Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gaudi, Pintxos, Jamon y Queso, the Sea, and a fond Adeu...

Thursday morning we headed off for serious sightseeing: Picasso Museum and La Sagrada Familia. If you haven't been, go. Astounding, especially when you visit the educational area where they explain Gaudi's design principles and you can see the models being constructed for use in fabrication. Dave really has the best photos so I'll post later. We spent hours and hours going to the top towers and wandering around the most beautiful construction site in my lifetime. Head-shakingly impressive. Picasso was great, but foodies take note: the alleyways surrounding the museum are lined with artisanal chocolate and cookie shops. I don't even have a sweet tooth and I was wooed.

At that point the temperature had dropped so we grabbed a cab to Jamonisimo! On the suggestion of Amelia at CincSentits we grabbed a tiny table in the back (there were only 2) and ordered the "3 textures of Iberico" to share with a bottle of Rioja. The cute boy with a sharp knife prepared a slate of thin slices from different parts of the leg and explained the differences in flavor and composition. Along with some crusty home made bread and local olive oil, we snacked like kings. Educational and gluttonous in one simple setup. Sigh.

That whet our appetite, so we headed back to the old city for more eating and drinking, this time going Basque: Euskal Extea! The food of choice here are Pintxos ("pin' chohss") which are like mini tapas but served on little picks or "sticks" often on small slices of bread. The idea being you graze among all the offerings along the bar and passed by servers, keeping your picks to be counted later for your bill. There is no cheating. What there is a lot of is Txakoli ("chah' kohlee"), a brisk, zippy white wine poured in small quantities from a dizzy height into small tumblers, often to the accompanying shouts of "Hay! Txakoli!!! It's similar to Vinho Verde--lime-y, briskly acidic with a bit of frizzante (the small pour from a height keeps it fizzy in the glass) and pairs perfectly with salty fare (combo of green olives, pickled green beans and anchovies, my favorite pintxo), fried fare (small pieces of fried cod with what seemed like aioli, fried anchovies), marinated mushrooms, spicy sausage, cheese-stuffed peppers, etc. They are also cheap--we ate a dozen of them over the course of the night, along with um, 2 bottles of wine (it's only 11% alcohol!) and our bill was shockingly low. Of course we had to try a couple shots of Basque liquor since we were closing the joint down with the staff. Em. That was a little rough and more than a little medicinal. Makes you realize how tough the Basque really are...

Friday morning we were jonesing for the water and headed to Barceloneta and the Ports to take in the sea. Why we didn't run to the boardwalk the second we hit town I'll never know given our predilection for beaches. But we made it and ahhh, salt air, sailboats, cigarette butts. Life was good. But it had been hours since our last meal so we headed into the narrow alleys in search of seafood. Found a classic old Taverna called Can Romanet (est. 1763, when that was a pretty rough part of town): old men and fresh fish. My kind of joint. We ate the appetizers too quickly to take pictures: traditional pa' amb tomaquet (tomato rubbed bread) and grilled razor clams in some kind of herb oil. Whoa. Then I got shellfish stew with saffron and Dave got the salt cod. Heavenly with a dry, lemony bottle of Catalan white (?Xarel.lo & Parallada I think). A brisk walk up to the post office to send postcards and shoe window-shop erased thoughts of a nap and turned our thoughts to cheese. Like that's hard to do.

Here's where it gets funny. The cheese shop we'd heard about, both from Time Out and Amelia at CincSentits was run by a Scottish woman, Katherine McLaughlin. Her shop, Formatgeria la Seu (translates to Cheese Head Quarters, in the diocese HQ sense of "la seu"), specializes in Spanish farmhouse cheeses and she is as passionate and knowledgeable as you get. Lucky for us she'd had a crap day and when we came in and started chatting, she closed the shop, took us into the back and poured a few glasses of Bierzo to talk cheese over. What an amazing woman. Her tiny shop used to be a butter factory (food karma) and she and her sister restored as much of it as possible, including the beautiful wooden doors leading to the cooler. Her "cheese case" is really a climate controlled show room walk-in and I could have spent hours in there breathing it all in. Irony and serendipity are my bunk mates, so I wasn't even surprised when she told me how, for the past 2 years she'd been trying to open a tiny wine bar next door. Seriously. Not making that up. She showed us her "wee box" (a really cool mock up of the bar made by a set designer) and best yet, gave us a tour of the space itself. I thought Secco was small. Hers will seat (stand?) 6 maybe. The picture here may give you a clue to the ancient interior of the space she's working with. I thought the city of RVA was a pain to deal with? Imagine living in fear of finding Roman ruins under your wine bar while installing electrical and plumbing? The joys of entrepreneurialship. I am pleased as punch to have successfully smuggled all of the cheeses I bought from her into the US, and we are having a little contraband tasting at my house tonight. I'll definitely be raising a glass to Katherine.

Kathererine was also kind enough to recommend two spots to try before we left, so of course we did: a little wine bar called "Ginger" and Barcelona stalwart of Catalan cuisine, "Cafe de l'Academia". At the former, a tiny bar with a sunken lounge (disco ball and plush seats) and a half-mezzanine (?) seating area overlooking the literally 2' bar, we had a half bottle of "La Rosita" Cava Rosat. Basically we were pleasantly killing time until 9pm when the restaurant opened. I love eating on Barcelona time! Dave had a still bleating rack of lamb and I had grilled Catalunyan sausages with poached egg and wild asparagus. Washed down with copious amounts of house red and (do I have to even say it?) Orujo. Delicious. Finally, as we headed back to the hotel to pack, we passed by the parade they had for us (and OK, maybe also for Mary and Joseph but whatever).
Adeu, Barcelona!