Damm Inedit

When we were leaving Spain, we were browsing the duty free in the Barcelona airport, looking at their meagre selection of whiskies, trying to find a nice bottle to bring home with us, I spotted a display of Estrella Damm’s Inedit. Inedit is a beer created by, according the the little booklet that comes with every bottle to hammer home the point you will be purchasing and drinking a truly remarkable beer, “globally acclaimed chef Ferran Adrià, Juli Soler and sommeliers Ferran Centelles and David Seijas from El Bulli Restaurant.”  It also boasts that it is a “beer specifically created to pair with food”.  I first saw this beer when we had lunch one afternoon at a great paella place by the sea.  At a table near us was a family of tourists with a couple of young children.  The dad ordered a bottle of beer; it was apparently some fancy beer despite the Damm label around the neck, because after serving it was kept in a bucket of ice at the end of the table, much like a nice bottle of wine.  One of the kids, who looked to be about six years old, asked the dad if it was dry-hopped, which Anna thought was hilarious because in that moment she saw our future. I was curious about it because while Spain isn’t exactly famed for its beer, I do like to try as many local beers as I can.

I’ve hinted at craft beer’s “wine envy” here and in comments here, and while this isn’t craft beer by any reasonable definition of the term, don’t we have in Damm Inedit the most literal example of beer trying to prove that it is sophisticated enough for wine drinkers?  That finally we have a beer refined enough that it can be drunk with fine food?

This idea is, of course, nonsense.  There are plenty of beers that go excellently with food.  Yes, even high-end food.  Last fall we went to New York and had a superb meal at wd-50. For my main, I had Wagyu steak with barley and malt and it went wonderfully with a malty German lager.  And here I am at Au Pied du Cochon’s cabane à sucre–maybe not fine dining, but gourmet nevertheless–feeding beer to a chicken head:The idea that there is now finally a beer good enough to accompany fine food says more about Ferran Adrià’s ignorance about beer than it does about anything else.  But, hey, it was four euro a bottle, so why not try it?

We decided to try it with one of the best foods to pair with beer: (homemade) sausage on a bun.  Of course, had I looked more closely at the Inedit booklet before starting dinner I would have realised that such a fine beer wasn’t made for such rough and ready proletarian fare as sausage on a bun, but was rather “created to pair with the most exquisite and challenging foods. Foods that contain: citrus and oils: i.e. salads, vinegar based sauces. Bitter notes: i.e. asparagus, artichokes, rucula. Oily textures: ie. salmon, tuna, fatty cheese.” Though from the beer’s website we see that “this beer can take acidic, sweet and sour flavours by the hand. the symphony of flavours in each dish is different, but there can be a common thread capable of unifying them all, for a sense of continuity so there is no need to switch drinks.” So maybe it can go with most foods?  Sausage it is, with a side of grilled potatoes and zucchini.

Maybe we should have eaten something closer to the recommended foods to get an idea of how this beer pairs with food because it brought very little to the complex seasoning of the sausage. It is, in effect, a pretty ordinary Belgian-style blanche with subtle coriander and orange peel notes, and a clean finish that suggests a bottom-fermenting yeast.  The subtlety of the spicing verges on blandness.  It was okay, but not something I feel inclined to try again.  There are far better examples of this style: Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly is a locally-brewed blanche that far surpasses the Damm version.

I’m struggling to find things to say about the beer because there really isn’t anything remarkable about it. If this was a wine, and the beer and its presentation really do beg the comparison, I can’t see it having a place on a high-end wine list.  There’s just not enough going on with it.  The very idea that there is a beer that can pair with food, instead of a variety of beers with different flavours–bitter, sweet, sour, spicy–suggest a lack of seriousness put into conceiving the ways in which beer and food can work together. This beer and its conception seem completely ignorant of the brewing world, and it basically does a very mediocre job of attempting to reinvent the wheel. I suspect that a large reason why the beer exists, and is distributed as widely as it is (for example, you can purchase bottles in Quebec at the SAQ) is because El Bulli was hemorrhaging money–the New York Times reports here that annual losses of a half a million Euros were what led to the restaurant closing–and the beer doubtlessly generates a decent amount of income.  That doesn’t mean that it’s groundbreaking or exceptional.

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Proof that we ate more than just ham in Barcelona

…a whole lot more. Hang in there folks, this will be a picture-heavy post, and I will try to minimize my yammering on in favour of letting the photos do the talking. And let me be clear: even the excesses of this third post about Barcelona do not cover the entirety of what we consumed there. There is still more that didn’t make the cut in the interest of keeping this post down to a “reasonable” (!) 29 photos. Needless to say, Barcelona is truly one of the greatest food cities I have been lucky enough to visit.

