Banquet in Barcelona

2013-11-24 09:00

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To experience northern Spanish – or Catalan – cuisine at its best, take a cooking course in Barcelona. Peter van Noord and Johan van Zyl tried (and tasted) one.

It’s just before 10am on a Saturday morning and La Rambla – the famous tree-lined street in Barcelona usually filled with wide-eyed tourists, sneaky pickpockets, zippy skateboarders, tattooed hipsters and old men watching the world go by – is virtually deserted.

We walk down the pedestrianised road between two rows of plane trees, looking for number 58. To our left and right, stallholders are setting up for the day, unpacking flowers, souvenirs, jewellery, bags and newspapers – typical tourist stuff.

It won’t be long before this 1,2-kilometre avenue between the Plaça de Catalunya, the large square in the centre of the old town, and the Columbus Monument becomes the milling, shambling mass it was last night.

We arrived in the city yesterday, dropped our bags at our lodgings near the Plaça, and set off to see the sights.

As first-time visitors to Barcelona, an open-top bus tour was the perfect way to orientate ourselves.

We saw La Barceloneta, the string of beaches sun-seekers flock to, where men in vests play cards or dominoes and always have a beer or glass of wine at hand; the magnificent Peix, a shimmering 35-metre-high fish sculpture by architect Frank Gehry; the Olympic Stadium with its parks; and then, of course, we had a decent helping of Gaudí…

Antoni Gaudí, the famous Spanish architect, was born in 1852 and until his death in 1926, he changed the face of this city with creations such as the Sagrada Família church and Casa Batlló in Passeig de Gràcia.

Even the curbstones in the pavement on this street are Gaudí creations. During our tour, all the passengers (even the chattering Chinese tourists in front of us), fell silent when we were told how the 73-year-old Gaudí was hit by a tram on a nearby corner. He died in hospital two days later.

Back on La Rambla we reach number 58: the Barcelona Cooking School, a stone’s throw from the famous La Boqueria market.

Upstairs we’re welcomed by a friendly guy who introduces himself as Candido, the chef who’ll teach us how to make Spanish food.

I suddenly think of the many balmy evenings I’ve spent in Cape Town, sitting at a pavement cafe on Sea Point Main Road, ordering paella, sangria, tapas… My mouth waters as I think of patatas bravas (fried potatoes), ham or chicken croquettes, marinated olives and those crunchy little anchovies that go down so well with warm flatbread and a sip of wine.

We chose this specific course because it includes a visit to La Boqueria, one of the oldest food markets in Europe. Candido explains that after our visit, we’ll be making five Catalan dishes: strawberry gazpacho, Catalan tomato bread, potato omelette, seafood paella and, for dessert, crema catalana.

(Now and then we say ‘Spanish this, Spanish that’, but Candido quickly sets us straight with a big smile: ‘No, no, no! This is Catalan food!’) His kind admonishment is understandable.

Catalonia is an independent community of Spain and an officially recognised nationality, after all.

Candido finalises his shopping list and then we’re off to the famous market.

What an incredible place!

We walk around open-mouthed, like children in a sweet shop, admiring towers of tomatoes, stacks of chocolate and confectionary, endless varieties of olives and an abundance of strange sea creatures that Candido points out.

Expensive flat razor clams lie in piles, their tongues and barnacles sticking out.

Even the white, cleaned tripe astounds us.

Although the impressive stacks of wares tempt us to buy the first things we see, Candido lets us in on a few secrets.

At the egg stall – where you can even buy swan eggs, with their lovely blue tinge – he points to the most expensive chicken eggs, packed in a tower.

‘These were laid yesterday,’ he explains. ‘If you’re okay with two-day-old eggs, you’ll find them on that pile, slightly cheaper. And if you don’t mind when they were laid, look for the cheapest pile.’

At a fish stall where only one or two fish remain, he almost whispers: ‘This is the best fish stall. It’s the most expensive, but as you can see, everything’s already sold out.’

Candido says he never buys fish on a Monday, when they’re usually headless.

‘That’s because the eyes aren’t as shiny as they were last week.’

Candido stops everywhere to chat. He buys prawns and squid and tomatoes, and the plumpest, reddest strawberries ever.

On the way back to the cooking school, Candido points to Pinotxo, a small café in the market.

‘You have to come and eat here,’ he urges. ‘It’s where the locals grab a corner to stand and eat lunch. Excellent tapas, authentically Catalan…’

Back in the school’s sizeable kitchen, we cook up a storm and before we know it, it’s time to sit down and enjoy our own creations, accompanied by a glass of local red wine.

We sit back, carefree, not worrying about dishes or tomorrow’s menu. Because the city’s restaurants are waiting for us… But can any of them make better tomato bread or paella than we can?

Four great restaurants in the city

Pinotxo bar: You’re lucky if you get one of the five tables at this tapas eatery in the Boqueria Market. But you won’t mind if you don’t. The locals eat standing up – and you want to be one of them, right?

Do try… The chickpeas.

Prices: Reasonable to expensive

Visit: pinotxobar.com

Restaurante los Toreros: This was one of our favourites. Hidden in a quiet back street, here, you don’t see tourists. And the food

is fabulous!

Do try... The patatas bravas. You won’t regret it.

Prices: Very reasonable.

Visit: restaurantelostoreros.es

Casa de Tapes: Sit on the verandah with a beer and page through the endless tapas menu. The decision-making may take a while.

Do try... The cob croquettes.

Prices: On the expensive side. Maybe because Ferran Adrià, the world-famous Catalan chef, is involved?

Visit: casadetapas.com

ABaC: Two Michelin stars, waiters at the ready, nine courses by renowned chef Jordi Cruz that will make you weep with pleasure... Need we say more?

Do try… the yoghurt and cookie-crumb snow with flower nectar and violet ice cream.

Prices: You may have to put your house on the market – but hey, we’re talking world class here.

Visit: abacbarcelona.com

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