Saturday, January 10, 2015

El Nacional restaurant. Meat Mecca in Barcelona

Originally published in print in Barcelona Metropolitan magazine. January 2015

The mantra at El Nacional is ”products from the peninsula”. This grandiose shrine to the foods of Spain, Portugal and Southern France now occupies a massive building on Passeig de Gràcia, just above Plaça Catalunya. At the time of its christening in 1889, this impressive space held a majestic theatre, but later fell into the far less glamorous role of a fabric dyeing plant, car showroom, and ultimately a lowly car park. However, this beautiful Industrialist-era edifice has been meticulously restored (decorated by renowned Barcelona interior designer, Lazaro-Rosa Violan), and returned to the spotlight in early November. Open from noon until late, 365 days a year, El Nacional’s 2,600 square metres have already hosted 80,000 diners in the first seven weeks alone. However, this high volume does not mean a lack of quality; quite the contrary. El Nacional consists of four bars (cocktails, beer and conservas, wine and cured meats, and oysters served with cava) and four eating spaces—La Llotja (fish), La Taperia (classic tapas and rice dishes), La Paradeta (‘rapid delicatessen’ and self-service) and La Braseria (grill), all of which stake their claim in offering top-quality food and drink.
While the list of pristine Iberian products is endless—cheeses, fish, wine, cocktails, oysters, sausages, canned seafood and more, one of the biggest draws is the La Braseria dining area of El Nacional and the prospect of experiencing some of the best beef you may ever taste. Purchased from the world-famous El Capricho restaurant in the small town of Jiménez de Jamuz (León), the beef at El Nacional is exquisitely-marbled and dry-aged for over 40 days, and comes from retired, blissful steers that live out their final years eating corn and wild herbs in the pastures of northern Spain. El Nacional is actually one of very few restaurants in the world to serve the famous meat of El Capricho, and the deep, beefy flavour of these expertly-raised cattle is likely to make all other steaks pale in comparison, in Barcelona or beyond.
Overall, El Nacional is an exceptional space with a lot of buzz surrounding it, considering it has only been open a few months and, with countless options and combinations to explore, it is safe to say that one visit is surely not enough.

Friday, December 19, 2014

From Seed to Cup: The Third Wave of Coffee Culture in Barcelona

This is a long-form version of the final article, published in print in December 2014 in Barcelona Metropolitan Magazine

“Everyone in this industry would love to open their own little coffee corner,” says Elisabet Sereno, National Coordinator for Spain for the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). Elisabet has dedicated to her life to being a coffee ambassador, educator, and entrepreneur, and has recently opened True Artisan Café coffee shop just steps from the Arc de Triomf of Barcelona. Having formed a partnership with the La Marzocco brand of hand-built Italian espresso machines, True Artisan Café is at the same time a La Marzocco espresso machine showroom, a SCAE-certified education and training center (with coffee introduction, barista certification, and roasting classes of all levels, costing between €80 and over €300), and —of course— a great place to enjoy some carefully-roasted and expertly-prepared coffee.

“Growing and processing coffee is a very labor intensive process,” Elisabet says, “so to not show respect to the beans during the roasting, grinding and brewing process would be to not respect the long journey which the beans have taken, or the hard work that has gone into their production. That’s why we have partnered with La Marzocco. Their machines truly respect the coffee.”

Why is this so important? Well, it takes one entire year for one coffee plant to produce one kilogramme of green coffee beans. Through processing, this coffee loses 15%-20% of its weight during the roasting process. In the end, one kilogramme of roasted coffee yields between just 120 and 140 cups of brewed coffee; that’s a lot of work for a product that is so often mistreated in the final steps of its journey from seed to cup. The main goal of True Artisan Café is to spread this appreciation and respect for coffee to Barcelona’s professionals and consumers alike, through training and education, and top-quality service, preparation, and presentation.

“However,” Elisabet continues, “it is just so difficult to get the permits to open your own coffee shop or coffee roaster business in Barcelona that many people would just rather go to London.” There are two reasons why there are so few ‘specialty coffee’ shops in this. First, there is a scarcity of coffee education and knowledge among the coffee-drinking public. Second, there is a severe lack of assistance to entrepreneurs from the Spanish government.

Currently, an individual applying for a permit to open a coffee shop in Barcelona is forced to apply for the same type permit required of someone interested in opening a bar; there is no “coffee shop” category. Since these food service permits are expensive and limitedly available—especially in the densely-packed Ciutat Vella—many potential independent café concepts never come to fruition. When asked, David Abrahamovitch, co-founder of the extremely popular East London coffee shop Shoreditch Grind, explains how simple it is to launch a specialty coffee shop in England with one telling sentence: “All you need here is a coffee machine!”
“The demand for fire safety and precautions in opening a Barcelona coffee shop is needlessly high,” Elisabet explains. “In reality, roasting coffee is more similar to popping popcorn (than cooking with open fire).” The cost of implementing exhaust systems and other over-cautious fire safety protocols crushes any small business owner on a budget.

Even so, coffee culture has ridden various waves over the centuries and continues to become ever more focused on quality, both in business practices and in the cup. Little by little, the ‘Third Wave’ of coffee culture is dawning in Spain.

The ‘First Wave’ of coffee culture upheld the Italian tradition of mixed beans of unknown provenance which have filled cups since Caffè Florian—the first coffeehouse in Europe—was opened in Venice, Italy in 1720. Starbucks ushered in the ‘Second Wave’ during the 1970s and 1980s, as the first large coffee company to bring ‘coffee origin’ to the awareness of the consumer. Now, the ‘Third Wave’ is here, focused not only on coffee bean origin but now also dedicated to full transparency in the sourcing process and ultimate freshness of the roasted beans. As a result, the new generation coffee houses are dedicated to propagating their respect and love for coffee to the masses. People want to know everything about the coffee, including who roasted it and when. Roasting ‘in the moment’ is the wave of the future, and coffee shops are working closely with artisan coffee roasters (or roasting their own beans in-house) to have full control over the flavour profiles and aromas in the final cup. True Artisan Café serves coffee from a different, artisan roaster each month.

