I just got back from 5 action-packed weeks abroad. I travelled to Barcelona to teach 5 weeks of Mediterranean Food & Culture for a brilliant new program run by University of California Education Abroad. A lucky group of 27 UC students spent 15 weeks learning about the Mediterranean through its food culture throughout three cities: Istanbul, Florence, and Barcelona (where I came in). We had been planning this unique program for 2 years now (I went to Istanbul in 2014 to meet up with the rest of the faculty; it was also full of culinary adventure!) and we all consider it a huge success; there is already a long waiting list for next year.
In addition to the many intense hours spent in the classroom, I took the students on some exciting cultural field studies. Their favorite one was a visit to my friend Didac’s farm, where they were served a home-grown calçotada feast. Calçots are a quintessential Catalan custom and perfectly seasonal; onions are planted and then piled with dirt to grow vertically, long and thin, until they end up looking somewhat like a leek. They are harvested between December and March, grilled until charred and then steamed in newspaper to make them nice and tender inside. To eat calçots, wearing a bib is a must (and you get messy, at that). Peel off the outer charred layer with your hands and then dip the entire tip of the calçot generously in romesco sauce, swirling it around to catch as much of the nutty goodness as you can, and swallow as follows:
As you can see, the students really got the drift and ate to their hearts’ content, appreciating and implementing the concept of Mediterranean conviviality (sobremesa!) we had been discussing in the classroom.
Although my main focus during these 5 weeks was to teach in this program, I took advantage of my time in Europe to include other exciting trips and projects. The first weekend I spent in Amsterdam, visiting my dear friend Amanda who owns a lovely tea shop, a true haven for a tea geek like me. In fact I spent most of the weekend inside Formocha, happy to brew tea for visitors and play with Amanda's toys. Here's me feeling like a kid in a candy shop:
The second weekend was truly exceptional (as if the rest hadn’t been!). I traveled to San Sebastian, my favorite Spanish city, to give a conference at the Basque Culinary Center, one of the only university-level culinary schools in the world. I spoke to the third-year nutrition students and masters students all about what I do in California at Bauman College, where I am now the Academic Dean. It was a great honor to be invited to speak here, as this center is becoming a worldwide reference; San Sebastian is the right place for it, a culinary city where there is one -the one with most Michelin stars per capita in the whole world, of course, but also immersed in a culture with so much pride for its amazing culinary heritage.
The next day I had the privilege to attend a master class offered by legendary Basque chef Pedro Subijana at his three Michelin-starred restaurant Akelarre up on mount Igueldo. Subijana, with Juan Mari Arzak, was responsible for the birth of New Basque Cuisine, a revolution in the Spanish culinary scene, in the 1980s after a stage in France with Paul Bocuse. He has been cooking for 50 years and is still at the forefront, earning his third Michelin star in 2007. It was amazing to learn about the latest techniques in fine dining, but my favorite part by far was listening to Subijana tell his whole story, from the days in which he decided to ditch med school to become a chef, much to his parents’ chagrin, to the present day expansion of Akelarre to include a small hotel for diners to spend the night on this enchanted spot. Subijana explained to us that he pushed hard for years for the Basque Culinary Center to open, as he wished to empower people who want to cook for a living without foregoing the possibility of a university-level degree. “We have managed to dignify the profession of the cook,” he told us, “but not yet that of the server. We are working on it, by having servers participate more and more actively in the final preparation of a dish at the table.”
One of my favorite dishes was the Arraigori (a local fish) Umami, a fish recipe based on the flavor of umami. Subijana makes a reduced broth of all the umami ingredients you can think of: cod fish skin, bonito flakes, licorice, parmesan, artichokes, mushrooms, ham, anchovies (all evenly rationed so that none of them sticks out above the others). He then strains and dehydrates it, using the remaining powder as a condiment, the most flavorful, savory (umami!) one you can imagine.
