Flight to Amsterdam: Shedd’s butter spread and no cheese or ham on my mock McMuffin – I guess cutbacks are rampant on NWA and the only thing missing in coach were the chickens on people’s laps …
Sunday I took off for Spain with five of us in our U.S. contingent, including Shannon, our producer from Tremendous Entertainment, the Minnetonka-based production company charged with keeping me in line. Tremendous CEO, Colleen Needles Steward is along for the trip; we have a PA and a shooter here as well; and two Spanish TV producers are acting as fixers for the week, keeping wheels greased, scouting locations, translating and the like.
Our first stop today was at La Broche (www.labroche.com), one of Spain’s greatest restaurants, which is saying a lot since some of the most exciting and creative cooking in the world is taking place on the Iberian Peninsula. Sergi Arola, La B’s owner-chef, is one of Ferran Adria’s acolytes and his food shows it, but he’s a little more grounded than the molecular gastronomy king of kings whom he worked with for years (we shoot with Adria on Thursday). Arola made four dishes for me, seared red prawns on olive gnocchi with almond milk, tagliolini with morels-sea larvae-parmesan cream and topped with a sous vide egg yolk, roasted sardines with black trumpet mushrooms and a dish he called roast beef.
The roast beef turned out to be a thin circle of blood sausage on a disk of olive oil-fried crouton, topped with ribbons of seared beef, a tangle of aromatic herb salad with baby fennel and a scoop of foie gras ice cream to round the whole plate off … Let me simply say it was a heck of a start to an incredible culinary adventure. We have stopped in tapas bars and jamoneria all day long to grab shots of angulas (baby eels), pescadillas (baby sardines), salchichon, Iberico dry cured hams, chorizo, lomo, octopus and a thousand other edible delights. Check out all the amazing pork products at the Museo del Jamon if you are ever in Madrid.
The Spanish are my kind of folk, and here in Madrid, the restaurants outnumber every Madrileno by about 3 to 1. They eat every few hours in Madrid – each business or social conversation is an excuse for snacking. My kind of culture, to say the least. Apparently, my last episode of Bizarre Foods of Asia has been airing constantly on Travel Channel’s European sister stations because all day long we have met groups of tourists from other countries who have seen the program recently, including a bunch of Welsh ladies from Cardiff who cheered me on in the Plaza Mayor as I searched relentlessly for bull’s balls. It appears to be my Don Quixote moment so far – no criadillas… yet!
The Last Coca-Cola in the Desert
Tuesday morning, up and at ‘em and on to Casa Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world! It is ecstatically scenic, on a small cobblestone street a block off the Plaza Mayor, the site of most of the heretical trials and subsequent burnings during the Spanish Inquisition. Botin’s well-used and justifiably famous wood-burning oven pumps out 40 baby pigs and a dozen or so lambs each day, and has done so without interruption since 1730. There are several small dining rooms in an ancient building with tilted stairs and window casements, servers that seem pulled straight out of central casting, and happy customers slurping down big bowls of squid braised in their own ink, stewed partridge – the classics. I spent my day in their granite-floored kitchens, piling logs into the stove, cooking with the all-male Botin staff (none are younger than 60), and scarfing down as much pig as I could handle. Apparently, they were quite pleased by the gusto with which I prised open the skull of the pig and made quick work of the ears, snout, cheeks and brain, saving the tongue for last. Aggressive eaters like myself are thought of quite fondly in Spain.
Then on to La Bola, a 170-year-old tavern on a quiet little street … Madrid used to be a town of taverns; there were 800 of them a hundred years ago, now they number under 100. Sad really. La Bola is a stunning tavern with some gorgeous and colorful woodwork, and an all-female kitchen with the median age I would have to peg at about 70. But everyone heads there for one reason only: the Cocido Madrileno, a clay pot/pitcher filled with meats, poultry, sausages, vegetables and chick peas topped off with broth. The pitcher sits upright, percolating really, on a wood-burning stove, simmering for hours. Then the pitcher comes to your table, the broth is poured from the pitcher into a bowl filled with noodles to make a lovely soup, then the boiled dinner is tumbled out onto a plate for the second course, and served with sea salt, pickled hot peppers, and a puree of smoked and fresh peppers. They serve hundreds of these a day. On to the callos, a tripe stew that is cooked with chunks of blood sausage (morcilla) and other smoked meats. Quite good.