Understanding the nuances of coffee sourcing, processing, and brewing on a professional level is a highly academic endeavor that must be mixed with passion. So what accounts for the disconnect between the “romantic” idea of a Barcelona coffee shop and the reality that most of the coffee served in the city is a bit lacking in character?

Ever wondered why the café con leche (espresso with steamed milk) is so popular here? The answer, aside from lack of properly trained baristas in all but the most progressive establishments, is an unpleasant little remnant of Spanish coffee’s past: torrefacto.

Torrefacto is a process of dark-roasting coffee beans with sugar added during the roasting, creating a shiny glaze on the bean that acts as a means of preservation and yields a dark, slightly bitter brew that often requires the addition of milk and sugar to be palatable. Initially used by coffee importers and distributors in the early 20th century to keep their beans from going stale, torrefacto became indispensable in the era that followed the Spanish Civil War.

Coffee shortages after the war were balanced by this roasting process, giving the sensation of a strong cup while using less coffee, while adding sugar weight to coffee maximised profits (up to 15% in weight could be sugar) and masked the flavour of inferior quality coffee bean. Out of all the coffee that Spain currently imports, 70% of the beans are of the inferior Robusta species, which is easier to grow and has a noticeably more bitter taste. Using cheap Robusta instead of higher-quality, complex, nuanced Arabica beans was masked by the torrefacto process for years. During the Franco Era, coffee came in three distinct levels of quality: Popular, Regular, and Superior, the last being the best. Imports were strictly regulated by the government, and the coffee options were few. The superior-level coffee often came from Columbia during that time period, leading people to believe that, by default, Colombian coffee was good without taking factors like roast and preparation into account. Today, buying coffee at the typical supermarket is tricky, as Spanish labeling laws do not require packing to specify what type of beans are used in the blend; if they don’t say, I would just assume there’s something to hide.

Over the decades, the people of Spain have grown accustomed to the flavour of this sugar-roasted coffee, and though some people claim to love torrefacto and it is ironically marketed around the world as a “gourmet product” of Spain, there is no longer any reason for the torrefacto process to continue. In the end, this tradition has shaped Spain’s perception of what coffee should taste like, leading to the belief that if a coffee isn’t strong and dark, it isn’t “good”. It may be hard for people to appreciate the more delicate flavour of light and medium-roast coffee, but the fact that it actually maintains more natural caffeine than its dark-roasted counterpart is an easy selling point here in Spain.

So what makes a “good” cup of coffee? At Nomad Coffee Productions—a coffee laboratory/roaster/coffee shop that has the whole city buzzing— founder Jordi Mestre loves sharing coffee knowledge with consumers, facilitating the spread of information and in turn generating a more demanding coffee-drinking public.

Every Friday, Nomad hosts a coffee “cupping”; a tasting of six different coffees, sampled in the professional coffee evaluation format. Jordi explains the origins, roasts, and flavour profiles of each coffee, which are prepared simply by pouring hot water directly onto coarse-ground coffee in a glass cup, no filter. The coffee grounds float at the top, forming a “crust” which is broken with a spoon to release the complex aromas of each brew. The grounds eventually settle to the bottom of the glass and the coffee is tasted three times (hot, warm, and cold) in quick, airy sips from tasting spoons to evaluate the beans full range of flavours and aromas. The “cuppings” are fun and informative events lasting about an hour and costing €15 per person, with a bag of coffee included.

Jordi is also a London coffee veteran who decided to move back to his native Barcelona and take his Nomad Coffee Cart business (founded in London in 2011) to the next level in February 2014 by opening Nomad Coffee Productions; a “concept store”, not a “coffee shop”. You can drop by for a coffee Monday-Friday from 8:30am-3:30pm, but their main goal is coffee roasting and experimentation. Nomad offers four-five different coffees at any given time in their coffee shop/laboratory; some roasted for espresso, others for filter coffee. They also supply many other shops and restaurants with their espresso blend, though the precise, expert preparation found at places like Nomad and True Artisan Café is hard to match.

At True Artisan Café, Elisabet and head barista Ionut Bindila show how they grind and weigh the coffee on a digital scale every time a drink is ordered. For a double-shot of espresso, the ground coffee weighs between 16 and 19 grammes (depending on the desired outcome). The top-of-the-line, hand-built La Marzocco Strada EP (Electric Paddle) espresso machine that adorns the coffee bar costs as much as a new Volkswagen, and gives the barista absolute control over their coffee extraction. The precision in each step of the preparation process—and the importance of everything from the fresh local milk to the filtered water—puts this professional coffee in a whole other league than the “slap and tap” espresso at the typical corner café.

Back at Nomad, Jordi offers these tips for home coffee brewers: To get the best cup of coffee without leaving the house, he ranks “espresso machines” and stovetop Moka pots as the worse options, for the former’s inadequacy compared to the real thing, and the latter’s commonly bitter taste. At the opposite end of the spectrum he ranks “drip” coffee (filter cones, Aeropress, and the like) and French Press pots as the best bet for a pleasing cup in the comfort of your own home.

Jordi shared this sure-fire recipe for French Press coffee at home: 16 grammes of light roast coffee, ground on the coarsest setting (ask your coffee shop to grind it for you, but buy small amounts at a time so that it stays fresh) and 230 ml of water at 94˚C degrees. Add all the hot water at once to the press pot, stir briefly, then set a timer for exactly four minutes and place the lid on the pot with the plunger pulled all the way up. After four minutes, press the plunger down, then decant the coffee (an important step often neglected) to stop the brewing and avoid over-extraction.

