May 9th, 2016 § § permalink
I thought of Lunchbox Lies as a title for this post because I’m a sucker for sensationalist alliteration. Also because it started out as a mother’s earnest quest to analise the content of her son’s lunchbox – an exploration of the toxic-sounding components of modern food, if you will – that devolved into a whole lot of bitching about how small ‘small print’ has become. Almost like it’s not meant to be read.
Before I take you down the preservative-lined rabbit hole, let me say that I am not a health food fanatic. My life has been characterised by pervasive hunger and what I like to think of as discerning taste buds (my mom called it ‘being full of shit’). I’ve always punched above my financial weight when it comes to food shopping. I’ve eaten little organic fruit and veg (limited availability and just too expensive) but I buy the cleanest meat, eggs and dairy on the shelf. I stay away from artificial sweeteners, fruit “juice”, pre-cooked sauces, long-life anything and carbonated cold drinks, unless heavily diluted with hard tack. In short, I think I’m quite balanced.
Sometimes I play with my son’s food
But the food industry is full of horror stories. Good old MSG was the first scary blip on my radar, then tartrazine, followed by growth hormones causing young boys to grow breasts and girls to menstruate at 9, carbon dioxide-ripened tunnel tomatoes, pesticides, a plethora of preservatives, carcinogenic colourants, mad cow’s disease, BPA-seepage from plastic packaging, the alluminium free radicals in tinned food and let’s not forget those GMO-peddling mofos over at Monsanto. I can’t even begin with the cruelty at the heart of the meat industry. There is a certain poetic justice in humanity being eradicated by a cloud of cow fart.
Jane Goodall said it best: “Someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads. How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?” And whether this is truly a Cree Indian proverb or the work of some stoner college kid, I’m going with it:
Now, reproduce and then try to feed that little person good, clean food. On a budget and a deadline. I know I do my absolute best to feed him a healthy home-cooked meal every day but when it comes to packing a lunchbox, one tends to fall back on more convenient items that won’t spoil in an unrefrigerated backpack. And those seductive little lunchbox-ready packets at the Woolies check-out are awfully expensive. So, this is my 3 year-0ld son’s typical lunchbox.
A sandwich with either ham or cheese, one piece of fruit, yoghurt, juice, a small cheese and some form of dried fuit and/or nuts, plus a bottle of tap water. In a country where millions are bobbing through the bread-and-butter line and trying to stay afloat, this is a feast. But all of it contains preservatives, colourants, flavourants and more. Unfortunately, unless you live close to the land and grow your own, the less money you have, the more preservatives and additives you will consume. I rest my case with polony and those very scary bright pink viennas.
To the uninitiated, ingredient lists read like a recipe for chemical warfare. Or at least a garage bomb that could blow your hand off. Here are some of the ugly-sounding nasties from the food packaging pictured above:
Bread: Calcium propionate, GM soybean flour, non-hydrogenated vegetable fat from palm fruit, unspecified emulsifiers from vegetable origin, unspecified enzymes from non-animal origin
Butter spread: BHA, propyl gallate
Ham: The packet bravely claimed ‘No added MSG’ but did own up to phosphates, dextrose, sodium nitrite, sodium carbonate, HVP, sodium erythorbate, ascorbic acid, unspecified flavouring
Juice: Ascorbic acid, unspecified flavouring, anthocyanine
Full Cream Flavoured Yoghurt: Sucrose, modified starches, unspecified flavouring, stabiliser and colourant, Pimaricin (preservative)
Medium Fat Cream Cheese: calcium chloride, non-animal rennet, Potassium Sorbate
Peanuts and Raisins: unhydrogenated vegetable oil (palm oil & sunflower seed) TBHQ colourant, salt (although labeled ‘low salt’, they’re still quite salty)
Banana: I do not know the provenance of this banana but it certainly was not organic. I found this on the web and it pretty much sums up my gut feel about fruit. Not that I stick to it religiously, my son loves strawberries. “With the sky-rocketing prices of food, buying organic may not be feasible all the time. Bananas, along with avocados, mangos, papayas, and pineapples have been found to have the lowest pesticide residue. However, apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries have very high pesticide residues so you might want to splurge on organic.” Basically, to my mind, fruit with a thin peel and high water content retain the most pesticides. At R40 a bloody punnet, I expect strawberry suppliers to deliver non-toxic fruit, even if not organic.
Bad additives in food can really get you down
I started googling calcium propionate and propyl gallate and anthocyanine. The latter sounds like something Daisy de Melker would have carried around in a little pouch, tucked away in the vertical folds of her bossom. It’s very hard and frustrating work, googling all of these ingredients. Mainly because, with the exception of preservatives, ingredients are often listed as ‘unspecified’ colourant or flavourant or whatever. Or just ‘acid regulator’ or ’emulsifier’, which could be either natural or synthetic. So I decided to email a friend who also happens to be a food scientist. Let’s just call her Margaret*.
I must have sounded like yet another neurotic mom with too much time on her hands because Margaret’s reply was brief and contained this website link with the hardcore scientific low-down on every additive and preservative tested by man. If only I’d continued with science after standard 6, instead of typing! I needed answers in plain language and Margaret kindly agreed to talk me through some of my concerns.
KV (that’s me, Kitchen Vixen): Are all additives bad for you?
Margaret: Generally speaking, no. People are against it because it’s foreign. Take for example calcium propionate, the preservative in bread. Without it, the cost of a loaf of bread would double and shelf life would shrink from 10 to 2 days, resulting in higher distribution costs and more wasted, mouldy bread.
KV: But what about fears that preservatives cause cancer?
Margaret: You must remember that SA’s food safety legislature is of the strictest in the world. Everything must be WHO-approved and testing is done on people to determine safe consumption levels. For example, there has been talk that sweeteners cause bladder cancer.
KV: Yes, I’ve always told anyone who’d listen that they’re carcinogenic (based on the awful aftertaste… I’m scientific like that)
Margaret: Exactly, well, that originated from a study where they fed rats the equivalent of bucket loads of aspartame per day – which in practice would never happen. Of course the rats got sick. There are standards for virtually everything, from bread and mayonaise to meat, in terms of the quantities allowed. Take the cal prop in bread for example (by now we’re talking about calcium propionate like we were varsity drinking buddies), if you eat a kilogram of it, it will affect you.
KV: Ja, I get you. I don’t like preservatives but I understand why they’re in our food. God forbid a customer finds a spot of mould on a loaf in the shop. It would be all over Twitter in seconds. So food manufacturers are also in a tight spot. I just don’t understand, if all these colourants and things cost money, why don’t they use less of it in our food?
Margaret: The food industry responds to public demand and always tries to keep costs down. Take colourants for example, they are expensive but people like their cooldrinks and yoghurts to be bright red, orange or green. I guess it’s similar to us prefering bright red, ripe-looking strawberries to paler ones.
KV: I struggle to find natural-tasting and normal-looking yoghurt for my son. Kids are supposed to eat full cream and low sugar with no artificial colourants but all of the kids’ yoghurts are bright and sweet, with the exception of the Woolies kids’ range.
(I wish the other dairy companies would catch a wake-up regarding kids’ yoghurt!)
