Spain & Portugal

COSTA BRAVA REDUX
[originally published in FT Weekend]

boats on the beach at Calella, near Palafrugell

Mention the Costa Brava today and most people run shrieking for the nearest exit, haunted by visions of Sixties-built high-rise hotels, wall-to-wall traffic, pubs, discos, fish and chips and Full English Breakfasts. In 2008 the famous coast celebrated its centenary. The Catalan poet Ferrán Agulló sat musing by the Sant Elm hermitage above his native San Feliu de Guixols and was so moved by the rugged pine-clad cliffs plunging to deserted sandy coves and turquoise waters that he dreamed up the name Costa Brava.

One hundred years on, it can be a bit of a challenge to even imagine what it was about this famous area that so bewitched people in the first place. But of late I’ve learnt that this beautiful, once wild stretch of coastline which runs from Portbou on the French border in the north down to Blanes (short of Barcelona) in the south is worth [re]discovering.

I admit I’m having a bit of a battle with myself. On the one hand, in the interests of all those who know and understand the Costa Brava, I should lie doggo here, buttoning my lip about its delicious coves and corners, its singular small hotels, quirky restaurants and distinctive wines. On the other hand, it was such a revelation to me to discover that the Costa Brava is not all tat and tattoos that I can’t really help blurting it out.

If you do decide to give the Costa Brava a break, remember just two things: first, go out of season (in the autumn the crowds have gone, the light is soft and the ocean still warm; in June the beaches look freshly laundered and the crowds haven’t yet descended). Secondly, concentrate on the northern end. The bravest and best bits are to be found roughly between Cap de Creus down to Palamós. Stray south of Palamós at your peril.

There are a handful of good places to stay at (or close to) the beach. The elusive Hostal Sa Rascassa, hidden away beyond Begur in a tiny rocky cove favoured by divers, with 5 simple rooms open only from 1st March till 31st October, is studiedly simple and blissfully quiet – the blurb boasts that the closest discotheque is 3 km away and none of the rooms have phones. Call ahead for directions: it’s not easy to find, but well worth persevering.

The Hotel Llevant in Llafranc (26 rooms, family-owned since 1935, member of Gourmet Hotel group) is another candidate, as is El Convent, an upmarket ex-convent with secluded garden near the appealing Sa Riera beach.

The Hostal Empúries just outside L’Escala is a long, low, white seaside house built in the 1920s, with front-row-of-the-stalls views out onto what feels like a private beach and, right next door, the glorious Greek and Roman site of Empúries – itself well worth a visit. Expect amazing sunrises smack outside your window, generous DIY breakfasts with huge fruit platters, Nespresso coffee and bite-sized croissants, original tiled floors, jute rugs, huge white sofas, sepia photos of the hotel during the 1920s and wifi or house laptop to check e-mails. Crisp, stylish food in restaurant looking out over the bay with great, sexy music.

And not far from Girona in the small village of Terradelles is Mas Alba, a great little Casa de Pagès (aka agriturismo) owned and run by the Huguet family. A warm welcome, great breakfasts, and dinner on demand from Assen and Anna plus prize-winning goat’s cheeses from Martí, made in the dairy next door.

A couple of final footnotes to Costa Brava travel. Beware the region’s infamous north wind, the tramuntana, that blows down from the Pyrenees whipping up wild white horses in the bays, imprisoning the fishermen in the bars and flattening gnarled old vines (and unsuspecting old ladies) in its wake. Sitting in a café on the waterfront when the tramuntana blows has been likened to being shut inside a very noisy, very cold tumble dryer. If it should blow while you’re there, no matter: take good stocks of reading matter (Homage to Catalonia, Winter in Madrid), hunker down and listen to it raging outside from the safety and comfort of your little hotel.

A second footnote is the fabled frostiness of some of the locals. Put it down to world weariness in the face of forty years of thundering, tasteless hordes; or it could be a cultural thing – Catalans are by nature reserved. This is the Spain of stately sardanas danced in the round to the steady metre of reedy musical instruments, not the land of flamenco, foot-stamping, and passionate guitars. Persevere, in Spanish if you can, or better still in Catalan. You will be rewarded. Just don’t tell anyone about it.

The Costa Brava – then and now….

After its poetic conception and baptism by Ferran Agulló in 1908, the Costa Brava slumbered peacefully on into the 1930s. The fisherfolk of whitewashed, blue-shuttered fishing villages like Cadaqués were joined by a few curious souls like Dalí. Travel posters of the time targeted a wealthy, cultured, elegant and largely local clientele – the journey up the Costa Brava even from Barcelona was still quite an undertaking. They depicted the Empúries archaeological site or showed modestly clad androgynous people striking elegant poses in the shade, surveying the sweep of deserted beaches.

Later came artists – Chagall settled in Tossa in 1933, calling it his ‘azure paradise’. Clark Gable and Ava Gardner disported themselves on the beaches below the Hotel Gavina in S’Agaró under the bemused gaze of local people.

With the post-war boom and the advent of paid holidays came mass tourism. By the end of the Sixties the Costa Brava brand had become synonymous with a peculiarly tacky form of tourism, exported with dismal fidelity from points north (Britain, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia). Josep Pla, who wrote evocatively in the 1940s on his beloved coastline, its fishing people, its market traders, its coves and waters, concluded sadly in 1975 ‘we could, evidentment, have had just a bit more sense and good taste.’

More recently, a head of tourism for the comarca of Girona commented bitterly: ‘they [the tourists] go to a bullfight or a flamenco show just because it’s on the programme; they’re not the least bit interested in Spanish food, they buy revolting souvenirs; they have absolutely no interest in getting to know the country, nor its people; when the sun shines they head for the beach, and at night they go out to pick up (or get picked up) and to get pissed – and they do it all with their own compatriots.’

The last straw for those who love and appreciate the true beauty of the Costa Brava was the recent debacle involving a promotional campaign for the coast’s centenary. It transpired that the shots used by the Tourist Office to vaunt the Costa Brava’s famous beaches showed Bermuda sands, while the ‘Pyrenean’ pictures were traced to Canada. The ensuing uproar, many think, could finally force a re-evaluation of the genuine, home-grown charms of the celebrated coast, loved by Dalí, Buñuel, Chagall, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and many more.

…….

Wine growers in L’Empordà
Oliver Conti
Puignau, 17750 Capmany, Empordà
Tel. +34 972 193 161
oliverconti@oliverconti.com, www.oliverconti.com

Ground-breaking, 15ha estate planted from scratch in 1991 by brothers Xavier and Jordi Oliver Conti producing a white blend based on Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon, a red blend (Cabernets Sauvignon + Franc and Merlot) and a sweet white wine (Gewurztraminer). Unusual planting and training practices (trellising, high poles to maximise sunlight and minimise wild boar damage), fearsome pruning, low yields, long macerations at low temperatures all combine to give what Jordi Conti calls vinos de autor. Red wines spend about 4 months in a combination of new, 1- and 2-year-old barrels – ” we like our wines to taste of wine, not wood”. Visits by appointment.

