Jamón Ibérico in Andalucía

Choosing to rent a car for the 5 hour journey from Madrid to Seville was an easy choice, allowing us the freedom to explore some of the areas otherwise missed. Since arriving in Spain we have eaten our fair share of Jamón ibérico, but the Chef wanted to see the production for himself so we headed to Andalucía. About an hour north of Seville, Jamones Eíriz Jabugo has been operating in the same tiny town of Puerto Gil since 1818. This family run farm is located way off the beaten path, tucked in the back corner of NARROW one lane roads hugging the hillside. The drive up was breathtaking as we twisted through the oak forests, getting our first glimpse of those famous black pigs gorging on acorns. By far one of the most scenic areas either of us had ever been.

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Fat and Happy pigs on the way to Eiriz

Finally arriving at Eíriz, we were led to the field where their pigs were kept. Due to Spanish Ibérico regulations they can only raise 15-20 pigs on their land, but for this family business it is more about curing the ham than raising pigs. Since they cannot raise near enough pigs for annual production, Eíriz purchases their animals from certified farmers only using the front and back legs and the loin for their high-quality product. The rest of the animal is sold back to the butcher. The butchering of the animals is done very humanly, keeping the stress level of the animal at an absolute minimum so to not affect the quality of the meat. This initial phase of the process takes place between December and Early March, when the pigs are at their fattest eating close to 15KG of acorns a day. Due to the timing of our visit we only saw the little baby pigs which will be ready in about 2 years.

Dressed in food production attire of long sterile robes, hair nets, and shoe covers, it was time for our first look into the process. We were led to a room where three women were processing lomo, the product in which the loins are marinated in a mixture of paprika, salt and other spices, then stuffed into casing and hung to out for months to cure. Every process at Eíriz is still done by hand, setting them apart from the other major producers in the area.

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The Salt Room – where the curing process begins

Our guide then led us to the salt room where hundreds of legs were packed in sea salt for up to 2 weeks to begin the curing process. They are then rinsed and hung up in the natural curing rooms (another difference between Eíriz and many other producers and only found in Andalucía due to its perfect climate) to complete the aging over the next couple years. Buyers can visit the farm and hand pick their leg based on type, weight, fat content, and many other factors.

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Jamon Legs hanging in the natural cure rooms

One very interesting thing explained during our time at Eíriz was the difference between the color labels on the Jamón ibérico and what they mean. Ibérico pigs are known and famous for being very fatty, and while this is optimal many people don’t want to pay for something that ultimately gets cut away and trashed. Thus, cross breeding between the black Ibérico pigs from Andalucía and red pigs from the US started reducing the fat content in the animal. Black and Red label legs are the top quality produced, made from 85% – 100% wild grazing Ibérico pigs. The white and green label legs are still a quality product, at least 50% Ibérico, but these are the animals that have been cross bred for higher muscle content. It is because of this that farming is highly regulated and farms certified for accuracy. Additionally, contrary to what we believed, you cannot have 100% acorn fed animals because the highest quality animals are grazing on whatever they can find in the earth such as grubs and roots, thus diet cannot be controlled 100%.

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The Chef learning about quality Jamon

The tour ended in the old curing room (now converted to tasting room) where we were served huge plates of Jamon paired with local wines. The difference between the black label and green label jamon was easily identifiable when placed side by side. A beautiful and educational experience into the region’s most coveted product.

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Sampling the end product!

Madrid – In Spain, Don’t make plans…

One of the best parts of traveling is the people that you meet along the way, many times leading to unexpected and amazing experiences. We had a bit of an unconventional stay in Madrid because of our new friends Marcos and Anna, the couple we met in Valencia at the best Sepia al la plancha place ever. But more on that later!
We arrived to Madrid in luxury, or at least it felt that way. The high speed train from Valencia was so roomy and updated it felt as though we were in business class of a nice airplane. A great treat from previous modes of transportation (I sometimes felt like we were going through the summer 2016 septa train fiasco all over again – hello graffiti and DSC00762 (1)worn down upholstery). Arriving later in the evening there was not much to do but get our bearings and head to dinner at Restaurante Sando in the theatre district. We were lucky enough that it was Madrid’s version of restaurant weeksaving us half off the regular tasting menu price. The food was good – like jamon croquettes that actually tasted like wonderfully cured ham and the zucchini “ravioli” filled with Iberian pork shoulder – however to us, the beautifully decorated interior far surpassed the food. The highlight of the meal, much to our surprise, was the dessert – an incredibly airy lime mousse with wrinkled tuiles, fresh fruit sauce, and violet jelly – a perfect harmony of sour and sweet and a great way to end the meal.

It is impossible to pack all the major sites in this Spanish New York City in one day. We set out in the morning to chip away at the exhaustive list of must sees. The first notable stop was Plaza Mayor, since it was just up from the apartment. Although the plaza is now over run with tourists and people trying to sell you light up trinkets, the grandeur of the space is quite impressive and Calle de Toledo leading up to has kept its character with local restaurants and shops, including a go to place for Espadrilles. Wandering down Calle Gran Via (Broadway Avenue NYC?  Including the Starbucks every couple blocks) we eventually found ourselves on the western side of town, making our way through lovely parks and squares until reaching Palacio Real de Madrid, or the Royal Palace and its gardens. A massive and impressive 18th century palace with a great viewpoint over gardens and the western part of the city.

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Palacio Real de Madrid

Throughout our minor explorations of the city there were two spots in which we knew we had to stop to eat. The first was Botin, the oldest continuously ran restaurant in the world and one which specializes in whole roasted suckling pig. We were immediately escorted into the basement where we sat directly in front of the cellar entrance with views of bottles so encrusted in dust, they must have been placed there at least a hundred years ago. The suckling pig dish arrived (a smaller portion than we were anticipating) along with baby squid in sauce made with their own ink, garlic and herbs. The skin on pork was so crispy and the squids incredibly flavorful. Well done for a restaurant which has been running since 1725.

