I slipped on my sandals, grabbed Paul’s hand, and walked with our dear friends, Mike and Cyana, a mile from our rented apartment to Barcelona's epicenter of fresh fishes and meats, fruits and vegetables, and artisan meats and cheeses: Boqueria market.
I was on a mission to better understand Spanish cuisine. For months I’d been trying to parcel out the culinary identity of Spain but had a difficult time, noting so many elements and styles. Aside from broad generalizations (like they eat bread and potatoes instead of pasta), I wondered what were the defining elements. I figured the Boqueria market would help solve the mystery, or at least serve as a starting place.
When I entered, I felt a wetness in the air from the fresh vegetables and cool meat stands. The bright pinks and oranges of the freshly squeezed fruit juices sold in plastic cups stood out next to the dense stand of hanging cured meats.
I pulled my camera out, poised to capture the kaleidoscope of eye-catching foods – fish with bulging, glassy eyes, exotic fruits, and what I thought would be a clan of happy workers, all thrilled to be selling Barcelona’s freshest. But as I focused on the scrubby, apron-clad vendors, I noticed some sporting grimaces.
“Que quiera??” a large, middle-aged fishmonger asked me sternly when I paused at her stall with my camera in hand. I was just looking, I said. She drew her arms to her hips, rolled her eyes, and walked away. As I meandered around, I noticed it wasn’t just her. Many of the sellers snubbed the camera-slinging tourists, all pausing to take photos but not buying.
No matter. I was on the hunt for good Spanish food. I didn’t need my camera. I just needed my eyes, my nose, and my tongue.
The four of us selected sandwiches, cheeses, fruits, a bottle off cava, and dessert and hailed a cab to the Park Guell, Gaudi’s miniature garden city, for an afternoon picnic.
We found a shaded picnic table and Mike and Cyana unpacked their plastic bags revealing raspberries, fresh figs, the sweetest dried dates I’d ever tasted, and juicy grapes. Paul and I pulled out two kinds of goat cheeses, four sandwiches, and an assortment of olives. Mike popped open the cava (literally, the cork exploded and a good cup of the liquid shot across the picnic table), and filled our glasses. We munched on our snacks and relaxed, peering out over the large plaza where a sword-slinging belly dancer periodically made her moves a small crowd of tourists.
The food tasted delicious and fresh but revealed no secrets. It did, however, make us drowsy, and, like the poppy-sniffing clan from the Wizard of Oz, we fell asleep on park benches.
As I drifted off, I thought about the question of Spanish food again. My copy of Lonely Planet’s World Food Spain, had helped me understand what Spanish cuisine was not: molded, mashed, or pureed beyond recognition.
“Your food will not be tarted up and made to look cute, or grand, or rare and costly. There is no over-reliance on sauces... no confusion of tastes.”
The book was published nearly ten years ago and despite the emergence of innovative, molecular Spanish chefs such as Ferran Adria, who sparked the culinary foam craze, I wondered if Spanish food was just a collection of local ingredients and styles prepared well, like the foods we enjoyed at our picnic.
We ate a wide range of delicious dishes that week that were labeled Spanish or Catalan (which is more Mediterranean-focused), including a tasty dessert soup of ‘Maria Luisa' with lemon ice cream, mint-and-ginger plum cake, melon, and lychee at Jordi Villa’s chef-owned Alkimia as well as a more down-to-earth meal of lamb, bacalau (salt cod), and pepper tapas at our favorite slow-food certified Mam i Teca. The tiny, five- maybe six-table wine bar and tapas restaurant by far brought me the closest to understanding Spanish cuisine, and the jovial owner-chef, Alfons Bach, was so spirited that he did a little dance, showing us some leg, as he closed the blinds, marking the end of the evening at around 1 a.m.
Still, it wasn’t until I returned home that I finally figured out Spanish cuisine. And it happened from what I deem an unlikely source: Martha Stewart.
I know, I know. It’s ridiculous. I travel all the way to Spain only to come home and discover the “real” Spanish cuisine from Martha Stewart. I’m embarrassed.
I made her chorizo tortilla and piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp salad, starting with a Serrano ham and olive appetizer, which I downed with a sherry fino cocktail. What I finally understood after assembling all those Spanish ingredients at the same time was that the culinary identity of Spain was in fact, not a single identity, but a delicate ecosystem of fat and acid from locally made ingredients.
When I chewed on the smoky Serrano ham and followed it with a sip of super dry sherry fino, two ingredients I failed to try on my trip, I tasted Spain for the first time.
Tortilla Espanola con Chorizo
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Living. (Note on adaptation: Martha included six ounces of chorizo, which slightly overpowered the potato and egg flavor. I cut it back the chorizo amount by one ounce to bring out the sweetness of the potatoes).
Serve the tortilla espanola with Martha's Stewart's "Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Shrimp Salad" and enjoy with a glass of sherry fino.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (about 3 large), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 small onion, diced
5 ounces dried chorizo, cut into 1/4-inch dice
6 large eggs, beaten
Heat the oil in a heavy, 8-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add the potatoes and onion, and season with salt. Cover and cook the potatoes until they are tender, about 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes and onion to a bowl. Add the chorizo to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Transfer the chorizo and pan drippings to potato-onion mixture. Reserve skillet.
Add the eggs to the potato-onion mixture and season with salt and pepper. Lightly coat the skillet with more oil if needed and heat over a medium flame. Pour in the egg mixture and stir to combine and press to flatten. Cook, running a flexible spatula around the edges occasionally until the edges set and the center is slightly running, about 6 minutes. Place a plate, upside down, over the skillet, and invert the tortilla onto the plate (be careful about the hot oil that will drip out of the pan). Slide the tortilla back into the skillet and cook over low heat until it's completely set in the center, a few minutes longer. Slice and serve.
Interested in Barcelona? Check out more photos here.
Note on ingredients: It's difficult to find piquiilo peppers at most local markets in my area so I purchased them, along with a couple of packs of Serrano ham, online from La Tienda.