So, just as fine wine, craft beer, and artisan cocktails in Barcelona have fought a long fight to gain respect, recognition, and perceived value from the consumer, so goes the struggle to bring about a new era of coffee drinking culture in the city and beyond. As coffee lovers, it is our job to become educated in not only where the coffee that we drink comes from, but how it is treated throughout its entire, impressive journey from far-off plantation to cup and saucer. There is most definitely a correct way of preparing a cup of coffee, and the more informed we are and the demanding we become, the better the coffee culture of Barcelona will be. I propose that everyone go out and try one of these “3rd Wave” coffee shops for themselves and discover the full potential and complexity found in these little beans that were once so regarded, but have since by left for dregs. Go out, order a coffee, ask questions; join the conversation.

Six places to drink a great coffee in Barcelona
Nomad Coffee Productions: Passatge Sert, 12
True Artisan Café: Passatge Sant Benet 6
Onna Café: Carrer de Santa Teresa, 1
Skye Coffee Co.: Carrer de Pamplona, 88
Satan’s Coffee Corner: Carrer de l'Arc de Sant Ramon del Call, 11
Cafés El Magnífico: Carrer de l'Argenteria, 64

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A gourmet guide to Santiago de Compostela: Food and Wine Mecca!

Santiago de Compostela
The city of Santiago de Compostela is really more of a town than a city. It’s small, yet bustling with university students, locals, tourists, and—of course—road-weary pilgrims soaking up the glory of a long road traveled. The Camino de Santiago is the city’s biggest claim to fame—a Medieval pilgrimage taken for centuries by Christians to the final resting place of Saint James. The "Camino" takes on many routes, depending on the starting place. A true pilgrimage begins at one’s home and ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, though now, many people begin the trek from popular starting points throughout Northern Spain and South-Western France (beginning on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains sets the journey at some 800km). People take weeks or months to complete their pilgrimage and travel by foot, bicycle, or horse.

It’s hard to miss the fact that the city is now built around this tradition, as most corners in the historic city center are bursting with scallop shell souvenirs (the symbol of a pilgrim on the road). With a constant celebratory spark in the air (hundreds of pilgrims arrive daily in the high season) and a university environment (The University of Santiago was founded in the 16th century and is one of the oldest in Spain), Santiago de Compostela is full of energy. Beautiful architecture and meandering medieval lanes make getting lost more an excitement than an inconvenience. As someone who prides himself on an excellent sense of direction, it pains me to admit: I got lost in the tiny center of Santiago de Compostela surprisingly easily. Make sure you bring along a street map, and trust in the friendly locals to point out the way. The people of the city gave off a warmth that was instantly apparent and made my experience all the richer.

Where to stay in Santiago de Compostela

I am a big fan of the “old quarter” of every city I have visit throughout Spain and Portugal. The charm of the narrow streets and cobble stones will never cease to steal my heart, so naturally I recommend finding a place in the center of Santiago de Compostela (on a map you can see the oval-shaped old city district, with the cathedral at its core). One place that is well located, very reasonably priced, and dubs itself as a “Gastronomic Hostal” is Casa Felisa. The simple and affordable accommodations are made even sweeter by Casa Felisa’s timeless, classic restaurant (see below). If you are looking for more luxurious lodgings, there are none finer than at the Five-Star Hotel Parador of Santiago de Compostela. Built in 1511, the Hospital de los Reyes Católicos (Hospital of the Catholic Kings) later became the final lodge of the Camino de Santiago to house pilgrims at the end of their journey. Directly facing the towering Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the impressive structure is now a parador (luxury hotel within a historic building), and the location couldn’t be more central. Other hotels might include: San Francisco Hotel Monumento, Hotel Literario San Bieito and Hotel Gastronómico San Miguel.
parador santiago de compostela

Where to Eat in Santiago de Compostela

Casa Felisa: A garden oasis and local family favorite for a long, leisurely lunch
Try the T-bone steak (chuletón), grilled fish, croquetas (ham croquettes), pimientos de Padrón (sautéed green peppers that are a typical “tapa” all over Spain but get their name from their place of origin; the nearby town of Padrón), and scrambled eggs with cured beef and peppers (revuelto de cecina y pimientos).

With its interior garden and heaping portions of Gallego classics, Casa Felisa is a favorite spot with the locals for a leisurely lunch with friends or family. The presentation is simple in the typical Spanish way, so it’s the sublime taste of a 800-gram T-bone of Galician beef for two—hot off the grill and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt—that has filled their gorgeous, interior garden terrace for decades.

Bar O Orella and Bar O Gato Negro: Typical Gallego tapas bars that need to be experienced Try the: Galician Octopus (polbo a feira), steamed cockles (berberechos), sautéed pork loin marinated in paprika (Raxo), Lacón (roasted ham), boiled pig's ears with paprika (orella de cerdo) and Galician Empanadas of chicken, beef, bay scallops (zamburiñas), mussels, and more!

These two bars are neighbors, just steps from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. There’s a good natured rivalry between fans of these two classic bars; locals all have their personal preference. While the typical fare of seafood, cooked and cured meats, and meat pies are a sure bet, I often like to follow the lead of other diners and order whatever the locals are eating. It’s hard to go wrong here. These bars are far from glamorous, but when you are happily digging into a platter of fork-tender octopus, chased with a cold swig of the local Estrella Galicia lager, you’ll hardly notice.

Abastos 2.0: Modern, market-driven fine-dining at a very pleasant price Try the two tasting menus: one in the “Pub” section for €21 (six dishes inspired by the local market), and the other in the “Storeroom” for €35 (five tapas, then vegetables, fish, and meat, followed by two desserts). You can add a four-wine pairing for €10 more.