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Down in the wine cellar at Botin

The other was San Miguel Market, a wonderful collection of small tapas “restaurants” with a center bar. Each stall specialized in a different dish or cuisine, allowing diners to browse and sample a variety of items for minimal cost. With long lines formed at each register, this market was popular with both locals and tourists looking for regional specialties. For dinner, since we had eaten sporadically throughout the day, we had the pleasure of discovering Madrid’s “buy a drink and you’ll get a tapa” concept at a couple dive bars in the area. While the food wasn’t great, each place sent out huge plates of their version of patatas bravas and pintxos. It truly was the perfect budget friendly and casual option after many weeks of eating out.

Our second and final day in Madrid we met up with Marcos (unfortunately Anna had to work) and he took us on a day trip outside the city to Embalse del Atazar, a lake about a hours drive north. This region is not commonly visited by tourists, which made it all the better for us. Filled with trails, you could walk for miles around the lake’s somewhat arid but beautiful terrain. We did not see another person once while walking but Marcos informed us the area is full of Madrid locals during the summer, just trying to escape the city heat.  Another highlight of the day was the restaurant we went for lunch, El Picachuelo Restaurante Asador. Situated on the hill with a terrace overlooking the lake (and friendly donkeys in the field next door) we shared the reasonably priced 3 course lunch menu which was actually quite good. After a full day in the sun, we headed back to the city and connecting with some of Marcos’ friends for more drinks and tapas. They were excited to introduce us to typical Sidra from the Asturias region, a non-carbonated alcoholic Cider. Normally poured from bottle to glass between outstretched arms, this bar provided a shortcut of an electronic aeration machine which may have been more fun to operate than effective. Hours later the 6 of us had stuffed ourselves full of plates of food and 6 bottles of Sidra, and much to our surprise the bill was only 45. I guess it helps having locals around who know how to order. By 2am it was time to call it a night, as we had a long drive to Seville the next day.

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By the old bridge at Embalse del Atazar

If we had a crystal ball and knew how our time in Madrid was going end up, we certainly would have spent another couple days. As Marcos advised – “In Spain, don’t make plans!” Until next time, our new-found friends.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips) –

  • Entrance to Royal Palace is free after 4:30 everyday (although it may be unexpectedly closed for a private event)
  • Avoid Calle de la Cruz late at night. It’s filled with young drunk kids and promoters trying to get you into their bar/club. Also many places charge a cover.

 

Valencia – Fresh Oranges and Fireworks

After extensively exploring Barcelona for two weeks it was time to head south for some more sun and Spanish experiences. A quick train ride brought us to Valencia where were immediately greeted with festive locals, decorated streets, and the sweet smell of oranges. Fallas (their festival of Fire) was just about to start and the town was getting ready. At every corner block, small children were throwing poppers and setting off fireworks designed only for the loud BANG! Initially we were completely caught off guard by each explosion, but after the first hour of it being such a regular occurrence the noise began to fade into background.

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Inside the Plaza de Toros

Hungry from our travels but with nothing open for dinner yet, we wandered through the old town and found ourselves on the edge of El Carme. Just inside the modern market place Mercado de Mosen Sorell appeared a wine bar and we quickly headed for the counter. Vinostrum is part wine shop, part wine bar where you can browse from their selection of regional wines and enjoy a bottle at one of their barrel high tops or small counter. A wonderful atmosphere and not yet too crowded, we were able to interact with the chef as she prepared our regional tapas.

IMG_4934 (1)While we had had many little cured fishes in Barcelona the preparation of Vinostrum’s sardines – being slightly smoked while on top of a thick breadstick like cracker with tomato chutney and olives – was extraordinary. Other memorable nibbles included incredibly flavorful canned baby squids which had been stuffed with rice and their own tentacles and topped with lemon crème and an olive oil cured Manchego that was so balanced and seemed to melt in your mouth. By the time we left the place was packed and the lone chef was frantically trying to keep up with the demand. (Vinostrum 2.0 recently opened right outside the door and offers a slight variation to menu items). A great stop and a wonderful first taste of the region.

Rain immediately moved into the area so we were “forced” to dodge in and out of bars while waiting for our dinner reservation at 9:00PM. At each stopped we sampled their offerings  – one, a spreadable chorizo warmed and served with melted manchego, the other goat cheese a la plancha or flash grilled on a cooktop so that a nice crust formed. Both surprising and equally tasty.

It was finally time for dinner and our first taste of Paella in the city in which it originated. 9:00PM was the first reservation available at La Riuà, a restaurant which has been around for decades and is well known to serve the authentic preparation of the dish. Inside, the walls were COVERED with framed photographs, awards, and ceramic dishes and the lights so bright I felt like I was in a doctor’s office. Immediately we order the Valencian Style Paella (served with chicken, rabbit, and large green beans) knowing we had a long wait ahead of us. Traditional Paella is a dish not to be rushed, as it generally takes about 45 minutes to cook. The large pan finally comes to the table around 10:00PM, piping hot and cooked to perfection. Completely satisfied – although not blown away – you could tell the preparation hasn’t changed at all since the day they opened.

The next day was our day to explore the city. We headed to old town, as you do in every European city, to wander the maze of small streets bursting with history. Our first stop was Mercat Central. Like with every other city in Europe, the market is the hub of daily life, social interactions and a window into the area’s culture. At Mercat Central, the patrons and the products were very diverse, ranging from locals shopping for the day, restaurateurs splurging on that leg of jamon, or tourists looking to purchase little authentic trinkets. After many a trip to the local markets in various cities, we honestly feel this was the best one we had visited – large enough to have a great selection of just about everything but not over run with tourists just trying to get a picture of the “strange” regional items.

DSC00447 (1)In conversation with the chef at Vinostrum about cheese, she told us about a stand in the market, Solaz, in which they purchase all of their cheese from. We had to make a stop and purchased what looked like a Spanish style boucheron (a French goat cheese that is gooey on the outside while still fresh and creamy in the center). To our disappointment it was not as good as we were hoping, however the selection of cheese was phenomenal and the stand absolutely stunning – if you are a cheese lover such as myself. We paired this cheese with probably the best cured little salami we have ever tasted from one of the many Jamon shops in the market.

