Since España won the World Cup this week, I dove into my Spanish collection for inspiration.
In 2005, I was a student of the world, traveling extensively and eating my way gluttonously through Europe.
How could I not stop in Barcelona?
A hajj to the tapas Mecca seemed not only prudent, but necessary. I never blogged about any of those meals, which is a pity, since there were so many good ones. So I’ll use this “photo of the week” as an excuse to resurrect an otherwise expired review.
I might have over-romanticized Carles Gaig and his eponymous, one Michelin-starred restaurant by the time I arrived for lunch. But neither he nor his wife did anything to ease my crush.
They had just closed their farmhouse restaurant, Can Gaig, in Horta the year before and moved to the city. Lucky me.
After having schlepped a ways in the sun to this quieter corner of the Eixample barrio, I welcomed the gush of air-conditioning that greeted me in the dimly-lit dining room. It was sleek. It was modern. It was the perfect frame for Gaig’s modernized Catalan cuisine.
The finer details of that meal I won’t bore you with. What I do want to tell you about is a mushroom.
I arrived in October during prime mushroom season. Owing to a particularly damp stretch of weather in the region, markets were brimming with rarities foraged from afield. For that one week, mushroom fever seemed to overtake Barcelona’s tables. In sotto voce, chefs and their servers boasted to regulars and VIPs about their restaurant’s secret stash of fungus, smuggled to them from secret sources. A couple nights before, I had reveled in a buttery plate of them at Ca l’Isidre, the classic Catalan institution of fine dining favored by the old guard and the king himself.
Can Gaig was not to be outdone.
Shortly after I ordered the five-course lunch menu, a giant, brightly colored mushroom – looking fresh from the woods – floated by on a platter. It was being presented to another table for admiration and approval.
My server must have noticed my neck-craning gaze lock in on the mystery mushroom next door because she came over in an attempt to explain. Perhaps she did so altruistically, more probably it was an attempt to end my mycophilic-crazed stare, which threatened to vacate the rest of the dining room like some unholy stink-eye.
Alas, she spoke no English, Spanish, French, or Chinese (why did I bother?). I spoke no Catalan (why did she bother?). I had ordered by pointing at the menu.
She smiled. I smiled. She shuffled her feet. I sighed. That was that. I left my neighbors to enjoy their meal in peace.
There was a flurry of teasers: a crunchy bacalao fritter, a crispy golden chip salted and pinched with lime, a bacon-date muffin that seemed even more delicious with a bite of the accompanying Parmesan cookie. There was an amazing plate of veal brains, molten-hot and sticky with a rich sauce. They were sided by a village of baby shiitake mushrooms, still silky and soft in their youth.
It was blissful.
And then a puffy, white parchment balloon on a silver plate arrived, borne in the well-manicured hands of the matron, seemingly misdirected. Señora Gaig opened the bag herself, releasing a puff of steam. Inside was that mushroom I had seen, now slightly shrunken and darkened in the cooking. She was giving me a peek before it was to be served to its lucky claimants over yonder, an endearing effort to satisfy my curiosity with a visual aid in the face of linguistic barriers. Off it went, back into the kitchen.
What came next was not the monkfish I anticipated from the printed menu.
That mushroom returned. Now it came plated, just as another balloon floated past me on its way to that other table.
This one was mine, a gift from the Gaigs.
The stem, which had been halved lengthwise, was slightly meatier than the cap from which it had been severed. The cap, now dark brown and slightly firmer than softened butter, was coated in a rich, meaty glaze that seemed to echo the mushroom’s natural beefiness. It melted in my mouth. To the side, a small flock of white beans, creamy and delicious, herded together under a drizzle of sauce. They melted in my mouth too.
That poor monkfish did eventually appear, utterly eclipsed by its predecessor, as was a slice of foie gras that followed thereafter. It wasn’t until a stunning piece of suckling pig arrived – a board of crisp crackling over velvety strands of tender meat – that my senses recovered, jolted into awareness by the attendant, sweet nugget of pear, burnished and golden brown.
There were some desserts, and some petits fours (you can see the prehistoric and ill-taken photos from this meal HERE). And there was an audience with Carles Gaig, who wanted to inspect this young foreigner who would eat veal brains and rare fungi. I was invited back into the kitchen, where I found the impish, but charming chef at the stove. We made do with some rudimentary pleasantries: my compliments to him, his humble gratitude to me.
Where was that mushroom from? France, he said, it had arrived fresh from Bordeaux earlier that day.
Knowing the high-dollar attention that those mushrooms fetched, I can only imagine the great treasure the Gaigs bestowed upon me that day. I’ll never forget it.
So where is the “photo of the week” in all of this? Here it is:
After my meal at Gaig, I headed to the other end of Eixample to work off my mid-day excesses climbing the 170 meter-high Christmas tree spires, skinny and lean, of Gaudí’s landmark, la Sagrada Família. Then in its 123rd year of construction (who says “Pillars of the Earth” is a bygone, Medieval reality?), the monumental cathedral swallowed me up into its angular abstractness. Every corner was an eye-trick, every dimension an illusion heightened by its incompleteness. Was that piece of exposed sky a design or an unfinished ceiling? Was that a window or a missing wall?
Between scaffolding and tarp curtains, I took this shot of the starry canopy, with its ice-cave like helictites doubling as rays of light from beyond.
Until construction is finished (they project the mid-twenties), parts of the cathedral are off-limits to the public. But there is plenty to see here, including a breathtaking view of the city from atop the spires and the completed roof of the nave. If you can, go.