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A Spaniard Never Far From His Table
by Fred Ferretti

The bocaditos he was making would be quite different from those I might recognize, Chef Marcelino Guzmán assured me, and the rest of his menu would be his personal celebration of la gastronomia de Castilla y Leòn, with a heavy accent on the cooking of Leòn, that unusual city about two hundred miles northwest of Madrid where pilgrims once stopped on their way to worship at Santiago de Compostela.

We were in the dark and spacious Restaurante Rey Don Sancho in Leòn's extraordinary Hotel de San Marcos, and Chef Guzmán, who has been cooking the foods of Leòn for many years, was talking about what he loves.

Bocaditos are generally desserts — little pastry puffs filled with sweetened cream. But Chef Guzmán was making bocaditos as an aperitivo, with a filling of potatoes, eggs, and leeks. In the meal he was preparing, he said, they would be followed by his "ollas, adobos, salazones, y otras curas," or foods stewed in pots, foods marinated, and those salt- or smoke-cured; migas, bread cubes fried in garlic-flavored olive oil to which he would add some chopped ham from Serrano; and finally guiso, a thick stew of potatoes and veal. At some time during the meal would appear slices of his lomo, a marinated loin of pork casing and then smoke-cured, as well as his own salchichòn, a spicy salami.

There would be soup, a crema de crustáceos — bisque of puréed crab — and of course trucha a la Navarra, freshly caught trout baked in foil with local Villamanán ham and rosemary, because Chef Guzmán's second gustatory celebration that day was to be his recognition of Leòn's trout festival.

The food would be Leòn's best. Chef Guzmán said, of a quality that would allow us to do what in his town is referred to as "comer como un cura," a shortened slang expression that means "to eat what the priest eats on holiday."

This is the way of Leòn, a city sprung from a Roman legion camp. Moors settled there, for a time it was a fortified city occupied by the Knights of Santiago, and still later it became the capital of the kingdom of Asturias and Leòn. No battles were fought there during the Spanish Civil War, it has remained a city of peace, one where Cistercian monks had settled and where exquisite churches and monasteries are preserved. And later, when Fiat wanted to build a factory in Leòn, Leòn said no. It wished to remain small, which it is, and to retain its sense of the medieval, which it does.

The Hotel de San Marcos, rich with the architecture and relics of the sixteenth century, is at the town's core. Once a monastery built around a cloister, it is now as much a museum as it is a hotel. It boasts more than eight hundred tapestries and rugs, and more than a thousand paintings hang on its walls. In its Museo Arqueològico Provincial are medieval textiles, an eleventh-century ivory Christ, Roman and Renaissance statuary, and paintings and carvings by Juan de Juni, a student of Michelangelo. The hotel is a wonderful place in which to pass some time.

From Marcelino Guzmán's stoves come roast lamb, stuffed with vegetables and spices of the rich countryside, and ham baked with raisins. There are chickens, rabbits, smoked pork and sausages, and of course, trout, his "queen of the rivers," from Leòn's many streams.

Chef Guzmán's feast that night consisted of glorious, hearty food, and we ate "como un cura." We concluded the meal with some fine fresh queso de Burgos, a mozzarella-like cheese from a nearby town, and with Chef Guzmán's own creation, a sorbete de téde roca, a soft sorbet of tea, lemon, and crushed ice. In Spain the priests, it appears, do indeed eat well.

La cuina catalana, the pure, bold country cookery of Barçelona and the rugged region of Catalonia — a cuisine rooted in tradition, ethnicity, and history not only Spanish but Roman and Moorish as well — mirrors the independent spirit of Catalonia itself, a semiautonomous region of northeastern Spain wedged against the French border. Barçelona is Catalonia's soul, and pride, language, historical observances, traditions, and cookery are Catalan first — fiercely Catalan — and Spanish second.

This center of the Catalan universe is the context from which Pablo Picasso's blue period and Joan Mirò's surrealism surfaced. It is direct, private, even insular, and its cookery is the same, honest, unadorned, unaffected by culinary chic.