Margaret: Because that’s what people want. Years ago a large dairy manufacturer tried to introduce European-style yoghurt (more creamy, less sweet) to the local market and it failed. People want to see low-fat on that container as they perceive it to be healthier or less fattening.
KV: Even with banting? I thought everyone had cottoned on to full cream by now.
Margaret: Banting pertains to about 1% of the population. The point is, the food industry is aware and would supply these products if the demand existed. Currently the demand and priority is for cost-efficient food, which equates to long shelf life and the need for preservatives and other additives.
KV: Also, we South Africans generally like our food quite sweet.
Margaret: Exactly, but new legislation was published in 2010 and for example by June 2016 the salt content in many products must be reduced by up to 30%. Most have already started decreasing salt, for example soup powders, stock cubes, bread and margarine. And the law demands another decrease by 2019.
KV: That’s wonderful news. I didn’t even know this! So the government is weaning us off sugar and salt.
Margaret: Yes, sugar regulations are also now being put into place. Just remember that that the greatest health dangers in food are still the basics like salt, sugar and fat.
KV: Let’s talk about the whole butter vs margerine debate. I hate margerine. It looks plastic and tastes gross. So obviously I subscribe to the ‘margerine is one molecule away from plastic’ story. I recently saw this scary diagram on Facebook. What do you think of this?
I detest margerine so much, I suck up anything that validates my dislike
Margaret: That’s complete bull shit. Margerine is nothing more than blended and emulsified oil and water.
I searched Youtube for margerine videos and found a man and a bored cow debunking the one-molecule-away-from-plastic myth with a few strings of fairy lights. There’s also Margerine is Satan Spread by a terrifically long-winded chef who goes on and on about how clarified butter is made. Talk about a misleading title. Personally, I don’t care if margerine is the elixir of eternal youth and happiness. I shall never eat it.
Margaret: You have to watch out for preservatives and colourants because of intolerance issues. That’s why tartrazine must always be specified. And ingredients that could cause reactions generally have to be written in capital letters.
KV: I don’t understand how NikNaks and Oros can now be tartrazine-free, when it looks and tastes exactly like the tartrazine bombs of our youth.
Margaret: They’re just using another colourant like Sunset Yellow instead of tartrazine (at this point I realised that I always thought tartrazine imparted flavour, when in fact it’s a colourant. So great, that packet is tartrazine-free but what the hell’s in Sunset Yellow? Gah!).
KV: So what about MSG? And what does it mean when the ham packaging says ‘no added MSG’?
Margaret : There is absolutely fuck all scientific evidence globally to support that MSG is bad for you. I was at an international convention recently where Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was discussed (alleged headaches due to high MSG content in Chinese food) and this whole debate can be traced back to the hypothesis of one person, which has never been proven. MSG occurs naturally in many products. Parmesan is laced with natural MSG. All the ham packaging claims is no MSG has been added to the natural MSG in the product. MSG is a wonder product because it allows food producers to omit much more expensive ingredients.
KV: What about all the nitrates and stuff in bacon and cold meats?
Margaret: Nitrates and nitrites are not my area of expertise. I’ve heard the WHO or FDA – not sure which – recently claimed bacon is as carcinogenic as smoking. I can connect you with an expert, if you like?
KV: Rather not. I’m not giving up bacon.
KV: My son loves raisins and dried fruit rolls. What about the sulfur dioxide used as a preservative?
Ag fok, dis so min dis punt zero zero fokkol. I wouldn’t worry about it. The amounts used are minimal.
Like a tub of briskly whisked margerine, Margaret had reached saturation point with my questions. But here are a few pointers to better understand food labels:
- Ingredients are listed from greater to lesser in terms of percentage present in the product.
- Preservatives must always be specified by name.
- Emulsifiers and flavourants do not require specification.
- Certain colourants, like tartrazine, must be specified by name due to intolerance or reactions in some.
The bottom line is that we the consumers dictate the content and quality of our food. Society demands long shelf life, perfect produce without a blemish or god forbid a speck of dirt, plus we want it at the lowest possible prices. Unfortunately a large sector of society has been raised on additive-rich foods laced with unnatural flavour, resulting in complacency about potentially harmful ingredients – because we actually think it tastes good! Most people wouldn’t even notice when their chicken tastes like fish. And just watch how fast those NikNaks disappear at a braai… smacks of childhood.
A good rule of thumb is longer shelf life equals more preservatives. Although Margaret reassured me that the quantities used are safe to ingest, with regular consumption over several decades, I’m not convinced. When I lived in Spain I was shocked by the shelf life of certain baked goods. An entire confectionary aisle containing doughnuts and fruit-filled pastries that could last for up to 6 months. COOKED FRUIT THAT LASTS FOR SIX MONTHS ON THE SHELF. People, that’s just asking for trouble.
Margaret conceded that of course it would be ideal to make everything from scratch, as naturally as possible.
“You mean I should kill my own pig and cure my own bacon?” I screeched.
We’ve at least started baking our own bread from unbleached, stone-ground flour. And I’ve replaced Ben’s salty roasted nuts with venison droëwors (bloody expensive maar nouja). The sulfur-soaked raisins are staying for now. Let’s hope the benefits of the iron outweigh the dioxide contamination.
The improved lunchbox with homebaked bread. My son says it tastes old. He’s missing the elasticity of cal prop!
Please do share your healthy, funky, funny or scary lunchbox ideas with me on Twitter and Instagram @kitchenvixenish or on my Facebook page.
This is by no stretch of the imagination a scientific exploration of preservatives. I tried, and it got too scary. Margaret provided valuable insight into why our food is what it is. There are many healthy options out there but sadly, most require a lot of time, money or space. While we work at becoming
Gwyneth Paltrow self-sufficient, could you please stop buying brightly coloured food? It tastes like nothing and just sticks to your poop.
*With special thanks to Margaret for her patience.
April 12th, 2016 § § permalink
Die tyd om te bak is sommer nóú nóú! Koekedoor is terug en hierdie keer draai hulle nie vatdoekies om nie. Koekedoor Een was vir my ‘n meditasie in pastelskakerings met sagte skadus wat deur meelwolkies filter, ‘n spel van soet en sout wat hom nooit verstout het nie. Tot die saggeaarde en perfeksionistiese Martjie Malan die f-bom sommer drie keer in ‘n ry gedrop het. Maar bak kán dit mos aan ‘n mens doen.
Ek was onlangs bevoorreg om die eerste 90-minute episode van Koekedoor Twee saam met beoordelaars tannie Elizabeth, Tiaan Langenegger en Mari-Louis Guy te kyk terwyl ons aan soet- en southappies uit die einste episode gesmul het.
So reg uit Riaan Cruywagen se kinderdae uit…
En glo my, hierdie is ‘n Koekedoor van ‘n ander kleur. Die Barbie-pienk en Sound of Music saligheid van die eerste reeks het ‘n gravitas bygekry wat jou laat regop sit. Koekedoor Twee se intro is so belaai met hartsnaarbeelde en dramatiese musiek, ek het skoon tranerig geraak. Goeie hel, dog ek, dis soos een van daai epiese, opswepende bankadvertensies. Of het ek straks PMS, moes ek myself vra. Any which way, dames, moenie julle pêrels stukkend druk nie!
Groot Koekedoor Mari-Louis Guy. Die lady mág maar.