Upon leaving the market we happened to stumble upon the daily Mascletà en la plaza del Ayuntamiento. At 2:00PM everday leading up to and during Fallas, this 7 minute gun powder explosion of “varying” tempos excites the locals, filling the nearby streets. A little shaken and quite possibly a little deaf we headed off in search for lunch, taking in the exquisite ancient building which have been preserved so well. Tucked away in a small square in El Carme was Taberna El Olivo, a small local cash only tapas bar.  Seating is outdoors under a big olive tree and their menu is written solely on a chalkboard (a true sign of the type of place we want to eat). We ordered, among other things, the whole Sepia al la Planca and I must say, this may be one of the best dishes we had our entire time in Spain. Cooked to absolutely perfection and dripping with a garlicy herb oil, we instantly devoured the plate, both fighting for the last bite. During our meal we were fortunate enough to strike up a conversation with a couple next to us, Marcos and Anna visiting from Madrid, and spent the rest of the afternoon talking over coffee and wandering the nearby streets. That evening kicked off the local celebration of Falles with the Mascletà de colores taking place at 12:00 midnight. The streets were filled with people out eager to see such a wonderful display, unlike any I’ve seen in the states.

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There are two great things to do on a beautiful day in Valencia – Head to the beach and a walk through the park towards La Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias. We were lucky enough that the one rainy evening was followed by two beautiful and much warmer days. Heading to the eastern side of town, the beautiful city park is filled with gardens which lead way to the amazing modern structures by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela which seem to defy the laws of architecture. Many of the structures are filled with wonderful museums which can be quite costly to enter but you cannot miss the opportunity to just walk around and revel in their beauty.

Our first 80 degree day on this trip (and our last day in Valencia) called for a little bit of beach time! Upon arriving to the port, we were greeted with a HUGE beach and a small strip of restaurants and chain shops. In some spots the sand seemed to extended 200 meters before touching the waters edge. Since the shops and restaurant selection at the port was very limited and slightly depressing, we took a walk down the boardwalk to soak up the sun in hopes we would come across another “commercial” pocket. Along the pathway that seemed to extend for miles, a few beach cafes were scattered but overall a very limited selection along the waters edge. Just a block off the beach, what was once the fishing village is beginning to breathe new life as the younger crowds moves in to revitalize it. It is here where you can get the famous Valencian café Cremaet, an EXREMELY strong and sweet expresso mixed with a local liquor. Getting more sun than our winter skin had had in months, it was time to weave through the old fishing village before heading back into town.

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The Beach in Valencia

A recommendation from a friend (and nearly ever guide on where to eat near the water) brought us to Casa Montana, a couple blocks away. Sitting in the bar side (to our surprise there are two very different sides of the restaurant) is certainly the way to go for a much more laid back atmosphere. Wine barrels piled to the ceiling were filled with their house vermouth and wine, and antique bull ring posters lined the walls. We felt we had stepped into a saloon in the wild west. A completely unique and enjoyable experience to round out our long weekend in Valencia.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips)

  • Traveling by Bus is the only way to get around the main part of town. Their Subway lines stay around the perimeter of the main center and stops are not that close.
  • Don’t miss a stop into the Estacio del Nord train station (depending on how you arrive). The interior is covered with beautiful mosaics!
  • As far as the local food specialties go –
    • Try the horchata (a nutty drink made of tiger nut served cold) but skip the farton. They are just flavorless white breadsticks with sugar on top.
    • The pumpkin fritters, bunyola de carabassa, are delicious but make sure you get them fresh out of the fryer!
    • There are a million stands set up on the streets serving churros con chocolate. The chocolate is thin and not very good. Stick to churros covered in chocolate instead.
  • Eat the oranges! At 1€ for a kilo, you cannot go wrong and they are amazing!
    • Save some money and press your own juice instead of buying from the market and shops
  • Stay in La Gran Via District. We discovered this amazing little area one day and it was by far the best area in the city. Close walking proximity to all the major areas but full of charm and character. Streets were filled with all types of restaurants and a great tapas market, Mercado Colon.
  • Head to Pobles Del Sud, the lagoon to the south of the city, if you happen to have an extra day for a trip outside the city.
    • This is supposedly the area where all the “Best Paella in Valencia” can be found.

Cadaques – The Pearl of Costa Brava

In an effort to get out of Barcelona for a day and explore the area, we rented a car and headed north towards Cadaques, a tiny little fishing village near the French border.

No trip for a Chef that far north would be complete without a trip out to El Bulli (which closed in 2011). After 30 mins of a one lane road, zigzagging through ancient olive groves we arrive to the secluded location and single driveway of what was once El Bulli. Much to our surprise, the building is now a total construction site, as it in being transformed into a foundation space for ElBulli1846. A meaningful stop for the Chef, not to mention breathtaking scenery.

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The construction site of ElBulli1846

Another good chunk of time twisting through old olive groves, we descend on the little town of Cadaques. This quaint white and blue town, a calm harbor at its center with soft lapping Mediterranean waves reaching its tiny shores, is a place one only imagines to exist. Again, many shops and restaurants were closed, but it was still such a wonderful place to wander the streets. You could tell why the Spanish locals have chosen this town to call home – it just felt different than any other coastal town.

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View of Cadaques from the harbor

A quick hike from the harbor over a STEEP hill brings you to Portlligat and the home of famous painter Salvador Dali. His house is extraordinary and so unique. Expanded on in multiple stages, it still only includes one bedroom. In the yellow room, a mirror was installed at such an angle so that the sunrise light would come through and be dispersed throughout. His décor included many taxidermy animals including a polar bear that greats you at the front door and the head of a rhino. From his studio, the view overlooking the small inlet was absolutely gorgeous, it’s no wonder he spent most of his time there. Upon wandering around the grounds, the exterior is just as impressive. Paths lead you through an olive grove and down to the water’s edge. The pool area was fit for entertaining and so interesting! A hodgepodge of stuff but the work of a genius.