The Praza de Abastos (or Mercado de Abastos) is the central fresh market of Santiago de Compostela. It isn’t hard to deduce that the name Abastos 2.0 essentially alludes to an “innovation” on the original market cuisine of Galicia—version “two-point-oh”. The building itself dates back to the 1870s, and the contrast of the very old settings with the young, excited staff has earned Abastos 2.0 the somewhat dubious label of “Neo-tavern”. All of the different parts (Pub, Storeroom, and Private Dining) have separate contact numbers and emails, and reservations are a must. Menus change weekly, dictated by the seasonal products at the market that is just a few steps away. This restaurant is definitely worth checking out, and the price is hard to beat for such fresh, well-treated fare.

Pastelería Mercedes Mora: One of the oldest pastry shops in Santiago de Compostela. Try the Tarta de Santiago (the most famous dessert of the city, made with egg, flour, and ground almonds), Bagoas de Compostela (Tears of Santiago; tear-shaped balls of almond and truffled chocolate), and Bombas de Crema (cream-filled pastry balls).

One of the oldest pastry shops in Santiago de Compostela, La Casa Mora was founded in 1925. Eventually, it was renovated and modernized in 2007 and re-named Pastelería Mercedes Mora. However, this little shop still holds its claim to being one of the best places to try classic (and modern) Gallego pastries! Beware of the dozens of varieties of vacuum-packed Tarta de Santiago that you find around the city. Quality comes from freshness and from prime ingredients. However, if you must take a tart home with you, the vacuum-packed one will do, just don’t miss out on tasting the real thing!

Where to Drink in Santiago de Compostela

Bar O Mosquito: Just a couple of blocks outside of the “old city”, this classic tavern also doubles as a shop, selling local gourmet products. Try the licor de café—a necessary indulgence for anyone visiting Galicia. Made by infusing aguardiente de orujo (strong, neutral grape brandy from Spain, similar to Italian Grappa, called Aguardente in Portugal) with roasted coffee beans, spices, and sugar.
 licor de café
Licor de café is a perfect digestive to aid your stomach in processing the giant meal you probably just ate (portions in Galicia are rightfully famous for being often over-the-top). In addition to the coffee-flavored variety, a shot of just plain orujo, or the sweeter, herbaceous orujo de hierbas is also quite popular. The bar El Mosquito is literally on the Camino de Santiago (the final stretch runs along the city streets), thus the crowd is usually a mix of locals, students, and pilgrims. This bar is well-known for their licor de café, a home-made drink that they say tastes different in every bar or household in Galicia. At El Mosquito you can buy some to take home as well.

Vinoteca O Beiro: One of the oldest and most well-known wine bars in Santiago de Compostela. Try the wine. Galicia has five Denominations of Origin for wine production. If you haven’t tried a full-bodied, expressive red from the region of Ribeiro (which is more famous for white wine), then this is a perfect place to experience it. Reds from Ribeiro are ripe, powerfully-tannic wines that go easy on acidity but big on the flavors of ripe red fruit. In the nose, creamy, floral aromas with just a hint of licorice make this wine a pleasure, paired with strong cheeses and cured meats. These unique reds have a low level or production and rarely leave Galicia, so if you enjoy it, pick up a bottle at the shop.

O Beiro is also a wine shop, and they have dozens of wines by the glass to choose from—red and white; Galician or other. The staff there is helpful in recommending a local wine based on the customer's personal tastes, and you may very well be allowed a little sample before committing to a whole glass. If you want to experience a variety of wines from Galicia other than Albariño (which is great, but can be had all over the world), then Vinoteca O Beiro is a perfect option. They have a variety of typical tapas to accompany your wine as well.
galician craft beers

O Bandullo do Lambón: The best place in Santiago de Compostela to taste Gallego craft beers. Try the 30-35 bottled, artisanal beers from around Spain (several from Galicia). Also, cheeses, simple tapas, and conservas (gourmet, canned seafood) are available.

Right off the tiny Plaza de Fonseca on Rúa da Raíña (just a couple doors down from O Beiro), the beer and specialty shop O Bandullo do Lambón is mostly a store, with a large, central, communal table where you can eat cured meats, cheeses, and artisan-canned seafood, accompanied by craft beers from around Spain and other parts of Europe. Galicia only has a handful of craft beers, and this bar pretty much stocks them all. All the beers at O Bandullo do Lambón come in the bottle, with the only draft beer being of the simple, “local lager” variety. You can buy the beer to go, or grab a cold one and savor it in the moment. If you fancy yourself a beer connoisseur, another must is the La Atlántica Beer Shop, with some 400 varieties of mainly Spanish craft beer to choose from. They also have a tasting room and hold special events from time to time. Galician Craft beers to look out for:
  • Menduiña Barda. Pale Ale. Cangas do Marrazo
  • Áncora Punch! IPA. Ourense
  • Peregrina Colorada. Amber Ale. Santiago de Compostela
  • Galponbier Fentáns 999. IPA. Pontevedra
  • Peregrina 600. Belgian Brown Ale. Santiago de Compostela
  • Santo Cristo. Pale Ale. Ourense
  • Nós A Nosa Loira. Bière de Garde (Strong Ale). Vigo
Santiago de Compostela is small, a fact that you will quickly realize upon exploring the historic center. The Cathedral (one of the most beautiful in Spain and a UNESCO World Heritage site), the museums of Galician Modern Art, and the Pilgrims Museum are both well worth a visit, as are the historic University of Santiago and the beautifully green Alameda Park, with its excellent views of the Medieval city center. There is a lot to see in Santiago de Compostela, but the size of the city center makes it quite easy to take nearly all of it in in a couple of days. The Rúa do Franco, Rúa da Raíña, the Praza de Cervantes, and the Vía Sacra (check out university bar Casa das Crechas) are all lively places that you shouldn't miss (but will almost certainly come across on your own). Be wary, as many shops and business close on Sundays and Mondays, and the weather of Galicia is known to turn at a moment’s notice. Also, make sure you spread your meals out, as portions are big, and there is so much to taste! The locals are very happy to help the lost and the hungry in finding their way, so trust in the charming nature of the city, and save the dieting for another trip.