Die kamerawerk en redigering is
fokken fantasties meesterlik, met ‘n film noir spanning wat aan die ikoniese Franse fliek Delicatessen herinner. Baie dinge het in die Koekedoorstoor gespat, maar gelukkig nie bloed nie. Die span van Homebrew Films het hulself oortref. Reeksregisseur Sanet Olivier en regisseur van fotografie Chris Lotz is uitstekende storievertellers. Dis ‘n spel van lig en donker, ‘n lighartige gegiggel gevolg deur bloed sweet voor die oonde. As jy wil sien hoe ‘n tannie haarself in ‘n middelpaadjie inbak, wag en kyk maar…
Dit is wonderlik dat Koekedoor dieselfde beoordelaars behou het. Tannie Elizabeth, Mari-Louis en Tiaan het mekaar in Koekedoor Een leer ken en nou speel hulle eers lekker saam. Die bekendstelling van Koekedoor Twee het tydens ses teepartytjies oor drie agtereenvolgende dae geskied. Toe ek verlede Donderdagmiddag by die allerlaaste van die ses opdaag, was die drie aanbieders met goeie rede flou, maar ‘n lekker
tequila koppie tee later was almal weer bok vir sports. Ongelukkig kon Inhoudsvervaardiger Errieda du Toit nie die bekendstelling bywoon nie. Haar koskennis en passie is die bakpoeier wat hierdie Koekedoor-beslag so hoog laat rys.
Three Amigos: Mari-Louis Guy, Tiaan Langenegger en tannie Elizabeth Cloete
Op die oog af lyk hierdie reeks se deelnemers na tawwer kompetisie as die vorige een. “En daar is KARAKTERS,” meen Mari-Louis, “as mens eers almal se stories leer ken raak dit baie interessant.” Daar is net een haan onder die henne en ek vermoed Wessels gaan ‘n gunsteling wees. Die pryse is, soos voorheen, groot en in die meeste gevalle kry mens die gevoel dat dit ‘n wesenlike verskil aan die bakker se lewe sal maak. En dit is tog lekker.
Gaan Wessels die dames bat?
Benewens die spanning van die kompetisie – strope wat nie wil stol nie, loperige versiersuiker op ‘n warm sponskoek, groot gate wat kleiner moes wees – is daar die passie en liefde vir skep met meel en botter en suiker wat ‘n mens tog so boei.
Ek raak sommer self lus vir bak – nee fff.. NEE – wat praat ek.
En wie weet, dalk wen Kanja nie. Net omdat sy SA se sjokolademeester is, beteken nie sy kan koeksisters en marmite koek en perfekte brood bak nie, of hoe? Met die eerste episode van Koekedoor Een was ek oortuig Martjie Malan gaan wen en toe was dit die snaakse, plat-oppie-aarde Mareli Visser wat bakpoeier in Martjie se oë geskop het. Ek sê maar net…
Kyk dit. PVR dit. Moet dit nie misloop nie. Hierdie gaan groot pret en hope inspirasie wees.
Koekedoor word Donderdagaande vanaf 14 April 2016 op kykNET (DStv-kanaal 144) uitgesaai. Die 90 minute loods-uitsending begin om 20:00; die daaropvolgende episodes om 20:30.
Die tien deelnemers aan Koekedoor Twee. Mag die beste koek wen!
Dankie aan Cakebread Studio en Errieda du Toit PR vir die puik launch. Julle rock.
Callie Maritz en Ian du Toit – want agter elke Groot Koekedoor is ‘n man. Wat nie sy lag kan hou nie!
Sophia en Winny – sommer net vir die mooi. Want dis nie ‘n partytjie sonder ‘n feetjie en ‘n koningin nie.
April 8th, 2016 § § permalink
Pop artist, exhibition curator and creator of the word Hoepelpoep, Alex Hamilton also owns what may well be the world’s largest collection of vintage wall sconces. He talks about his fear of 1000-year-old eggs and middle-aged mozzarella sticks in New Mexico.
Fascinating with fascinator
What is your favourite flavour combination? Quince jelly and Gruyère cheese.
What is your most cherished food memory? Waking up to the smell of fresh mosbolletjies that my Mom had been baking since 5am.
What food scares you the most? Sea urchins and 1000-year-old eggs.
Which cheese do you most identify with? Emmentaler, because it is holy.
Who are your food heroes? My wife, Zelda.
What would you say to bacon? Bitch, get healthier.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself as a dinner party host? I talk too much.
What is the trait you most deplore in dinner party guests? Skinny girls who only pick at the salad in a smorgasbord of deliciousness.
What is your favourite food moment in a film? Babette’s feast – when they are not allowed to talk about the food but cannot hide their absolute delight with it.
What is your most embarrassing kitchen moment? When I was ten, I tried to cook soup from an oxo block. I reduced it etc, just to spill the pot of hot liquid all over my stomach, resulting in serious burns.
What do you consider the most overrated ingredient? Anything that can be made into a foam.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse while eating? Delicious.
What do you regret eating? Deep fried mozzarella sticks from a diner in New Mexico.
What is your current state of stomach? In perpetual need to be fed.
What is your essential kitchen utensil? Sharp pairing knife.
What is your most treasured drink? Caipirinha.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of over-indulgence? Ordering the entire menu on our last night in Mexico because it was cheap, before we had tasted any of it.
Who is your favourite TV chef? Rick Stein.
What is the quality you most admire in a steak? Tenderness.
What is the quality you most admire in a salad? The absence of lettuce.
What food or drink do you feel most guilty about? Chocolate.
What is your motto in the kitchen? Keep surfaces and the oven clean.
Don’t miss his cheeky social commentary on vanity and vapid arrogance in popular culture.
*The Prost! Questionnaire is this Kitchen Vixen’s tongue in cheeky version of Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire. The Prost! Questionnaire therefore belongs to me, unless Vanity Fair objects, in which case it will be theirs.
March 29th, 2016 § § permalink
She whirled from baking on boats to churning out cookbooks and judging the popular Koekedoor baking program. Mari-Louis Guy takes a short break from preparing an Easter feast for thirty family members to have a stern word with bacon and ponder the prevalence of all things sugary in her life.
What is your favourite flavour combination? The royal combo of peaches and cream.
What is your most cherished food memory? My husband Chris and I travelled the American South on a pie-eating trip – we even visited Graceland. Deep dish apple pie, Shoofly pie, peaches and cream pie, cherry cobbler pie…
What food scares you the most? Eat-as-much-as-you-can buffets.
Which cheese do you most identify with? Boursin (garlic and fine herbs), an everyday hero that elevates every meal.
Who are your food heroes? Trendsetters, direction changers, food designers and stylists. Marco Pierre White was my first love. Cherished his book White Heat – wish the person that borrowed it would return it.
What would you say to bacon? Why don’t you let me be vegetarian? SET ME FREE!
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself as a dinner party host? All the attention goes to the concept, food and décor and then I scramble at the last moment to get dressed and prettified.
What is the trait you most deplore in dinner party guests? Early arrivers. Early departers. Dinner parties are like the old-fashioned debutante balls – bring your best social game.
What is your favourite food moment in a film? Jacqueline Bisset assembling her massive la Bombe Richelieu in Who Is Killing All The Great Chefs Of Europe (a 70s cult classic).