Given the long drive back to Barcelona a head of us, we made a quick stop at the Boia Bar right on the harbor. This small bar/restaurant with a deck directly at the water’s edge, was easily the busiest location in town. (We would later find out this is the summer home to that famous cocktail master from El Bulli we met in Barcelona the next evening). After a couple of El Bulli and Adria brother influenced tapas, it was time to leave this sweet little fishing village knowing we would return again someday.

A couple of tapas is not enough for dinner so we stopped in Girona for something more substantial (after hearing high praises of the city from family friends who had just visited). Having no idea where to go, we headed towards the historic district and stumbled upon Plaça del Vi 7 – a little wine bar. It turned out to be the perfect stop with great food, great atmosphere, and even better wine. (When in doubt – always choose the small wine bar!) The city vibe in Girona was wonderful and you could tell there was so much more to be discovered – another spot added to the must return list!

Our Stark Perspective (Tips)

  • If you have a little bit of extra time, save money on tolls by staying off A7. Take N-11 or C-32 instead (when it doesn’t huge the coastline).
  • When visiting the smaller towns – try to go after the first week of March and avoid Sundays or Mondays.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask locals for recommendations! We found out about Manel from the guy at Dali’s house.
  • When in Cadaques, dine at Compartir if you can. The mastermind of El Bulli’s 3 sous chefs and highly recommended (we did not know about it, until after our visit north).

 

Barcelona – The Chef’s Perspective

Here is a very special edition of our blog! An account of Barcelona’s Food Scene from the Chef’s Perspective. Enjoy!

What a culture shock Spain is. In a few short weeks, we have now gone from $15 beers in Iceland, to $8 beers in France, to now $2 beers in Spain.

Notable Restaurants – Poble Sec

Upon our arrival to Barcelona for a 2-week housesitting assignment, our host took us to their favorite local neighborhood spot, L’Avia, or better known to them Mario’s. On the edge of El Raval, this family run restaurant is a little gem with basically no menu. All the food is made ahead of time in large quantities and you order in a manner that is kind of like browsing through a pastry shop – “I’ll take one of those, a little of this and some of that”.  The food is the kind of Catalan cuisine you’d expect from your grandmother’s house, if you were a kid growing up in this region. Nothing fancy, just good ingredients cooked simply. An artist of many talents, the walls of this small place are covered with Mario’s own artwork and if you happen to come on a Wednesday around 3:00PM you can even here the restaurant broadcast his weekly radio show. At L’Avia it’s about the neighborhood and giving back.  Be prepared to drink as Cava is around 4.50€ a bottle and generally each diner is “gifted” a shot of the local liquor (or two) on the way out the door. Open from 11:00AM until 2:00AM, it’s definitely the spot to stop late night on the on the way to the bar, but for the paella you’ll want to arrive around 3:00PM and order a plate (for 5.50€!) right as the 3-foot pan comes off the stove.

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The BEST Patatas Bravas!

Right up the street from our housesit was an amazing little tapas bar, La Platilleria. Cheap drinks and great food – it is all you really need in this city. Since we arrived I’ve been seeing and hearing about patatas bravas, but as with many “famous” dishes around the world, there are so many places that serve terrible variations. After sampling her fair share of bad patatas bravas in her previous trip to Spain, Roxanne continuously refused to order them anywhere. Finally, I convinced here to order them here and we are so glad we did.  The first bowl came out – piping hot little pieces of deep-fried potatoes, julienned jalapeños, a chipotle sauce and a perfect garlic aioli. Exactly what this dish is supposed to be! (We ate here a couple of times and each visit called for 2 orders of Patatas Bravas!) Another regional dish done so well here was the Catalan tomato bread. You are given slices of bread, a garlic clove, a tomato cut in half, local Olive Oil and finishing salt to make it how you like it. Go heavy on the garlic, light on the tomato, whatever you like. This was by far the best way we had it in Barcelona.

Another local spot, Quimet & Quimet, is a bustling tapas bar. During one of our first nights in the area, we tried to get in but the tiny space was filled 3 people deep, shoulder to shoulder, and overflowing onto the street. If we were there for just the drinks it would be fine but we had heard so many great things about the food, we wanted to be able to relax and enjoy our experience. The next day we showed up for lunch and luckily got a spot right at the counter of the bar in this small 15×15 space. In cases on the counter in front of you is every possible canned or preserved item you could imagine from the region, and of only the best quality. Coming from the states anything canned we assume is the second-rate product because if it’s so good, why can it? In Spain it’s very different as they take pride in this food. At the product’s peak ripeness or season, it is canned to preserve the freshness and sometimes even improve upon it over the years, like a fine wine.

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The small bites are prepared to order right in front of you. We opted for Iberico cheeks with a piquillo pepper and potatoes, pickled mussels, tuna belly with uni, and a smoked salmon with yogurt and truffle honey. Everything was amazing, but the salmon was our absolute favorite. Slightly smoked salmon, the sweetness of the honey with the profoundness of the truffle, and the creamy yogurt to smooth it all out was the perfect mouthful. Delicious little bites to start the day, not to mention a pretty solid sangria as well.

During a quick stop at the local vermouth bar one afternoon, we heard a couple other “gringos” asking the bartender for dinner recommendations nearby and became curious as to he had suggested.  Since we were nearing the end of our two-week stay in the neighborhood, we wanted to see how our list compared and if there was anything thing we may have missed. Palo Cortao was one of his suggestions we had not heard of yet, so we decided we would try it for dinner. The namesake of the restaurant, DSC00017 (1)Palo Cortao, is a type of sherry so needless to say they had quite a selection. Of course we had to finish off the meal with a Pedro Ximénez (another great sherry), but before we get to after dinner drinks, let’s not forget the food. We started with marinated sardines (a dish we seemed to eat everywhere!) with local olive oil, orange zest and ginger, and they were phenomenal. Next, a grilled baby squid dish with pork belly and truffle emulsion. The squid were perfectly cooked and while the pork belly was good, it was a little too tough (or maybe I’m just a little partial to the way I cook it).  Finally came a braised oxtail with potato espuma and a very thick, rich jus. Delicious, just wish the potatoes has a little more texture to them, as they appeared almost liquid (a preparation we saw a couple of times). Great meal all in all – excellently priced and so close to home.