Originally published on on October 23, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

History Under Foot: The Saga of the Stones That Paved Barcelona

Of the countless steps that can be taken through the alleyways and avenues of Barcelona, how many are contemplated in terms of their historical significance? Some of the most subtle history of Modernista Barcelona is not in the obsessive details of the towering Sagrada Familia, nor in the undulating façades of the decadent monoliths of Passeig de Gràcia. On the contrary, a rich story can be found humbly underfoot on nearly every faded, cracked, or worn street corner of central Barcelona.
To understand the importance and trajectory of panots—decorative concrete slabs used to pave much of Barcelona’s sidewalks (baldosas in Spanish)—one must step back to a period between 1834 and 1860 when the city was enclosed by high stone walls and the population of Ciutat Vella was so dense that epidemics killed off about three percent of the population with each outbreak.
Something had to be done, so in 1854 the city began tearing down the old wall and
announced that they were holding a contest for urban planning proposals to expand Barcelona and bring it into the modern, industrial age. The City Hall’s contest was won by Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer, Catalan engineer, urbanist, economist, and politician. Originally entitled Plan Cerdà, the proposal—launched in 1859—sought to expand the city with the new area of the Eixample (the ‘Widening’). Above all, Cerdà wanted the Eixample to provide space for people to breathe, with 45-degree-angled corners at every street intersection, and interior gardens to be shared by neighbours. His grid pattern further sought to eliminate status and create an egalitarian community with space for workers and wealthy alike.
However, this mission was lost to the grandiose works of Gaudí, Domènech i Muntaner, and Puig i Cadafalch (among others), who were commissioned to build homes by Barcelona’s elite. Their spectacular buildings branded the zone in the vicinity of Passeig de Gràcia as the high-rent district and property prices throughout the area were impacted by their proximity to the opulent avenue.
A tiny interior design element of one such building, Casa Ametller, would lead to the now-emblematic aesthetic symbol of Barcelona’s largest neighbourhood and the entire Catalan Modernista movement itself. Built for the famous chocolate-producing family Ametller, by Modernista architect Puig i Cadafalch in 1900, the house features a carriage entryway paved with small stones with the form of a rose engraved on their surface. This was a small, insignificant element of a spectacular work of architecture and design, but it served as inspiration several years later for designers when various companies bid to carry out the paving of the newly-created Eixample. Today, the ‘Rose of Barcelona’ is one of the most visible icons of the Modernista Era.
In 1907, the Barcelona Ajuntament began accepting bids for the paving contract of this rapidly growing neighbourhood. Originally, property owners would pave the 2.5 metres in front of their buildings themselves, using asphalt, stone or concrete, upon approval. This unregulated, unorganised paving led to chaotic, mud-filled streets and the nickname of Can Fanga (‘The Mud House’) for Barcelona, leading to the derogatory term, fanguers, still used occasionally to refer to the city’s residents.
The Ajuntament specified their needs to the potential developers: 10,000 square metres of paving stones, each 20cm x 20cm x 4cm, for a total cost of less than 50,000 pesetas. The bid was won by the company Escofet-Tejera y Cía, whose catalogue of products featured contributions by the most famous designers of the times (Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner, and Puig i Cadafalch, among them). The Ajuntament also included 18 design ideas for the city’s paving stones in their project outline, from which came the six principle patterns that we see today, including the rose, now seen on everything from bags, purses, clothing, jewellery
and chocolate bars to local business’ logos.
The paving initiative got underway in 1916, and over the last 100 years, the continuous development of Barcelona and the surrounding areas has led to over five million square metres of panots in the city. Besides the principle six, there are many other designs used throughout the urban environment for both aesthetic and functional purposes (such as the version with four raised bars that indicates pedestrian crossings and bus stops to the blind).
The paving tiles themselves are made from what is referred to as ‘hydraulic cement’, also known as Portland Cement, named for the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England, a region known for its limestone building stones. A mixture of concrete, mortar, and stucco created in the 19th century, the cement was classified as hydraulic because of the material’s quality of extreme hardening through chemical reaction when mixed with water, which provided the strong, cheap, consistent product still used today.
While Escofet-Tejera y Cía was the first, and sole, producer of these original paving stones, a handful of companies now share equally the task of producing the city’s six principle paving stones, plus many additional models for urban and suburban use.
No talk of tiles in Barcelona would be complete without a nod towards the legendary Antoni Gaudí. If you have ever walked on Passeig de Gràcia, you would recognise in an instant the intricate, swirling, under-the-sea-themed mosaic motif that blankets the expansive sidewalks all the way from Plaça de Catalunya to Jardinets de Gràcia. These identical hexagonal tiles—which require seven individual pieces to be laid to complete the full pattern—were originally designed by Gaudí and produced by Escofet in 1904 for the interior of his iconic Casa Batlló. However, they were instead placed, two years later, inside the nearby Casa Milà (La Pedrera).
In 1976, Gaudí’s indoor tiles were redesigned—again by Escofet—for outdoor use, resulting in the paving of the entire Passeig de Gràcia in blue-green beauties. Due to their high risk of breakage and general wear, the city upgraded the tiles in 1997 and fully replaced them in 2001 with smaller, thicker, more compact versions that were sturdy, cheap, and non-slip. Sadly, the magical hue and detail of the original pieces was lost. Nevertheless, this simplification of the Gaudí tile hasn’t stopped regular theft of these little gems of design history by those who want to lift a bit of Barcelona.
In fact, between 2009 and 2011, the city spent a stunning €150,000 to replace stolen or broken street tiles along Passeig de Gràcia, with an interesting result. Early in 2014, a group of five art history students from the University of Barcelona began a campaign pressuring the city to fix all instances of incorrectly-laid Gaudí tiles along the famous street. Turning to social media to pinpoint the exact location of the tiles that disrupt the intended seven-piece pattern, the students’ #SOSPanotGaudi campaign resulted in real action by the city. By May 2014, replacement of the offending tiles began.
Next time you are out for a stroll, glance downward. In this bustling city, nothing beats walking the wide sidewalks of the Eixample and the narrow lanes of the Gótic, taking in Barcelona’s rich history from the ground up. Throughout the past century, the city has changed immensely and, just like the Roman ruins, Gothic churches, Medieval alley ways, and Modernista masterpieces we cherish, the paving stones of Eixample are a historic treasure, right below our very feet. With countless years of use, numerous design innovations, and many generations of local producers, the panots of Barcelona may not make your steps lighter, but they certainly give them meaning. 
1. Passeig de Gràcia between Gran Via and Diputació (on the right side of the street if going uptown) is where you can see some of the last original Gaudí street tiles.
2. Diputació has pretty much all of the tiles. If you walk from Passeig de Gràcia towards Plaça d’Espanya on Diputació you are bound to see even the oldest ones, (on the side of the street closest to Gran Vía).
3. Escofet 1866 was at Ronda Universitat 20. It’s now a Woki Organic Market but you can see the original Modernista-era façade.
4. At Passeig de Gràcia 41, you can see the original rose tiles in the entryway of Casa Ametller. Open to the public.
5. At the Jaume 1 metro stop, by the Laietana pedestrian crossing between Plaça de l’Àngel and Carrer de la Bòria, you can see the old street name tiles, on the Gótic side.