Espelt Vinicultors SL
Mas Espelt, 17493 Vilajuiga
Tel. +34 972 531 727
info@espeltviticultors.com, www.cellerespelt.com

Large (200ha) estate founded only in 2000, which typifies the new Empordà-Costa Brava spirit. ‘We’re aiming for a balance between fashion and tradition’, claims dynamic Director Xavier Cepero. The fashion bit is catered for by a handful of white blends (Garnacha Blanca/Macabeo, Sauvignon Blanc/Muscat) and single varietals (Chardonnay) plus some lively reds (Syrah/Carinyena/Marselan, Garnacha tinta/Carinyena, Carinyena/Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha/Merlot). On the traditional front, they’ve kept a couple of rosés and some naturally sweet Muscat-based whites and intriguing blends of Garnacha Tinta and Rosada – wine types that formerly made up the bulk of the region’s output. Colourful, distinctive labels by artist Mariscal. Call ahead for a visit and tasting.

Castillo Perelada
Pl. del Carme 1, 17491 Peralada
Tel. +34 972 538 011
visitas@castilloperelada.com, www.castilloperelada.com

Large-scale winery housed in a stunning moated castle with adjoining cloisters, a huge library, wine museum and ancient Carmelite cellars where the top cavas are aged. The estate’s 150ha produces fine cava (the best a blend of Xarel-lo, Chardonnay and Parellada), an extensive range of decently made wines and a handful of prize-winning specialities, notably Ex Ex (= Experiencias Excepcionales) whose composition varies from year to year; and Gran Claustro, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Garnacha and Carinyena. Call ahead for an appointment, if possible with winemaker Delfí Sanahuja.

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LONG LUXURIOUS WEEKEND IN CORDOBA
[originally published in FT How To Spend It mag]


In an impatient, noisy world avid for sound bites and instant impact, Córdoba’s hushed, unhurried Andalucian voice has sometimes struggled to make itself heard. Regarded by the thundering hordes of tourists on Spain’s Moorish trail as just another box to tick somewhere between Seville and Granada, Córdoba seemed set to subside into dusty provincial oblivion, elbowed into third place in southern Spain’s cultural beauty pageant.

Change – along with seductive scents of orange blossom and jasmine from the city’s celebrated patios – is in the air, the scaffolding is coming down from countless restoration projects (though the elegant limestone Puente Romano seems to have been under semi-permanent reconstruction ever since the Romans first rolled it out across the Guadalquivir), the dust is being blown away.

The city’s communications have come on by leaps and bounds. The arrival of the AVE, Spain’s high-speed train, has put Córdoba within 1 hour 40 minutes of Madrid (with all tickets reimbursed if the train is more than 10 minutes late). This makes it harder than ever for Madrileños to defend their thesis that Africa begins in the Sierra Morena which rises to the north.  Autopistas carve their way from Seville and Málaga – currently Córdoba’s closest airports  – through a rolling landscape of olives, vines, wheat and maize shimmering under the Andalucian sun.

The hip Hospes Palacio del Bailío (lobby, right) is one good place to stay. The Spanish-based Hospes group’s flair for tracking down historic buildings, lavishing loads of money on sympathetic restoration and finishing them with the best in contemporary design is manifest in this exquisite 17th-century palace, its 53 rooms and suites clustered around a series of patios with plashing fountains.

The restaurant, whose glass floor affords floodlit glimpses of mosaics from the Roman villa excavated below, delivers intensely flavoured contemporary Andalucian cuisine (nuggets of tuna carpaccio with ‘inside-out’ tomatoes, fresh pasta sheets wound around langoustines with a sauce of ceps). Make the Palacio your base for some carefully dosed otium (by the pool, in the spa, on a courtyard sofa), interspersed with bursts of sightseeing activity.

Close by on Fernándo Colón, the colonial-style Casa de los Azulejos with eight rustico-chic rooms done up in brilliant Mexican hues (the owner lived in and loves Mexico) makes another appealing choice. The in-house restaurant tucked away in a cosy vaulted cellar with a separate entrance through from the lively, arcaded Plaza Corredera does real quesadillas, chilaquiles and enchiladas, not the usual expatriate travesty masquerading under the label of ‘Mexican food’.

A gentle wander south takes you through quiet streets of sparkling whitewashed town houses with ochre-framed windows, intricate wrought iron balconies and shaded, flower-filled patios from which float sounds of songbirds and wistfully plucked guitars. Here, in Córdoba’s medieval heart, are two further potential billets: the NH Hotel Amistad, whose unrivalled downtown location, rooftop pool and shaded patios more than make up for its 83 rather characterless rooms. Just around the corner on Romero is the tiny, lavishly decorated 9-room Hospedería del Churrasco, with two shady breakfast patios and its famous sibling restaurant next door.

Mark the Churrasco’s card for a return visit to sample their classic Córdoban cuisine: wedges of tortilla de patatas the size of a Christmas pudding, slim slippers of battered golden aubergine with a brilliant orange salmorejo (like gazpacho, but thickened with breadcrumbs), properly hung hunks of beef charcoal-grilled to order. The restaurant unfolds in layers like a Russian doll, one dining room leading to yet another little sanctuary, each one smaller and more delicious than the last.

A long weekend in Córdoba is the perfect span; the trick is to decide in which order to do everything. Ignore the temptation to go storming straight to the Mezquita, Córdoba’s fabled Great Mosque built between 785 and 987 with its forest of ornate columns and arches like a huge dappled grove of date palms. There’ll be time later to appraise the geometric detail of the red and white superimposed tiers of arches that burst exuberantly from improbably slender columns, the riotous blossoming of multi-lobed arches and domes, the sumptuously adorned mihrab or prayer niche, whose mosaics glint and sparkle in the half-light.

Keep all this for later; first you must get a feel for Córdoba’s bigger picture. For this, the Museo Arqueológico in a Renaissance town house on the Plaza de Jerónimo Paez, answers beautifully.  Whisk through Cordoba’s prehistoric and Iberian past and press through to the Roman rooms. Here, intricate mosaics in soft pinks, greys and blues, marble sarcophagi and elegant statuary (a graceful bronze hermaphrodite, all sinuous womanly curves from the back, all man from the front) testify to the sophistication of Corduba, pre-Christian capital of Hispania Ulterior and Roman Spain’s largest metropolis.

