Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Barcelona: mi nueva favorita ciudad

When I get back to the real world next semester, I expect many people to ask me, after seeing all of these places this semester, what my favorite city is. I can't say definitively but Barcelona is definitely a top contender. I loved the city's energy, architecture, beach, food, people and culture! I arrived early Saturday morning and exhausted from an insanely early morning of travel, went to Teresa Carlas for breakfast. I ordered local Catalan bread with a homemade spiced jelly. The bread was cut in thick slabs full of grains with a very subtle sweetness while the jelly was incredibly unique. I then met up with my friend who's studying abroad there and she showed me around Barri Gótic. We popped in a small shop for fro yo and it was crazy good! The fro yo itself, tart of course, was basically the same but the toppings are what made this place so cool! There were several fruit jellies, a variety of candy toppings, cereals, and a few different chocolates. I got banana and a topping basically made of partially melted and mixed up Ferro Rocher candies. The warmth of the melted chocolate with it's thick goodness and the crunch from the candy shell, paired with the smooth tartness of the fro yo was literally to die for. Incredibly happy, I ventured to the Picasso museum where I admired the true depth of his work and skill. Hungry again, I stopped by a small restaurant for a snack of patatas bravas, a signature Catalonian dish. My friend explained that every restaurant serves theirs a little differently and these were prepared like fries topped with the signature sauce. The fries were crunchy and the sauce, some type of spicy red pepper aioli, were a great snack before heading to Camp Nou to watch FC Barca beat Real Zaragoza 4-0. My first European "football" game was really fun and what better way to experience my first game then by watching the best team in the world? In Barcelona, everyone eats really late (like 10pm) so we headed to dinner after the game. We went to Attic, a delicious restaurant right on La Rambla, where we feasted on traditional Spanish dishes as well as modern fusion food. The menu was extensive and the variety was tantalizing but I ended up choosing ham croquettes for the table and lettuce wraps for my meal. The croquettes, another Barcelona food staple, had a slight crunch from the bread crumbs on the outside and the inside was a warm mix of ham and cheese with a consistency like mashed potatoes. They were a great starter before I dove into my modern and creative lettuce wraps. The wraps were delicately rolled in thin wraps and filled with fresh shrimp, spinach, onion, and carrot. The rolls were drizzled with a thick, sweet teriyaki sauce and plated next to a yogurt mint sauce. The plate was attractively and deliciously garnished with extra teriyaki sauce, strawberries and shrimp. Before calling it a night we headed to L'Ovella Negra (the black sheep): a large drinking hall serving delicious sangria.

Sunday, we started the day with a breakfast picnic in Parc Güell: the park famous for Gaudi's creative constructions. For my breakfast, I picked up a sandwich on the way to the park filled with oozy, sharp Brie, mild prosciutto, and rocket served on a type of focaccia bread. The park was beautiful, provided breathtaking views of the city, and the design of the buildings was crazy. The colorful mosaics and extremely inventive ways of using, converting, and changing the space of the park made the Gaudi architecture something to see. We then continued with our day of Gaudi to the the Cathedral he designed  that is still being realized today: Sagrada Familia. As one approaches Sagrada Familia the first thing you see isn't tourist shops or the church itself, like many famous sites around Europe, but the large cranes and scaffolding which remind you that the place you're about to visit may be an architectural wonder of the early 1900s yet is still in fact, unfinished. The church is a thought-provoking, frightening, and awe-inspiring mix of traditional cathedral facades, unorthodox uses of lines and curves, large spaces of starkly intimidating columns, and brightly colored modern mosaics. Deciding I'd seen enough Gaudi for the day, I meandered through Eixampale towards the beach. Near the beach in Barceloneta I stopped for a paella lunch at Hotel Peru. The paella was comprised of soft delicate rice with a rich tomato broth that was still reducing slightly as we were served the dish in the traditional giant pot. The rice and sauce tasted almost like a richer, better, tomato rice soup only topped with large mussels, giant head-on shrimp, clams, peppers, and onions. The paella was full of warming flavors like saffron which brought out the seafood's freshness and own seasoning: likely some type of seasoning salt and cayenne. Stuffed from the rich paella, we headed down to the beach for a walk and to dip our feet in the ridiculously cold water. Chilled from the ocean we went to Opium Mar, a trendy bar on the beach for a drink. The outdoor area was filled with long, winding couches big enough to really recline on as you watch the waves crash on the shore and listen to the DJ spin tracks. My mojito was delicious and it was a very cool bar. For dinner, we went to Navarro near Plaza Catyluna. To start with, I had a mantadito (a very small dish generally served on toast) in the form of a mini burger. The burger was perfectly cooked and the melted gorgonzola added a sharp bite. We then enjoyed some lightly breaded calamari before my main course of gazpacho, another Spanish speciality. The tomato based soup had a little cream, making it a lighter red almost orangey color, and was very well pureed. The broth was smooth and the pieces of raw pepper, onion, and other vegetables gave the soup a nice crunch. Since my main course was so light and healthy, I definitely needed desert so I ordered a crema catalana: the region's signature desert. It was served in a custard dish, similar to a creme brûlée and even had a flambéed sugar topping, but the similarities ended there. Beneath the sugary crunch was a dessert with a less eggy and more sugary flavor, almost like vanilla pudding. The desert wasn't as rich as creme brûlée but also not as good. As a snack Sunday, I also picked up panellets de pinyons: a delicious potato based sweet that is a staple in Barcelona bakeries. The outside was flaky almost like rice and the inside was a melt-in-your-mouth mixture of almonds, pine nuts, almond extract, and potato that almost resembled a slightly less sweet marzipan.