What is your most embarrassing kitchen moment? I dropped a very big, elaborate Baked Alaska right in front of the charter guests in the first minutes of the new millenium. A movie moment. Them in their finery, feathers, fireworks and the dessert on the floor. That silence before the slow clap – which never came.
What do you consider the most overrated ingredient? Wine in food. Love mine in a glass.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse while eating? None, but I do hate it when TV chefs keep saying ‘use the best quality ingredients’. Repetitive snobbery.
What do you regret eating? When I first joined yachting a fresh batch of the finest Belgium chocolates were flown in every Friday and they binned the previous week’s leftovers. I tried to rescue as many of these pretty jewels as possible by eating them. The smell of expensive chocolate still haunts me – cannot eat it at all.
What is your current state of stomach? Sugar junkie hanging for a fix.
What is your essential kitchen utensil? Radio. Talk radio – I cook with Keeno Kammies, John Maytham and my favourites Bruce Whitfield and Steven Grootte on a daily basis.
What is your most treasured drink? Dirty Martinis in Miami – (green olives stuffed with blue cheese and a dash of olive brine in the Martini)
What do you regard as the lowest depth of over-indulgence? That somehow ten minutes after the excess, I crave fruit chutney crinkle cut chips.
Who is your favourite TV chef? I’m out of touch as I have 3 small children so the Squarepants guy rules. I do love Nigel Slater – a point of calm in my stormy life.
What is the quality you most admire in a steak? Its neighbours – the sauces, the café de Paris butter, crinkly baked spud with sour cream and the salads.
What is the quality you most admire in a salad? It makes me feel like Kate Moss. Tastes as good as skinny feels.
What food or drink is your favourite guilty pleasure? I used to feel guilty about the amount of cakes and tarts that I eat. Now I feel it is my duty as a Koekedoor judge. Milktart for breakfast – why not?
What is your motto in the kitchen? I make the rules.
Jacqueline Bisset lighting La Bombe Richelieu in Who Is Killing All the Great Chefs of Europe
*The Prost! Questionnaire is this Kitchen Vixen’s tongue in cheeky version of Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire. The Prost! Questionnaire therefore belongs to me, unless Vanity Fair objects, in which case it will be theirs.
February 18th, 2016 § § permalink
I’m back in the Helshoogte mountains, surrounded by an undulating carpet of vine leaves. Just before Christmas, I was moved to express my gratitude for once again living in this verdant valley that produces such outstanding
gossip wines. In a way that required a little more effort than simply raising a glass to the lights of Paarl twinkling across the valley at sunset.
Stuff them, I figured. With rice or pork, Greek or Middle-Eastern style. Undeterred by the fact that spring was a good few months past and the leaves were somewhat mature (thick and inflexible) for this exercise, I set off into the vineyard with a plastic shopping bag, clippers and a large hat. I was a straw hamper and wavy blonde hair short of a bucolic cliché. Or a shampoo ad.
Pick shiraz leaves, the winemaker yelled as he drove past. Because they’re the biggest. I tried to pick the softer, big leaves but by mid December they had all grown strong spines. Nevermind, we hardly ever follow the recipe in any case. I decided on Greek dolmades with a herby, rice filling, as I was in a dill-is-my-catnip phase.
After boiling the leaves in salt water with a splash of lemon, I placed half in a glass jar and stored it in the fridge*. Next year I shall brine several jars in spring, before the leaves grow built-in toothpicks.
The rice filling is fast and simple to make. I used Basmati rice because it’s my go-to white rice. Rice, olive oil, onion, lemon juice, dill and parsley. Clean, lovely flavours. I lined a deep pan with some of the tattier leaves, and started rolling. Now. This is where being Greek would come in handy.
It takes a lot of leaf to roll one tablespoon of rice into a chaste bundle. But after a few botched attempts, I managed to churn out some decent dolmades impersonators. Plus, they tasted better than anything I’ve had in local Greek restaurants, and much much better than anything you can find at a supermarket.
The rolled leaves are drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, covered in water and cooked over medium heat for about 40 minutes. The trick is to cover them with a plate so they don’t go floating about. An hour of simmering softened the leaves nicely but they were still strong enough to hold their shape as the rice expanded during cooking.
In our culture, vine leaves are not readily seen as food. So it felt good to make something so delicious from a resource that is generally overlooked. With nose-to-tail being all the rage, I’m doing root-to-shoot with the vine.
Because, really, what would life be without this generous plant?
*After two months in the fridge, I used the remainder of the leaves and to be honest, I prefer the freshly brined ones. Unsurprisingly, fresher is better.
The My Greek Dish recipe lends itself well to improvisation, in terms of quantity and flavour.
September 23rd, 2014 § § permalink
Yes, hello darlings! I am back in the shadow of old Table Mountain. We’ve been back for all of ten weeks now. I wish I could regale you with glamorous tales of dipping into the culinary delights of Cape Town, or basking in it’s low-slung wintry sunsets on an expensive lounger taking selfies of my sunglassed self chugging MCC.
But alas, the Vixen is now a mother and a partner and life is a Clockword Orange of trying to make ends meet. Nappy ends. Dog leash and stroller straps. Baby meals and señor-friendly suppers. Is it just me or do other mothers of really active toddlers also habitually find themselves leaving the house with their belt ends hanging loose, like some limp invitation to a deadbeat disco?
I’ve made no secret of the fact that my food mojo all but deserted me during my years in Spain. Yes, THAT Spain. Land of tapas and Adria-inspired sorcery – the country that gave France the gastronomical uppercut and now flaunts the heavyweight title on the best of the best lists. How did I manage this, one might ask. Was I just a homesick African, and in particular a dwarstrekkerige Afrikaner, who did not want to succumb to the allure of The Other? Well, yes. And no.
I realised a lot of things these past three years. Too many for this blogpost. And much of it didn’t come easy. Like that I come from a culture draped in a luxury that takes too much and gives too little. And I´m not talking about South African politics. Although I could. I’m talking about the cow. And the pig. And especially the potato. The noble tomato deserves its own post.
I’m not proud to say I was often critical of Spanish culture because it seemed too simple, too locked in tradition and peaseant-like. Coming from a new world country where strains of European culture straddled ethnic traditions to create, with all this glorious sun-drenched land bursting with undepleted earth, a flashy frenzy where only the choicest bits are deemed edible. Waste, for we want not. A bit like America-lite, and I thank God for that. That we are the lite version, if nothing else.
I missed the designer packaging and bespoke modern-madame product development of Woolies terribly. Not to mention the shelves lined with fresh herbs (which I missed more than anything, herbs, precious herbs) all year round. BASIL, ALL YEAR ROUND! My kitchen Id shriveled to the size of a peanut. I was lost in a sea of stews seasoned with bay leaves, sloppy one-pot dinners and shit-you-can-put-in-a-wrap. The latter, sadly, was the long-suffering señor’s favourite. (I’m not saying he lied to TASTE magazine about the Bolognese but he is very partial to a Mexican wrap thing.)
Now that I mention the señor, let’s just clarify. I cook at home. He is a work machine who is grateful for anything softer than a countertop to chew on when he comes home. Given their aversion to butter, Spaniards are quite happy to eat dry bread. But I don’t want to push it too far.