The visit climaxes in the upstairs rooms dedicated to al-Andalus, medieval Europe’s most dazzlingly sophisticated civilisation west of Constantinople, which centred successively on Córdoba, Seville and Granada. Besides delicate filigreed gold pendants, decorated caliphate pottery (green for the Prophet, white for the ruling dynasty, black for the caliphate) and finely sculpted wellheads, there’s a clear exposition of the out-of-town Madinat al-Zahra site, Caliph Abd al-Rahman III’s political and administrative capital, conceived in 936 and inhabited for a bare 75 years before the invading Berbers swept it all away in the dying days of the Cordoban caliphate. Prefer this cool and comfortable virtual visit to the hot, half-day trip out to the sunbaked site.

Other downtown sights – the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, by turns castle, fort and royal residence, with fine Roman mosaics and a sinister Inquisitorial chapel; a diminutive synagogue (one of only 3 medieval examples left in Spain, the other 2 in Toledo) – will clamour for your attention. But time is short and you’re wearying of the babel of tourists in funny hats. Instead, for an altogether classier experience, head up to the Palacio de Viana, Renaissance palace and erstwhile home of the eponymous Marquises. Sober, elegant and understated, with almost half its surface given over to 13 deliciously cool arched patios, the museum combines señorial grandeur (dazzling tapestries, paintings and furniture) with intimate glimpses into the everyday life of an aristocratic Cordoban family.

Eating out in Córdoba merits proper planning: the city has a reputation to defend as the best place to eat in Andalucía. For lunch – late and leisured – try Bodegas Campos on Lineros for classic Andalucian cuisine with modern flair (baroque-red, intensely flavoured gazpacho, succulent salads of langoustines with tiny diced pepper, rich game stews). T. Blair was here, along with most of the world’s notables and potentates, but don’t let that put you off, nor the fact that the restaurant seats 700 people. You’ll never rub shoulders with more than a manageable few fellow diners, scattered amongst countless deliciously cool dining rooms, spread throughout an astonishing rabbit warren of adjoining Cordoban town houses each with its own special charm and character.

In the evening, one option is a tapas crawl (or better still, raciones – same principle, but more grown-up portions) followed by flamenco. Start at one of the Plateros bars – there are several, all owned by the Silversmiths Guild – for top-notch flamenquines (chopped ham croquette-style, breaded and briskly fried), oxtail, salmorejo and the obligatory copa (or three) of Morilla Montiles – specify fino if you like the dry version of this local, sherry-like wine. Then move on to the tablao flamenco at Cardenal, beside the Mezquita. The show, staged on a precariously tiny dais before a small patio with chairs grouped informally around tables, is intimate, up-close and personal, all arched bodies, sculpted dresses, scarlet hats, smouldering looks, tumultuous dancing, urgent guitars, shotgun hand-clapping and foot-tapping punctuated by intermittent encouraging growls of ¡ele! and ¡ole! and rapturous applause from the audience.

For a long leisurely dinner where the food is the show, Choco is the place to go. In the unpromising Fuensanta neighbourhood, a short taxi ride from the centre, young chef Kisko García’s 7-course menú degustación is a showcase for modern Andalucian cooking. Just don’t count on the pan-fried scallops with an ethereal puff of truffle juice and an intensely reduced cep jus, or the slow-cooked suckling pig heavy with garlic and an orange sauce – Kisko, like most creative spirits, has a short attention span and moves onto new dishes with dizzying frequency and following the seasons.

Where shopping is concerned, the city’s medieval skill in both leatherwork (the ancient name ‘cordwainer’ (shoemaker) is rooted in Cordoban leather) and silversmithing lives on. Today’s leather goods – heavily tooled, embossed and painted – lack Italian flair and chic, but the jewellery more than holds its own. Try Vem Espaliu on Romero, Espaliu on Cardenal Gonzalez and La Carmen (Artesanía de Autor) on Portillo for delightfully quirky, one-off pieces combining silver with semi-precious stones. On the comestibles front, a superb take-home trophy would be a whole pata negra jamón from the nearby Valle de los Pedroches – Ibericum (down the street from Bodegas Campos) has them, plus extra-virgin olive oils.

A fitting end to the weekend, once you’ve mapped out the city, is to get on your bike (some hotels hire them out, or ask at the Tourist Office opposite the Mezquita). From the landmark Cristo de los Faroles just north of the Palacio del Bailío, work your way south through the old town, down past the Arco del Portillo, across the river on the Miraflores bridge and right along the river bank, now a nature reserve and bird sanctuary. From here you’ll get a valedictory view of the Roman bridge with its seven graceful arches and beyond it, the pinkish-gold mass of the medieval Mezquita, with the Baroque cathedral bursting crudely up through its roof – Córdoba’s rich Roman, Moorish and Christian history in one wide panoramic sweep.

HOTELS
Hospes Palacio del Bailío, Ramirez de las Casas Deza 10-12 (+34 957 498 993)
Hotel Casa de los Azulejos, Fernando Colón 5 (+34 957 470 000)
NH Amistad Córdoba, Plaza de Maimonides 3 (+34 957 420 335)
Hospedería del Churrasco, Romero 38 (+34 957 294 808)

RESTAURANTS, CAFES/BARS
Restaurante Churrasco, Romero 38 (+34 957 290819), open 7/7, public holidays excepted
Bodegas Campos, Los Lineros 32 (+34 957 497 500), closed Sun evening
Bar-Taberna Sociedad de Plateros, San Francisco 6 (+34 957 470 042), closed Sun
Restaurante Choco, Compositor Serrano Lucena 14 (+34 957 264 863), closed Sun, Mon

SIGHTS
Museo Arqueológico, Plaza de Jerónimo Paez 7 (+34 957 355 517), closed Mon, open Tues 2.30–8.30 pm, Wed-Sat 9 am–8.30 pm, Sun 9 am–2.30 pm, free to EU citizens
Mezquita de Córdoba, Calle Torrijos (+34 957 470 512), open daily April-Sept 10 am–7 pm, Oct-Mar 10 am-5 pm, free to EU citizens
Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, Caballerizas Reales (957 420 151) closed Mon, call for opening times which vary widely through year, free to EU citizens
Synagogue, Maimonides 18, Tues-Sat 10 am-2 pm & 3.30-5.30 pm, Sun 10 am-1.30 pm, free to EU citizens
Madinat al-Zahra, Carretera Palma del Río, Km. 8 (+34 957 355 506), closed Mon, open 1 May-15 Sept Tues-Sat 10 am-8.30 pm, Sun 10 am-2 pm; 16 Sept-30 April Tues-Sat 10 am-6.30 pm, Sun 10 am-2 pm, free to EU citizens
Palacio de Viana, Plaza de don Gome 2 (+34 957 496 741), open 16 May-30 Sept 9 am-2 pm, 1 Oct-15 May 10 am-1 pm, 4-6 pm
Tablao Flamenco Cardenal, Torrijos 10 (+34 957 483 320)