(See our two previous posts about Barcelona here and here. And if you want to skip this lengthy post and get right to the nitty gritty–our recommendations–scroll to the end!)

Also, let me assure you that we did do all sorts of cool touristy stuff while there; the Sagrada Familia and Parque Güell being among our highlights. I promise! See?

So we didn’t eat all the time. Just most of the time. Speaking of which, back to the food. While the copious amounts of pork and tomato bread that we consumed would likely have been enough to fuel us through our entire week in Barcelona, we did investigate a whole lot of the other delicious foods and drinks that the city has to offer. We did not have a single bad meal while we were there. We became addicted to small plates-style dining. Among the other highlights of our week in this glorious city, were:

Yes, of course, lots of delicious seafood:

Graeme and I both tried cockles for the first time in Barcelona. They were light and lovely.

These cod fritters, also from Paco Meralgo, which I haven’t shut up about in several posts, blew. my. mind. Perfectly fried and crispy, they were gooey and creamy inside. They had the perfect texture. I want to eat them forever.Aaaaaaand also from Paco Meralgo, Graeme and I have not shut up about this dish of octopus in a caramelized onion sauce. It is one of the dishes that brought us back to this restaurant on our last night in Barcelona as we rushed around the city trying to have each of our favourite dishes one last time. Look for something similar to this on the blog in the coming months–I am determined to recreate it at home. Or at least some lame facsimile thereof. Baby eels with mushrooms and garlic! If any of my girlfriends from grad school are reading this, you will recall our baby eel adventures from our trip to Portugal and Spain many moons ago. Graeme was super into this dish–the eels are chewy and super garlicky and now that I’m a less squeamish eater, we both really enjoyed them!Anchovies. Enough said.And paella. Oh our lovely paella. We scarfed down the best paella I ever ate after a morning relaxing on Barcelonita beach. I may not have mentioned this on here, but our trip to Barcelona was actually prompted by my having a conference to attend, such that there was a little bit of work in between all this eating. All of the work-related anxiety and exhaustion melted away after a morning on the gorgeous beach, which could not have been followed up by a more perfect lunch than this seafood paella, which takes over 30 minutes to arrive at your table after you order it, as it is all made fresh, from Can Majó, just off of the beach. If you poke around the internet, you will find lots of hang wringing over the sorry state of paella in Barcelona, but this resto was one that came up again and again in my searches for a good one. It was beautiful–the seafood was meaty and fresh, and the rice had an amazing texture and flavour. It was served to us in a giant paella dish, and we devoured the whole thing without a second thought.

Meats other than pork (and cheese!):

While pork was the star during our time in Barcelona, we did also enjoy a few other beautifully prepared meats. I will say that possibly my only food regret from Barcelona is how, obsessed with meat and seafood, we sampled very little local cheese. There just wasn’t enough time for everything! But I love Spanish cheese in general, and will have to keep exploring it back home.

These venison kebabs were perfectly grilled!

We had this duck pate in a pear crust at Onofre on the same night that we ate this epic charcuterie plate. And yet we finished the whole thing. Because it was silky smooth and impossible not to keep returning to. Behind it is a lovely cheese plate of aged manchego that went beautifully with all of our meat.

We picnicked on ham and tetilla cheese.  I love how creamy and refreshing this traditional Galician cheese is; it countered the pungency of our strongly cured meat really well. Graeme loves how, well, it’s named after its nipple shape.

Lovely grilled goat!

Tapas, tapas, and more tapas:

These heavenly chickpeas were served to us at Bar Pinotxo, the legendary tapas bar in the Boqueria market. While extremely touristy, this place lived up to the hype, and the chickpeas above blew my mind. I have no idea how they prepared them, but they simultaneously still had a bite to them and were perfectly creamy in the middle. It is not often that I get so excited about chickpeas, but I could eat these every day for the rest of my life. Patatas Bravas. Ideally in a creamy and spicy sauce, this ubiquitous tapas staple can be exciting or totally mediocre depending on where you find it. Above was our favourite plate of them–it had an awesome kick to it!

Ham and chicken croquettes; these came courtesy of Bar Pinotxo as well, but we ate many more croquettes during our time in Barcelona. That I enjoyed these so much was a real shocker to me, as at home I would consider croquettes a very dated, 1980s, bland and tired sort of dish. But it is a staple of tapas culture, and so many places we ate did a beautiful job of them, frying them perfectly so that they’d be crispy but not greasy, and melted and creamy inside. I am now wondering if it is time for croquettes to make a comeback!