Originally published in Barcelona Metropolitan Magazine. October 2014

Monday, September 22, 2014

Five Great Venues to See Awesome Live Music in Barcelona!

Originally published on 

Barcelona is known for many things, among them art, history, industry, tradition, trade, food (of course), and night life. The Barcelona locals, as well as party-hungry tourists, have an international reputation for doing everything a bit later in the evening than their other European counterparts. Notoriously, dinner in Barcelona (and many parts of Spain) is around 9:30pm, and “no one” goes out to the disco (note: that the term “disco” is still cool here and refers to a night club. Don’t laugh) until at least 2am. Understandably, if you’ve come to Barcelona and only have a few precious days to take in the city, you probably don't want to be out until 6am (I live here and I don't want to do that). The good news is, there are some wonderful places to see live music that are full of great energy and cool vibes that are inexpensive (or free), open earlier than midnight, and offer sounds that span the globe. Barcelona, after all, is about as international a city as you can find, with the convergence of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Latin America, and North America providing a energetic melting pot of not only food and language, but of music; it's not always easy to find, but well worth the search. While jazz has a deep tradition throughout Catalunya, you can find any type of act imaginable here, from international superstars playing to thousands of fans at festivals like Primavera Sound and Sonar (not the focus of this particular post), to virtually unknown gems that spew forth pure magic from their collective fingertips upon tiny stages in dimly lit bars and venues across Barcelona.

Here is a list of five places to for great live music while in Barcelona

Sala Barts concerts. Barcelona

Sala BARTS: Short for Barcelona Arts on Stage, Sala BARTS (pronounces the way it’s spelled) offers performances that run the extreme gamut between international dance troops, to acoustic folk, classic rock cover bands, and intensely funky world beat from Brazil to Nigeria. On the iconic avenue of Paralelo with average ticket prices ranging from €15-€35, take a look at their concert schedule and discover something classic and familiar, or new, strange, and amazing! With a large venue that fits up to 1,500 people on the lower level and an intimate lounge/bar venue above for cheaper/smaller acts, Sala Barts prides itself on true cultural expression through a vast variety of music performances all year long. Shows start around 8pm or 9pm. Check concert schedule. Days and prices vary.

Café Principal:  Blues jams, Afro Cuban Beat, Brazilian samba hip-hop, modern funk, North Brazilian dance and more make up the billing for Café Principal in September alone. In addition, similar to our other featured venues, Café Principal also showcases local art and culture in their historic, “Art Nouveau” café that opens by day (9a.m), serving typical breakfast and lunch fare on their terrace. Though the location is actually on Las Ramblas (an address sure to raise the eyebrows of anyone has has spent any amount of time in Barcelona and knows the inherent touristiness of this veritable human zoo), the concert schedule is fresh and exciting, with a fairly diverse offering from Monday to Saturday in an intimate space that fits around 100 peoples. And the best part? Free entry to the live music! Connected to the cafe is the famous Teatre Principal, which features ticketed events from big name acts throughout the year. Music starts at 10pm Monday-Saturday. Free Entry

Heliogàbal: Opened in 1995, Heliogàbal is a cultural association dedicated to the development and promotion of arts and culture in the neighborhood of Gràcia. Gallery shows, poetry, and small-format concert of everything from pop and indie rock to folk and jazz have made Heliogàbal an indispensable part of the unique Gràcia experience. If you’ve visited Barcelona and have yet to wander the streets of this upper area of the city, put this excursion (just a few metro stops from the center of the city) at the top of your trip's “to do” list. Among other things, Heliogàbal is a great place to experience Barcelona’s unique blend of cuban rumba, gypsy flamenco, and rock and roll dubbed Rumba Catalana. If you’re so lucky as to be in attendance at one of these tiny, intensely energetic concerts, you’ll never forget it. Concerts usually around 10pm or 11pm, Wednesday-Sunday. Prices €0-€8