 

Notable Restaurants – Around the City

With the closing of El Bulli back in 2011, it was the end of an era. Ferran Adria was the man at the helm and his brother Albert was the pastry chef. A small restaurant secluded on the coast outside of Roses (and near impossible to navigate the one lane winding road) this dream team of chefs propelled themselves from doing zero people a night to being one of the originators of molecular gastronomy and the number one restaurant in the world for many years. It was here where, after a couple week stage, Grant Achetz learned the techniques that turned The French Laundry’s cuisine into what Alinea is today, and chefs like Jose Andres found their voice and went on to be one of the most successful and well know chefs in the world.

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In front of what was once the entrance to El Bulli

Within the next few years, Albert Adria set out to build his own reputation within the restaurant scene in Barcelona, and has definitely succeeded. His most popular restaurant, Tickets, is booked 2 months in advance as soon as the reservations become available. So we opted for nearby Nino Viejo and were not let down. A casual restaurant that focuses on small plates (like almost all of Barcelona), their menu was categorized by Butanes,

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Antojitos y Ensaladas, Del Mar, Tacos y Brasa, and Postres. All sold by the piece, in which you hand the waiter your paper “carte” with the quantity you would like to order – all delicious beyond belief. The night’s specials consisted of Bouqurones with a Tiradito sauce, and a house made tamale (which we both immediately knew we wanted).

After a round of amazing margaritas, one with sea salt “air” foam and the other al pastor style served in a taco shell shaped glass, the first course arrived and we were stunned. The texture of the masa in the tamale was like a perfectly cooked omelet, but so much lighter. Neither one of us had ever had (and didn’t think was possible) to make a tamale this fluffy – absolutely amazing! The Bouqurones were equally as delicious, swimming in a Tiradito sauce of aji pepper paste, leche de tigre, citrus and herbs. We finished the meal with their Al pastor and house tacos, which were both such flavorful bites that we had to get a second round of each.

Cal Pep, located on the edge of the gothic quarter, is very popular in Barcelona and has been for years. What was once a local spot for the freshest daily seafood, now has a line out the door with people waiting to be lucky enough to get one of the 18 seats at the counter and experience this wonderful food.  IMG_0841Upon squeezing through the front door, we probably stood waiting 30 minutes behind the full bar with a couple of glasses of blanc de blanc, watching to see when the next group would be done and we could finally have a seat. Once we sat there was no menu, just choose the number of courses and let the waiter take care of you. We chose 5 tapas and next thing you know the food started flowing.  Clams in a jamon broth, calamari fried so simply, tuna tartare, a potato and egg pancake (very traditional) with garlic aioli, and sea bass with garlic, roasted tomatoes, and potatoes. The clam dish was probably one of the best things we’ve eaten this entire trip, absolutely amazing, and as a whole the meal was top-notch. The whole time there seemed to be a sense of controlled chaos. With no menu and the waiter guiding you, as a diner you don’t really know what’s going on or how much the meal will cost. Sure enough when the bill came it was much more than we were expecting, but for such a great meal it was well worth it.

A friend who had just been in Barcelona in the fall sent me a list of the places he thought were great and worth checking it. Granja Elena was on the top of his list. Off the tourist’s beaten path in an old coffee bar on the backside of the Sants-Montjuïc neighborhood, is a
beautiful small restaurant in which the son took over the family business and turned it into probably the best breakfast/lunch spot in the city. We arrived around 3:00PM to a packed restaurant, tables full of people in business attire out for their “3 bottle of tinto” lunch. Luckily we arrived just as a table opened up and were immediately set up with a DSC00412 (1)bottle of Secrets Blanco Vino (chosen by our waiter and only 13€). This paired perfectly with our first course of cured tuna belly, fresh tomatoes and onions, dressed in what tasted like a white balsamic dressing.  It seems out of the ordinary to have tomatoes this good in march, but they were delicious. For the second course, we had clams in a braised white bean stew, a pairing that complemented each other perfectly. We were told we had to get the baby octopus with scrambled eggs and squid ink but it wasn’t available that day, so we opted for the suckling pig instead. It essentially was a slice of perfectly cooked porcheta with more of that potato espuma(!), a mustard seed infused honey, and red wine jus. We generally opt out of dessert as we are always left a little disappointed, but we decided to round out the meal with a pistachio tuille filled with a honey curd (which was almost like a marshmallow) and pistachio ice cream. Probably the best dessert we’ve had in a long time. So worth the trip away from the center of town, just be sure to get there early enough to secure a seat!

Right on the water in Barceloneta, Suquet De L’Almirall, has become very well known for their paella. We started with the traditional Catalan bread (like at every restaurant around here) followed by a salmon tartare with tzatziki sauce, capers and dill. Very well done and balanced, the perfect start. Then came the paella. At first glance, with a whole langostine right in the center, it looked like someone forgot it on the stove top 10 minutes too long and dehydrated the rice, but when we dug in it was delicious and cooked just right.  I haven’t had many paellas yet to compare, but this one was definitely a winner.

 

Pintxos Bars

The Basque Country’s version of tapas, Pintxos can easily be described as ‘tapas on bread’, but they’re so much more than that. Barcelona is full of bars piled- high with these little bites. All self service and between 1-2€ a piece, they are the perfect solution for an easy, casual, and inexpensive meal or late night snack (just be sure to keep track of your toothpicks so the bar staff can tally your bill at the end of the meal). We were lucky enough to be staying near the best spot for all the pintxos you could ever want – Blai Street. With easily 30 different bars serving Pintxos and Tapas, it’s easy to hop from one to the next to find a place and bite that suits your appetite.