Occasionally even a little bit of fruit:

In my family, we have a “thing” about peaches in Europe in the summer. My dad will wax poetic about the best white flesh peach he ever ate, in Paris, in 1970-something. I am more likely to go one about flat peaches. Both kinds suck when you buy them here in Montreal, and come to life on the other side of the ocean, full of sweet juice. We could not resist them.


Booze:

As might be clear from this blog, neither Graeme nor I tend to be huge wine drinkers. But in Barcelona we both fell head over heels for light white wines, which were just so refreshing in the summer heat, and a perfect accompaniment to light, small plates dining. Graeme sampled a great many beers in Barcelona, but even he eventually succumbed to the siren song of white wine. We generally skipped sweet drinks like sangria for these guys, amazed that we, for once, felt like we “got” wine, and the wonders it can do for a meal. We mostly drank pretty cheap wines but that didn’t matter; we even lugged one of our favourite, and cheapest, bottles home with us.

Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we also discovered L’Ascensor, the world’s most unpretentious cocktail bar, which despite being so down to earth has an incredible reputation for being one of the best bars in Spain. Above are some refreshing mojitos that we drank there, a wonderful reprieve from the lame sugary ones that seem to overpopulate cocktail bars these days. L’Ascensor reminded me that properly made mojitos are awesome!

Sweet stuff:

Another one of our Barcelona failures is how little dessert we ate! We were too stuffed full of meat! This is a ridiculous situation which, as you will see, we tried to remedy on our last night.

I became obsessed with this stand in the old city which sold a million different flavours of ice cream on a stick. How could you go wrong with this? It was not the most mind-blowing ice cream you’ll ever eat, but come on. Ice cream on a stick.We were in Barcelona for what we in Quebec know as the festival of Saint-Jean, which is also, it turns out, a festival in Spain. I was not a fan of navigating past 8 year olds setting off amateur fireworks in every part of the city the entire night, but I was a fan of the sweet bread that is traditionally eaten for this festival, which is pictured above. Crema catalana, is, effectively, Catalan crème brûlée. Which is to say that it’s awesome.

And then there was Espai Sucre, pictured above. This is where we made up for our paltry dessert eating. You may have noticed, in our Barcelona recaps, that we did very little fine dining while there; while there are, apparently, many excellent fancy restaurants in the city, we were on a fairly tight budget and had enough to explore on the regular proletariat side of things. We even had reservations for Ferran Adrià’s new tapas bar, and cancelled them. However, knowing that modernist cuisine has its roots in Spain, I did really want to go to at least one wacky modernist restaurant, and when we found out about Espai Sucre, which is an experimental dessert-only restaurant, with a pastry chef school attached to it, we decided that it would be a perfect way to cap off our trip. You can have an entire meal of desserts at Espai Sucre (I really recommend you look at their menu, it is insane!), but we did opt for the small, three-course each menus ourselves, as we had already wandered around the city filling up on the favourite dishes we had collected during our stay in Barcelona. I think dessert is a great way to explore modernist cuisine as dessert cookery is already so mad scientist-y to begin with. It did not disappoint. I ordered the “cheese” menu while Graeme ordered the “chocolate” one, and I will post photos of all of our dishes below.Goat “cheesecake” with raspberries, red pepper and ginger

Chocolate with vinegar, strawberry, mint and pepper

Extra virgin olive oil cake, white peach, green olive and San Simón
Truffle mushroom, butter, hazelnut, cocoa

“Idiazàbal”  cake with cherry + beet and black beer

Chocolate, prunes, oak, rum, tobacco

We capped off the meal with this delicious array of petits fours, which may have been my favourite part of the whole experience! I particularly loved the lime and rosemary pops (top left).

Overall, it was a fantastic meal; I was especially fond of my first course cheesecake, which helped me understand the point of “deconstructed” food, as it combined everything that is delicious about a cheesecake in new formulations so that it was at once novel, while at the same time…everything good about a cheesecake. The chocolate crumbles, in particular, were so perfect and really captured what is so awesome about cheesecake crust at its core. Graeme raved about his second course, and the earthiness that the chocolate got from the inclusion of truffles. Neither of us have every been that crazy about truffles but somehow they really worked in that dish and helped us get why they are so hyped. The “weirdest” dish was, of course, his third, due to the inclusion of the tobacco. It kind of worked, as the tobacco also lent a real earthiness, once you could get over the idea that you were, you know, eating tobacco. The problem was that the tobacco flavour was a bit too strong and  overpowered the dish, which did not help one get past the “I’m…eating…tobacco” feeling. It was the only one we both weren’t crazy about, but I think all it really would take for us would be scaling that tobacco down a notch, to be a complementary flavour and not such a dominant one.

