We took a break from olive picking to hop across the pond to Barcelona to attend the Catalan International Environmental Film Festival. We were invited through our friend, Will Parinnello, who was being honored for his films about this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize honorees.
All of which means that we spent three days — and nights — with some of the greenest people on the planet. It was nice to learn that environmental heroes can eat and drink with the best of them. When you think about it, munching on tapas and slugging down innumerable glasses of Cava is really just another form of re-cycling.
On an earlier trip to Barcelona, Jill and I had lunched at a counter in the Boqueria, the extraordinary market in the center of town. When we mentioned to some locals that we wanted to repeat this experience, they pointed us instead to a little piazza just outside the entrance to the market. There, they told us, is a tapas restaurant that the Barcelonians prefer. It’s called Papitu and it was wonderful, indeed.
The 3-star Michelin restaurant Mugaritz (rated 3rd in the Top Fifty Restaurants of the World) is high up in hills of Errenteria, Spain twenty minutes outside of San Sebastian. It is surprisingly easy to get to if you are an expert in Himalayan climbs, hairpin turns, and fluent in the basque language called Euskara. After you arrive at this culinary mecca, you remove your crampons, ice axe, and Formula One racing helmet, and are ushered into their gorgeous kitchen sanctum. A sparkling cava (Copa Cava Opus Evolutium Ad Private) is given to you to sip. A discussion is then held between you and the various friendly alchemists who will be cooking your meal regarding the philosophical underpinnings of that evening's dishes.
You are taken to your table. A glass of Ossian 2008 white wine is poured. A single small potato (called "Edible Stones" on the menu) that has been cooked in an edible clay shell sits on top of heated gravel. You bite into it hoping your dental insurance has been squared away and realize that it is soft and what you always hoped a potato could be, what any food could be. You dip it into an aiolli sauce and realize that if you only went to Spain for this one potato it would have been enough, more than enough, maybe even too much.
In Amsterdam, restaurant food tends to be hit-or-miss. Most dishes are under-seasoned, but that doesn't mean you won't eat well.
The fact is, you're likely to have good cafe food; meaning great sandwiches, delicious cheeses, excellent coffee, and plenty of good breads and pastries. Meanwhile, Amsterdam's various ethnic offerings continually surprise new visitors. The trick is knowing where to find these spots and getting the local experience while you're at it.
Interestingly, some Dutch export products consumed at home taste much better when you're in Holland. Heineken and Grolsch, for instance, seem to have more subtleties and depth of flavor.
Gouda isn't generally regarded as a particularly interesting cheese, but stop by Kaasland Singel, west of Centraal Station, and have a sampling of the locally produced cheeses. You'll be surprised that the Gouda can have a creamy richness similar to French comte.
It was a Lonely Planet recommendation, but the description made it hard to tell – it was definitely trendy, but would it be good? We arrived, and it was, as promised, a scene. A hungover beautiful and eclectic mix of intellectuals, euro-hipsters, intimidating groups of girls that had ‘fun’ engraved in their shawls, and Turkish men.
I tried to get a look at people’s plates, just to see what the food looked like, but everyone’s plate was empty. Not just empty with the bones and the garnishes still there, but empty like three separate tables of people were currently scooping up the last bit of sauce with their knife and fork and slurping it up. A promising sign.
So we sat down and waited, but nobody came. The place was crowded and it seemed like there were at least 10 waiters, but when I followed their paths each “waiter” sat down with the plate of food they were bussing and started to eat. Which is when I realized it’s a buffet. The kind of place where if you don’t fend for yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere, and you’re certainly not going to get any food.
I was recently in Spain for Madrid Fusion, one of Spain's biggest gastro-festivals that included a “who’s who” of culinary heavyweights from Spain and elsewhere, including Ferran Adrià (who announced his two-year sabbatical from his famed El Bulli restaurant), Sergi Arola, Grant Achatz, Alain Ducasse, Cheong Liew and Mark Best.
While there, I enjoyed an extravagant lunch at the 2 Michelin star rated Sergi Arola Gastro (www.sergiarola.es), a top restaurant in Madrid and probably one of my best dining experiences in Spain. It is presided over by avant garde chef Sergi Arola, who enjoys a unique culinary pedigree. A disciple of Ferrán Adrià (who has redefined culinary techniques with over-the-top creations like freeze-dried foie gras, atomized martinis and edible hibiscus paper) Arola trained in Adrià’s kitchen laboratory in Barcelona, working alongside the master chef for 8 years.
Dateline 2011: San Sebastian, Spain – 3 Star Michelin "Arzak"
(Number 8 in the Top Fifty Restaurant's of the World poll)
God may have texted Noah to board the Ark with his family, seven pairs of birds, clean animals, and one pair of the unclean but God told me in a separate vision to board the eponymous restaurante Arzak in the basque country with those same birds, those same animals. All I got to say is that I hope Noah brought a pastrami and rye because Chef Elena Mari Arzak took those birds, took those animals and grilled them a la plancha to perfection last night in a meal of Biblical proportions – and obliterated any memory of Ferran Adria' and El Bulli. God is now on my speed dial.
Most of the time I had no idea what I was eating during the three hour tasting menu but it was fantastic: Cromlech (with foie gras, coffee, and tea), Kabraroka (with kataifi) and Patchouli (with prawns). They looked like exhibits at the Dali' museum in Figueres and I'm fairly certain these were all names of food that appeared on the menu.
"I just returned from Lisbon and only have one thing to say - Belem Pasteis de Nata"
Thanks to a reader for reminding me of what is the can't miss taste of Lisbon. While there are wonderful wines, tasty sausages, perfect cups of espresso and crispy salt cod fritters that all deserve your attention, you haven't truly experienced Lisbon until you have made it through the winding labyrinth of the cafe and bakery, Pasteis de Belem, in a pretty waterfront neighborhood of Lisbon and had a few fresh warm pastries.
I have been a news junkie since I was a child, probably because we only had one TV with rabbit ears. Every night after supper, I sat with my dad and watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
The earliest memories I have of news stories are about Watergate, Patty Hearst and Princess Grace. I remember the debates and controversy about the first two, but the stories about Princess Grace were just enchanting. She gave hope to little girls and women of all ages that you could grow up as a normal girl in Pennsylvania, move to Hollywood, become a movie star and marry a Prince.