Right in the city center, in the midst of Ciutat Vella, lies a plaza that can be traced to the X century. Once a cementery of the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi, the plaza nowadays hosts (and from 15 years ago) a little market for artists, craftspeople and artisans on the first and third weekend of every month. All products are handmade and range from cheese and honey to sausages, wine and biscuits. Next to the plaza, a painters display is set.
The Plaza del Pi gets its name from its literal meaning, Plaza del Pino. The story says that a pine tree was planted in 1568 and lasted until the war. Since then, a new pine is planted when the current one gets sick or dies. The one currently standing in the plaza was planted in 1985.
Paella is originally from lake Albufera, a lagoon in Valencia and dates back to the mid-19th century. In Spain, paella is considered a regional dish and not the national dish we all think it is.
According to Valencian tradition, paella should be cooked over an open fire, fueled by orange and pine tree branches along with pine cones which imbues the rice with the aromatic smoke. Said to be a dish of poor peasants due to its filling and cheap nature from ingredients from the countryside.
Paella, above anything, is a rice dish which means when the rice is cooked well, paella will be good, no matter what is in it. Normally “bomba” rice is used and stirring is definitely forbidden.
Its name comes from the pan where it is cooked in and from the Latin word for ‘pan’ or ‘dish.’ People eat it straight from the pan.
Well cooked paellas have a lightly toasted layer that remains at the bottom of the pan once finished. This layer must be crunchy but not burned and never burnt. The socorrat, as this layer is called, is a privilege for whoever gets to eat.
A recipe now considered a national treasure has been kept secret for 200 years. It is said that only 6 people know the recipe for the Pastéis de Belém a Portuguese egg tart pastry (similar to pastéis de nata except made in Belem). It is incredible to think that these cakes that are only made of egg yolk, milk, flour and sugar end up being crispy on the outside, sweet and creamy on the inside.
It is said that to keep the recipe a true mystery, not only do all bakers have to sign a non disclosure agreement but they also work inside the secret factory – Oficina dos Segredos. A recipe invented by the monks that lived in the Monastery in Jeronimos in the early 19th century to bring income to their home and to use up the leftover yolks from starching their habits with egg whites.
Be sure to buy more than one because these mouthwatering tarts sprinkled with cinnamon are too good to be on a diet. It is no surprise that this place sells on a daily basis around 20,000 tarts; number which in the summer gets doubled!
When one thinks of Spanish food, one thinks of paella, tapas or churros and hot chocolate. Churros are long, light, crispy sticks of fried dough which is created from water, salt and flour. The dough is deep-fried in a large boiling vat of oil and slowly pouring the mixture into the container; gently stirring the oil with a stick, it allows the dough to fry and solidify in a large spiral. The deep-fried dough is then cut into smaller sticks with scissors and might have a bit of sugar added on top. Churros can be eaten just like that, though in Spain, traditionally, they are served with a steaming cup of thick hot chocolate as a kind of decadent dipping sauce.
In Madrid one can enjoy this snack literally any time at the emblematic Chocolatería San Gines which dates back to 1894. The classic style cafeteria stays open until the early hours in the morning; often its busiest hours are after 4am on weekends when it sees people nurturing a hangover.
Chocolateria San Gines is located on a tiny little street – Pasadizo de San Ginés, and tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the chocolatería is easy to miss. This is actually the reason why during the Second Republic of Spain, some people called it “La escondida” (the hidden one). The Chocolatería was made even more famous when in featured in Luces de Bohemia, a play by a Spanish author Valle-Inclán and also due to its “Salón de Tertulias”, a hall which functioned as a meeting place for literary personalities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Nowadays the chocolatería is just as busy as a century ago and entering is like walking through time with its white marble with thick forest green leather seats and gold letters spelling out the name San Ginés. The building dates back to 1890, when it was originally built as a restaurant and inn. In 1894, San Gines began serving their famous chocolate and churros and has since survived two Spanish wars (American and civil), political unrest, an economic boom and an equivalent downfall. And it is still a favourite amongst locals, tourists and travel guides alike.