Catalan cooking derives from Mediterranean cuisine: a seasonal, regional kitchen rich with fine olive oil, spiced with almonds, garlic, and boundless varieties of aromatic herbs, and thick with vegetables, particularly tomatoes. Tender artichokes, bitingly spicy green olives, strong, earthy mushrooms called rovellons, pungent dried ham and true saffron, and fish and shellfish of the most exquisite quality are all plucked from the great fertile food larder that is Catalonia. Basic stocks and sauces give this traditional cuisine its full body and distinctive taste: picada, a variable paste of garlic, wine, saffron, bouillon, and almonds that is added to most dishes; sofregit, a sauce of onions, garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil; suchet, a garlic, onion and tomato sauce added to fish; romesco, a sauce of almonds, red peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, served with grilled leeks; alli-oli, a garlic-laced mayonnaise; and xamfaina, or samfaina, a mixture of red peppers, eggplant, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, and garlic, fried in olive oil and poured over white rice, chicken and codfish.

Although the cooking of Catalonia is dense with the traditions of centuries, it does open up to outside ingredients. Catalonia welcomed tomatoes, potatoes, corn, peppers, and pineapples into its repertoire of ingredients in the sixteenth century, and pasta in the eighteenth.

In Catalan cuisine the cooking of meat and fish with fruits is nothing new — there is pato con higos, duck with figs; conejo conperas, rabbit with pears; codornices con pasas y piñones, quail with raisins and pine nuts; wild boar marinated in orange marmalade; sole with raisins and hazelnuts; and arenques con uvas, herring with grapes, to name a few dishes.

Merchants in the tile-decorated stalls of the Mercat de St. Antoni, Barçelona's 103-year-old market, peddle the many types of Catalan sausages — longaniza, salchichon, xorico, butifarra, chistorra, fuet, Pamplona, and cansaladeria. Angel Jobal's saffron shop stocks barrels of spices — anis, cardamomo, cayena, comino — and piles of aromatic saffron. The Boqueria, the huge and varied central market that opens onto Las Ramblas, offers not only the best of Catalonia, but also the prizes of other provinces. Wonderful golden grapes from Almeria, bright red apples from Oviedo, Huescan figs, fresh dates from Alicante, and tiny wild mushrooms from the seaside area of Maresme (outside Barçelona) overflow their wooden buckets beside piles of Catalan melons and artichokes, cheeses and meats from all over Spain spill out of market stalls, and cod, whiting, rape fish, and glistening sardines are arrayed on mounds of shaved ice.

Taste its history. Cristoforo Colom stands forever atop a monumental needle looking out over the wide, clean harbor from which he sailed. It is a city of preserved historic buildings, intricate mosaics, and turn-of-the-century art nouveau façades. Antonio Gaudi's sinuous, dreamlike architecture has become synonymous with Barçelona. Flea markets sprout along the Gran Via, palm-lined boulevards open to the sun, and great, round plazas spread around intricately carved fountains.

Barçelona is the morning bird- and flower-markets along Las Ramblas, a weaving pedestrian mall of book stalls and flower shops to which country people bring trained monkeys and goats. It is a labyrinth of preserved Roman walls and aqueducts and the thirteenth-century Hospital of the Holy Cross, whose medieval stone walls now house a school of Catalan studies. Street musicians play in the Casa l'Ardiaca, an exquisite garden built on a foundation of Roman walls around a 400-year-old palm, and antique silver is sold in the Placa Nova on Thursdays. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar stands tall and cool, and Gothic, with such fine acoustics that Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald would perform nowhere else when in Barçelona.

The street called Pescaderia is narrow and cobbled, sunless even at noon, hemmed in by the press of the old buildings a the southern reaches of Barçelona's Barrio Gotico. At night Pescaderia is barely visible, a somewhat forbidding medieval alley. But walk along the broad avenue on Barçelona's waterfront that begins as Paseig de Colom and becomes, quite naturally, Passeig de Isabel, then turn into Pescaderia, and no more than twenty yards down the alley you will see the lights of El Raim, a tiny restaurant virtually frozen in time. Here the purest of the earthy cuina catalana comes from the heavy iron grills and chambers of a coal-fueled stove in a tiny corridor of a kitchen, the wine flows from kegs set upon ledges the length of the restaurant.