Café Royale: Excellent live music in a central location, every night, for free. Need I say more? Regardless, I'll elaborate. No big neon signs or blaring music advertise this loungy venue that sits right at the heart of Barcelona. On a admittedly dingy side street off of the even dingier Plaça Reial, a single door man, black curtains, and a circular emblem with the letter “R” in its center is the only indication that you are indeed entering Café Royale. That’s not to say that it is hidden, not by a long shot, but it is a little more discrete than the rowdy, "all-nighter" spots by which it is surrounded. Known for funk, flamenco, experimental jazz, world beat, hip hop, and more, Café Royale is a spot I consistently recommend for a lot of fun with a group. Music starts are 11pm, and though entry is free, you’ll see why when you go to buy a drink. Maybe make this a stop after enjoying a few at a more reasonably-priced local. Concerts begin around 10pm Monday-Sunday. Free entry

Harlem Jazz Club: Opened in 1987, The Harlem Jazz Club is a Barcelona venue with a legacy longer than the line at the Picasso museum. Thousands of concerts have filled this small hall with blues, jazz, funk, and salsa music, quite often opening their stage to impromptu performances during their frequent jam session nights. A fairly spartan local with a basic bar and low stage, people come for the music; one moment swinging with grace and swaggerer, the next assailing you with powerhouse blues riffs that crank from vintage amplifiers. All the while, the tattered and worn Harlem Jazz banners sets the backdrop at this "NYC-style" musician’s club house. Located in the heart of the Gothic neighborhood of Barcelona, Harlem Jazz Club played a pivotal role in welcoming modern jazz and blues rock to the Catalan capitol. Monday-Saturday. Concerts begin around 10pm. Price €8 average.

As you can see, options are many, and in all honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Besides these excellent bars and concert halls, Barcelona is ripe with endless musical gold, many times in the form of concerts that spill out from official venues onto the streets, rocking plazas and alleyways late into the night. These neighborhood block parties, festivals, and cultural events are a must, as they are a major part of what makes this city a year-round delight for the senses. In general, going out for a night of music in Barcelona is much more affordable than doing so in many other international cities, and the caliber and dedication of the city’s local musician cadre is impressive to say the least. Enjoy!

On a final note based on personal preference, if you get a chance to see a gypsy jazz concert (of which there seem to be a multitude), don’t pass up the opportunity to be transported back to the pre-war times of old Barcelona and Paris, when clarinets and bass strings danced in harmony to the lighting-fast lines of acoustic guitars. There’s nothing like it.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Sunny and Special Chiringuitos: The Best Beachside Dining in (and around) Barcelona

First things first: Barcelona is NOT a city where you can walk into any random restaurant and expect an “at least decent” meal. Yes, this food Mecca is full of amazing cuisine, culture, craftsmanship, tradition and innovation; however, it’s also full of businesses (restaurants and otherwise) that are operated with the sole purpose of capturing tourist dollars by selling inferior products at a brutal markup (troubling, I know, but true). 

One of the worst culprit neighborhoods for tourist price-gouging (after Las Ramblas) is the Barceloneta. Cafes and restaurants line the Passeig de Joan Borbó with photographic menus and overly-animated sidewalk hustles promising a delicious lunch of pizza and paella. Along the beach itself, plenty of Chiringuitos (beach huts) dot the sand, offering sandwiches, salads and seafood of varying quality levels.

In general, eating at a Chiringuito (Xiringuito in Catalan) is more about the weather, the view and your companions than it is about looking for an amazing gourmet experience. Chiringuitos are often limited in kitchen space and serve simple food. In choosing one of these seaside eateries, you’ll need to determine: Is the simple food well-prepared and fairly priced or carelessly cooked and expensive enough to metaphorically cloud a perfectly sunny day?

Here is a list of five “seaside” places—beach restaurants in and around Barcelona—that offer something worth trying and take the guesswork out of picking a Chiringuito. Whether they are on the sand, above the beach, down a side street, or a train ride away, all of these spots shine as something special in their own, delicious way.

Consisting of two parts—upscale dining on the promenade of Bogatell beach, and a casual “cabana” below on the sand—this oft-mentioned establishment stands up to its reputation. The Escribà family is now in their third generation of chef-owners, having begun in 1906 with the Escribà bakery (still found at Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes 546). Today, the family business is run by three brothers: Christian, Jordi, and Joan (the latter in charge of the restaurant). Famous for paella, seafood, and top-quality, creative cocktails (try the “electric mojito” with shiso leaf and kumquat), Xiringuito Escribà carries a slightly higher price tag than its neighbors, but the food—combined with the breezy, fun, energetic atmosphere—makes this beach hut a star.
Avenida del Litoral, 42, 08005 Barcelona - 932 21 07 29

This restaurant is set back from the sand but offers wonderful views of the sea from a street-level patio (and even more so from their bright, second-floor, window-filled dining room). The food philosophy of Executive Chef Xavier Pellicer is simple: Take his knowledge and passion gained while at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurant Can Fabes (2 Michelin Stars during his tenure) and apply them to a casual environment that focuses almost exclusively on rice dishes! When asked where one can eat a truly excellent paella in Barcelona, Barraca is always my first recommendation.
Passeig Maritim de la Barceloneta 1. 08002. Barcelona 633 241 253

