Will Travel for Food (and Awards)


Will Travel for Food (and Awards)

Late last August, the deadline to enter cookbooks in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards was rapidly approaching, so I figured, what the hell, I've got nothing to lose but three copies of Art Meyer's and my book, The Appetizer Atlas: A World of Small Bites (Wiley & Sons, $45), and postage to Spain. So off they went, soon to be forgotten.

Cut to December, when in the hubbub of the holiday season, a mysterious e-mail arrived from "Brigitte." Her name sounded exotic, which normally makes me immediately reach for Ctrl+D, suspecting it to be another of the endless stream of porn spam that plagues the UT e-mail servers. Even the header "You Are a Winner" didn't tickle any brain synapses into firing.

When I saw the word Gourmand in the return address I was finally seduced into opening the e-mail: We had won an award for Best in the World: English Language Foreign Cookery Book from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, and it would be presented at a gala dinner on Feb. 27 in Barcelona. What we had actually won was Best English Language, USA, and would be competing against all of the other language countries in our category, but this wasn't readily apparent from the poorly translated e-mail we had received. If we won that category, we might go on to compete for Best Cookbook of the Year.

This was the ninth year of competition for the Gourmand Awards, which were started by Edouard Cointreau, the editor and publisher of The International Cookbook Revue. In 2003, more than 4,000 food and wine books in 40 different languages from 60 countries were entered in the competition. Through the course of the judging, 53 national and regional competitions worldwide established the winners in each category. Books compete first in their own language (English constituted 31% of the entries), and then those winners compete for best in the world in their category. The classification Foreign Cookery Book was the fastest growing category by number of titles entered in 2003.

I had already been researching Barcelona as part of an upcoming culinary tour for my new company, Atlas Culinary Adventures, so to combine a gala dinner with tour research seemed like a natural ... and it was deductible. Art and I made reservations and detailed plans, and on Feb. 25 took off for Barcelona.

After several delays flying British Airways, we finally managed to arrive in Barcelona eight hours late, missing the major part of our first day there. That night we slogged through torrential rain along the ultranarrow backstreets of the La Ribera area to find Bar Mundial, a tiny and highly recommended watering hole known for their seafood. Over draft beers we supped on an ethereal seafood soup of the freshest mussels, langoustines, baby clams, and shrimp. Next came toasted bread schmeared with garlic and ripe tomato and a mountain of succulent slices of dark Iberico cured ham. Some light salt-cod fritters, sweet razor clams with tons of garlic and a spritz of lemon, and a platter of lightly battered tiny squid with aioli, and we were sated. This was the food we had dreamed of!

The next morning, under crystal skies, we finally got a glimpse of Barcelona, one of the most beautiful and unique cities in all of Europe: the home of fantastical Modernista architecture by Gaudí, Domènech, and Puig; the art of Picasso, Miró, and Dalí; ancient buildings by the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Franks, with a surprisingly small number of modern skyscrapers. Barcelona is a pristine city in a broadly spreading bowl, ringed by mountains, and framed on the east by the azure blue of the Mediterranean.

We walked up the famed Ramblas on our way to the Boqueria (known as one of the best culinary markets in the world). Upon entering the packed market, one is immediately overwhelmed by the volume of vendors, some 400 in all, offering everything imaginable that can be used to compose a meal. The market is arranged around a vaguely circular pattern, with fish in the middle – an incredible array of impeccably fresh fish with bulging eyes and intense scarlet gills; weird sea creatures, such as gooseneck barnacles, whelks, and scabbard fish; and bizarre crabs of all types.

Sausages and hams are everywhere, our favorites being the cured pork tenderloins and the magnificent cured hams (the best in all of Europe; Art bought some Jabugo that may or may not have been smuggled back into the States). Sparkling fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, immeasurable cuts and grades of salt cod, all manner of pickled and preserved foods, wild game (with unplucked birds and unskinned hares "ripening" in cabinets), incredible cheeses, wild mushrooms, etc., all sold by smiling folks. You have to fight your way through the throngs of little old ladies, every one of which has her two-wheeled shopping cart in tow. It is an impressive spot to just sit on the sidelines and people-watch and witness the wheels of cuisine commerce spin.

