. Yet in my case, heading back over to Barcelona and Madrid in late May/early June is something more than just travel, as regular readers know. And as I prepare for my trip, there are a couple of things I’ve learned about how to think about travel, that may be of some help to you in the future.

I’ve not had a vacation of more than a couple of days since 2011, so this two-week vacation is something I’m really looking forward to. Oh sure, I’ve been to weddings, conferences, and gone home for holidays. I’ve even had a couple of four-day weekends out of town visiting some good friends. However in terms of an actual vacation, i.e. packing a suitcase, traveling to somewhere far away, staying in an hotel, and not having anything specific that one *must* do for a week or two…it’s been quite awhile.

Traveling for two weeks by yourself can get rather lonely. I’m fortunate that I’ve plenty of family to visit, but it’s not really the same thing as traveling with others. In fact, it can be quite easy to get depressed at the start of your vacation, if you’re not careful.

If you’re not sure what I mean, let me explain by directing you to this blog post by travel guru Samantha Brown. In it, she describes something which I sometimes feel, as well, but didn’t realize that others suffered from. Because for some of us, at least, there’s a kind of melancholy that hits, as soon as you reach your hotel room, which is particularly potent if you’re traveling on your own.

“There’s a strange feeling I always get,” she writes, “when I arrive at my hotel room for the first time: ‘well now what?’ It’s this mild fleeting depression that marks that I’m no longer anticipating my travel, but am here.” 

After all the weeks of planning and packing, making sure you get to the airport on time, fighting your way through security, cramming yourself into a flying tin can, then doing the whole process in reverse – hopefully without losing your luggage – you arrive! You check in to your hotel, you’re taken to your room, and everything appears to be clean and in working order. The bellhop leaves, you sit down on the end of the bed, and now you don’t know what to do with yourself. This trip you’ve been planning has just started, and already you’re at a loss.

The trick, as I’ve found over the years, is this: you need to schedule things. Samantha Brown suggests getting outside and going for a walk to familiarize yourself with the neighborhood around your hotel, and of course that’s a good idea. In fact, you should be doing that on Google Maps Streetview long before you leave for your trip. However the real antidote to either first or last day vacation blues is having a schedule, so that you alternate periods of activity with periods of loafing about.

When I travel, I create an agenda for myself to follow, with rest times worked into it. After all, there are works of art to look at (and possibly acquire); photographs to share on social media; articles and blog posts to research and write; day trips to take to both familiar and unfamiliar places. These things should be interspersed with periods of indolence: sitting in a café or on the beach, watching people or looking at beautiful buildings, strolling through gardens or just wandering around aimlessly.

The worst thing you can do, it seems to me, is to go on vacation with no set plan about what you’re going to do while you’re there. It’s a bit like being cooped up in the house during a blizzard, like we recently went through here in DC. The first day is pretty exciting, watching the snow come down and checking media to see the city come to a grinding halt. Yet by Day 4 of being inside the house with nothing specific to do, it gets pretty old. Or at least, it does for me.

Whether you’re going to the shore, or to a foreign shore, have a loose plan for what you’re doing on your vacation. As an adult, you know that you need some degree of order and structure in your life, intermixed with leisure, if you’re going to get the most out of your job; the same applies to how you ought to travel. So besides enjoying the down time, when you enjoy doing nothing at all, make an advance reservation for Friday night at that restaurant you read about in Saveur, or put on the calendar that on Thursday you’re going to tour an historic site or museum.

And as part of that planning, make sure that, as soon as you get to your destination, you know exactly what you’re going to do as soon as your bags are put away. Me? I’m heading straight to the Caffe di Francesco on the Passeig de Gracia. I’ll send you an Instagram.

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Here Be A Dragon

Architecture is a funny old game. Even with high-powered machinery, computer-aided drafting, and the like, projects sometimes drag on for quite a long period of time, and never completely come to fruition.  The same was certainly true of the work of some of the greatest architects of the past, who sometimes had to abandon what they had started due to lack of funds, politics, or the like.

The great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was no exception. Even casual students of his work are familiar with his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, still under construction nearly a century after his death, but other projects by the great master never quite got completed either. One example is the Park Güell, a housing development he designed in the NE corner of the city; or the Colonia Güell, a company town located outside of Barcelona. What both of these projects have in common was their sponsorship by Gaudí’s greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell.

Gaudí did manage to finish Güell’s mansion in downtown Barcelona, the Palau Güell, located off the Ramblas in the former Chinese Quarter.  However like many 19th century Barcelona industrialists, Güell wanted a weekend and holiday retreat that was outside the city center, which would afford him and his family more space, fresh air, and tranquil surroundings. The same phenomenon was occurring in major cities all over the world, from London to New York to Tokyo, where business leaders would purchase or build such retreats in towns and villages not too far from the cities in which they worked, so that they could be reached in a few hours by coach, train or the like.

Güell’s decision to have his summer house in the Les Corts district near Pedralbes, which was then well outside the city, was one imitated by many of his Barcelona contemporaries. However none of the grand mansions which popped up in the neighborhood in the 19th and 20th centuries had anything quite like the unusual gatehouses known today as the “Pavellons Güell”. They were just part of a colossal scheme by the Catalan architect and his patron to create what would have been a fantasyland, complete with remodeling the existing house to look like a Moorish Revival palace, surrounded by vast gardens, and featuring several ornate entrance gates, all encompassed by decorative walls.

Unfortunately, Gaudí never got to redesign the house. It was later presented to and transformed into the Palau Reial de Pedralbes by the Spanish Royal Family. They themselves hardly used it (although General Franco did) and today King Felipe VI prefers to stay in the less-grand Palauet Albéniz overlooking the sea, when he is in town. The pavilions were given to the University of Barcelona, with public access strictly limited to guided tours on specific weekends during the year.

After languishing in limbo for some time – what do you do with stables and gatehouses no longer attached to an estate? – as a result of a deal between the city and the university, for the past few months Barcelona has been working to restore the buildings, in order to make them accessible to the paying public. The city plans to invest close to $1 million in bringing the pavilions back to their former appearance.  For a fee, the plan is allowing the public to visit these previously almost-inaccessible works of the great architect, and to make their surrounding gardens, also partially laid out by Gaudí, more accessible.  The hope is to make the pavilions available for things such as concerts, lectures, community events, and the like. Imagine having your wedding reception or anniversary dinner catered in one of these buildings!

True these may rank, in terms of size, among the smallest of Gaudí’s completed buildings.  However, it is wonderful to see new life being breathed back into these fantastical structures, after so many years of benign neglect. While their original purpose may have vanished long ago, their extraordinary design continues to fascinate us today, more than 125 years after the magnificent gate pictured below first swung open to receive visitors.

Dragon Gate