That night a tapas crawl saw us wandering around Madrid with a few locals, checking out some unusual taparias. One of our stops was the crumbling and ancient Taberna Antonio Sanchez. Two hundred years ago, Antonio’s dad was a bullfighter who opened the place after suffering a career-ending goring (his first kill is mounted in the bar) and he named the place after his son. Subsequently, over the last two centuries, the place has been owned by a succession of bullfighters, winding up today in the hands of my new best buddy, Paco. He led me about the tavern, showing me the tables of all the famous writers who came there to eat and drink and write in the heat of the day and late into the evening. The deacutecor is all original – tables, chairs, even the wine glasses are ancient. Paco showed me his bulls on the wall and a few of his scars, and then fed me a bowl of the best callos I had eaten all day – trust me, I have become a tripe stew expert. I am still coming down from the high of sitting in Paco’s tavern, the roads silent all around us (the streets are too small for cars). This ancient working-class neighborhood is changing quickly. Immigrant waves settle into the cheaper flats; developers take over the more charming buildings; modernity inexorably creeps in and Paco sits, waiting for the customers whose ranks are thinning rapidly. Madrid’s young people are less interested in tavern life than in the nightclubs on the other side of town, and the new generation of bullfighters are more concerned with being rock stars than they are in becoming future tavern owners. So Paco soldiers on, making the best callos in all of town and giving anyone who will listen to him a history lesson from a man who truly lived and loved in a way that does not exist in today’s pop-culture disposable world. So He sits, smiling as we leave, and my friend Andres and I stumble on to the next taparia. I ask him who will take over when Paco dies, who’s the next bullfighter-turned-bar owner, and he says there is no one, and that when Paco goes, the tavern goes. The tavern is Paco, he insists – his stories, his stew, his stewardship … and in a few years there will be no tavern left, making Paco the last bottle of Coca-Cola in the desert.
The Barnacle Bill
Today it was off to the swank side of Madrid, in the posh Serrano shopping district. We shot all morning in the trendy food stalls of the Mercado de la Paz, a 200-stall market with butchers, seafood stalls, fromagerias and so on. We ate criadillas (bull’s balls) and tripe stew with the truckers and stevedores in the small cafeacute inside the market where the bar was four deep at 10 in the morning. The salt cod; cured, pressed and dried tuna roe; and the incredible array of fish and shellfish in the stalls was staggering. We saw plenty of percebes, the small gooseneck barnacles that everyone loves, and hundreds of species of langosto, crab and small rockfish. For a landlocked burg, Madrid has an insa
tiable appetite for seafood, one that harkens back to the days of the first two Philips, who were both fish fanatics. Madrilenos still tell stories about the royal coaches perambulating from the palace to the seashores and back, their carts overflowing with fresh catch for the royal kitchens. And this was hundreds of years ago!
Today, the chic ladies who lunch, wealthy businessmen, the rich and famous, celebrities of all types or just curious gastronomes fall into lunch at La Trainera, the 40-year-old grandmama of Madrid’s great seafood restaurants, and the one that Francis Bacon so famously touted back in the day. We had the opportunity to roll in there about three hours before the lunch crowds packed the place, and shoot in the kitchens of this remarkable eatery that is right around the corner from the Mercado (La Trainera is on Lagasca 60).
The small, humble, blue and white storefront with the cute shutters is a pretty impressive statement about the restaurant all on its own. No bells, no whistles, just great food and a reputation for perfection … but the stream of famous faces and the jacketed doorman out front let you know you are in for a special experience. All the fish and shellfish is gathered from small fishing co-ops sprinkled all over Spain, many from Galicia, the famous coastal city in the northwest corner of the country. When you walk in to the restaurant, you see the awesome iced seafood display, and many customers find that without a reservation you are only able to avail yourself of a meal at the bar. But that’s not a bad thing since you can just keep pointing at what looks good in the case. Be careful: Almost all the goodies, from the oysters to the red prawns to the cigalas (langostos), buey crab, lobsters, percebes and the like, are sold by the gram, and an overeager diner can quickly pile up quite a bill. I had the opportunity to sit in the kitchen with the chef, where he keeps many pots of court bouillons simmering for his percebes, lobsters and crabs, and a few massive griddles for the giant prawns seared “a la plancha” served pil-pil style, drizzled with the herb-oil-chile-garlic sauce that the Basques are renowned for. Be sure to try the rodaballo, a Spanish turbot that is griddled and served with a sherry vinegar pan sauce – it’s the house specialty. The percebes (gooseneck barnacles), also known locally as “dragons’ feet” because of their odd lizard-skin look, are sold in 200-gram increments and can wholesale for over $50 a pound, so I tried my best to be respectful. However, standing in the kitchen with the chef and the restaurant’s septuagenarian owner (who kept hitting on our 20-something Spanish production fixer), I joyfully tucked into a mammoth platter of the little buggers, which taste like a lobster-kissed, butter-tender clam. You split the skin at the base of the barnacle where it attaches to the rocks, then using the foot like a handle you slide the edible cylinder of flesh out from the sheathing and suck it down. Then you can split apart the feathery foot and eat the small kernel of meat inside the top of the percebe … heaven. We went upstairs and ate Mediterranean clams on the half shell, langostos, three types of lobster, cigalas, giant red prawns, rodaballo, buey crab and a flurry of desserts and cheeses. Put La Trainera on your list of places not to miss next time you are in Madrid. But bring a large wallet … Had we been paying the full freight, my little snack there, albeit enough for two to three persons, would have cost almost 500 Euros.