Inter-cultural culinary conundrums aside, I realise that having a baby (without the benefit of domestic help, or an ersatz mother, as is the case in SA) will grind many a bonny home cook to ashes in the first few years. South Africans so love to romanticize Euro-living but in reality, my time in Spain was more jabon jabon (soap) than jamon jamon…
Lesser spotted African dust devil
Just the other night I grafted some apples into the DNA of a stainless steel pot, plus had to abandon a bowl of grated potato to wrangle our lovebubble into his pajamas, only to return to a puddle of fashionably grey goop (now I know where Gwynneth got her blog name! Can I say ‘goop’, Gwynneth? Here, on my blog?) and although I have no Voortrekker blood (rough and ready overlanders who could teach the Scottish something about shafting the Queen), I bloody well fried those goop cakes just to see if temperature would redeem them to their previous state of potatoness. It didn’t.
Well anyway, where was I? AHA! Here in the Cape, where I want to be. And what a wondeful thing that is. So what now? I still have a very busy two year old and cooking a decent supper seems nigh impossible. But I do, finally, have a little garden and soon, I hope, a braai. And I think being here in Africa where open fires are not yet outlawed, I am going to go back to basics. Come summer, (which is pretty much like winter only with less rain and short sleeves YAAAY) I’m going to set up outdoors and grill away. I’m sure my son would love it. And I feel the need to start over. Small and raw. With the best this land has to offer. Real meat paired with crisp salad and sun-ripened veg*. With not too much fuss. The biggest thing the señor has taught me is respect for the product. And to always put a damp cloth under the chopping board.
So this is just a short yet rambling hola! to say we are here. The new wave Cape Spanish have landed. It’s a non-colonialism armed with soft roasted padron peppers, sharp cheese and ugly tomatoes that taste divine. I do hope we are here to stay. Our son’s first African word was ‘maroela’ (long story involving theft from CT International) and he yells PUSH without the H, so all’s good, on track – en lekker in die Kaap!
*No matter how many times you read this post backward, no subliminal banting recipes will be imparted.
November 21st, 2013 § § permalink
In which I pitted myself against a small yet obstinately hot oven, a bag of moist flour and a baking culture that harbours deep suspicions of butter. The challenge was twofold. Deliver a plain biscocho (vanilla sponge) to my son’s play school for his first birthday. And bake something a bit more extravagant to enjoy with friends later. I am not a baker. But when your baby turns one, you slap that apron on and go cruising the internet for a suitably simple recipe.
Birthday boy Ben
Forgive me for saying this but Spain’s baking culture is so dour and devoid of, well, BUTTER – that emissary of melt-in-the-mouth morishness – not to mention icing or ganache, without which no pious sponge can ever be pimped into a thing of wonder. So with two cakes to deliver in one day (never before, I tell you) my last flash of equilibrium entailed opting for a box of cake mix for the vanilla sponge. Thinking being: they’re one year old, most of it will end up on the floor, plus why waste precious time on something which is dull by definition. No. Instead I would lavish all my attention on the masterpiece for home consumption.
My first easy-peasy box of cake mix exited the oven in an angry hard lump with an unattractive bulging centre and what can only be described as cake acne. I deduced from the drawings on the box that the oven had been too hot. No problem, I bought another. This was a small distraction from the major crisis I was entering into regarding the showstopper I had to produce.
A lethal weapon at 20 paces
The week prior to Ben’s birthday I was so excited. So full of love for this little being. I needed to express it. And through some mysterious internal process the medium was to be cake. I became possessed and as the day drew closer, terribly anxious. I decided on red velvet cupcakes. A veritable sensory sucker punch. Cupcakes are only now becoming fashionable in Spain and surely Getaria had yet to taste its first. But when you live in Vanillaspongeville, decent red food colouring is impossible to find.
Martha Stewart came to the rescue via her website. Strawberry cupcakes with buttercream icing. Easy (Martha’s claim) and with enough fresh fruit to charm parents weary of nasty additives. You know how they say the first rule is read the entire recipe? Before you start? You should. And of course I didn’t. Because I never do. Which, in a nutshell, is why I suck at baking. I read the cupcake recipe which seemed easy enough but not the buttercream icing recipe. Who could anticipate that a buttercream icing would require a thermometer? And sugar heated to exactly 160 degrees. Clearly Martha and I have different definitions of ‘easy’.
I realised, as I buttered the cupcake pans, that my anxiety levels were completely out of whack. It was not about the cake. Despite being so excited about celebrating Ben’s first year with us, on the actual day, I was a sobbing mess. I missed my departed parents terribly. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of providing a wonderful life for this little man. Out of my comfort zone in a place where you can’t order a fun birthday cake or even a box of pretty cupcakes. I had managed to successfully infuse the baking of a cake with an entire existential crisis. Let it not be said that I do not, at times, overachieve.
I wish my parents could have met their grandson. Pictured here on their wedding day.
I took Martha´s hand and braved forth. The cupcake batter was delicious. Raw. Winning, I thought, feeling bolstered. The old gung-ho kitchen vixen reemerged. A batch of 12 cupcakes went in. There was a whole lot of batter left…just…in…case. And then it happened again. I took twelve rather pale (didn’t want hard edges again) cupcakes from the oven to find that some were still raw in the centre. All that strawberry pulp. Bugger. I quickly filled another cupcake tray and a small heart-shaped mould. Cranked the heat up just a little and got going with the buttercream frosting.
Heart-soaringly delicious batter
Which is when I read the recipe and realised I was just plain fucked. With no thermometer and no clue as to how sugar performed at 160 degrees, I cursed Martha and decided to blunder forth because this was the Titanic of baking and I was going down with it. With the feverish gleam of a gambler on his last chip, I separated four eggs and heated the whites with some sugar in a too small bowl, plonked in a pot of simmering water. Sure enough, the sugar melted. I whisked away, wondering what 160 degrees of molten sugar and egg white was supposed to look like. The odds were against me miraculously gauging the temperature but a giddy optimism took hold and I whisked and whisked until it became gluey, like taffy. This must be it, I thought, because what else could happen? A quick tally of all the wasted eggs, butter and batter that I had manifested in the past 24 hours brought a calm resignation. I had nothing left to lose. One egg, basically, I cackled.
Note crappy utensil
I thought of my mom whom I was missing so much. She was a wonderful cook and a reluctant baker. I couldn’t think of a single cake that defined the birthdays of my youth. Except, when I was about six years old, I was smitten with Moirs strawberry cake mix and insisted on having it a few years running. Then it struck that I was also making strawberry cake. Albeit the made-from-scratch version. So was all this about me trying to replicate my happy place? In my efforts to create a happy place for my son. And stressing myself silly in the process. But let’s stay with the buttercream. I was in the zone, beating the temperature-unknown sugary egg mix. Five minutes to stiff peaks, Martha said. The clear goo went a silky white and hope once again stirred in my breast. Could I still wing it? A quick peek in the oven revealed the cakes were coming along nicely. Rising evenly with edges not too brown.
It's no yolk
By God these eggs shall peak, I cried, if only by sheer force of will. And prayer and a fair bit of cussing. I prefer a multi-fangled approach. They thickened and clung coquettishly to the whisk but nothing peaked. Fine. I added the butter, whisked, tasted. A sugary mucus with globules of cow fat. Not to worry. A brisk whisk and two cups of fresh strawberry pulp later and I could almost see where Martha was going with this.