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After sampling many of the places on Blai Street, La Tasqueta De Blai was hands down the best pintxo bar we found. Unlike many restaurants in popular tourist cities where quality generally takes a back seat to substance, this place goes above and beyond.  The type of ingredients like foie gras, fresh fish, and housemade sauces, shows that the staff actually takes pride to offer a quality product. No cucumber tomato skewers with dried up shit here.

 

Cheap Meals 

When traveling, it is unlikely that you will want to (or have the money to) spend eat meal sitting down for over an hour being waited on. The following are our recommendations for some great grab and go meals.

Cafe Viena Rambles – Maybe the only place on our list anywhere near Las Ramblas, this old prominent establishment was once rated the best Iberico Jamon Sandwich in the world by New York Times. While the sandwich was good, I don’t know that we would go as far to say “the best in the world”. Iberico, location and price can’t be beat.

Conesa Entrepans – Recently featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this spot right on Plaça de Sant Jaume specializes in homemade sausage sandwiches, griddled to order.

El Pachuco – A small Mexican bar on the edge of El Raval and Poble Sec, and always overflowing with young locals. The Sopes cannot be missed – pilled high with your choice of meat on top a wonderful house made masa cake.

La Fabrica – With two locations in the gothic quarter, this quick stop is easy for a wide selection of Argentinian empanadas. Have them warmed up and eat at the counters or take them to go.

La Boqueria – The market is full of quick bites to grab as you walk around and browse all local products. Paper cups full of Iberico, Spanish cheese, and any flavor fresh fruit juice combination you can imagine! Head to the market as they are closing (around 6:00PM) for a deal on the fresh juices – we scored 3 different flavors for 1€!

Cerveseria 100 Montaditos – Not our proudest moment but with 1 euro jarras (mugs) of beer and 1 euro montaditos (little sandwiches), this Spanish chain restaurant is the perfect place for a quick recharge. Sandwiches are tiny (stick to the #1 – Iberico on a little warm bun with olive oil), but for 1€ they are a great midday snack.

 

Notable Watering Holes 

We were told about Doble during our day trip to Cadaques. This Amazing craft cocktail bar is the “off season” home to world famous cocktail master Manel Vehí (and winner of the international championship Mediterranean Inspirations 2015 by Gin Mare competition with a plankton infused drink). Doble offers a great menu with his best signature cocktails, elaborated with the last innovative cooking techniques and surprising textures. Creations influenced by his time with the Adrià brothers at El Bulli. He has since traveled around the world discovering ingredients and sharing his talents with chefs such as José Andrés and Grant Achatz, helping to develop the menu at Aviary (known as the best cocktail bar of USA). The cocktails less focused on the booze but on a seamless combination of world ingredients. An amazing experience, especially if he is there and you have a chance to sit at the bar and talk to him.

Another neighborhood spot in Poble Sec, La Confiteria, is a small craft cocktail and vermouth bar with décor that takes you back in time. Great flavor combinations and wonderful selection of vermouth, this place was always packed at night.

A surprising find in the Gothic Quarter, Alsur Cafè, is a late night coffee house and bar where locals gather to hang out on a quite night “in”. Their mojitos were great and only 3.50E each.

After wandering around the city all day, sometimes you just want to sit and have a couple beers. At La Sureña you can grab a bucket of 5 beers for only 4€, while overlooking the harbor. If you are in El Raval and want an authentic german beer hall style experience, L’Ovella Negra is the perfect spot (also offering cheap buckets of beer which are further discounted between 5-8PM)

 

Missed Recommendations

With just over two weeks in Barcelona we covered a lot of ground, but some how there is never enough time. El Rey de La Gamba on Barceloneta along the harbor and Quim Boqueria located in the market where two places that same highly recommended to us that we just didn’t have a chance to get to.

 

Our Stark Perspective (tips)

  • If you can, avoid the restaurants along Las Ramblas. They are grossly overpriced and not focused on quality.
  • Beers come in two sizes – Canya or Cana is a small beer (.2L) and a Doble or Jarra is a large beer (.5L)
  • Pintxo bars are a dime a dozen. There is minimal commitment so you don’t see anything you like, just keep moving to the next one.
  • Since the city is big, their midday siesta isn’t quite as “strict”. Many restaurants still do close midday and won’t open for dinner until 7 – 8PM.

Barcelona – Sunshine, Cava and Architecture

With just over two weeks in Barcelona on a housesitting assignment (more on that soon!), many miles of the city and its streets were explored. Beyond the well-known Antoni Gaudi architecture sprinkled throughout the city (Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló) below are our favorite highlights of our time wandering through the gothic quarter, strolling the beach, and hiking the hills of Barcelona!

 

The Markets

No trip to Barcelona (especially for a chef) would be complete without many trips to the markets. The most famous, Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, is situated about two thirds of the way up Las Ramblas. La Boqueria is one of Europe’s largest and most famous markets, with stalls selling any type of food product you could possibly image. Some small restaurants are sprinkled throughout and packed with people about 3 deep, just waiting their taste of some local fare. While the prices are inflated due to the heavy tourist presence, there are still some deals to be found – 2€ for 30 eggs (if you know how many eggs a day Drew eats this was a score!) or wander through around 5:45PM when the produce stands are trying to purge of their amazing cups of fresh fruit juice combinations (we got 3 cups for 1€).

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Our apartment was situated in Poble Sec, a great local neighborhood to the south west of Las Ramblas. The nearest market was Sant Antoni, filled with locals and much more authentic. The old original building is undergoing renovations so two temporary structures are in place, each spanning a whole city block. One of the structures is filled with clothing and household goods, while the other is centered around food. Some of the most obscure items could be found here.

