Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn in Barcelona: Food, Wine, and Reflections on an Amazing Summer

Today is my six-month anniversary of arriving in Barcelona, and I am amazed that half a year has passed. I arrived before the tourists, when the spring air was still brisk and the beach was nearly empty. Then came the summer...

The Gigantes of the Festa de La Mercé
Summer in Sant Pol de Mar

Chinese dancers on a summer night

As anyone who has spent time in Barcelona during the summer surely knows, the city is ever-vibrating with ecstatic energy that is so infectious that it requires its denizen’s nearly complete surrender. Real life (if it can be called that) is punctuated and accentuated by a never-ending barrage of concerts, festivals, parades, and explosives; sun, sand, sweat, and—most notably—the wild, summer solstice inferno that is the Festa de Sant Joan. There is a party nearly every week somewhere in Barcelona throughout the warmer months, and food, music, art, and alcohol are never in short supply. The Coca  de Sant Joan is the most typical treat of the summer solstice; puff pastry, pork, sugar, and pine nuts.

Coca de Sant Joan. Pork, puff pastry, sugar, and pine nuts

Vijazz 2013 was a balmy July weekend of Cava and jazz music in the wine mecca of Vilafranca del Penedès. The Festa Major de Gràcia was a week of streamers, drums, and fire, when the streets of Barcelona’s Gràcia neighborhood were packed till bursting with all-night partiers, dancing euphorically in the smoky haze of the street lights with plastic cups of mojitos in hand. October’s CavaTast 2013 in
Sant Sanduri d’Anoia saw the numerous Cava houses lining the main streets of this, the founding place of Spain’s answer to French Champagne, offering glasses of their best vintages to the thirsty masses. In mid-October, the most famous and well-established vendors, wineries, and restaurants gathered in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona for the Mercat de Mercats (The Market of markets); a gathering of the best local food culture for three gut-busting days of wine, food, and sweets.

ViJazz: Cava and Jazz festival 2013. Vilafranca del Penedès 

CavaTast 2013: Cava Festival. Sant Sandurní d'Anoia

Festa de la Mercé: Festival of wines and Cavas from Catalunya. Arc de Triomf

The Festa de La Mercé is when Barcelona really pulls out all the stops, celebrating their patron saint in their annual fashion. This year, however, La Mercé was celebrated in conjunction with the approaching 300th anniversary of the end of the 60 week siege when the city of Barcelona finally fell to King Felipe V, cementing Spain’s conquest of Catalunya. Though Catalunya lost the War of Spanish Succession, that fateful day—September 11th, 1714—is remembered (if not celebrated) with a province-wide bank holiday, when proud independentistas take to the streets, mounting increasingly powerful civil protests, rally, and cultural expositions in their call for Catalan independence.

El Prego (opening prayer): La Festa Major de Gràcia. Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia

The Correfoc (fire run). Festa de la Mercé. Via Laietana

Fireworks in Plaça Espanya. Festa de la Mercé

National Spain Day protests. October 12. Riot Police at Universitat

This year on September 11th (The Day of Catalunya), the people of Catalunya organized to show their solidarity and hunger for independence with the “human chain”; a unbroken chain of hand holding that stretched 400km from the border of France all the way down to the southern corner of the province. Participants (well over 300,000) joined hands at exactly 17:14 (5:14pm), as 1714 is the year of the Catalan’s conscription into the lands of Spain. 

Preparing for the human chain. Catalunya Day. September 11. Plaça de Sants

2013 will be a year of events and reflection leading up to the 1714-2014 tricentennial; theatrical productions, 18th century recreations, concerts, galleries, and public art displays. The motto of the tricentenari is “Viure Lliure”—or “Live Free”—taken from the saying “We shall live free or die”, a revolutionary sentiment with which I can identify having been raised in epicentral town of Concord, Massachusetts; the starting place of America’s independence movement against Great Britain in the same century. 

1714 encampment. Festa de la Mercé. Parc de la Cuitadella

1714 encampment. Festa de la Mercé. Parc de la Cuitadella

Now the summer has gone, and though the sun still shines and newly discovered love still burns bright, the crowded streets have thinned and the sunscreen, bathing suits, and sandals seem to have made their finally appearance without the least bit of warning. The numerous flea markets that fuel the city’s vintage-clad subculture have kept me flush in fall clothing as the summer’s abrupt end left me scurrying across the cold tiles of our airy, turn-of-the-century walk-up.

Second-hand market. Rastro de la Virgen. El Raval

Chestnut vendor on Las Ramblas

Walking to work—a formally sweat-drenched affair—has become a most pleasant stroll through quiet streets, under gradually changing leaves that blow in the harvest-perfumed breeze. Over night, it seems, the ubiquitous street stalls selling roasted chestnuts and boniato sweet potatoes in paper cones have popped up throughout the city center. Their uniquely-autumn smell is that of sweet charcoal and wood smoke; an inviting aroma for hungry shoppers who wish to shed the chill from their tired fingers. Castanyas (chestnuts) are a Catalan icon of the fall and—most notably—of the holiday Tots Sants (All Saints Day). On November 1st, Barcelona eats warm, smokey chestnuts, moist marzipan cookies called panellets, and sweet muscatel wine with glee. 

Panellets at the Boqueria Market


Makes 24 cookies

1 pound potato, peel
1 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
3 fl.oz water
1 tablespoon lemoncello (optional)
1 cup finely-ground almonds
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup pine nuts (or almond slivers)
3 eggs, separated whites and yolks

-Start by preheating your oven to 350F
-Place peeled potato in a pot, cover with cold water, and boil until very tender
-While boiling the potato, make a syrup with the sugar, water, lemon juice (to avoid clumping), and the lemoncello. Stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved and simmer it over medium heat until the syrup is thick
-Remove the potato from the water, dry it with a towel, and place it is a bowl. Mash the potato is a fork, then stir in the ground almonds, lemon zest, and syrup. Mix with a wooden spoon until a thick, moist dough is formed.
-Form the dough into small balls by hand, wet the with beaten egg whites, then coat them evenly in pine nuts
-Glaze the balls lightly with egg yolk to coat the pine nuts (use a pastry brush)
-Place the balls, evenly spaced, in a greased baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes (check after 10 minutes). The pine nuts should be just lightly browned.
-Allow to cool completely and enjoy with some fruit, sweet wine like Spanish muscatel!


  1. Another great post. i can feel the Fall chill in the air.

  2. So much has happened in 6 months. Wonderful energy in your writing and so much joy!