SHOPPING
Vem Espaliú, Romero 4 (+34 957 420 032)
Espaliú, Cardenal González 3 (+34 957 475 386)
La Carmen, Portillo 10 (+34 957 491 658)
Ibericum, Calle Lucano (+34 667 407 890)

LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY
South of Córdoba are the vineyards of Montilla-Moriles, the DO zone responsible for the fragrant, naturally fermented, high-strength (though mainly unfortified), sherry-like wines that are the pride of the area. Several top bodegas (Alvear, http://www.alvear.es, founded 1729, Cruz Conde, http://www.bodegascruzconde.es, founded 1902) do visits by appointment, including in English. For lunch, Don Quijote in the centre of Montilla (Bailen 6-9, Tel. +34 957 651 271) does charcoal-grilled meats and fish; Las Camachas (Avda. de Europa 3, Tel. +34 957 650 004) has more elaborate cuisine based on local products.

WHEN TO GO
Late winter and early spring when the orange blossom is in flower, temperatures are agreeably warm and the streets reclaimed by the locals. May, when the Cordobeses throw open their flower-filled patios and the Feria gets underway, is fun but busy and the hotels full to bursting. Avoid midsummer – Córdoba’s reputation as Spain’s oven is well merited – unless it’s for the International Festival of Music and dance in July for fabulous flamenco and guitar, classical and modern.

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L’ESCALA AND ITS ANCHOVIES (originally published in FT Weekend)

Stand on the small town beach in L’Escala on the Costa Brava at dawn, close your eyes and try to visualise the scene a century ago. A procession of white-painted, wooden-hulled anchovy boats makes its way round the point, their triangular lateen sails gracefully inclined as they tack towards the beach. A team of strong young men stands ready to hoist the ropes over their shoulders and heave the boats up the sand – to this day the inhabitants of L’Escala are jokingly referred to as esquenapelats, their shoulders (esquenas) raw (pelats) from the rubbing of the ropes.

Fast forward a hundred years and though the boats have changed – and much else along the Costa Brava – L’Escala is still defined by its anchovies. Nowadays there’s a swanky new harbour round the bay at La Clota and the town beach is left to the sunseekers and bathers. To get a feel for today’s anchovy fishing scene, you don’t need to be up at dawn: 8 o’clock is early enough. The boats, diesel-powered nowadays, chug into the harbour after a night out at sea. We joined a number of others waiting expectantly on the quayside: boat owners, fish wholesalers, anchovy processors, the odd chef, some little old ladies armed with plastic bags, and a handful of the simply curious. A fork-lift truck bustles about, politely tooting its horn to clear a path through to the newly docked boats.

The shallow wooden trays with the name L’Escala proudly emblazoned on the sides are tightly packed with gleaming, pop-eyed, silvery-blue fish the length of your middle finger and layered with chipped ice. One by one the trays are carefully stacked up on pallets – a steady pair of arms is needed for the unloading and the stacking, as any fish that fall to the ground are fair game for gleaners.  Inevitably a few go skittering onto the quay. We observed a brief, fairly amicable skirmish as an elderly lady and an equally elderly gentleman snatched up the wayward anchovies and stowed them into their plastic bags.

Inside the warehouse the auction was underway. Fish wholesalers, restaurateurs and anchovy processors each scrutinized the day’s catch, scratched their heads, consulted on their mobile phones and put in their bids. We got talking to a retired boat owner who still comes down every day to welcome the fleet. Observing the incredible harvest of fish we wondered aloud if Spain exports any of its catch. ‘Hombre, no’, he answers, ‘we can’t even meet our own needs – people here love fish, not like you British. ‘Fish ‘n chips?’’ he parrots, in heavily accented English, ‘that’s no way to treat fish!’

Business done, the fishermen adjourn to the café on the wharf to eat a huge breakfast washed down with robust red wine or beer. Then they go home to catch up on sleep before the whole cycle begins again in the evening.

Some of the anchovies are destined to be flash-fried or grilled and served with lemon wedges, but most go to be salted. Some families still do this process at home, either to sell or for private consumption, but the bulk of the catch is salted by small, family-owned processors like Callol I Serrats, who have been in the business since 1847.

Señor Callol was looking a bit glum when I visited him at the factory on the outskirts of town – he had been on the quayside that morning too, but the anchovies were too small. In order to make it worthwhile, he needs at least 40 fish to a kilo; this morning there were more like 50 to the kilo, too small and fiddly to bother with. (Asked if an anchovy grows up to be a sardine, he grins and says no, they’re two different fish.) As the season runs only from May to the end of September, he needs to be sure that he takes in enough provisions to see him through the whole year.

The fish are cleaned and beheaded by a nimble-fingered, hair-netted team of 6 to 8 women and layered with sea salt in big wooden casks. There they stay, without refrigeration, for between three and six months. At the height of summer, the ripening process goes very fast; early and late in the season the process takes a little longer. Then the anchovies are either filleted or left whole. Fillets are painstakingly lined up vertically  in glass jars, while the whole fish are laid head to head horizontally and packed in till the jar is full.

What, if anything, has changed chez Callol since 1847? Very little, observes Señor Callol, pointing to the faded sepia photographs on the wall showing the women working in the old factory in town, going through just the same motions. And what about modern preservatives, E numbers and the like? He looks a little pained. All you need is fresh fish, good salt, careful handling and scrupulous hygiene, and the fish will keep in good order for up to a year. It’s a classic, artisanal product, which has been made in the same way for centuries, he concludes.

So if the anchovies borne home from your last holidays on the Costa Brava are approaching their first anniversary, get them out, dust them off and use them up. The classic Catalan solution (called pa amb tomaquet) is to rub some slices of crusty bread with a halved tomato and some garlic, lay the anchovy fillets on top and drizzle with fruity olive oil. Or press the fillets into service to liven up an escalivada, that savoury Catalan mixture of peppers, aubergines and tomatoes, or to add a piquant touch to your next batch of lemony, garlicky hummus, slathered onto toasted ciabatta or Arab bread.