It was under the painted beam ceilings of El Raim that Colette and Mirò came to have bacalla amb sanfaina, that saffron-laced casserole of codfish with onions, eggplant, red and green peppers, and tomatoes so loved in Barçelona; to drink wine poured from the spigots of tiny glass decanters; and to sign Amadeo's yellowed guest book. It is a restaurant without a menu, where what is cooked each day is what has been bought at the Mercat Boqueria, just a few streets away — perhaps bacalla con patatas, salt cod baked with potatoes; or albondigas con garbanzos, pork meatballs stewed with chick-peas; even manzana al horno, apples baked in sugar and muscatel, the true Catalan cookery of Barçelona, the sort of cooking that "you need a light to find" to quote one of El Raim's competitors.

The night we ate in El Raim, the food was light.

~

In Catalonia, it is said that escudella is best prepared, and eaten, on a Monday because it is the traditional laundry day, and the women can set their pots aboil and go about their weekly washes without concern that their suppers will overcook.

But escudella is served as well on just about all Catalan feast days, of which there are many, and certainly every Sunday, when the pot is put on early in the morning and left to bubble as the family goes off to church.

And excuse can be made to serve this national dish of Catalonia. Escudella I carn d'olla, in its classic form, includes bacon, ham bones, salt pork, beef bones with marrow, pigs' ears and feet, veal, chicken, salami, the white sausages called butifarra, blood pudding and ground veal, all cooked together in a broth with beans, potatoes, cabbage, parsley, thyme, saffron, garlic and pasta. After cooking, usually all day, it is eaten in two stages. The rich broth with the pasta is eaten as a first course, followed by heaping plates of the varied meats and vegetables.

Escudella is quite similar to the bollito misto of Italy, the French pot-au-feu, even the codcido of other parts of Spain, particularly of Madrid, all basically long-cooked soup-stews thick with different meats and vegetables. In Madrid the dish will contain spicy chorizo sausages and a blood sausage called morcilla instead of the butifarra and blood pudding of Catalonia.

There is also, in Catalonia, a winter version of escudella: a thick soup of beans, turnips, parsnips, rice, garlic, celery and cabbage, cooked slowly with a large ham bone.

On my sojourn to Barçelona I was asked to watch the olla, the pot it was cooked in, one Sunday in the home of my friend Jose Julia, a restaurateur. Ham and beef bones simmered in a huge earthenware pot, over the fire, along with chopped turnips, carrots and celery. A veal joint was added, along with chicken, bacon, pig's ears and a pig's foot, and the broth was again brought to a boil. Chickpeas and navy beans were added and simmered. While all this is going on a pelota, a loaf (or a giant meatball) fashioned of ground veal, mashed salami, eggs and spices, and coated with flour was made and went into the broth with blood sausages, potatoes and cabbage.

When all of these were cooked thoroughly, the meats and vegetables were removed from the broth and the pasta cooked in it, to be served with some of the broth and perhaps some beans as the first course. The meat and vegetables followed.

We ate our escudella with hot bread and chilled red wine, and the Catalonians will tell you that if you eat enough of it in the colder months you'll never have the sniffles, much less a severe cold. Believe them.

This seems an apt time to provide some contrast.

Ever rimed to meet the obligation I have imposed upon myself to keep you abreast of the advancements of nutrition in our time, Test Tube Division, I should like to report that lately I have been reading up on such topics as the "Disintegration and Segregation Kinetics of Dry Food Particles," the "Kinetics of Nonenzymatic Browning," and the "Transduction of Taste and Olfactory Stimuli," and I am prepared to pass along to you the following:

Genetically altered potatoes are on the way, we are told, tubers that will by the next millennium ensure that never again will we have to suffer soggy potato chips.

A chemical company has recently developed a "Unique mouthfeel (sic) enhancer that imparts creaminess and lubricity to no- and low-fat dressings, sauces, soups and sandwich spreads" because of its "outstanding mouth coating, oiliness and textural stability."

Now available is a concoction of chemical additives that produces "natural wood smoke flavors" to "enhance the smoke color and flavor of a wide variety of meats and processed foods."

Word of less success, however, comes from Switzerland, where scientists have thus far been unable to explain why the holes in Emmenthal cheese have been growing too big — so big that some wheels of the cheese have burst apart.

More later.

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