 

Neighborhoods

IMG_0774One a nice sunny day there is nothing better than a glass of cava and walk down the beach. Barceloneta is the picture-perfect place to enjoy this combination. A triangular, mostly residential neighborhood surrounded by a sandy beach on the Mediterranean and side by side bars and restaurants along the harbor. Views of the modern gold casino structure are visible as you make your way down the boardwalk. On Sunday’s a lovely little market pops up featuring local goods and specialty food items. A go-to spot to relax and escape the city.

The most well-known neighborhood of Barcelona, the Gothic Area, is the center of the old city. The quarter was built primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, though several buildings date from medieval times. The Barri Gòtic retains a labyrinthine street plan, with many small, dark and cold streets opening out into squares. Brimming with charm and interesting architectural details at every corner, it’s near impossible to know exactly where you’re going and it is inevitable you will make a wrong turn. If you see something that you want or a store you’d like to visit, stop then as it will be hard to find it again.

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Just behind La Boqueria to the south of Las Ramblas lies El Raval, the grungy, young, “hipster” area – Barcelona’s most controversial and yet interesting neighborhood. It is certainly not the safest or the cleanest area in Barcelona but it does have a special personality and character all of its own. The area is historic, authentic and full of personality with a huge variety of cafes, restaurants and bars. We never once felt unsafe walking home in the evening, however for the warry traveler, they may find this area a little intimidating and best to explore during the day.

Our apartment was situated in the neighborhood now known as Poble Sec, a residential area at the base of Montjuïc on the edge of El Raval. Everything you could possibly need could be found in this area, especially wandering towards Mercat Sant Antoni. Local, warn, neighborhood feel with plenty to see and do, this felt like one of the best neighborhoods to escape the darkness (and tourists!) of Gothic/El Raval, while still being within easy walking distance. Not to mention, and of utmost importance, there were a ton of great restaurants to choose from, with some of our favorite meals coming from right in our neighborhood.

To the western corner of the city, high up on the hill was Sarrià – an easy visit after Park Güell. This lovely little area was the last of the independent villages annexed by Barcelona in 1921, which could explain why it retains much of the original flavor and personality of its streets and community. Sarrià has always been one of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods and the area where Barcelona’s affluent classes chose to live. The traditional architecture of the neighborhood paired with the typical food market and century-old shops, felt very “French-like” and as though we had stumbled upon an entirely different region. (If you do venture up to Sarrià, Wall Street Journal once named Bar Tomas as best Patatas Bravas in Barcelona. An old local bar hardly changed by times, serves up fried potatoes with intense garlic aioli and chili oil. While not our favorite we consumed, they were still enjoyable).

 

View Points

Barcelona is nestled in a valley between two mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. This positioning gives visitors multiple opportunities for some amazing photo opps and spanning views.

Not only just a great view of the city, Park Güell is a public park to the west composed of gardens and architectural elements of Gaudí’s artistic genius and innovative structural solutions that would become the symbol of his organic style. Commissioned in the early 1900s, this design was far beyond its years and pushed every boundary of the time, taking inspiration from organic shapes, creating a series of series of new structural solutions, and adding imaginative and playful ornamental details. Tickets must now be purchased to enter the small monumental area where the majority of Gaudí’s work is on display, as tourists over the past decade began to destroy the park, taking pieces of the mosaics home as souvenirs. (Save 1€ and book your tickets online instead of buying directly at the park. The monumental area however is only a fraction of this vast park. Some of our favorite spots to explore where beyond the enclosure and provided amazing views of the city below. Bring a picnic and plan on spending a couple hours. (There are 2 Metro stops on the green line to reach the park. If you want the exercise, get off at Lesseps for a STEEP climb to the top).

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In the monument area of Park Guell

On the other side of the city, to the southwest, and just behind our apartment in Poble Sec is Montjuïc, a broad shallow hill with a relatively flat top overlooking the harbor and a sheer cliff to the east. A nice more-gentle climb to the top with its various gardens along the way, offers commanding views of the city. Upon reaching the top, the large fortress stands, dating back to the 17th and 18th century. It served as a prison (and was the site of many executions), often holding political prisoners, until the time of General Franco. A wonderful walk and an interesting area to visit on a nice day.

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The fortress at Montjuic

The Arenas de Barcelona at Plaça Espanya was a bullring built in 1900 in the Moorish Revival style, which has now been converted into a shopping center. The round rooftop offers 360 degree views overlooking Montjuïc and the southern side of the city. For free entrance to the rooftop, go through the mall and use the escalators to avoid the 1E charge for the elevator.

 

Museums

The Picasso Museum is situated in an old estate within the gothic quarter (part of the beauty of the exhibit) and houses one of the most extensive collections of his artwork. Over 4,000 works on display, most from his early life and depicting his relationship with Barcelona, it shows a completely different side of the artist than we know today. Not only does the collection make this museum special, but it was the first museum dedicated to Picasso’s work and the only one created during the artist’s life. Entrance to the museum is free Every Sunday after 3pm and all day on the first Sunday of each month, but be sure to book tickets online to reserve your spot.

Another notable museum in Barcelona is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which displays artwork from the 10th to the 20th centuries specifically from the Catalan region (which Barcelona is a part of). The stately building, the Palau Nacional, was the main site of the 1929 International Exhibition and again is part of the beauty of the museum. There are four permanent collections Romanesque and Gothic art, Renaissance, Baroque art, and Modern art which included interesting interior pieces from Gaudí and other local artists influential in the art nouveau movement. Entrance to this museum is free on Saturday after 3pm. Don’t miss a trip to the rooftop for views of the Olympic Park and Plaça Espanya.

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View from the roof of National Art Museum 

Carnaval

DSC00117Due to the timing of our visit, we happened to be in Barcelona during holy week in which they too celebrate Carnaval for 1 week only. Their Mardi Gras style street party was much more in line with how we imagined Nice was going to be. Every neighborhood celebrates individually, however the kickoff of the week brings everyone together in Plaça Sant Jaume for confetti cannons and the throwing of oranges (which has now been replaced by large orange balloons). Bands and dancers wander through the street before gathering in their neighborhood Plaça for a large party. Residents mark the end of Carnaval with the celebratory burying of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday. We were fortunate to stumble upon a couple celebrations, as we found the website to be really complicated and hard to determine exactly when and where the gatherings were to took place.

