Friday, September 18, 2015

The Catalan region of Spain- Fresh Surprises Abound

Images of old dark streets and ancient cultures haunted my planning. Research had unearthed a multitude of wonderful sites to see and things to do but I had reservations. This was our first trip abroad with our children and I had just read the novel Shadows in the Wind which painted a dark gothic picture of the port city.

The city of Barcelona is rich with history dating back to 300BC.  Founded by Hannibal's son, Hamilcar Barca the city was constantly under attacks and ruled by Visigoths like Charlemagne's son, Louis.  Finally when the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united the Iberian peninsula and moved the capital of Spain to Madrid, Barcelona was able to emerge and develop as a unique Catalan capital. 

For centuries, it's port and proximity to the border of France kept commerce strong. A large statue of Christopher Columbus stands near the harbor pointing west toward the New World and the Chocolate museum touts the history of explorers and the rich goods that they brought to Barcelona. 
Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain, celebrates it's difference from the rest of the country. As late as 1950, Barcelona and the region of Catalonia revolted against the rest of Spain and the rule of France.  However, with the Olympics in 1992, Barcelona established itself as a city rich with art, culture and a modern personality blended with old world charm.

Visitors beware, even with a strong grasp of the Spanish language, it is still hard to read many signs since they are all in Catalan, a unique dialect that is somewhat Spanish/French-but not really. However, a conversation with a taxi driver in my non-Castillian spanish was doable. Staying near Las Ramblas in the Ciudad Viejo(Old City) was perfect. The Hotel Jardi was off the beaten path and in a nice little square called Placa del Pi. This afforded us the opportunity to walk most places and enjoy European  after-dinner strolls and window shopping in the evenings while enjoying gelato.

One of the more eventful walks was an early morning stroll to La Boqueria for breakfast. The large open air market is full of fresh produce and meats all grown or raised within a couple of hundred miles. This is fresh, in season, regional cuisine at its best. The apples' price tag not only listed the product and variety but also the region of origin. Each shopkeeper artfully arranged their wares. Stacks of papaya, mounds of chestnuts piled on beds of fig leaves, even the dried meats hanging from the rafters looked delicious. My children begged for half slices of dragonfruit served with tiny plastic spoons and curiously asked what different nuts and spices were. In the end, we all sat at a tiny cafe table with the best cafe au lait I've ever had and sampled pastries from the vegetarian pastry shop.
This farm-to-market-to-table atmosphere is commonplace for Europeans. Rarely do you encounter large amounts of processed foods or quantities of meat that are not local. As a port city, Barcelona restaurants offer an abudance of seafood while meat seems to come more often in the form of dried or cured meats like prosciutto or Iberian ham. In addition to local produce and meats, you can spot bakers every morning delivering bread to restaurants and markets. These loaves last no more than a day or two, mainly because they are delicious but also because they are made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives.

The common Catalonian eats a small breakfast, mainly coffee and a pastry, a midmorning (10-11am) snack, usually a bocadillo, a sandwich made with a hard bread, tomatoes and meat or cheese, tapas in the evening, preferably with a glass of wine, and a late dinner. This, combined with the afternoon siesta, is a wonderful routine that we should all work hard to assimilate.

La Boqueria- Las Ramblas, Barcelona

Bocadillo Recipe
 A popular midmorning snack/ early lunch for the Spanish.
One Crusty Baguette
High quality olive oil
one fresh tomato
6 oz (about 3 thin deli slices per sandwich)manchego cheese or prosciutto or iberian ham

Cut the baguette into 6 inch pieces(one baguette should make at least 3 sandwiches) then half it longways.  Drizzle olive oil on each of the slices then cut the tomatoe in half and rub the tomatoe on both sides.  Evenly space your choice of meat or cheese on the slices, put the sandwich back together and enjoy.  Note:  DO NOT overdo the meat and cheese.  A bocadillo has one very thin layer of one of these, these meats and cheeses are strong and do not need to be consumed in quantity to have a great taste.  ENJOY!

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