BCNBlog: The Tasty Combination Plate

Do not worry, gentle reader, if you think this is turning into little more than a food blog.  I have been doing and thinking about other things while here in Barcelona on holiday, but some of the thoughts may not come into full flower until later.  Since we all enjoy eating to some extent – otherwise survival would be very unpleasant – it is perhaps easiest to write about food, so I hope you will indulge me yet another opportunity to describe a meal to you.

Today we had lunch at a local restaurant close to our flat, where we went a number of times on my previous Christmas visit to Barcelona.  It is a family business run by a husband and wife and their adult daughter, and the food is very simple but good, typical dishes of this area of the Iberian Peninsula.  For Americans in particular who may not have visited Spain before, you may find the menu structure somewhat interesting, for it is a bit unlike what we are generally used to back home.

The “Menu of the Day”, is a fixed-price menu of several courses.  The diner may choose from several first courses, several second courses, desserts, and also typically includes bread and wine or another beverage.  Then you have “Combination Plates”, where you have several different types of food all combined together on one platter rather than served individually.  This tends to be a speedier options rather than waiting for things to arrive.

So at lunch today I went with the latter option, as I have enjoyed several multi-course meals over the past few days either at lunch or dinner.  I had butifarra – which is a typical Catalan pork sausage – along with mongetes (white beans sautéed in garlic, olive oil and parsley); grilled padron peppers; and french fries.  It is a fairly typical and very tasty Catalan combo dish:

For dessert, along with my – yes, again excellent – coffee, I had a plate of pears stewed in red wine and cinnamon.  This is a dish which may admittedly sound a bit strange, but the red wine softens the pears and brings out their sweetness.  And cinnamon is always a good spice for flavoring pears, any time you cook them:

The cooking here is, without a doubt, very simple. Yet the freshness of the ingredients, and the relative speed with which they can be prepared is great for the diner who may want to fuel up after a long day tramping around looking at the sights.  And the same holds true for the diner who wants to get back out there again to wander about the city, without being so heavily fed that the desire to go home and take a siesta cannot be overcome.

BCNBlog: Photographing A Catalan Christmas Luncheon

After we finally emerged from slumber and opening presents, we headed to Can Jordi, a typical Catalan restaurant where we have dined together on many occasions.  Because Christmas is a holiday, but traditionally not the date on which families exchange presents (which takes place on Epiphany twelve days later), shops are closed, as are many restaurants, though some do stay open to cater to those who either cannot or will not cook on Christmas Day.  We were greeted with various tasty items to tide us over as our various courses were prepared.

First came the pa amb tomàquet, which is more or less the Catalan version of bruschetta. It consists of toasted peasant bread rubbed with tomato (and sometimes with garlic), drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. It is typically enjoyed on its own, or as a base for other items such as sliced meats:

The tomato bread was accompanied by several trays of local sausages, olives, pearl onions, and cornichons:

For my first course I had the traditional Catalan dish of “Sopa de Galets amb Pilotas”. This is a delicious soup made using a veal stock, along with the large, ear-shaped “galet” pasta, and small meatballs made of ground veal. It is lighter than it sounds, and a very good way to prepare for the usually much more heavy dishes to come:

My main course was duck braised in wine and fresh figs. It was an outstanding example of the type of cooking I spoke about in my earlier post about dinner at another local restaurant, Set Portes. The combination of the savory, gamy duck with the sweetness of the wine and the figs, created a dark, rich sauce that was so delicious one wanted to lick the plate clean:

After this I chose something fairly straightforward for dessert, a mould of vanilla ice cream covered in semi-sweet chocolate sauce, and decorated with a large cookie wafer:

We were also brought something rather interesting to accompany our desserts, and could not at first figure out what the sweet treats were. They were crunchy, but also chocolatey, in some strange, clumpy forms that almost looked like bits of coral. After munching on a few I realized that – as was confirmed by our waiter – they were corn flakes coated in a melted dark chocolate. The combination was then moulded into these shapes by dropping them into “lumps”, for lack of a better word, as the melted chocolate began to set. It was such a tasty, simple, but interesting combination of texture, taste, and presentation, that I am going to try making it at home:

And of course, at the end of the meal one has to have coffee. If you do not already know my opinions on the excellence of coffee in Spain as compared to the United States, then I suggest you go back and read more of this blog. That being said:

It was quite a meal, and because of it several of my siblings and I decided to walk back to our flat, instead of catching a taxi. It was a longish but not a bad walk, and the sunset illuminated many of the beautiful old late-19th and early-20th century Art Nouveau apartment buildings along the Diagonal and the Passeig de Gracia, two of the most prestigious avenues in Barcelona. It is difficult to put into words how very pleasant and satisfying this experience – of eating some of my favorite foods, and walking around my favorite city – was for me, but at the very least, gentle reader, you can imagine that it was a significant pleasure which I am very grateful to have had.