Espai Sucre reminded me to be more open-minded about experimental cuisine. Graeme and I are both, at the end of the day, most passionate about traditional cuisines, and I will probably always prefer a simple tomato bread to deconstructed cheescake. But still, the work they do there is amazing and everything we ate was delicious, and luckily we are hungry enough that there is space in our bellies for both the old and the new. And we love trying new things so we felt really pleased with our experience at Espai Sucre as a way to cap off a fantastically gluttonous week in Barcelona. I totally recommend it as a great way to splurge.

It is easy to surmise what our favourite places were based on these long three posts about Barcelona, but if you want the quick rundown, here are our recommendations for eating and drinking in Barcelona:

Tapas:

Paco Meralgo:  Get the cod fritters, octopus in caramelized onion, tomato bread, and, even though we didn’t try it ourselves, the cheese-stuffed and fried zucchini flowers–they just looked that good!

Onofre: They specialize in wine and charcuterie. So eat those. The huge charcuterie plate is worth it. Their dishes are huge though, so beware when ordering!

Bar Pinotxo: This tapas bar at the edge of the Boqueria market is a perfect place to grab lunch. Eat a plate or two of their sublime chickpeas (and you know, seafood and meat and stuff).

Paella:

Can Majó: The paella is worth the wait. Reserve if you want to sit outside.

Cocktails:

L’Ascensor: Get a mojito. Relax.

Hamming It Up:

La Boqueria
: This market right off of the Rambla lives up to the hype and is a great place to explore the different hams, cheeses, seafood and fruits that Barcelona has to offer. Lots of places will let you buy little samples of various hams, which is how we started exploring.

Other Local Markets: There are excellent neighbourhood markets littered throughout the city, which are quieter but just as chock full of ham and other delicacies as La Boqueria, and they are well worth exploring as they are less crowded and allow for a more leisurely stroll. La Conceptió Market was right by our guesthouse, and so we spent a lot of time there, and everyone was incredibly friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.

Splurging:

Espai Sucre: where you can live out your childhood dreams and have dessert for dinner! And get a taste of what Spanish modernist cuisine is coming up with these days.

The beautiful, beautiful world of pork

When people asked us what we were planning on doing in Barcelona, I always replied: “eat ham”. A funny, jokey response, right? Wrong.  It’s not that I wasn’t interested in seeing Barcelona’s sights, walking along the Ramblas and the narrow, winding, shaded medieval streets of the Gothic quarter, lounging on the beach, seeing the Gaudi buildings and all that, it’s just that I am first and foremost interested in the things you can do to a pig.

I was not to be disappointed.  Anna wrote about the wonderful tomato bread we had on our first night here, but our meal at the excellent Paco Meralgo also consisted of octopus with caramelised onions, cod fritters, asparagus sauteed with wild garlic, a ham and potato salad (Anna was initially skeptical of this, thinking that it was going to be some grocery store-style salad with mayo and cubes of diced ham–look how wrong she was):

and a plate of gorgeous dried sausage:
Our exploration of the fine meats Spain has to offer went on from this exciting start.  The next day we went to the Boqueria Market and bought a small selection of Serrano ham and jamón ibérico to snack on:

The Serrano was excellent, with a deep, rich cured flavour, but the real revelation was the jamón ibérico. This is the famed Spanish ham made from a specific breed of pig raised only in the Iberian peninsula, with the most prized animals fed only on acorns.  As far as I can tell, the hams are simply made–just salt-cured and dried for as long as three years–and they have this incredibly complex and sophisticated flavour: tangy, salty, nutty (Anna thought that the ham reminded her in a way of a well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano), sharp, this is the greatest ham I have ever tasted.  This ham haunts my dreams and mocks me with its simple beauty.

The other great discovery was morcón, which we first had as part of an extremely (extremely!) generous mixed charcuterie plate at a tapas bar called Onofre.

It was so good that we went back there on our last night to have it again.  Morcón is the poor country relative of chorizo: the paprika-heavy seasoning is the same, but the morcón uses fattier, less expensive cuts of meat (my Spanish language comprehension is next to zero, so I believe that the server said that it is made from back meat…but I could be totally wrong about that) that are diced instead of ground.  If you have any doubts about how delicious fat is and the difference it can make in food, do a side-by-side comparison of morcón and chorizo.  The chorizo is excellent, yes, but I will take morcón over it any day.

