Marina recently completed her transatlantic crossing, sailing from Europe to the Caribbean seas where she will spend the winter. Her final port of call before leaving the Mediterranean was Barcelona, the perfect place to celebrate the culmination of a wonderful season exploring the colorful markets and diverse cuisine of Europe.
Barcelona is without a doubt one of the most exciting culinary cities in Spain. The soul of the Spanish kitchen is what draws chefs and foodies alike to this white-hot cuisine. Whether it is the avant-garde chefs in San Sebastián, the surging popularity of Rioja wineries or the beyond-heavenly Bellota Ibérico ham — Spain has it all.
Spain is a mosaic of regional cuisines, Barcelona representing Catalonia along the Mediterranean coastline. A foodie’s paradise, Barcelona offers everything from the most upscale restaurants to simple tapas bars.
During our visit, the sun was out and the Gaudí architecture sparkly and lithe. Corporate Fleet Executive Chef Franck Garanger and I were shopping for our culinary demonstration on Spanish cuisine and for my paella class in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. Off we headed to our favorite market, the Mercado Santa Caterina in the Old City.
First stop was the meat counter, where we were on the hunt for Ibérico ham. This is the heavenly ham from black pigs that feast on acorns. Their meat is deep maroon red and luscious. Bellota is the premium quality, so Chef Garanger (who is French but lives in Valencia) was assigned the job of selecting the “best of the best.” He befriended a woman who, while slicing our chosen ham razor thin, asked where we work (as we had on our chef coats). We shared our story, and she asked where the ship was headed next, to which we responded, “Miami!”
She asked if she could come along to sunny Miami, to which we responded, “Only if you bring that ham!” And at 110 euro per kilo, we may have made ourselves quite a bargain. Of course, there was some sampling of the ham involved, and I have to admit the adage is true: “Once you try Ibérico, you can’t go back.”
Next stop was the fish counter. I was planning to make a series of tapas for our culinary demonstration and wanted to stuff roasted piquillo peppers with a salted cod, known as baccalà. Unlike many markets in the US with one selection of salt cod, Mercado Santa Caterina sells dozens of variations of salted cod for anything from delicate whipped mantecato to the paella-like mix of Spanish rice, Manchego cheese and cod.
Off we marched to the olive counter for an assortment of olives for our tapas plate. Then we continued on to the cheese stall for some aged Manchego cheese.
My paella class includes gazpacho — the Andalusian cold soup treasure of tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, old bread, sherry vinegar, sweet peppers, salt and zesty Spanish olive oil. So a stop to pick the perfect tomatoes (yes, luscious even in early winter) and olive oil was next. In Valencia, Chef Garanger uses beans in his paella, so we had to stop and have a discussion about that! I have learned that there are as many paella recipes as there are Spaniards! Paella is usually a Sunday dinner, made mid-day and enjoyed with family and friends. Sangria is often involved, as are tapas and little plates prior to enjoying the paella. (More to come on paella later!)
Off we went to my favorite olive oil store in the Mercado, owned by a mother and son who were very active in the refurbishment of the Mercado Santa Caterina. They are both extremely knowledgeable about Spanish olive oils. Chef Garanger and I sampled a few (and then a few more) and decided on 1921, a robust but tempered olive oil.
Being late in the year, the cèpes and cabbage were stunning. It made me want to be home with a big pot of Spanish sausages simmering in mushrooms and cabbage!
All this shopping made us hungry (I think it was not quite 11:00 am), so we stopped at one of the local tapas bars in the Mercado for a tortilla, which in Spain refers to a potato omelet. Of course, we also had to enjoy a glass of Spanish Verdejo.
We had two fabulous sous chefs with us, both from India, and we treated them to a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a tortilla.
Off I scurried to the culinary center to ready the team for our paella class. It has been one of our most popular classes this season and one of my favorites to teach.
Mastering paella is a lot about the crusty bottom, or soccarat, that forms in the pan at the very end. This tasty caramelization of the rice is reserved for the elders and is always eaten with a wooden spoon directly from the paella pan. You can see me here, nose-down in the paella pan, helping our students nurse their soccarat along. I am always a bit like the Disney character Tiggerin this class, so happy when our students master this essential element of a delightful Spanish family recipe.
And as always, what is paella without sangria? My “patio pounder” sangria has been a big hit this season. I add St-Germain liqueur, the elderflower aperitif that gives a fragrant fruitiness and depth to a traditional sangria. Cheers!
Executive Chef, Bon Appétit Culinary Center