BCNBlog: Caesar Augustus at Midnight Mass

Last evening we attended Midnight Mass at the Royal Monastery of Pedralbes, which my family has had an association with for some centuries.  We have a private chapel where we sit when we attend mass there, tucked between two of the buttresses of the 13th century structure and raised up a bit from the main floor of the church.  It is separated by a gated, wrought-iron screen from back in the days when the gentry had to be seated separately from the regular churchgoers.  One can attribute this to snobbery, or to a recognition of the fact that there are, in fact, strata in society, but either way it is a somewhat unusual experience in the present age.

Heating in medieval Europe being more of a fantasy rather than a reality, it was very cold sitting on an ancient, massive carved seat with a high canopy back, although the nuns did provide us with a space heater that at least sent out a little bit of warmth.  Most of the people in this well-to-do part of Barcelona attending the mass kept their fur and cashmere coats on, though it was not quite so cold that you could see your breath.  Still, it always makes the experience very atmospheric, as if the beautiful Gothic building itself was not atmospheric enough.

The mass was celebrated in Catalan, which I can understand though do not speak with anywhere near the fluency I do Castilian (more commonly referred to as “Spanish” in the rest of the world) but I used my Catalan missal to follow along with the responses. During the reading from the Gospel of St. Luke on how the Birth of Jesus came about, I was suddenly struck by the reference to the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, and the census that brought the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.  In America, ours is such a young country compared to much of the rest of the world, that the Holy Land and the Roman Empire seem very far away, both in time and in space.

Here in Barcelona, however, if you take one of the tiny streets behind the apse of the Cathedral in the Old City, you will come across a courtyard containing a number of standing columns and part of the ceiling of the Temple of Caesar Augustus –  the man himself, as it were.  Barcino, as the city of Barcelona was originally known, was most likely founded by the Carthaginians, but certainly by the time of Jesus it had become a Roman colony.  The ancient structure dedicated to the man who participated, unknowingly, in God’s plan of salvation by ordering the census that caused Christ to be born in Bethlehem, is a powerful reminder of the fact that Barcelona is not only the hip, modern city so popular with tourists, or the Medieval powerhouse of shipping and conquest that it once was, but it is tied to both the classical past of the West and to early Christianity in a very tangible way.

After mass two of my siblings and I decided to walk part of the way back to our flat in the center of town, as the neighborhood of the monastery is up in the foothills of the mountains that demarcate the northern end of the city.  As we walked downhill, and the bells of the many churches and chapels around the city started pealing to celebrate the arrival of Christmas, we could also hear people setting off gunpowder up in the hills and mountains, as Catalans have always done.  It is a wonderful tribute to the joy of the Incarnation that still resonates here, at least in some quarters.

When we got home we engaged in a long-standing family tradition of drinking cava – the Catalan version of champagne – and eating all sorts of typical cookies and sweets from Catalonia, as well as American-style decorated Christmas cookies which we always take great pains to decorate elaborately, even when we are celebrating Christmas outside of the United States.  It is a way of toasting the commemoration of Our Savior’s Birth, and also for the family to wind down the evening together before heading off to bed and the anticipation of gifts and a good lunch the next day.  Perhaps it is a Barcelona tradition that ought to be more widely practiced in the United States and elsewhere.

In the end of course Christmas is not about anything else but the Birth of Jesus, no matter what secularists or commercial vendors would have you believe.  None of these traditions would mean anything of any substance, if it was not for that great miracle 2,000 years ago in Judea.  And so in some ways, we have to be grateful to Caesar Augustus for having set the wheels in motion that made Christmas happen as it did.

My best wishes to all of my readers for a Happy and Blessed Christmas – Bon Nadal!

14th Century Statue of the Madonna and Child at the Monastery of Pedralbes, Barcelona