[This article was one of five included in my entry for the GFW Food Journalist of the Year 2004 Award, for which I was shortlisted]

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CALÇOTS IN CATALUNYA

In the winter months on the magnificent, much-maligned Costa Brava, seaside town populations shrink back from their grotesquely swollen summer dimensions and regain a distinctly Catalan identity. This is the season for la calçotada, a classic mid-winter feast involving fierce fires made from vine clippings, over which huge quantities of specially cultivated green onions known as calçots are grilled to a frazzle. They’re served up with a dangerously delicious sauce based on toasted, ground almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes, olive oil and loads of garlic.

booted calcots

At the heart of the feast is the calçot, which looks like a cross between a spring onion and a leek. The onions start out life in the usual way, but at summer’s end, the tops are sliced off and the bulbs set in the earth again, not too deep and barely covered with soil. (‘They need to hear the church bells ring’, according to local lore.) Soon they begin to sprout. As the shoots continue to grow, they’re repeatedly earthed up with a protective ‘boot’ of soil (calçarse means ‘to get booted up’, hence calçots). From each sawn-off onion you get a prolific bunch of thin-stemmed, pale green, tender shoots, which are ready to eat by year’s end.

You can feast on calçots throughout Catalunya any time from January till Easter but the biggest and best-known festival is in Valls, a small and otherwise undistinguished town north of Tarragona that’s famous for its Festa de la Calçotada, staged every year on the last weekend in January. The streets and squares are thronged with shiny, happy, onion-hungry people, wrapped up against the winter cold.

There’s plenty of oom-papa music, drumming, processions, floats – and the obligatory and ultra-Catalan castells when three, sometimes four layers of young men hoist themselves up onto one another’s shoulders to form a human tower, crowned, once the basic structure is firmly in place, by a young child who clambers nimbly up to the top to rapturous applause from the onlookers.

ladies preparing salsa per calçotsIn one square you’ll find a few trestle tables with prize-winning calçots, proudly displayed just like at the village produce show. On the other side, groups of women in traditional costume patiently pound toasted nuts, roasted tomatoes, garlic and olive oil to a smooth reddish-orange paste for the famous salsa per calçots, which they proffer for sampling on little crusts of bread.

In an adjoining square, a bonfire of vine clippings (a mixture of old, dry wood and new, green prunings for the best fire) is built over a patch of sand. Once alight, the clippings quickly reach a fearsome temperature. From the sidelines a four-legged rectangular grill arrangement resembling a metal bed frame emerges, completely covered with the trimmed green onions, neatly laid in rows. The grill is set down over the furnace, accompanied by a great hissing and clouds of smoke.

In a matter of minutes the calçots are done on one side. The grill is lifted away, the onions quickly turned and the grill returned to the fire where the onions complete their cooking. The butcher’s shop on the square does a roaring trade in butifarra sausages and lamb cutlets, to be grilled over the fire by seasoned festlers once the onions are done.

You can tuck into your calçots on the street, but most people adjourn to one of the many restaurants in and around Valls – look for a sign outside the door advertising a Menú Calçotada. Better still, book ahead to be sure of getting a table. Once installed you’re equipped with a capacious bib and a pair of surgical gloves – a calçotada is a gloriously messy business – though both bibs and gloves are regarded as a bit poncey by seasoned calçotada-goers. A riotous pile of blackened, frazzled calçots appears, cradled in a curved roof tile, which keeps them warm.

You grip the tops, strip off the blackened bits, dunk the trunks in the salsa per calçots, throw back your head and chomp them down with gusto – the guys here are showing the way, in the crowd-pulling calçot-chomping competition to see who can down the most in the shortest time. To follow there are usually tender grilled lamb cutlets and butifarras, and often a rich, crackly caramel-topped crema catalana to conclude proceedings.

Some restaurants serving calçotada menus:

Cal Ganxo, Esglesia 13, 43813 Masmolets
Tel. +34 977 605 960, http://www.restaurantcalganxo.com

Lively, molt típic restaurant in tiny hamlet just north of Valls, lunch only, classic calçotada menu
   
Cal Xim, Plaça Subirats 5, 08739 Sant Pau d’Ordal
Tel. +34 938 993 092, restaurant@calxim.com, http://www.calxim.com
Modern Catalan cuisine with an upmarket rendering of calçots, superb grilled meats and an award-winning wine list – a favourite with the Jean León people and many others

Mesón del Conde, Pl. Major 4, Sant Martí d’Empúries
Tel. +34 972 770 306
Menu calçotada in winter (and grilled meats and shellfish year round) in pretty, medieval village near L’Escala

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BARCELONA 2010

Barcelona’s Plaça Real

I prefaced a piece I wrote on Barcelona for FT Weekend a while back with the observation that you know you’ve truly arrived when you discover that the wad of cash that was snugly buttoned into your back pocket has gone – removed with consummate skill by some Artful Dodger. This time it was a brand-new mobile phone, removed with equally consummate skill from the table of a restaurant on the Plaça Real where we were concentrating altogether too hard on celebrating a rather special birthday lunch. It didn’t (quite) spoil our enjoyment of the meal, just a reminder that things don’t really change. The other thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that Barcelona has some neat places to eat. And now Ol is based there (a tad closer than Chiapas), we’ve got every reason to get down there just as often as we can.

We took an apartment on Parlament in the Raval, practically next door to the famed horxateria that people cross town for and just around the corner from Sant Antoní market. Settled our bags in and then hit the ground eating with lunch at Cuatro on Montserrat, owned jointly by Basque chef Aitor Bergaretxe, Brasilian pastry chef Vicente Carvalho and front-of-house/sommelier (from Sant Celoni, a neighbour of Santi Santamaria’s of Can Fabès fame) Jaume Martorell. [Disappointed to hear recently that Cuatro is no more…shame, it was fun, young, funky, informal and fairly priced.]

mushrooms in Santa Catarina market

On Saturday we raided the local market, picked up jamón ibérico, fresh figs, superlative Dehesa de los Llanos (Manchego) and Idiazábal cheeses (from a great selection at Cansaladeries Pep in Mercat Sant Antoní), a modicum of cava and red wine and headed down to the Port Forum to join Dan, artist friend of Ol’s, who lives on his boat down there (go to www.danielscottart.com for details of his upcoming painting courses). From the deck we had front-row-of-the-stalls views of the Barcelona Air Show going on overhead, with ear-splittingly noisy F16 fighter planes interspersed with the majestic, almost silent A380 which creamed over and seemed to hang in the air like a massive bird.

Sunday lunch was at Taxidermista on the Plaça Reial, scene of the phone grab – bummer, bah humbug. Didn’t (quite) interfere with our enjoyment of everything ordered: coca (like pizza, served cold, no cheese) topped with a classic Catalan escalivada mix of aubergines, peppers etc.; salmorejo (cf gazpacho but smoother) with slivered jamón on top; generous lashings of cumin-laden hummus and baba ghanoush with crunchy toasts; steak (onglet in fact, quite firm and packed with flavour) with chunky potatoes done in the oven, and tuna with a slightly spicy tomato jelly/jam. (The tuna came disastrously overcooked, was ushered back into the kitchen without a murmur and replaced with another one, correctly pink and winsome – full marks.)