If you have never tried a ‘Bomba de Barceloneta,” La Cova Fumada is the place to consecrate this sacred moment. Though not really tied to the sea, the bomba is a Barceloneta tapas staple; a large fried croquette of potato with a ground meat filling, topped with white aioli and spicy red sauce. Legend has it that the bomba was invented at La Cova Fumada, and regardless of historical accuracy, they are surely delicious. The reasons to eat at this tiny place with no signage and a constant crowd of regulars are many: Obvious historical value practically drips from the walls, the seafood is ultra-fresh and simply prepared (a common theme), and the owners can be easily seen with sauté pans in hand!
The squid a la plancha is exceptional, as are the clams, cockles, and sardines. Catalan specialties likecap i pota (calf’s head and hoof stew) are an acquired taste but much in demand. In the fall, huge boxes of wild mushrooms grace the marble bar top. The opening hours are less than reliable, and to enjoy an afternoon of tapas at La Cova Fumada, patience is most certainly required when dealing with the crowd of locals that pack into the tiny space as soon as the heavy wooden doors swing open. Note: This restaurant is a few blocks in from the beach
(Open 9:00am-3:15pm, then 6:00pm-8:15pm)
Calle Baluard, 56. Barceloneta, 08003 Barcelona - 932 21 40 61

A recently-opened beach bar that serves refreshingly-good food, La Deliciosa achieves its goal of “vintage” appeal and quality food at non-nosebleed prices. The iconic, modernist tiles of Barcelona are a recurring theme in the casual, pastel decor, and the chilled-out music sets a relaxed tone without requiring a conversation to be shouted over a deafening, thumping bass line (as in many beach bars in the Barceloneta). Nothing on the menu is overly elaborate or overwrought. On the contrary, La Deliciosa focuses on light, refreshing dishes that make you feel good after a day on the sand. Typical beach dishes (sandwiches, salad, and tapas) are given a youthful makeover, and plates like salmon tartare with apple, dijon mustard, and soy sauce are full of flavor but still “bikini-worthy” (as is the crudité of veggies with a dish of fresh hummus and tahini). If you fancy breakfast by the beach, a simple list of pastries, yogurts, teas, and sandwiches is available to help start your day.
Platja de Sant Miquel. Paseo marítimo de Barceloneta - 93 309 12 91 (Pantea Restaurant Group)

About 1 hour north of Barcelona (on the train) is the beautiful fishing village of Sant Pol de Mar. Home of the famous Restaurant Sant Pau by Michelin-starred chef Carmen Ruscalleda, Sant Pol de Mar is a quiet place with lots of charm. Warm, pebbly sand offers plenty of room to lay back and relax without the chaos of the city beaches. At the corner of the main beach (just across from the train tunnel) is a shady beach restaurant, with a dining area roofed by lush green leaves; vines trained to trellises to protect hungry diners from the midday sun. Terrassa Voramar is beautiful, calm, and inviting. The plates of grilled sardines—that will surely be gracing tables as you pass—bid you to opt for the whole bottle of crisp, cold white wine instead of just a glass. Maybe you’ll just catch the later train back to Barcelona…
Avenida Doctor Furest s/n 08395 Sant Pol de Mar - 937 60 06 54

As was noted at the beginning, the weather and who you choose to dine with makes a huge difference in your perception/enjoyment of any chiringuito. So relax, find some good friends, and let the afternoon turn into evening—one glass of wine into three—and be thankful for the simple fact that you are taking your meal along the Mediterranean coast in one of the best cities on the planets (in this writer’s humble yet stubborn opinion) for sun, fun, and fish. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

One Year in Barcelona: I Should Have Known

I should have known this would happen. I said I would run away to Spain and it seems I have. This is pretty much exactly what I had in mind before the seed of the idea of this awesome journey was even planted. I should have known that I would like it here far too much to leave. One year ago last April I stepped off a high-riding cruise ship at the ugly old port of Barcelona, chef's knives and guitar in tow after a two-week crossing of the Atlantic teaching cooking classes to tourists and eating three overly-solid buffet meals daily. To be fair, it was a pretty sweet gig. They even rubbed out my bar tab when I disembarked.

That job never panned out into a full-time "dream" job, but I'm glad. That is exactly what living on a cruise ship eight months a year would be: A dream (but the bad kind where you are naked, late, lost, or at your own funeral in a Tom Sawyeresque out of body experience). And though what I have found here in Barcelona may seem like a dream to some, I am wide awake.

I was congratulated recently on my newest professional advancement on Linkedin recently with the message,

“I guess this means your out of the food world. But congrats, none the less!”

I am quite happy to say that this is not the case, as I am still happily embedded in the “food world” through both work at Barcelona Cooking as a Food and Wine educator, writer, and tour guide, as well as through my freelance writing as a gastronomy featurist in Barcelona Metropolitan magazine, and my gluttonous devotion to spending the majority of my now-larger salary on even more cured pork, sheep cheese, tapas, pickled shellfish, vermouth, Chinese noodles, kebabs, coffee, gin, croissants, and wine.

The Barcelona-based social media marketing startup—with whom I have been very lucky to join in their infancy—has bestowed me the broad-sweeping title of Content Creation Guy. I am writing about food, but also about cosmetics, skin care, make-up, sunglasses, acne, old age, plastic surgery, social media, and even about writing itself. My personal Zoom-PR email sign-off is sure to convey my newfound hunger:

"If you don't value your time, neither will others. Stop giving away your time and talents. Value what you know and start charging for it."

This quote, by social media guru Kim Garst, is meant to inspire me, and it does.

Since I arrive in this beautiful city I have officially realized that I am one of the many “I came to travel but stayed forever” foreigners that enjoy the relaxed, sunny life here without being overly bothered by the tourist carnaval that the city often resembles. Judging by some of the other foreigners I know, I’ll give myself five years before I begin complaining about everything and move up the hill. There the buildings are shorter and locals sporting mullet dreadlocks hold a comfortable majority over the sunburned and sandaled Brits, commonly found bellowing and blind-drunk, making the American couple in Spandex more than a little uneasy as they thoroughly enjoy their anemic paella in Plaça Reial.  

I’m working a lot and am loving my bicycle, friends, coffee shops, Chinese restaurants, new gym membership (it’s been a solid two years since I stepped into one of those), and all the glorious sunshine that I can soak up on my lunch break. When I think about it, I haven’t had a break since July. I can’t wait.