I was determined to see this fiasco through and started doing what all party planners do when they realise they’re bombing. I listened to 80s hits. I was dancing on the ceiling as the slack strawberry buttercream went into the fridge and the cake emerged from the oven. At Ben’s play school the teacher mentioned the weird lemony flavour of the biscocho but I shrugged it off with “it’s from a packet”. We had lunch with his lovely Spanish grandparents, filled the kitchen with balloons and Maya the Bee birthday paraphernalia (yet another of my childhood favourites) and just before the mini guests arrived, I took the buttercream from the fridge. Well, what do you know. The top few inches had set to a spreadable substance not unlike the topping on Martha’s cupcakes. I covered the heart – which ironically had survived the creation process in best shape – and the seven cupcakes I estimated were least likely to be raw in the centre with buttercream, perched a fresh strawberry on each and all of a sudden it looked just as it should. A nice kiddies party!
By the skin of my teeth
I had pulled it off, just like my mom had done for me. My son was so blown away by the people, balloons and gifts, the cake was of zero importance. But somehow, of everything, it had become the benchmark of my maternal fitness in this whole exercise. A rather dumb benchmark if you’re not a baker to begin with.
Lovely people. The key ingredient
But I did learn a few things. Spanish flour (the plain kind) is too heavy for baked goods. Especially if the bag is left unsealed for two months. We live in a very humid place. In future I shall only bake with fresh cake flour. Am I blaming the flour? Well, yes. Mostly. Also the oven. And my fundamental inability to acknowledge and follow rules. And maybe also to focus on what Ben really wants rather than rehash my own childhood for sentimental reasons. But in all fairness, he is one year old. Maya, Willie and strawberry cupcakes are just fine. Soon it will be his call. And I will do my best to bake it or fake it. With a light and airy heart, even if the crumb isn’t.
Birthdays are cool, mama
October 18th, 2013 § § permalink
We came for lunch and decided to stay. I’d never heard of Getaria before nor could I remember the name until well past dessert. We’d been house hunting for several months in towns surrounding San Sebastian but nothing clicked. Row upon row of new and uninhabited apartment blocks in Orio gave me the creeps, Fuenterrabía was posh and out of the way, Zarautz homeowners sniffed and looked the other way at the mention of our dog, Astigarraga didn’t seem to have anything particularly for or against it, so when we finally sat down at Txoko restaurant in Getaria for beautifully grilled fish, in the shadow of an imposing Gothic cathedral and with a spectacular view of the quaint harbour, I turned to the señor and said ‘Why not here?’
When a week later I learnt that Getaria was number 41 on the New York Times list of 46 places to go in 2013, well, a rather extended visit seemed like a fine idea. Six months down the line, I feel blessed to be in this particular spot on earth and at the same time, am a little perplexed that it made the list. Not that it isn’t everything the New York Times said it would be. A gorgeous, centuries-old fishing village (of which there are many along the Basque coast) that serves excellent grilled fish (true, all restaurants have outdoor grills by special government concession) with ancient winding cobbled streets (standard stuff in Europe if you weren’t on a WW2 flight path) and despite its size (current population 2500) home to two famous sons: navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano, who was the first to circumnavigate the globe in the early 16th century, as well as 20th century haute couturist Cristóbal Balenciaga. Getaria has honoured its famous fashionista with a massive mirrored museum that clings to the hillside above the old town like a shiny armadillo. And, according to the New York Times, it is the museum that, since its opening in 2011, has drawn a more ‘sophisticated design set’ to Getaria. Of course, well-heeled French have long been trotting over the border for a good plate of food at better prices than their own restaurants can provide.
View from el Raton
I have my own idea of why Getaria has become such a hotspot. It includes the spectacular coastal drive, vine covered hilltops, ancient old city, beautiful harbour, historical statues and hi-tech museum, beaches and great fish, but more than that, Getaria offers all of this in a contained, easy to consume package. You can step off the bus, ride the escalator up to the Balenciaga museum, stroll down the cobbled main road, pass underneath the 12th century Gothic cathedral and step out into the sunshine on a high wall dotted with restaurants that overlook the harbour, hugged by the mouse-shaped el Raton mountain on the left and a sickle of beach to the right. It can all be consumed, including your three-course lunch with copious glasses of Txakoli, with enough time to spare for a siesta.
Sight-seeing is hard work. Rome in two days, London in five, half a country in a week. How exhausting. And the success of a trip is too often determined by how many of the must-see boxes are ticked. Even our downtime is infused with competitive objectives. If Paris is a sumptuous banquet and New York a multi-cultural buffet, then Getaria is one perfect little bite. A delicious and comforting morsel that pauses and replenishes. After just a few hours, visitors leave satisfied that they have ‘done Getaria’. And that imparts a nice sense of accomplishment in a world so vast and multi-thinged that many of us sometimes feel somewhat sidelined.
On top of el Raton
We moved here when our son was six months old. To an apartment on the fourth floor of a casa in the old part of town. None of the old houses have elevators. Add a border collie with a dodgy bladder to the mix and suffice to say I found myself in a picturesque corner of hell. A pueblito also has less to offer in terms of amenities, shopping and wifi coverage. At times it felt as if I had stepped back in time to about 1948 without being in the mood for it. In short, I needed help. Which is how the beauty of Getaria unfolded. A fiesty little woman called Ana* helped us get settled in. A week later when our hound was at death’s door and the señor was stuck at work, her husband took Milly to a vet in the neighbouring town. Perfect strangers introduced themselves in the street, enquired how we were and insisted that I call whenever help was needed. I have never known such kindness. Soon everyone knew the South African with the friendly child and the gorgeous, goofy dog.
Winter dragged on forever. Dios mio. It was the worst winter the Basque country had seen in over 200 years. I walked the misty cobbled streets for hours while my baby slept snugly in his waterproof buggy. I once took shelter in a bar, glass of beer in hand, when the lights went out. What’s going on, I asked. A villager had died and as the procession moved through town towards the cathedral, lights were switched off in commiseration. People here grow very old. To reach 85 years of age is not unusual. Getaria nestles against a mountain. If you step out of your front door you are either going uphill, or down. It’s a workout any which way. Older gentleman take to scooters to zip around town but the ladies carry on walking. In many cases, people are born and die in the same house. Married to a childhood sweetheart. It is all so terribly not modern. Yet it is holding true for many of the younger generation.
If these walls could talk, I often think as I pass sandstone structures many hundreds of years old. A town this small must have its feuds, lingering resentments of old lovers’ quarrels, soured business partnerships and rotten eggs. If there is talk it would surely happen in Euskera (or Basque, as the ancient language is known in English) and never to an outsider. Children live close to their parents who care for the grandchildren while the kids get on with work. This sense of continuity provides a security that serves all generations. There are very wealthy people in this town but nothing is ever on display. The wife of the most successful restauranteer can be seen sweeping the forecourt of their restaurant in her sweats early in the morning. A wealthy retired businessman enjoys a pintxo with an old fisherman. Could it be that such a solid, rooted foundation negates the manic quest for materialist trappings?