We raced into our van after shooting the lunch, still reeking of shellfish, and sped to Madrid’s Barajas Airport (the new Terminal 4 is an AMAZING piece of architecture). We checked in as quickly as we could with our piles of bags and video equipment and took off for Barcelona, one of the most exciting cities in the world. More on that city and my visit to El Bulli later in the week.
Hey Tyra, What’s Up Girlfriend …
A quick flight from Madrid to Barcelona put us in this idyllic city on the northeast coast of Spain in time for me and the crew to check in to our hotel and grab some dinner in the lobby restaurant. Barcelona is the cultural capital of Catalonia, the most forward-thinking architectural town in Europe (Gaudi has more buildings and sculptures here than anywhere else in the world), the home of the 2006 Premier League soccer champs and the stomping grounds of dozens of the most innovative chefs in the West, most of whom have worshipped at the culinary teat of high-powered gastro-preneurs like Juan Maria Arzak and Ferran Adria.
I instantly fell in love with the Catalan spirit and hospitality, which was a welcome reprieve from the more politically scolding and slightly snooty Madrilenos – and let’s face it, a seaside city always seems more romantic than a landlocked one. I’m a sucker for the ocean. Catalonia borders the Mediterranean, and we cruised the city of Barcelona, driving up the Costa Brava, strolling the Rambla with its famous flower marts and street peddlers, the historic Gothic city center, the stunning shops and modern high rises of the business district, the Guell Parc, the funiculars on the hills to the east of the town (Barcelona is really a grouping of small cities in a way) … I could have stayed for weeks. The best shopping areas in the city are on the Passeig de Gracia and the streets to its south and west, including the Boulevard Rosa arcade, Barri Gotic, and streets such as Carrer de la Portaferrissa, Carrer de la Boqueria, Carrer del Call, Carrer de la Llibreteria and Carrer de Ferran. I spent a half-hour looking for purses for my wife at Loewe, a store that is what you would get if you mated Gucci with Cartier. I couldn’t even afford to use their bathroom, but it was a fun way to spend a lunch break.
But I digress. Exhausted from our trip to the city, we went downstairs to dinner and encountered an indecipherable menu with dishes named for emotions, like “Bliss,” which turned out to be a plate of fruit foams and jellies infused with herbs like verbena that have holistic healing powers. Dinner consisted of lots of foam, dusts and savory gelatos; you could feel Ferran Adria’s presence in restaurants all over Catalonia, much like Luke and Obi-Wan could always feel Darth Vader’s vibe in the Star Wars series. Every chef in Europe is trying to incorporate Adria’s iconography of techniques (dusts, gels, foams, essences, infusions) and philosophies into their work. Many have been very successful, but most merely imitate the appearances of Adria’s style with none of the reality. The food still has to taste good and the flavors still need to work together. Just because you can make a smoked salmon ice cream doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
The next morning we shot for hours in the Bouqeria, the oldest and best market in the city and one of the great food halls in all of Europe. We ate at La Gardunya, the famous restaurant located in the hall itself, renowned for their fresh horchata (an almond and betel nut milk concoction) that was as disgusting to drink as it sounds, but they had some delicious pan-fried calves’ brains with olive oil and lemon. These huge food markets in Europe should be replicated all over our country. Essentially, they are composed of hundreds of stalls selling every food product imaginable, but every few yards there is a stall selling foods made from the goodies being sold all around them. So, in the fruit area of the market, there are a dozen little stands selling fresh fruit cups and juices; in the seafood hall, there are several small raw bars and seafood grill stands – you get the idea. The product quality is second to none and the foods are simple and devoid of the sort of artifice that many restaurants utilize to unknowingly ruin great food ingredients. Sometimes, it’s OK if being a chef means being a great shopper and there should be no shame in that. The market was bustling and we got some killer footage, but nothing beat the small plate of razor clams a la plancha that I ate before we scooted up the hil
l to shoot at Antonion Ramon’s restaurant, La Venta.