Monday we headed for Bilbao Berri near the cathedral square for pintxos – Basque-style tapas, row upon row of white plates laid all along the counter and laden with baguette slices topped with a selection of white cheese/jamón/peeled peppers and pimientos padrón (tiny, mild-mannered jalapeños)/squid/baby eels etc. etc. each topping impaled with long toothpicks. It’s an honour system, you collect up your toothpicks and present them at the end – our tally of 19 came to €31.35 plus a couple of beers. A brilliant way to eat, either perched at the bar or at one of the cramped tables inside or the handful of tables out on the pavement.

We’re already planning the return visit and got our eye on lunch at Gelonch (yes, really – it’s their name, nothing directly to do with lonch), la Paradeta (shellfish heaven, but off limits for anyone with gout) and Bar Cañete (tipped for tapas by F. Adrià).

Restaurant-Bar Cuatro, Passatje de Montserrat 4, Tel. 93 301 4324, http://www.4-barcelona.com
Cansaladeries Pep, Mercat Sant Antoní, Stand No. 418
Taxidermista, Plaça Real 8, Tel. 9 412 4536, http://www.taxidermistarestaurant.com
Bilbao Berria, Plaça Nova 3, Tel. 93 317 0124

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

BARCELONA 2003

[originally published in FT Weekend  – the prices may be a bit awry, but the rest has aged pretty well…]

You know you’ve truly arrived in Barcelona when you discover that the wad of cash that was snugly buttoned into your back pocket has gone – removed with consummate skill by some Artful Dodger. It’s a bit like some weird initiation ceremony, an unpleasant and humiliating entry into the not-so-select band of those who’ve been pickpocketed in Spain’s second city. Be glad they didn’t get your passport and/or credit cards and concentrate on investing whatever’s left in the many wonderful things the city has to offer: world-class museums, first-class food and classy shops.

The Articket is a good investment: 15 euros will get you into 8 of the most important museums and Gaudí buildings, from the Casa Batllò and Casa Pedrera to the Tapiès and Mirò collections, plus the Centre for Contemporary Culture, the Contemporary Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum and the superb Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya up on its Olympic hilltop at Montjuic.

All this museum-hopping is guaranteed to work up an appetite. Senyor Parellada, the dining room of the admirable Hotel Banys Orientals (www.hotelbanysorientals.com) in the Barri Gotic, is busy, lively, colourful and cheerful. Waiters dash about in mild chaos, triumphantly brandishing delicious plates of food that you mostly didn’t order but sort of wished you had, they look so good. Try the home-cured salmon, or grilled sardines, or the sonorous-sounding butifarra (Catalan sausage) with beans. For mains there’s proper old-fashioned stuff like oxtail, roast baby lamb with loads of garlic, and squid stuffed like a plump, self-satisfied cushion. It’s bewilderingly cheap – if you keep off the prawns and the Iberian ham you won’t spend much more than 4 euros on starters, and mains are 8-10 euros.

Tapas are an integral part of a day of culture. Up near La Pedrera is the Cerveseria Catalana, open 7.30 a.m. till 1.30 a.m. next day. There are bars with stools to left and right, and further seating inside. Flights of glistening, multi-coloured tapas dance before your eyes in a dazzling, beautifully choreographed display. When a plate on the bar is even slightly depleted, it is promptly removed and a fresh one emerges from the kitchen. It helps to have to wait for a seat – that way you can watch the dishes flash past and decide what looks good. Then you can work your way from the old-faithful ‘Russian salad’, through bite-sized triangles of tender steak on crusty bread, skewered squid and shellfish, Serrano ham with a roasted peeled chilli on top, to the classic truita (tortilla) with potatoes, or the more adventurous version with artichokes and mushrooms.

If lunch was late and copious, and you don’t feel like tapas again for supper, the new-wave Cata 181 on Valencia, a wine bar with up-market snacks, could be just the ticket. There are plenty of (mainly Spanish) wines by the glass – not a particularly economic way to drink, but fun if you’re on your own or want to try out several different wines. Snacks include silken pillows of ravioli filled with a brandade of salt cod with hummus and ceps or a salad of some nameless and wonderful part of the pig, crusty without/melting within, and basking on a bed of white beans. Salads include one of rocket, sausage and grated raw apple, and for mains there’s salt cod (not thrilling) and tiny lamb chops with Szechwan peppercorns – finger-licking good.

You perch in considerable discomfort on high bar stools at tables for 5 or 6, exchanging impressions (or even wine and food) with whoever happens to join you. Intrigued by an item on the (all-Catalan) menu – ‘bikini trufat’ – we consulted our neighbours. There ensued a lively discussion on the food (seriously trendy, twice the price of tapas, exquisitely original, good for grazing). We learnt a thing or three about Catalan wines (watch out for Les Terrasses), licked our lips at la señora’s description of her planned paella for the morrow (blackened with squid ink and served with tiny broad beans) and laughed at the idea of the ‘bikini trufat’ (an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny triangular sandwich laced with truffles).

We came a cropper at Els Pescadors, billed as the best of ancient and modern Barcelona and good for fish. It was empty and echoing on a Sunday night, the mussels were tepid and had to be sent back and the restaurant had clearly never heard of the concept of value for money. (One starter, chickpeas with clams and chipirones, had a few of the first, three clams and hardly any chipirones – a bad buy at any price.) The barman spent the whole of dinner energetically scouring everything in sight, clanking glasses together con brio and crashing plates into stacks, until finally we had to beg for mercy.

Before you board your plane, stock up on almonds, dried fruit, Manchego cheese, chillis, herbs and spices at the Boqueria market, pausing briefly for a fino at one of the bars at the back (Bar Pinotxo is good). Or cross over the Ramblas to Cal Pep in the Barri Gotic, stand in line outside and patiently await your turn for sensational seafood tapas: tiny flash-fried fish with soft-cooked egg leaking over it, grilled baby squid, prawns freshly scouted from fish auctions up the nearby coast and sautéd garlicky clams.

Senyor Parellada, Argenteria 37, Tel. +34 93 310 5094
Cata 181, Valencia 181, Tel. +34 93 323 6818
Cerveseria Catalana, Mallorca 236, Tel. +34 93 216 0368
Cal Pep, Placa de les Olles 8, Tel. +34 93 310 7961

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

VALENCIA FOR FOODIES

Ciutat de les Arts i Ciencies, architecture by Santiago Calatrava, photo by Alwyn Hinds Merk

Valencia was winking and beckoning at me long before I finally got there. I kept reading about its phantasmagorical Ciutat de les Arts i Ciencies by the city’s prodigious architect Santiago Calatrava, and the major makeover of the port provoked by the America’s Cup in 2007. When I heard it hotly tipped as Spain’s fastest growing gastronomic hub, I booked my ticket.