Salsa from the latin salsus and the verb sallere, to put salt.
In Mexico, salsas are part of everyday life they provide a contrast or compliment for the palate and a seasoning to the soul. No decent Mexican meal is absent of salsas. With this, the business of the exporting a bit of Mexico to the world exploits the longing people have for their home. In Spain, the number of inhabitants born in Mexico has increased 38% in the last decade, being around 52,500 in 2016. Anyone who really knows the Mexican culture would then appreciate finding this in the alleys of a foreign city thousands of kilometres from Mexico.
Carballiño (literally meaning the little oak), a little town in Galicia has celebrated, since 1969, on the second Sunday of August, “La Festa do Pulpo”. This is a culinary party with an estimate of 80 to 100 thousand guests who consume around 50 thousand kilos of “pulpo a la gallega” during the event.
It is said that the festival started as the fishermen of the area were obliged to pay a tax in produce to the frays. Amongst their catch there was the octopus, plentiful in Pontevedra. With the quantities they were receiving, the frays had to commercialise it and the festival began.
The “polbeiras” or “pulperas” (women who cook the octopus) cook this animal in copper pots. The octopus has to be ‘scared’ and is introduced into boiling water for a few seconds and taken out again a few times. This technique helps the octopus keep its skin once boiled for longer amounts of time. After its boiled, the octopus is cut in slices and served with olive oil and cayenne pepper sprinkled in the top. Perfect to pair with a local brew or wine.
Surrounded by sea, Spain offers an opportunity to taste a wide variety of creatures from the ocean. Sometimes even what was once used, and still is used, as bait years later becomes a delicacy.
These fish are long, thin molluscs with shells that look like the old cut-throat razors and are sometimes aso known as razor clams. They swim vertically, in sychronised groups, with their long snouts pointing down.
Sometimes they are harvested by hand or trailing an electric cable behind a boat to struck the fish.
One of the benefits of living in a multicultural city is the opportunity to stumble across different cuisines. Especially if you know it will be good seeing the numbers of people regularly eating there. An authentic flavour of South America brought to our table on a Friday evening; washed down with some Venezuelan brew.
Venezuelan cuisine, “cocina criolla” as it is known, reflects the complex history of the country mingling European influence (especially Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese), indigenous roots and African ancestry. This unique blend makes it a flavoursome dishes.
In our table the national dish, Pabellón Criollo, and the most famous dish, Arepas. The Pabellón Criollo is a simple dish of shredded beef or pork, black beans, white rice, and sometimes accompanied by fried plantain. Arepas are cornmeal disks that are grilled, baked or fried. Unlike in its neighbor country Colombia where it is normally eaten unadorned, in Venezuela Arepas are split open and filled with a variety of cheese and/or meats. In Venezuela, Arepas are generally eaten as snacks or as side companions at meals. For us, as a main dish.
Immersed inside and underneath Barcelona’s iconic Liceu opera house on the Ramblas, Opera Samfaina offers people a gastronomic adventure and a wildly visual theme park. The experience is a multi-sensorial and dinning extravaganza with Catalan food at its heart. A great activity for team bonding. Once seated at our round, themed table, we are entertained by overhead projections of the ingredients they could have had. But taking no notice of the organising of the event meant a vegetarian evening of what seemed like a psychedelic trip of Catalan cuisine laid ahead. Skipping the fish, meat and pork dishes and instead having lettuce, tomato and potato based dishes.
The project of this restaurant was led by the brothers Jordi, Joan and Josep Roca famous for El Celler de Can Roca which was voted Best Restaurant in the World in 2013 and 2017.
Though it is a wonder how long this place will stay open. It is said that the venue that opened in July 2016 is now on debt moratorium.
Long summer evenings allow for time basking in the park and having a picnic. Enjoying a rare bottle of wine in which one must hand write a letter to the owner to get some of his produce. Local sausages and cured meats and cheese from around Europe. This is the reward and the celebration of the end from enduring months of bad management and borderline bullying behaviours.