On the way we bumped into Tyra Banks, who was shooting her America’s Next Top Model show on the streets of the city. This girl has more handlers than I could count and as everyone in our van got their cameras ready, and I had a handle on the door, ready to jump out and offer up a ride and good meal, the traffic surged. Our driver slipped into a distant lane, and I missed my chance. Our screams out the door. “What’s up, girl!!” – fell on deaf ears and we headed on up to the east side of town. Crushing.
But we licked our wounds at La Venta, one of the best places to view the city, with terraces that are tranquil and serene. Though a night spent on the rooftop cafe is as rocking a place as you can find in Barcelona. What’s more the food is great. Ramon whipped up some fresh sea urchins in a classic gratinee and a wedge of bacalao (salt cod) that had been poached in lemon and herbs sous vide, perched on a puree of caramelized onions and potatoes with roasted tomatoes and crushed olive paste dancing around the plate. Sensational! All the flavors of the sun-drenched Costa Brava brought together on a plate. We trucked back to our hotel and shot some promos on the docks of the city. I have gotten really good at saying “I’m Andrew Zimmern and you’re watching the Travel Channel,” all while I’m negotiating with a sidewalk vendor over the price of a grilled frog. Also, saying “Bizarre Foods” in any language we can accurately translate … Tomorrow we drive up to Les Cols and El Bulli, a day that I have been looking forward to my whole professional life.
Whose Life is This?
On Friday, half our crew stayed in Barcelona and I left for the Costa Brava with our producer Shannon, our fixer-driver-interpreter Anna and our photographer Mike. We drove up the coast, stopping to shoot in Olot (Girona), a medieval town a few miles inland that boasts some rare attractions, including a thousand-year-old bridge with a working battlement and keep and a 13th-century farmhouse restored into one of the most unique inns and restaurants in the world, Les Cols (www.lescols.com). Along the way, I grilled Shannon about all the celebrity awards shows she has produced. I am such a celeb geek sometimes … Here’s the skinny: Besides producing many of the biggest awards shows, Shannon and Mike have also produced Wild On and Joan Rivers’ red carpet preludes on E!, so she knows from where she speaks. So, from my lips to God’s ears, Charlize and Cameron are sweethearts, Salma is a nightmare, and Brooke Burke is a hard-working and dedicated professional. Moving on …
Now, I know that a farmhouse deep in the countryside is an unlikely location for a top-notch restaurant, but the Green Acres setting did not stop Fina Puigdevall from opening her restaurant outside Olot, in a 13th-century building that she inherited from her parents – her mom still lives on the second floor. As her reputation as a chef spread, Puigdevall wanted a place for her guests to stay the night. So she commissioned RCR Architects of Olot to preserve the ancient structure of the family house, build an extension to usher guests from farmyard to dining hall, remake the refectory, and craft a 22nd-century dining room and interior that could lie in stark contrast to the rural surroundings. A 30-meter-long steel table stretches the length of the space, with private dining alcoves set off the main thruway, but everything is clad in gold sheet metal. The walls of the oblong room have bands of gold-lacquered steel extending from floor to ceiling, each band twisting to form a loose spiral. Strips of light follow the angles where floor meets wall and wall meets ceiling. The effect is dazzling. And the food is outrageous! From the artisan cheeses made by local fromagerias to the truffle risotto with rooster crests, Les Cols is one of the most exquisite restaurants in the world.
A rooster crest really is the zigzag crown that sits on top of a rooster’s head. They are braised, peeled, and then some of the crests are chopped and stirred into the risotto, while several others are napped with a chicken glace and perched atop the finished dish. If you love chicken feet, imagine all the gelatinous delight of those morsels multiplied by a factor of 100. And with only one crest worth eating out of every 10 roosters, well, you can imagine the appeal in eating a treat in Nina’s kitchen that very few diners ever get to hear about, let alone eat.
After lunch we piled into the van and headed off to Rosas, a seaside village about 90 minutes away, to meet Ferran Adria at El Bulli.
Friday at lunchtime we left Les Cols for Rosas and drove up the coast. The day was perfect, and approaching El Bulli, I began to get nervous in a way that I have never experienced before. Ferran Adria is going to be remembered as the greatest chef of his generation and a man that changed not only the game itself, but also the playing field and the equipment as well. For those of you who have no idea who he is, Adria is the chef at the hyperexperimental restaurant El Bulli, where a 22-course tasting menu goes for 300 Euros a pop. It is only open six months a year, and he spends the rest of the year in Barcelona in his atelier creating the next year’s menu. Adria “invented” the often imitated foam-gellee (among many other techniques) school of cookery. While he denies it, he is the father of molecular gastronomy and perhaps a brief description of what I found when I walked in the door will give you an idea of this guy’s skill level.
Before we could even talk to his PR people to set up the shoot we had to clear it by signing waivers. Plus, Adria required a gastronomic interpreter provided by the Spanish government to ensure that every word was precisely defined. His restaurant has two people whose sole job is to sweep the stones in the driveway; he had 44 people in his kitchen when we spent the day there, but only does one turn of 48 covers a night. He has a full-time staff of four photographers and graphic designers who do nothing but document every move in the kitchen, every day of the week!
When we walked in he was creating sugarless sponge cakes for a new item he is toying with, using a brioche batter put through a CO2 dispenser piped into small microwaveable Dixie cups and cooked for 45 seconds. He was ecstatic that he could create the lightest, airiest puffs in under a minute and he was teaming these cakes with seafoods and vegetable extracts in a dessert!
He had a team of chefs doing nothing for three hours but hand-selecting perfect fronds of a new species of seaweed that the Japanese have discovered; he was tasting hundreds of combinations of raw and blanched seaweeds, all cooked at different times to determine the optimum flavors for extracting the essence of the plant.
Adria insists that he is “just a cook” and cannot stand all the praise and attention he gets. Like many brilliant artists, he seems tortured by the fact that he lives his life under such a microscope, but acknowledges that it was his choice. He was insistent that we try his brother’s tapas bar (Inopia) in Barcelona and spends every Tuesday evening there. He spent a lot of time spraying my tongue with flavor atomizers before I tasted a given edible (rosemary spritz before baby rabbit escabeche cooked sous vide), but the most telling moment came when I asked him about his commitment to local flavors. He led me to a pine tree that grew outside the kitchen, then to the pastry room where he tasted us on four pinecone elements for a dessert that he was running that night. Pine meringue, pine oil, pine syrup and pine cream, all of which were made with a distilled essence of the immature cones of this tree. It was phenomenal, woodsy and citrusy and thrilling as it moved across my tongue.
Calling this man just a cook is like calling Einstein a high school math geek.
After stuffing myself silly in the kitchens and with the pantry ways of El Bulli, we left the culi
nary laboratory and shot some Travel Channel promos on the veranda overlooking the small bay, from the rocky promontory on which Ferran Adria’s restaurant sits. Adria strolled out a short time later. He told me that in the evening, weather permitting, this is where guests sip apÃ©ritifs and are served small bites before being ushered into the dining room for the dinner service. The view is stunning, but more amazing to me was the relaxed and unassuming atmosphere of the three major El Bulli dining rooms. Farmhouse chairs with straw seats in one; large, curvy, whitewashed plaster banquettes piled high with soft pillows in another; a third is a smaller corner room with a simple Mediterranean aesthetic – the effect was relaxing, charming and perfectly suited to the natural setting viewed through the French doors that expose almost every seat in the building to the stunning seaside vista, the towering cypress and pine, and the unforgettable light streaming through the windows and entryways. Now, because you will actually spend four hours at your table, happily noshing your way through 20 or so of the most mind-blowing and palate-expanding courses you can possibly imagine, the dining room’s comfort level takes on even greater significance. Too many restaurants, of all types, especially in this country, seem to forget that one’s happiness at mealtime is directly proportional to one’s physical comfort both at the table and in the restaurant’s ambience. Seems like a simple rule, but think about it. How many of your last restaurant meals were curiously unthrilling, almost annoyingly tough to get through, despite the quality of the food (assuming it was good) and the relative speed with which you were forced to endure it?
Adria’s restaurant prepares and presents some of the most food-forward edibles on the planet; he has philosophical treatises and axioms that he insisted I should become familiar with before we spent the day together. He thinks, rethinks and overthinks his relationship to food and to his staff and customers to a degree that I have never seen in another human being. Every aspect of his daily food life is recorded and codified by a battery of helpers whose sole job is to be sure that every idea, each failed or successful experiment is meticulously recorded, yet Adria insists he is just a humble cook.
That insistence seemed disingenuous to me until I strolled the property with him, watched him pull weeds in the entryway, listened to him talk about the simple act of how he believes guests should be eating his food, without pretense or fuss. While his food is certainly complex, even the simplest spoon of steamed crab requires an army’s labors to put it on the plate, and the act of eating his food, which Adria insists is the purview of the guest, is a simple and relaxing one. In an age where the most popular restaurants in our country seem to cram rules, annoying tableside theatrics and marketing spin down our throats, Adria’s brilliance lies not only in his skill level as a “simple cook” but in the graceful humility with which he allows his guests to taste his talent.