No visit to San Sebastian is complete without some pintxos. Here are a couple of my favorites, a grilled octopus with alioli and quince, and marinated anchovies with uni:
(Basque pintxo class coming January 23 at 18 Reasons in SF! See here for more info.)
While in Barcelona I cooked a few times with renowned Catalan chef Ada Parellada. Ada owns Semproniana, a famous Barcelona restaurant, but she comes from a saga of restaurant owners, so it’s truly engrained in her blood. I asked her to teach me some traditional Catalan dishes to inspire new material for workshops, which I will start releasing in the Bay Area very soon! (I am gradually uploading the info to the site; see here for schedule; and private classes available too!). I learned a lot of new things and am eager to share them with you. For the holidays I will be making a traditional fish stew called suquet de peix for my family. Here are a couple of the dishes we made together, a traditional Catalan recipe of peas and sausages, and a modern twist of cured sardines, faux-beets (made with sous vide apples marinated in beet juice), quince, parsley yogurt, and beet sprouts.
I also taught a workshop at Obbio Food, a large health food store with a café and teaching kitchen, that opened in Barcelona soon after I moved away. Elena, the lovely owner, was a follower of my Spanish blog desayunoconguisantes.com, had been asking me to teach a workshop there for a long time and I am so glad it finally happened.
My trip to Europe would not have been complete without a weekend in Paris, which I love to visit for aesthetic nourishment -architecture, people, food are painfully beautiful and stimulating. In Paris, I mainly wander the streets and not much more than that… I met up with my mother in law and we rented an airbnb apartment so we could purchase fresh local ingredients at the markets (the one closest to us was Marché des Enfants Rouges, the oldest one in Paris) and cook at home.
Tea geek if there is one, I always search out the tea houses in cities I visit, and Paris is not short on them. A huge highlight of this trip was getting to know Jugetsudo, a Japanese tea haven on the left bank, where I had the best prepared gyokuro of my life (with a marron glacé, appropriately paired). Hopefully I will be able to try one in Japan in the (near?) future. We also went to the Chinese tea house Maison des trois thés, where I enjoyed an aged rock oolong tea (on the right):
Lots of new places have popped up in Barcelona in the two years I've been away. I stayed at my cousin's apartment in Poblenou, a neighborhood that is flourishing (or rather, becoming gentrified) and incorporating trendy new cafés, restaurants and places to shop for good food.
Celeri is a new Barcelona restaurant from the Tribu Woki group with an extremely innovative concept. It came highly recommended to me by my good friend Chiara (who knows me well, and not only owns the vegetarian bistro Rasoterra, she is one of the main faces of Slow Food in Barcelona). Although I don’t eat out too often because I can usually eat better quality food at home, I loved their concept: chef Xavier Pellicer, who comes from the world of fine dining, works with 8 changing, seasonal and local vegetables and the menu offers platillos (small plates) in three versions: one vegan, one vegetarian, one omnivorous (and here the proportion of meat is adequate, not over the top). Their open kitchen is an inspiration, and represents their philosophy of transparency and full disclosure.
On one of my favorite streets in the city, Doctor Dou, I ran into the recently opened Petit Brot, a juice bar (yes, they are starting to pop up in Spain too) with excellent quality produce (which comes from here). The owners are a young couple (Catalan and Czech) who follow a strict raw foods philosophy I am personally not on board with, although they do offer some products such as sauerkraut, kale chips, and dehydrated seed crackers, that were pretty much unheard of in Spain when I left two years ago. I am not a huge juice fan (I like to chew my food), but I did have one of the best salads of all times there:
The weeks flew by, and though I missed my family dearly, I made the most of my time abroad. I am eager to put all of this to work back home in CA, so I hope to see you at one of my workshops soon!
Meanwhile, I wish you all the best for the holiday season: may these days be filled with good food that makes you feel well, company you love, and a smooth transition to a 2016 packed with new adventures!