 

Day Trips through Cote d’Azur

With the French Riviera spanning far from Nice, we decided to see what other lovely towns were nestled along the rocky coastline of the Mediterranean.

Monaco

Whether traveling north by train (7€ each way) or by bus (1.50€ each way – bus 100 from Nice Port. Be sure to sit on the right side of the bus!) the views winding through the mountainous coast are absolutely gorgeous. We opted for the bus since we really had no timeline to get to Monaco on a Sunday when we knew many things would be closed. The bus route hugs the very edges of the coast and stops at some lovely little towns, just radiating with charm. (When we return to the French Riviera in warmer weather, we will be sure to stop and explore).

At last we arrive to Monaco and jump off the bus just outside the tunnel at Place d’Armes.  A couple hundred steep steps later, situated high upon “the rock” as the locals call it, is Monaco’s Palace and Monaco-Ville (or the old town) with sweeping views of both harbors and those infamous mega yachts!  At 11:55AM each day the changing of the guards occurs. While this is not the most elaborate procession I have ever seen, it is still interesting to witness age old traditions that remain today. Again, getting lost amongst the old streets is always enjoyable, and Monaco is no different (due to location on the rock, Monaco’s old town is much smaller than most). To the far side of the Place d’Armes tucked away is the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, the location in which Princess Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III in 1956. This roman catholic cathedral also contains the remains of many of the members of the Monaco ruling families, including Princess Grace Kelly and many of the Grimaldi family. A short walk through the lush St Martin Gardens, we arrive to the Oceanographic Museum and aquarium, established by Prince Albert I in 1910. This impressive building somehow defies gravity, towering far above the sheer cliff face and sea below.

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Monaco’s new harbor to the South

After covering much of Monaco-ville, is was time to head to the harbor and get our first up close and personal look at the Mega-yachts and fancy cars that the city has become famous for. Since there was no cruise ship docked, we were able to walk out to the edge of the jetty and get a wonderful view of the old harbor and the buildings that overlook it. Walking along the harbor’s edge, you can just imagine the people who own these boats and the lives they life. Upon reaching top of the harbor, we were greeted with our first view of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit, outlined on the streets with red and white paint.  While the top of the harbor is probably the second most touristy place in the city (not on a Sunday in February), there were a few nice little places tucked behind which I am sure are bustling with people in the warmer months. If you happen to find yourself in the city around Happy Hour, the Brasserie de Monaco (right on the harbor’s edge) brews their own beer and offers 3.50€ pints from 6-8pm.

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Climbing yet another hill along the far side of the harbor (I’m beginning to sense a trend in many of these cities!) Monte Carlo was awaiting us along with Pointe Focinane, which in our opinion had the best views of the apartment buildings clinging to the cliffs and the main harbor below. On a clear day 3 countries – France, Monaco, and Italy – can be seen from this point. Continuing along the grand prix route, which takes a major bend just behind the casino, the Fairmont Monte Carlo appears along with the swankiest outdoor Starbucks and views of Monaco’s only beach, Plage du Larvotto to the north.

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Wandering the area around Monte Carlo is where the streets just ooze with money – designer shops at every corner, luxury
vehicles, and gold clad buildings. Tourists are welcome to take pictures of the vehicles, but don’t even think about touching one (the guards sternly scolded a woman for practically sitting on the hood)! The lobby of the casino is dripping with riches and if you bring your passport, you are welcome to enter the casino floor, although a little intimidating.

 

 

Given the season and the day of the week, like France many shops and restaurants were closed, so we opted to head back to Nice for the evening. A very easy and inexpensive day trip to see other parts of Cote d’Azur and experience a taste of the luxury lifestyle.

Antibes

Oh Antibes. I had heard such great thinks about this quaint little town south of Nice where a medieval wall separated the sea from the old town. Wonderful sweeping beaches of white sand and a multitude of restaurants and shops to choose from.

In an effort to save a couple dollars (we have many months to go!) we chose to take the local bus for 1.50€ each direction instead of the 8€ train. Unlike the bus to Monaco, Route 200 did not hug the coast and was a very local bus stopping every couple of blocks. Over an hour later we arrived to the city, and were greeted by the harbor which housed larger yachts than those we had seen in Monaco. It seems that this town just a few kilometers to the south is where serious buyers go to custom build, charter, or store their MEGA yachts for much less than the overrated Monaco harbor.

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The medieval wall of Antibes with the Mediterranean Sea crashing upon it

With the Mistral winds blowing at close to 40mph, we ducked behind the city wall to explore the old part of town. Much to our surprise there was literally NOTHING open. Maybe a dozen store and about half a dozen restaurants. Not even the Picasso museum was open on a Monday. I figured some things would be closed but not near this much. Due to the terrible winds, it was near impossible to get good views of the city and the sea from outside the wall so we were forced to wonder through the streets for a couple hours before grabbing a coffee, a couple beers, and heading back to Nice.

Antibes really looks like an amazing little town and we were so disappointed there wasn’t more for us to experience. The weather was a major downfall in spending more time wandering along the water and discovering some of its hidden gems (Supposedly many celebrities frequent Antibes to escape the high-profile locations like St Thomas and Monaco). We most certainly will visit Antibes again to sample the great cuisine their restaurants had listed, many using locally caught seafood from just outside their city walls.

Tip from a friend – Stop to eat at LE J (17 Avenue Dr Dautheville, 06160 Antibes, France) for amazing food and great staff.

 

Our Stark Perspective

  • Many of the towns in Cote d’Azur are easily accessible by train and/or bus. It might be much more worthwhile to stay in one central location and just day trip to many of the towns. We have been told the road connecting them is one of the most expensive in Europe to drive.
  • France SHUTS DOWN on Sunday/Monday and these towns are no different, especially in Winter.
  • The nicer beaches seem to be to the south of Nice, however they are much smaller than many US beaches.

 

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