We got off to a promising start with a tapas stop at Casa Montaña in El Cabanyal (www.emilianobodega.com). Before you groan and cry ‘nothing new!’ (Casa Montaña is in every guidebook and figures on every Spanish foodie forum), hear me out. Hidden away in an anonymous street deep in the former fishermen’s district not far from the America’s Cup harbour, it’s small and dark and deeply uncomfortable. It’s also billed as Spain’s best tapas bar, with a terrific wine list – a tough press to ride out.

Perched on tall mahogany stools and surrounded by ancient wine barrels, we nibbled at baby broad beans with tiny dice of pata negra ham, grilled sardines, slivers of cured pork loin, mushrooms groaning with garlic and muscular patatas bravas with a fiery sauce. From the legendary wine list studded with treasures (top Priorats and Riojas, plus an ’82 Petrus at €4990) we chose a local white, Chozas Carrascal’s barrel-fermented Chardonnay/Sauvignon/Macabeo blend, and a red from Celler del Roure’s (Les Alcusses), which combined Merlot, Tempranillo and some indigenous grapes in a satisfyingly robust mouthful.

Our paella experience was less successful. L’Estimat on Passeig Neptun, Valencia’s Paella Mile, which backs onto the town’s Malvarrosa beach was – I was assured – the place to go: loads of local colour, huge, noisy Spanish family parties and decent food. Clearly a promising place to learn about this gloriously Baroque dish-turned culinary cliché, whose spiritual home is Valencia.

I called up ahead in search of someone to bounce off ideas about what makes a good paella. My interlocutor wasn’t exactly hostile, just bored. Wasn’t he bursting to tell me all about his wonderful dish? Express an opinion on which of the locally grown round-grain rices – Bomba, Senia or Bahía – was the right, indeed the ONLY one to use? Expatiate on the tecnhique of cooking down a sofregit (onions, tomatoes and olive oil) to just the right point of jammy perfection or even rave about the unique pink prawns from nearby Denia that are the colour of a sunburned Brit in August? Nada. Not a flicker.

His reluctance to play the paella game had me worried. But the alternative – a jaunt along the coast to one of the seafood restaurants at El Palmar or Picassent – wouldn’t fit into our tight programme. I settled for L’Estimat.

Part of the deal with proper paella is that it comes to the table with a flourish in its huge, eponymous pan for the assembled company to feast on in unison. Ours was produced furtively, then whisked away again to reappear dished up apologetically on plates. And cold. We sent it back but its moment had passed, enthusiasm was cooling visibly and the members of the party who were feasting on merluza (hake) a la plancha with some gorgeous hunky fries – fish and chips by any other name – were trying not to look too smug.

At the top end, Valencia’s problem is choice – too much of it, as I found when I started to do my homework and consult a few friends. Would we do Ca’Sento, which offers a Bulli-ish tasting menu from star chef Raul Aleixandre, or maybe Joaquin Schmidt, reputedly great if he’s in the zone but dodgy if he’s having a bad hair day. Or maybe El Angel Azul, billed as traditional, accessible, warmly Spanish? Riff sounded tempting with modern Mediterranean cooking by Black Forest émigré chef Bernd Knöller but we come from close to the Black Forest so it seemed a bit tame. The choice fell to La Sucursal, which promised cool avantgarde food in Valencia’s Modern Art Museum.

We arrived for dinner at the end of a long day of shopping and marketing (don’t miss the Modernista Mercat Central, pictured here), sustained by the promise of a glass of cava while we pondered the menu and the celebrated wine list. We came smack up against our first hurdle: no cava by the glass, only Champagne.

To paraphrase Madame Lily Bollinger, I drink Champagne when I’m happy, or when I’m sad, or even when I’m thirsty – but never in cava country. No problem; if it didn’t come by the glass, we’d have a bottle – of Albet i Noya’s organic cava, an old favourite. Long pause, no Albet i Noya, so a substitute was brought on. A request for water was met with a two-page list of bottled H2O from around the world. We passed on Bling in a Swarowski crystal-studded bottle (€30) in favour of Evian dressed by Christian Lacroix (a mere €3) and did our homework on the food.

The €70 tasting menu majored on rabbit, squid, oysters and foie gras, all of which had been variously ruled out by our table of six, so a la carte seemed the way to go.
Starters were offered in ‘half portions, to be served to the whole table’. A lively discussion ensued over what this might mean, followed by a plucky but doomed attempt by the waitress to explain. It seemed to be a device to enable people to share so everyone could have a taste of lots of different things. The trouble was, the ‘lots of different things’ (rabbit/squid/octopus/foie gras encore) didn’t do it for the majority. All they really, really wanted was a personal portion (no sharing) of ‘pouched’ [sic] eggs with asparagus.

Two of us agreed to play the sharing game and were served a couple of spoonfuls of al dente rice snuggled into a soup dish – a nod to paella with infant octopus and razor clams – and a salad of multi-coloured leaves arranged prettily around cubes of marinated tuna with splodges of salmorejo (a cousin of gazpacho) and olive paste.

Main courses included delectably pink Bresse pigeon, succulent lamb with pungent smoked aubergine, over-salted red mullet and perfectly cooked fillet of beef. Vegetables were conspicuous by their absence.

Back at our hotel, the Palau de la Mar, we got talking to a couple who’d spent a week eating their way around Valencia and were similarly disenchanted with La Sucursal. They raved about Riff, and Black Forest émigré chef Bernd Knöller’s exquisite modern Mediterranean cooking. Next time.

In fact it was at the hotel’s restaurant Senzone that we did our best eating. A startlingly delicious strawberry-tomato gazpacho in a shot glass (recipe here) refreshed the palate while we perused the menu. Memorable starters included a salad of lobster and artichoke with a riot of leaves and edible flowers, and a dish of criss-crossed strips of crusty coca (Catalanya and Valencia’s answer to focaccia) with a generous stack of jamón iberico.

When it came to the main courses, forkfuls of John Dory with asparagus, lamb with quinoa, slow-cooked pork with a little cairn of new potatoes, and veal (actually baby beef) were liberally and enthusiastically traded. In the dessert department a chocolate combo elicited moans of delight (‘wholesomely naughty’, sighed its owner), while a sinfully rich crema catalana and a nutty turrón ice cream met with quiet approval. The food was exquisitely presented without being artsy, the portions just right and the service delightful.

Casa Montaña, Josep Benlliure 69, +34 963 672 314
L’Estimat, Passeig Neptuno 16, +34 963 711 018
La Sucursal, IVAM, Guillém de Castro 118, +34 963 746 665
Senzone (in Hotel Palau de la Mar), Carrer Navarro Reverter 14, +34 963 162 884

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

PORTUGAL

FISHY FEASTS AND FADO MAGIC – a weekend in Lisbon
A while back, a group of us, united by a shared experience of adversity and looking for an early spring break, took off to Rome together. Then came Lisbon. Next stop Naples? [in fact, we did Valencia]

We arrived in high spirits, got our Lisboa cards sorted and clambered into taxis. The driver looked doomy when told the name of our hotel (Olissippo Castelo). Had we stayed there before, he asked in sombre-toned, halting English? “No”, says I brightly, thinking we’d discovered some little gem that even the taxi driver didn’t know of. He shook his head. “I not recommend – terrible area, very dangerous, better downtown.”

I subsided into my corner of the taxi like a deflated balloon. I’d found the hotel on the Internet with the help of a friend who grew up in the city and knows it well. “Great location”, she’d enthused – “just near the Castelo de Sâo Jorge, above the famous Alfama district with all the fado clubs, and close to the shopping area of Baixa – go for it”. The hotel boasted balconies, bathrobes, hairdryers, plus wonderful views, competitive rates and breakfast thrown in for good measure. Once upon a time Condé Nast Traveler had included it in their list of 100 best hotels. Such promise. Now I was wondering where I’d landed us all.

We wound our way up tiny cobbled streets, dodging pedestrians, cyclists, battered taxis and elderly trams until grinding to a halt before the street leading up to our hotel. The taxi driver looked triumphant; he didn’t exactly say ‘I told you so’ (or maybe he did, in Portuguese). A threatening cylindrical bollard crouched in the middle of the road barring access. Seemingly controlled by a closed circuit camera, it flattened itself into the street if it liked the look of you, and stayed resolutely erect if it didn’t.

Luckily it took pity on us, slid noiselessly into the ground, rising up again eerily in our wake. The taxi driver deposited us finally at the door, muttering darkly about the dangers of walking the streets round here, especially at night. He pressed his card on us, making us swear to call him if we needed to go ANYWHERE. We fled to our rooms, wondering if we’d ever dare leave them.

Downstairs at the desk a smiling person called Sara recommended a little restaurant within spitting distance of the hotel and assured us we could certainly walk there for dinner. The trick, she said, was simply to avoid turning LEFT out of the hotel, which might lead to places where There Be Dragons (notably the impossibly louche areas of Graça and Moureira). RIGHT, towards Alfama and Baixa, was OK. Nine women, united by that shared experience of adversity and bent on having a good time, headed resolutely right, had an undistinguished, conveniently located, well lubricated dinner and returned to base without mishap.

As the weekend wore on, we got braver. On Saturday Sara booked us lunch at Solar dos Nunes (an eGullet recommendation) for 2 p.m. Then we set off on foot (always to the right), walked, shopped and boarded a topless sightseeing bus for a town tour. This took considerably longer than forecast. At 2.25, still some way off, I called up the restaurant. ‘The kitchen closes at 2.30’, they warned. ‘No problem’, I lied, ‘we’re only about 5 minutes away’. By the time we’d located the restaurant, panting and anxious, it was closer to three than I dare admit, but they greeted us, beaming at the door. Good thing too: it turned out to be the high gastro-spot of the weekend.

Laid out temptingly on the table were slices of jamón pata negra cut from hams suspended above the bar, little strips of sautéd liver spiked with vinegar, fragrant chorizo and a small but perfectly formed cow’s/sheep’s milk cheese called azeitâo, which comes with its top sliced off to reveal a wondrous, runny, cheesy centre which you scoop out with a spoon and slather onto warm bread rolls. Mains included assorted spanking fresh fish in a shellfish sauce with thick cut discs of sauté potatoes, and meltingly tender-pink veal in a sauce or on the grill served with a nutmeg-rich dish of spinach. We finished – urged on by our waiter-friend – with a plate of toothachingly sweet sweets (and 7 spoons) in which almonds, egg yolks and chocolate all played significant roles.

After lunch we staggered out onto a tram headed for Belém (custard tart country), heaved ourselves round the fabulous Manueline Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, boarded several trams again and got back home to Sara, tired but triumphant. Next day we jumped on more trams, got the train to Cascais (no muggers or pickpockets there either), got caught in a rainstorm and took refuge in another eGullet-inspired lunch at Restaurante Pereira. We had lots of fish (and lots of bones) and an unloved dish of duck, but the welcome was warm, the place was heaving with lively Sunday-lunching families and we revelled in the fact that we were certainly the only non-Portuguese.

By the end of lunch, rain had stopped so we sauntered back along the prom to Estoril, pausing to gape at the Hotel Albatroz, a five-star Leading Small Hotel of the World (definitely coming back one day for that one), and to dip a toe in the ocean, finally boarding the train again back to Lisbon.
On our last night we set off boldly (well, fairly) on foot down tiny dark streets and staircases, taking frequent wrong turns, till we reached our fado restaurant (Casa de Linhares, familiarly known as Bacalhau de Molho). Here, in a fabulous, seventeenth-century, barrel-vaulted cellar we feasted by flickering candlelight on pork stuffed with prunes, duck with pears and sole somehow or other.

At various moments throughout the evening, the lights dimmed, voices were stilled and two guitarists and a singer threaded their way through the tables and took up position in front of the huge baronial fireplace. Each of the four different singers – three women and one man – sang in turn of ‘the pain of separation, unrequited love and jubilant reunion’, to the haunting strains of the two guitars. It was magic. We stayed till we threatened to get swept out with the crumbs. Then we walked back well past midnight, feeling quite reckless.

The moral of my little Lisbon tale? Book in at the Olissippo Castelo, ask for Sara, keep your wits (and wallets) about you, always turn right after going down the hill – and don’t believe everything taxi-drivers tell you. Especially when they give you their card and insist that the only safe way to get around is by taxi – theirs, of course.

Hotel Olissippo Castelo, Rua Costa do Castelo 126, Lisbon
Tel. +351 218 820 19,
Solar dos Nunes, Rua dos Lusíadas 70, Lisbon,
Tel. +351 21 364 7359
Restaurante Pereira, Rua da Bela Vista 92, Cascais,
Tel. +351 214 831 215
Casa de Linhares, Beco dos Armazens do Linho 2, Lisbon,
Tel. +351 21 88 650 88,

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