Saturday, February 16, 2013

Vegan in Barcelona and Seville: Part 1

I'll just lead by saying that I could not have loved Spain more. I would move to Barcelona in a heartbeat and set myself up in a little apartment in the Gothic Quarter with some gorgeous Spaniard and spend all my evenings in the café in the square around the corner drinking Estrella and eating olives.

Like this one...

Or this one, complete with live music...

Or this one, which inspired the thought. The flowers on the ground
come from a giant tree shading the square.

That could still happen. Theoretically. But until it does, I'll be stealing lots of wonderful ideas from Spanish cuisine for use in my own kitchen.

Every day for the rest of my life, I would eat this.

The thing about the Spanish is that they know how to do a simple thing very, very well. Take pan con tomate, for example. Essentially, it's just bread rubbed with tomato, but it can rise to such a level that you almost believe there's some magic to it. The right kind of bread, rough but absorbent, a rich olive oil, and a flavorful tomato together can create something special. In case you didn't know, there's some really high-quality Spanish olive oil.

Pan con tomate

Speaking of tomato quality, I read something really interesting recently about why so many modern tomato varieties have so little flavor. Apparently, the gene for solid red color (as opposed to that naturally-occurring white or green ring at the base of the stem) suppresses the genes for flavor, so in trying to create the perfect tomato, breeders have actually been making their pretty red tomatoes taste worse. You can read it here.

Deliciously charred veggies at Tapa Tapa in Barcelona

Returning to my earlier thought, pimientos de Padró (or pebrots de Padró in Catalan, should you see them on a menu in Barcelona) are another such example of perfection. Lovely, quirky green peppers with a slightly irregular shape, they are served fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. The flavor is delicate and usually mild, like a really delicious hot pepper without the spice, if that makes sense; actually, this is exactly what they are - the original seeds were reportedly brought to Spain from Mexico in the 16th century by Franciscan monks, and the variety still occasionally produces spicy peppers, particularly toward the end of a season. I can, and have, had entire meals consisting primarily of pimientos de Padrón. With gazpacho. Naturally. 

Before (aren't they gorgeous?)
...Aaaaand after. Heaven.
Though hailing from the town of Padrón in Galicia in north-western Spain and, pimientos de Padrón were available in relative abundance in Barcelona. I had the luck to be there at the beginning of their season, which runs from June to September, and I'm pretty sure I made a dent in the roughly 15,000 kg produced every year.*  Having become somewhat hooked, I conducted a junkie's desperate search of Seville, but found none. I also looked in the Barcelona airport in between flights on my way home, just in case. No luck.

No peppers, but Seville has other charms
 I'd like to return to something I skimmed over too quickly earlier - a delight that is, in my opinion, the crowning achievement of Spanish traditional cuisine - the elemental perfection of gazpacho, and its Southern cousin, the thicker, velvety salmorejo. I honestly never get tired of it. However, bizarrely, I forgot to take any photos of gazpacho by itself, though you'll see it in the back of most of my pictures. This is probably because I had it with every meal and was too distracted by my rapture to photograph it. This happens to me a lot. I have been halfway through dozens of meals before I remembered that I had intended to photograph them.

A lighter gazpacho over ice with pan con tomate

And a richer, oilier gazpacho with croutons and papas bravas

As someone who grew up with a giant, never-ending pitcher of gazpacho in the fridge for the duration of the summer, I found it almost life-affirming that the gazpacho in Spain tastes like my mom's.  It has a dramatically different look and texture, but the flavor was so familiar that I had a little emotional upwelling with my first spoonful. Perhaps my punishment for putting off writing this post is that now I have to wait for summer tomatoes to work on a gazpacho recipe. Curse you, dissertation! And, in all fairness, my own laziness.

I returned to this place several times, for the food and the fantastic flamenco...

...and for Estrella and olives.
 Naturally, in a cuisine so weighted toward produce, that freshness finds a counterpoint in heavier foods like papas bravas, deep-fried chunks of potato most frequently served drizzled with mayonnaise and spicy tomato sauce (I think most tapas places just use an amped-up ketchup). My favorite variation was dressed with a syrupy wine reduction called vino dulce. Properly fried, papas bravas have a crispy, golden shell and a perfectly soft center. The potato pieces are boiled in salted water first, which creates the creamy texture but also allows the oil to penetrate deeper into the potato, creating the crust effect. Perfect with a glass of wine.

Papas bravas with vino dulce
Though I've been abundant in my praise of Spanish food, not everything I had was spectacular. One not-so-favorite was espinacas con garbanzos, which was dense, bland, and lacking texture, though when I had it served with fried bread it was at least a passable spread. Spinach and garbanzo beans are certainly a good combination, though I have to say one handled much better by Indian cuisine in the form of chana saag. Still, "I didn't love everything" is hardly a complaint.

Espinacas con Garbanzos

When I look back at my time in  Spain, what has captured my memory the most are the hours I spent on the beach with my friend Adam drinking Estrella, talking and people-watching (I never did get over seeing topless old ladies). Having spent the last year in rainy, windy Edinburgh, I was in desperate need of some sun. I spent afternoons laid out on a borrowed hotel towel, watching teenagers dancing to pop music and waiting for the roaming beach vendors to bring more Estrella. Honestly, those were some of the more lovely moments of my life.

Like I said, lots of Estrella. And a few caipirinhas.
I took some Estrella glamor shots
Teenagers dancing at dusk

In addition to the more traditional foods, I also had some wonderful modern interpretations of Spanish classics at restaurants in Barcelona and Seville, and I'll be posting about that next. For now I'll just say that the beet salmorejo at Gaia Bar Ecologico in Seville was one of the best soups I've ever had. I can't wait to recreate it.

Until next time,


*Normally, I like to have, you know, reputable sources that I can cite, but on my pepper info I really didn't find anyone who could reference anything. So, take the above with a grain of salt. For the most part, I used the pieces of information that turned up in more than one place, including Calvin Trillin's Feeding a Yen and Wikipedia. But, in all honesty, I didn't dig that deep. If anyone finds a peer-reviewed journal article on the topic, let me know. I'd love to read it.

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