I have to admit that I have become a bad flier as I have got older. As a younger man I'd never entertain the possibility of being scared on a plane. I was one of those guys who'd carry on reading the paper as the plane took off. Now, I'm the one with eyes closed and armrests held in a white knuckle kung-fu grip. There is an exact moment of terror for me, after which I can relax. It's the "throttle down", the moment when after taking off the pilot throttles the engine down and there is a noticeable dip in the aircraft's rate of climb. It's the bit where you feel like your in freefall for a moment. I have no idea why but this has become a crux moment for me over the last couple of years. So, it came as a bit of shock to be fearing the worse as we came into land at Barcelona airport. Torrential rain and whiplash winds are not quite what you expect when going to Spain, but that is what greeted us as we descended. There was one of those moments; the plane lurched heavily, a little more heavily than people were comfortable with. There was a rather pregnant pause.
Anyway, I'm here to talk about food. So enough about my fear of flying.
Like I say we landed on a very wet evening and by the time we got to the hotel it was around midnight and we were hungry. Not such a bad proposition in Spain. We headed out and after a short walk found an open bar heaving with people. It was time for a hit of the good stuff. Small green padron peppers fried and tossed in sea salt. They are the Russian Roulette of tapas, every so often you'll get a fiery hot one. Pinchos Morunos, fat pork kebabs in a cumin spiked tomato sauce. Toasted bread with tomato pulp. I love the workman like presentation you get in bars in Spain, no messing about, just the food, no frills, all washed down with a few beers.
Next day we hit La Boqueria market for lunch, I know the place is full of tourists and the generally the Sant Antoni market is less so and bigger but I loved walking down La Rambla. The market is stunning and just depresses the hell out of me that whilst a market like this would be a major landmark in the UK, here it is just par for the course.
The selection and quality of produce just boggles the mind, beautifully presented counters just brimming with stunning looking fish and shellfish, fruit and veg stalls that mug you with colour and smell. The lunch counters in the market serve up some lovely looking shell fish and a 10euro lunch; you have got to love a country where restaurants and bars have to provide a cheap three course meal by law! We opted for razor and normal clams and grilled squid which cost slightly more than the set menu lunch, about 6 euros more.
Dinner was an adventure. I had my heart set on Cal Pep, often sighted as having the best tapas in Barcelona and one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. The girlfriend was up for a more sit-down Michelin starred kind of affair. We zoned in on three possibilities and thinking that we could probably wing a reservation we drifted out into the night, stopping off for a beer here and a croquette or two there. Foolish children. Of course, all the restaurants on our list were booked out for days. We made our way to the gothic quarter to Cal Pep's and in the spirit of '36, you had to queue, rich or poor, you wait in line till a seat at the counter is free. And, man, what a meal. Foie Sausage with white beans and a sherry reduction, a stunning tortilla coated in aioli, a simply divine piece of monkfish, a chunk of filet that bled ruby drops of blood when you pierced it with a fork, a veritable storm of food hit me. Topped off with the ubiquitous foam for dessert, a dish of 4 small glasses each containing a flavour, lemon, crema catalana, coffee and chocolate. We came across a lot of foam in our stay, Ferran Adria has a lot to answer for. We ate so well at Cal Pep's we came back the next night. There is a lovely theatre to it. Picture going to an American diner, an open kitchen, but the food your getting is bang up there with anything you'd be getting in one the full Michelin stars down the road and probably more honest. If you're near, go, queue up without complaint and eat wonderful food.
This may be something quite recent, but I noticed a preponderance of odd little not quite patisseries in Barcelona. They were super trendy and contained beautifully presented deserts in art gallery surroundings. One, rather oddly, called Bubo (isn't that what you get when you get the Black Death??) had caught the girlfriends eye earlier in the day. So on our third night in the city and after our second meal at Pep's having forgone the foam, we trotted in for dessert. Now, it was stunning, beautifully presented and lovely desert. I had an individual Sacher Torte and the girlfriend a trifle like thing in a glass. However, the surroundings didn't really make it that comfortable a place to eat desert. You had to eat standing up with people milling around you ogling your grub. Not ideal. Funnily enough, we'd come across a similar thing in Madrid over the new year, except with ice cream.
It's not everyday that you get to eat in a restaurant that's been serving people since the 1760's but we found one for lunch. This was a vast collection of ornate dining rooms populated almost exclusively by locals having a leisurely lunch, the table of very stern looking matriarchs on the table next to us being somewhat characteristic. There are probably hundreds of these places dotted about the backstreets of cities in Spain. Hidden, with thick barred windows and imposing doors, they have the feel of medieval speakeasies. These days the doorways are festooned with menus but you'd still never guess the size of the place from it's entrance. There are no michelin stars knocking about either, they serve very simple food to a very large number of people and they do it very well. A plate of battered squid, a minute steak cooked to perfection, a bowl of prawns, a plate of white asparagus and your done, followed by the ever "flan" (creme caramel). There's no sense of urgency like you'd find elsewhere in the world at lunch time, just people chatting, atheirg, and telling their friends about thier no good grandchildren who never visit with much shaking of heads and tutting.
Some Spanish cities suit the rain, Santiago de Compostela prides itself on it's rainfall claiming it is where "rain is art", Barcelona looks a bit bedraggled in the rain, she doesn't wear it well, when the sun shines she really glitters and it was with a sense of relief that the sun start shining on our last day in the city. Strolling along the beach promenade involved avoiding the slick head waiters from the tourist restaurants trying to smarm us into having paella, however the TimeOut guide came to our rescue and we found a bar/restaurant with a lovely balcony overlooking the whole city where we sat until it was time to catch the flight home.