Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cook and Taste in Barcelona

I had been a little apprehensive about what the cooking class might be like at Cook and Taste in Barcelona. It was listed in my Lonely Planet, and a poster on Chowhound had recommended it, but I had been afraid that it was a school targeted to tourists wanting to swill sangria and that it would inevitably avoid “scary” ingredients. When I saw the menu, I wasn’t really reassured: tortilla espanola (the eponymous potato omelet), paella (the eponymous rice dish), sopa de tomates (suspiciously like the eponymous gazpacho), and crema catalana (suspiciously like flan). I wanted to learn how to make food that was essentially Spanish, but also to learn more about Spanish food than I could in New York.

But as I’ve learned so often on my travels, my pessimism was greatly misplaced. Bego, our teacher, was instantly likable, a somewhat serious woman with a quiet but sharp sense of humor. She had been an engineer for years and had started the cooking school as a major career change, but she kept her kitchen clean and her knives sharp like any professionally trained chef. And there was cuttlefish in the paella, bought fresh from La Boqueria that morning.

The class wasn’t big, three middle-aged women traveling through Italy and Spain together from Los Angeles, me and Anne, one young guy who was clearly a foodie from Australia, and then one motorcycle instructor from England, who it turned out never cooked but had been sent there as part of a tour package. We cooked through the recipes together, two volunteers at a time joining Bego, but all of us watching on, which was a nice change from the team-approach at other cooking schools I’ve been to.

What I loved best was definitely the sopa, the cold soup that she served in little glasses, with a pungent garnish of garlic aioli, hazelnuts, and a hard grated cheese. The tomatoes were almost raw, having only been blanched in boiling water to remove their skins, but sweet and red. It was as beautiful as it was good.

Tortilla espanola, I have never particularly cared for, since potatoes are not my favorite vegetable. Bego revealed that the question of whether onion should be added to the potatoes cooked in oil was a controversial question in Spain, one that could even divide families. When I asked Isaac, Mao-Mei’s husband about it, he said, “Huh, that’s funny. I never eat tortilla without onion,” proving her point. But this tortilla, so expertly flipped by Anne, did have a lovely golden crust, and although I still will order almost anything else at a tapas bar, I can see how it’s the kind of everyday food that I love, simple, cheap, filling, and tasty.

The other controversy in Spanish cooking is apparently whether lemon should be squeezed on paella or not. Bego warned us, if we’re invited to a Spanish home and served paella without lemon, not to ask for it. Anne and I had avoided paella up to that point, since it’s the kind of thing that tends to get advertised by garish backlit photographs at tourist restaurants, and we both loved what the lemon juice added to the prawns and the cuttlefish, the tomatoes, and almost al dente rice. I loved how the grains felt in my mouth, as if each grain had its own integrity.

Crema catalana, in the end, turned out to be a Catalan version of crème brulee, complete with blowtorching of the sugar on top. I liked it, as I like almost all custards, but I think you can imagine what it was like without much more description.

I had to admit, what was typical was still real and still good. I left New York to be humbled, to stop being so sure of what I like and what I don’t. It’s happening.

No comments: