BARCELONA–We meet Chef Papa Serra first thing in the morning outside the sprawling Boqueria Market, expecting a porcine Spaniard with a beard, exuding twinkling-eyed Bonhomie mixed with sage observations about life and food.
Instead, a trim twenty-eight-year-old New Zealander in a white chef’s coat shows up armed with a bottle of Cava and two wine glasses.
“I don’t look Spanish and I don’t sound Spanish, but I cook as if I was born running amongst the bulls,” assures Joel Serra Bevin. He is second generation Catalan, who, in addition to growing up in New Zealand, has spent time in Australia, London, and New York before relocating to Spain in 2010.
Joel today will guide us through not only the culinary delights of Barcelona’s most famous market, but also introduce us to the secrets of Spanish food, and then cook us an excellent lunch, helped immeasurably by yours truly, who turns out to be the unexpected master of the art of peeling a grape.
The Boqueria Market is something to behold, the biggest and most popular of the twenty markets scattered throughout the city, first established, according to Joel, in the 1860s when Barcelona was still basically a Medieval town with a wall around it.
Unlike a lot of other markets, this one is permanent. These stalls beneath the market’s vast canopy just off La Rambla, the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare and a major tourist haunt, constitute the most valuable real estate in Barcelona. Owners pass their stalls from generation to generation. Merchants here are permanent fixtures. They even have their own Facebook pages.
You make your way through the labyrinthine aisles that snake through the market, past glassy-eyed monk fish that were swimming in the Mediterranean a couple of hours ago; armies of crabs and lobsters that are still moving; thick pallets of salted cod; gleaming glass bottles of saffron, the fifth most expensive product in the world (each strand must be dried separately); Ostrich eggs the size of Easter eggs; great legs of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, cured for a year and considered the finest ham in the world (it comes from black pigs who are fed bellota or acorns).
You begin to realize, aided by a helpful whisper from Joel, just how important food is to the Spanish.
The French and the Italians are much noisier about their love of food. The Spanish seem more content to stay home and eat rather than boast about it to the world. It may be blasphemy to say so, but you can get a better meal at much more reasonable prices in Barcelona these days, than you can in Paris.
Nothing is processed here. There is no such thing as industrial farming. Everyone still goes to the market daily. People are fresh-obsessed. They want to see the scales on the fish, the head of the chicken.
This almost fanatical care with and concern for food and its preparation is reflected in the city’s restaurants. Tapas, of course, is the preferred method of eating, small portions of a number of dishes that can include squid, monk fish, various meat dishes, and lots of succulent vegetables: eggplant, peppers, olives, tomatoes.
At the very popular La Paradeta, you choose the fresh fish you want, they cut off a hunk right there in front of you, cook it, and then serve it in a caferteria-style atmosphere that nonetheless has people lined up out the door waiting to get in–and this is in a country where the economy is in a shambles, and there is twenty-five per cent unemployment, the highest in the western world.
Nobody seems to be suffering too much over at Comerç24, considered for the moment the hottest restaurant in Barcelona. You can’t get into the place on a Friday or Saturday night. We have to be satisfied with lunch, but whatever time of day you eat there, the tapas is delicious, served on flat pieces of marble. By the time the bill arrives, concealed in a handsome wooden box, the place has certainly lived up to its reputation.
If you’re looking for history, and a stately, enduring sense of Barcelona’s past, you can find it at Quatre Gats–the Four Cats. It’s been around for more than a century and is famous enough that Woody Allen shot scenes for Vicky Cristina Barcelona here (his picture is on the wall).
This is also where the great Catalan artist, Pablo Picasso, hung out when he first came to Barcelona in the 1920s. In fact, the cafe sponsored his first art show. One can spend the morning at the Picasso museum, marveling at what Picasso achieved as a more traditional artist by the time he was fourteen, and then wander over to Quatre Gats for–what else–a tapas lunch.
But the good meals are not restricted to Barcelona’s famous restaurants. We wander around the corner from our apartment in the trendy el Born quarter and find a charming dinner at a corner bistro called La Catonada where the hostess stands on the street, persuading customers to enter, and where the owner, undaunted by the fact you speak little Spanish and he speaks little English, carries on a lively conversation and then insists on having his photograph taken with you.
Still, there is nothing like a home-cooked meal, even in Barcelona, and with some help from my wife Kathy and myself, Papa Serra, aka Joel, is preparing just such a repast. At noontime we have returned to the apartment Joel uses to entertain his guests.
The novice chef–me–is once again astonished at the preparation necessary for the creation of fine food. The making of the allioli, for example, is complicated and labor intensive enough to remind the novice chef that he will forever remain exactly that.
After a quick lesson from Joel, I am placed in charge of perhaps the most important part of the luncheon, the peeling of the grapes. We finally sit down to eat at two o’clock beginning with a tasty gazpacho that is refreshingly unlike the variations on V8 juice that Joel says constitutes most gazpachos–this is where my grape peeling has made all the difference.
The soup is followed by fresh sardines from the market that make you forget you were ever forced to eat a canned sardine. There is an exquisite lentil dish with a chorizo crust ensuring you will forever after love lentils; salted cod mounted on sheaves of endive lettuce, again, fresh from the market, and tasting like no cod you have ever had before. Even a spiced chicken leg possesses an original, mouth-watering flavor thanks to the romesco, a Catalan sauce created with almonds, peppers, and roasted garlic.
At the end of a very satisfying morning with Joel, topped by a superb lunch, I believe everyone agreed that the meal would not have attained nearly the brilliance it did without the properly peeled grapes.
I smile and try to look humble, knowing I have attained culinary heights, and mastered the art of peeling grapes in Barcelona.