Look at that beautiful fat!

When we got back I called my parents to let them know how the trip was and that we made it back safely, and my mom–who had been following Facebook updates about the vast quantities of ham and sausage we were eating–asked why we kept talking about ham and weren’t eating seafood.  We did eat seafood, delicious seafood, and that’s perhaps for a future post, but who can resist eating excessive amounts of cured meats when ones this good are on offer?

Ode to Tomato Bread

It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that a few days ago, we had the displeasure of leaving Barcelona and coming back to Montreal. This is not an experience that I would wish on anyone. Were it not for incentives like this, we would have been even whinier than we already are about leaving what is truly one of the greatest cities that I have ever been lucky enough to visit.

It would be an understatement to say that we ate our way through Barcelona. Before our visit, neither Graeme nor I would have ranked Spanish food as one of the cuisines that we got especially excited about, but man, did that ever change. Graeme spent much of our trip looking like a kid in a candy store every time we passed by any ham (which was just about every 5 minutes). He will have to write about the many charcuterie epiphanies he had in Barcelona in a different post, but in the meantime, this is what a man high on ham looks like:

I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the wonder of eating small plates of incredibly simple food that was so damn fresh and satisfying that I could not get enough of it. Barcelona solidified my love of the unfussy. I too, will have to elaborate in another post, but in the meantime, I’d like to talk about one of the best possible examples of insanely delicious simple Spanish food: tomato bread.

Those of you who have spent time in Spain will recognize tomato bread as something that is served as an accompaniment with most restaurant meals. Simply put, tomato bread is…bread, rubbed with tomato. Yep. It is usually toasted, and complemented with some good olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic. (All the recipes I have found online recommend rubbing the bread with garlic, but I am certain that some of the very best breads we had in Barcelona really just relied on the tomato.) It feels like it shouldn’t be as damn delicious as it is, but there is nothing a properly ripe, juicy tomato won’t transform into magic. And good tomato bread really is magic. The plate above is the very first plate of tomato bread we sampled at the end of our first day in Barcelona, when we were so jet lagged and hungry that we deliriously stumbled into Paco Meralgo, an awesome little tapas bar that ended up being our very favourite restaurant in the city. Imagine two weary travellers trying to muster up the strength to stay awake past 9pm being presented with the plate above. We didn’t really know what we were looking at, we just shoved the bread into our mouths in the interest of taming our blood sugar levels. One bite and we were revived. Crispy and juicy at the same time, it just tasted like really damn good tomato. For the rest of the week we cursed ourselves because little did we know that  this would be the very best tomato bread we would find on our entire trip; we even stopped by Paco Meralgo on our last night just to have it one more time.

We ate some absurdly delicious things during our time in Barcelona–some of the best ham I’ve ever had, some stunning seafood, incredible desserts, and other wonders that I will detail at another time. But the tomato bread was the anchor of our culinary experience there, and it is what I am most obsessed with trying to recreate back home. To begin with, it is clear that the dish relies on very ripe, very tasty tomatoes. It is lucky that I have developed this obsession at the start of tomato season; as I type this, a variety of tomatoes are growing, slowly and steadily, in my garden, getting ready to be experimented with.

In the meantime, I made my first batch of homemade tomato bread just two days after returning from Barcelona, to accompany a relatively simple summery dinner that I had thrown together (grilled steak and some roasted zucchini, shallots, bell peppers and mushrooms, with a garlic scape pesto). I bought a baguettine, sliced it and brushed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven to broil for a couple of minutes (as you can see from the top photo, I let it broil a little bit too long!). I then rubbed it with the ripest early-in-the-season tomato I could find, and salted it generously with some Maldon sea salt. What made the Paco Meralgo bread so transcendent were three things: the bread was perfectly toasted and crispy so that the tomato did not make it soggy; it tasted as tomato-ey as was humanly possible; and it was perfectly salted, so as to enhance the tomato flavour even more. I tried to keep these qualities in mind as I made mine.

The verdict? I accomplished, to my own delight, the first and third qualities very well for my very first try. But it still just wasn’t tomato-ey enough. This could be a matter of waiting for better, riper tomatoes, and I also think I need to be more aggressive and generous with the amount of tomato I rub on the bread. For a first attempt, it certainly evoked what we loved so much about the bread we ate in Barcelona. But it did not inspire the same level of fanaticism. We happily ate it all, and mopped up the leftover pesto with it nonetheless, and made notes for next time.

As we all know, sometimes mastering the simplest foods can be the trickiest. Watch this space for further tomato bread adventures!