Kids being kids
The Basque country is a wonderful pastiche of hi-tech and ancient. Details change to embrace progress but the underlying structure is, literally, cast in stone. Toddlers learn to walk on the same cobbled streets as did their great-grandparents. Grow up observing the workings of the harbour from the same window. Perhaps, unbeknown, experience the thrilling terror of a first kiss not far from where their parents shared a similar moment. This overlapping of lifelines may seem cloying to some but from what I’ve seen, it makes for a refreshing absence of existential angst.
So much of the fatalism, paranoia and anxiety of the modern world just does not arrive here. It’s hard not to live in fear of disaster given the sometimes horrific ways of the world, not to mention Hollywood’s obsession with annihilation. How often does New York not suffer celluloid destruction by aliens, cataclysmic disaster or some foul regime with too much firepower. I’m not saying a tidal wave can’t hit the Bay of Biscay. I’m probably just the only person who has ever considered it.
Getaria is growing into me, changing my patterns. Even in this quiet place with no real work to speak of, I hurry and stress too much. Pull and poke at the fabric of my life unnecessarily. I cloud my horizon with shadows from the past. Tranquila. We will help you, they say, as they laugh the rain away. There is music in the streets. Be it sardine season, a birthday, or just a jolly lone accordionist who drinks and jams his way through town, hitting keys above his head like a rock star.
Milly the muse (pictured here with a more sedate musician)
I don’t know how much time Sarah Wildman of the New York Times spent in Getaria. Whether she got to see past the museum and the pretty harbour. Not that it matters. Whatever their reasons, they chose well. They chose a mensch.
*Her real name. Recently she came to our rescue again by finding a wonderful casa for us. With spectacular views of the bay and only seven stairs. Life is good. If it carries on like this I may feel moved to pen a European romcom in the vein of Under A Tuscan Sun. The working title could be Under A Basque Cloud.
Sunrise from our new casa
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August 29th, 2012 § § permalink
I never wanted advertisers on my blog. Not because of lofty journalistic principles or concerns about credibility. It’s just all those colours and fonts. Things get so busy busy busy. I just didn’t feel like it. Plus little windows popping up where you don’t need them. And it smells of added admin. But then Frank emailed me. And for a split-second, well, I thought, just maybe it could work. Then again, maybe not:
My blog is about food writing from a very personal perspective. I wouldn’t know what to say about the online bingo industry, except maybe to take the piss. The few readers that I have (I’m pregnant and more interested in grazing indiscriminately than blogging) also won’t buy a thinly veiled attempt at punting online bingo. I may lose the shred of credibility and 3.7 readers I have left. Unless I actually try it, love it, and ideally could win some money. Then we’re in business! Other than that my blog may not be the ideal advertising platform for you. But please do send me a link to give the bingo thing a bash. Who knows. I convert easily. Especially when there’s yelling involved!
Thank you kindly for your interest.
On Wed, 29 Aug 2012 16:53:52 +0100, email@example.com> wrote:
Thank you for getting back to me.
After reviewing your website, we think that a new blog post would be the
best and least intrusive option for you. You are free to come up with the
content of the article or blog post, but we do ask that it is in some way
relevant to our client in the online bingo industry and is composed of
roughly 300 words.
We’ll pay $ 120 as an annual upfront payment and we will endeavour to make
sure that you are paid within two working days, using PayPal or
Please let me know if you’re interested, so I can have your site assessed
by our Technical team. I can then send the advert details and client
Alternatively, if you have any more questions about this advert type, then
please do let me know.
Hey Frank, will this do? It’s 390 words and technically 169 of them are yours but it’s related to bingo. Do we have a deal?
June 14th, 2012 § § permalink
Spain is revered as the home of modernist gastronomy, having liberated fine dining from the clingy hold of French butter and cream with sultry oils and a fearless approach to technique. The thing about Spain is, they cook. Every city block has at least three restaurants, often feet apart. For every aspiring elBulli or Cellar de Can Roca out there, there are at least 1000 greasy tapas bars. You have to be selective. If, like me, you like fresh food or an element of freshness in your food, consider yourself slightly screwed. Oil and salt are constants in this flavour landscape. But let’s look at the good stuff, shall we?
From absolutely bloody brilliant to better than average
Tickets Bar: Ferran and Albert Adria’s brilliant take on tapas. I’ve tried other gastro tapas bars and nothing comes close to this. The Adria’s might be slumming it compared to the gravitas of elBulli but Tickets, for all it’s playfulness, serves little morsels of genius. The best tapas in the world. Reservations via their website only and they’re booked out three months in advance. Read my review of Tickets and 41 Degrees here. If you are intrigued by elBulli, do go to the elBulli exhibition at Palau Robert on paseo de Gracia.
41 Degrees: The disco sister of Tickets, also owned by the Adria brothers. Recently blinged-out with an installation of 20 000 crystals that manipulate light and sound, 41 Degrees is hailed as the ‘baby elBulli’. It’s a 16 seater that serves a mind-fluffing 41-course menu. The same tricky online reservation system applies. I’m going end of July and can’t wait to experience the sparkly new 41 Degrees. Watch this space.
Dos Pallilos: A sensual synergy of food savvy. Exquisite Japanese food served tapas-style. After 11 years as elBulli’s headchef Albert Raurich – inspired by his Japanese wife – opened this übercool eatery next to the trendy Camper Hotel in the Ramblas. Good luck getting a table at short notice. Read my review here.
Gresca: Creative, contemporary fine dining in an informal, chic space.One of the really good restaurants where you might get a table at short notice. Details here.
Alkimia: Modernist gastronomy with strong Catalan roots. Set menus offer a well curated overview of the best this area has to offer. Reserve online.
Dos Cielos: Comes highly recommended. The website gives a clear idea of what to expect and how to get a reservation for this sensory joy ride, engineered by handsome twin brothers Sergio and Javier Torres. I might have to go soon.
Rias de Galicia: For the best seafood in town. Enough said.
Of course, the most sought-after table to be had in all of Spain would be Celler de Can Roca. Rated second in the world after Rene Redzepi’s Noma and just an hour’s drive from Barcelona in Girona, this would be well worth the effort if you’re serious about sampling the best.
La Boqueria: Barcelona and probably the world’s best fresh produce market. On las Ramblas, the city’s main tourist drag, the market offers freshly pressed juices popping with colour and flavour. Choose from guava and coconut, kiwi and pineapple – the list is near endless. I start every market visit with a different flavour. Buy fresh produce or wait your turn for a seat at one of the popular tapas bars in the market. Or just eat with your eyes. It’s a visual orgasm.
Las Ramblas has tourist trap written all over it but you have to see it. Eating there is perhaps not such a great idea. Except for Bar Lobo. As you wander down Las Ramblas, turn right on Pintor Fortuny and first left onto a charming square. Surprisingly authentic and accessible considering the location. A clever menu that offers tapas but also heartier meals, catering to a global palate whilst retaining some Spanish flavour. Good value for money and no reservation required. With a bit of luck and patience, I’ve always managed an outdoor table after a few minutes’ wait.
El Born is a great barrio to stroll through. Ancient, bohemian, bustling. Get lost in the narrow lanes but keep an eye open for Cal Pep on Placa de les Olles. Tiny tapas bar, always jam-packed with desperadoes queuing at the door.