Lunch, usually taken between 2 and 3:30 in the afternoon, was at a nearby Riojan cafe: La Casa de Rioja. All but the most expensive restaurants are required by law to offer a menu del día (a carryover from the Franco regime), which is generally an appetizer, entrée and veg, dessert, and wine. It is normally the only food offered on the lunchtime menu. We ordered unctuous cod cheeks in salsa verde (virgin olive oil macerated with herbs and garlic) as a first course; both of us had fabada (a silky Asturian bean stew with blood sausage, smoked pork belly, and chorizo); Art had a Spanish osso buco while I had a (tough) steak with wild mushroom and fig cream sauce, and dessert was luscious pistachio and coffee ice cream. The tab was $9.50 each, and it came with a bottle of Riojan red that was impressive – a very sensible way to do lunch if you ask me.

That night was the awards ceremony, an event attended by nearly 500 people, held in La Llotja, a magnificent, Gothic-arched hall with 100-foot-tall stone columns built in the early 1300s (the first market of Barcelona, and reputed to be the first stock market in Europe). The ceremony featured some bizarre Swedish musicians that made "music" with kitchen utensils and a manic, animated chef/entertainer known as "The Martin Yan of Malaysia." As with any event, the awards part went way over the allotted time, and you could see the chefs and waitstaff pacing, glancing at their watches repeatedly. We were announced as the winners of Best in the World: Foreign Cookery Book and managed to fight our way through the crowd to receive the certificate on stage, complete with flash bulbs and applause.

Dinner came off amazingly well – copious amounts of Gosset Grande Réserve champagne accompanied the starters: Jabugo ham, peppered smoked salmon, manchego cheese, octopus and potato brochette, cauliflower mousse with caviar jelly. Torres Bodega Esmeralda white wine accompanied a black truffle and foie gras royale, followed by a sea bass-lobster soufflé with quinoa risotto and vanilla sauce. Torres Gran Coronas cabernet came with the suckling lamb sauté with wild mushrooms, and Frapin cognac and espresso with the several chocolate courses. A great meal in a spectacular space – and winning the award didn't hurt at all.

The next day was spent sightseeing and eating, but the food is why we were there. Cacao Sampka: an innovative chocolate shop with the most intense hot cocoa imaginable, so thick the spoon stood by itself, and not a marshmallow in sight. Euskal Extea: a Basque tapas bar for txokoli (shock-o-LEE), a semibubbling fresh white wine, and a huge assortment of fantastic pintxos (tapas), especially the marinated sardine with tomato. But dinner that night was the best meal of the trip.

Taberna la Parra, an old coach inn built in 1836 known for their Catalan la brasa cooking, was the target. Overbooked for the night, we were "forced" to sit at the chef's table in the kitchen (Brer Rabbit comes to mind). Dinner began with Xató, the most famous of Catalan salads: frisée with salt-cured anchovy, salt cod, fresh tuna, tossed with olives, radish, pickled carrot, and an olive oil dressing. The second course was a woodsy sauté of mixed wild mushrooms with garlic, sopped up with coca (think Catalan tomato pizza).

Calçots arrived next, a huge steaming platter of charred leeklike spring onions with peppery romesco sauce for dipping. So messy that a bib is required, the taste was ambrosial (they are harvested for a limited time, and this was the peak of the season). I opted for a platter of succulent chargrilled pig's cheek, smothered with a light romesco and a fierce, garlicky aioli on the side, while Art opted for a juicy, tender grilled rabbit. Our wine was a Penedès cabernet: Naveran Don Pablo Reserve Excepcional 2000, frankly, one of the best reds we've ever had.

Dessert was a caramelized, slightly lemony, light Catalan Crema (their version of crème brûlée), paired with intense espresso. We bought the chef beers of praise, while he countered with his stash of incredible dessert wine: Pere Guardiola Garnatxa d'Empordá Vi Dolc, Natural. It was a meal of a lifetime.

This meal brought into sharp focus the essence of Catalan cuisine: It's all about the traditional, authentic foods of the locals, made from the freshest of flavorful ingredients, prepared simply, tweaked as little as possible, and served with friendship and great pride. Barcelona is a beautiful city and the perfect backdrop for some of the best cuisine in Europe, and frankly, I can't wait to go back for more.

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