Monday, I began my day in La Boqueria: Barcelona's famous market. As soon as I entered the market I was overcome with colors, sights, and choices. The first area of vendors mainly sold vibrantly colored dried fruits by the weight, including things like dried kiwi, nuts, candied nuts, and candy. And oh my god this candy! There was gummy candy, 20 different types of licorice, and chocolate. Not surprisingly, I blew my money on the chocolate, which was well worth it. I had a porcupine shaped chocolate coated in colorful sprinkles, a thin layer of milk chocolate, a thick layer of white chocolate, and filled with a milk chocolate and nougat center. I also had a coconut cream covered in coconut and filled with white chocolate and coconut inside, a dark chocolate truffle covered in chocolate sprinkles and filled with almost fudge-like chocolate on the inside. I enjoyed a few other pieces as well but those were the clear standouts. From the front section of the market, I also noshed on candied walnuts which were sinfully sweet and sugary. The market's next section consisted of every kind of fruit, both tropical and not, imaginable: bananas, apples, star fruit, dragon fruit, cactus flower, guava, coconut, papaya and several I couldn't identify. Most fruit stalls in the giant market also sold fresh fruit juices and I opted for the kiwi coconut juice. The light green drink was exceptional! The kiwi's flavor was sweet and the coconut made the juice both creamy and refreshing. Other vendors sold cheese, mostly manchego, while meat vendors sold chorizo, ham, sausage, and parts of an animal a converted vegetarian cannot even begin imagine eating. Ever. The sprawling market also boasted fishmongers and restaurants ranging from more gourmet dishes to simple sandwiches, all made with the market's own ingredient. I opted for a basic ham and manchego cheese sandwich. Stuffed and in a chocolate coma, I wandered down La Rambla to the marina, around the Born neighborhood, peeked into the Cathedral (I didn't want to pay 6 euros to actually tour it), and made my way through the winding side streets of the old city. Deciding a hair of the dog that bit me was the best way to get over my chocolate coma, I stopped for churros and chocolate. The sweet treat is basically fried dough covered in cinnamon sugar and served with a decadently rich chocolate sauce for dipping. They were insanely sweet, the chocolate was way too rich, and I absolutely loved them! I spent the rest of the afternoon working off some of those sweets and simply wandering the inviting streets.
Candy, chocolate, and nuts at La Boqueria
Dinner my last night, Monday, was my favorite meal in Barcelona. A sorority sister who studied in Barca last spring suggested I go to Cervecería Catalana, her favorite restaurant, for diner and it was an excellent recommendation. The restaurant was incredibly crowded and we had to wade through crowds of trendy-looking people enjoying a drink at the bar simply to put our name on the list for the equally trendy restaurant. Once we were seated, it was time to chose which tapas we wanted to order, and this task proved incredibly difficult: everything sounded great! To help us decide, we ordered the house sangria which was sweet, light, and refreshing. We finally settled on four tapas and a cheese plate. For starters, our semi-soft manchego cheese plate was just sharp enough to have a nice flavor but not too sharp as to make it unpleasant to nibble on the slices without crackers. Our next dish was one of my favorite: escalavida con fromage chevre. This dish was basically a giant free-formed tart with a round slice of goat cheese on top followed by a layer of marinated grilled red peppers and then a bottom layer of marinated legumes. As I cut the dish, the goat cheese softened into the peppers and veggies, which were marinated with some type of vinegar and sugar before being grilled. The escalavida was a juicy and flavorful combination. Next, we enjoyed a tortilla, which, in Spain, is a potato casserole of sorts. The outside of the casserole was a little tougher, allowing the tortilla to retain its shape, with several layers of flavors and textures on the inside. Initially, I tasted the potato, some of which was more pureed while other pieces were left as chunks. Then, I noticed a corn taste, likely from the outside layer, before finally tasting the eggs that keep the whole dish together and the cheese that gives it a little bite. As I continued to eat the tortilla, in each bite I could make out different flavors and each ingredient's unique texture. As a sort of tapas side dish, we decided to try patatas bravas again, since we'd been told they were different everywhere. If Saturday's other patatas bravas were fair, these were marvelous: these were Paul McCartney to that guy playing guitar in the underground station. I am not exaggerating. The potatoes were cut like breakfast potatoes and some had a nice crisp to them while others were softer. They were then topped with two sauces: a spicy white sauce, likely containing horseradish or something of the like, and a red pepper sauce that initially seemed mild but packed a real kick after a few seconds. It was a spicy and delicious one-two punch. For protein, we ordered fried cuttlefish andaluzan style. The lightly breaded, thin pieces of fish were good but probably my least favorite dish. For desert, we got flan because despite not being my favorite dessert, I mean we were in Spain. Drenched in a sugar-carmal cocktail, the custard was delicate, not overly eggy, and surprisingly good! The restaurant was great overall and despite it's trendy atmosphere, boasted great service and generous portions, particularly for tapas. The sangria was pretty damn good too!
Flan from Cervecería Catalana
Completely full, I returned back to a fog-covered London with a new favorite city and a new appreciation for Spanish food.

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