Everyone will confirm that Spain’s North is the holy food grail. Specifically San Sebastian. Famous for having more Michelin stars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world, and for pintxos. Basically tapas of the North. Generally served on a slice of baguette, impaled with a toothpick. If you’re not going North and want to experience pintxos, el Born is also home to Sagardi Euskal Taberna at Carrer de l’Argenteria, 62. Grab a plate, pile it high and hang on to those toothpicks. That’s how they keep track of how much you’ve eaten…
Sick of tapas and fancy a hamburger the size of a toddler’s head, made American style – because burgers here are often served without a roll, lettuce and tomato – with everything? Pim Pam burger on carrer del Sabaret is considered the best in town. Sadly I can’t say the same for their hot dogs.
If you think the Spanish like chili, think again. They managed to colonize most of South and central America for centuries without succumbing to the charms of this hot little fruit. In search of a fix, I suffered some bad Mexican until I found Tlaxcal, also in el Born at 27 Calle Comerc. Classic Mexican, cleanly presented. Best nachos ever and do try the taco soup.
Barcelona has a lot of beach and many beach bars. The best paella is to be had at El Xiringuito de Escriba, by the famous Escriba family. The paella from the sea and the mountain (rabbit and seafood) is the best. Check out the fabulous Escriba website for info on Xiringuito as well as their two pastry shops. A must if you love confectionery. Candy rings, fantastical chocolate sculptures and some of the best pastry Spain has to offer. There’s a small Escriba pastry shop a few meters down from la Boqueria. Enjoy…
Barceloneta is riddled with groovy beach bars. If the food isn’t that great at most of them, the cocktails, views and people-watching will more than make up for it. Lying on the beach, you can’t miss Hotel Bella to your right, which looks like it’s about to strut into the sea. Also home to Michelin-star chef Carles Abellan’s Bravo 24 terrace restaurant. Much of what we ate here arrived with smoky grill flavours. I absolutely loved the lettuce, drizzled with chicken stock and cooked on the grill. A suave elevated seaside option with spectacular Mediterranean views. Abellan also owns Tapas 24 in the city center, close to paseo de Gracia. The poor man’s Tickets and a great place to get to grips with tapas without burning up your pocket.
‘What do Spanish people REALLY eat, besides bread and tapas, what is real Catalan food?’ That was the question after my first few months here. Fancy restaurants are great but with all that reinvention you need a set of tweezers to separate the traditional from the showstopper. I’d say the jury is still out on that one. But I do like Casa Paloma for several reasons. The interior is an unfussy blend of old world and contemporary sophistication. Much like the menu. Good Catalan food for discerning locals. Their daily specials offer comfort classics. And brace yourself, the steaks can be overwhelming in size.
Fancy a Catalan barbeque? Head for the hills and get your hands dirty at Casa Juaco, a truly rustic Catalan grill restaurant. One of my very best food experiences here. You’re given large plastic gloves (thin versions of the type normally used for cow insemination…) and a bib because it gets messy. Old terracotta roof tiles are plonked down, piled high with leeks charred over an open grill. It’s dirty work releasing the sweet center but very rewarding. This was my favourite part of the meal. Tiles of charred seasonal veg with aioli and romesco dipping sauces. Jugs of sangria and beer served in spouted glass vessels encourage communal drinking. Followed by a main of grilled meat (sausage and chops) and traditional creme Catalan for dessert. Go for the view, the vibe and the charred vegetables. Totally off the beaten track, it doesn’t get more traditional than this.
Rambla de la Catalunya is a great street to stroll down. Parallel to paseo de Gracia (Barcelona’s highest of high streets) but with less traffic and more trees, ambient cafes and interesting little shops. Close to the corner of Rambla de la Catalunya and Majorca you’ll find Cerveceria, an above average tapas bar. Also home to the best hot dogs I’ve had here, albeit in tapas form so you have to order about 8 portions to get your footlong in… whatever it takes, right?
Hotel Ohla offers a 1 star Michelin restaurant, gastro tapas bar, chic cocktail bar and roof terrace. Impressive tapas of the not-so-pedestrian kind on the edge of the Old City.
All Italian food is comfort food to me. And sometimes when you travel you just want a big bowl of pasta or a pizza that doesn’t talk back when you chew on it. Considering our proximity to Italy, this city is not inundated with great Italian fare. The only one that’s given me joy is La Bella Napoli. Try the pasta in a parmesan basket.
Spain doesn’t have much of a breakfast culture. Generally a baguette with cheese or ham and a coffee will do. It took five months to find eggs Benedict in this town but I did. At a charming French bistro Cafe Emma at 142 Paul Claris in the city center. Good value for money lunch and dinner set menus make it a popular choice, which is why the service is somewhat disappointing. Open all day, every day.
I’m in my fifth month in Barcelona and there is still so much to discover. Areas like el Born and Gracia are riddled with little neighbourhood bars and restaurants and my advice would be, if the locals are having a good time, give it a bash. Vegetarians tend to have a hard time here in the heart of ham country but this link might provide some relief. For the rest, bear these pointers in mind when choosing an eatery.
1. Don’t eat anywhere with picture boards. Especially if the photos are sun-faded to a generic pulp. Because the food very well may be too.
2. Eat at tapas bars owned by Spanish folk. By the same token, Chinese restaurants should be owned by Chinese. You follow.
3. This one is global. The Michelin Guide said it best on Twitter “Why is it that the dining rooms with the best views serve food that rarely matches the optics? Location, location, frustration.” Couldn’t agree more. Am actually starting to think tourism is detrimental to food quality. So if your feet can carry you further, don’t eat right next to that atmospheric Gothic cathedral.
4. Aaah… la vida tapas! The world has truly gone tapas berserk. Like repeating your own name fast, I hardly know what it means anymore. Here, portions can be ample so eating tapas on your own doesn’t really work. You’ll end up eating a hell of a lot of one thing. A few roasted padron peppers are nice but you don’t want three fists full. Most dishes are either deep-fried or perched in a puddle of oil. Order in waves to avoid bombing yourself with too much of the same thing. When tapas is good, it’s wonderful. Back in the seventies in the Eastern Cape, my mom used to call it pick-n-mix. The best way to eat.
5. Plato del dia or meal of the day, available from most restaurants at lunchtime. Generally a 3-course meal with a drink or coffee included for around 12 Euros. Great value but don’t expect to be blown away. It’s simply a feeding so you can carry on with the business of having a good time.
6. “Hablas Ingles?” Shocker. In a city riddled with tourists, you’re lucky to encounter a poco English from the hosts. Without Google translate I might have starved in my first months or suffered death-by-tortilla (though, when in doubt a slab of potato omelet is a good filler). The bitch about Barcelona is it has two languages. Spanish (Castillano) and Catalan. Restaurants in touristy areas usually have an English menu but not always. Ask for carta Ingles. I’ve had to rely on my cellphone a lot and it helps if you know whether you’re dealing with Spanish or Catalan. Look for the word ‘with’. Can’t write a menu without it. In Spanish it’s ‘con’ and in Catalan ‘amb’… so, now you know what language you’re dealing with, order forth! And let me know if you find the good stuff.
This post may be subjected to updates and revisions. Follow me @kitchenvixenish on Twitter for bite-by-bite updates.
And on a non-food note, don’t forget to always look up at all the gorgeous buildings. There’s much more to Barcelona than Gaudi… although he is the most crazy beautiful of the lot.