Friday, April 5, 2013

Unpacking: Miettes and Other Observations From the U.S. Tour '13

For a number of reasons, this year's trip didn't lend itself to being blogged in great detail. Ah, but that's okay. I know you folks don't care about my personal and spiritual journeys, the little epiphanies that make up daily life. No, what you're really wondering is what did he eat? So...that and more follows.

* * * 

Actually, I didn't have many more food revelations in Austin, and in fact one evening I even had cold leftover pizza for dinner! Other than that, it was mostly returns to old favorites or stuff that doesn't bear writing about. Some of this, of course, is due to my current dental woes, the next big project to be worked on. 

Odds are, however, that I'll be back before this time next year, so I'll probably be blogging that. 

Meanwhile, what's sticking with me is my journey back to France, which happened over a week ago. I've known for a long time that it's not a particularly smart thing for me to be on the road for over three weeks at a time, and this was no exception. By the time I got to New York on the way back, all I wanted to do was leave. I saw some friends for dinner one night, and that was fun (although several were missing from the usual crowd), but the next day I mostly stayed in the hotel room and counted the hours til I could go to JFK. I was looking forward to Barcelona, and, eventually, to being back here in The Slum. Go figure. 

* * * 

I was more pooped than I'd figured, but at least I got out to the Good Friday procession I photographed in the last post. The prose accompanying that was supposed to be zippier, but the so-called high-speed Internet at my hotel was anything but. When I post a picture here, it can take as long as a minute to upload, since some of them are big files. Those pictures took between 12 and 35 minutes each. I complained to the lady at the desk as I was checking out and it appears she listened: she took a day's use off. (And Swisscom, the company that charges an absurd €17 for this "high-speed" service, actually had the temerity to send me a customer satisfaction questionnaire. Which I filled out, of course.) Anyway, between the endless wait for the pictures to upload and my jet-lag, I wasn't as inspired as I might have been. Sorry. 

That first evening, I had the address of a tapas bar that had been recommended to me, but I wasn't about to venture into a new part of Barcelona. Instead, there was a Slow Food-connected restaurant on the corner, so I decided to splurge a little. Mata Mala turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. A huge, spacious room with texts as decoration, selling wine and cooking equipment as well as meals, it also has a tapas bar. Everything is dedicated to local recipes and sourcing, and the waitress not only spoke English, but was extremely knowledgeable about everything. I started with an onion soup that had some cabbage and -- nice touch! -- pieces of pear in it. The soup bowl arrived with the ingredients laid out in the dry bowl, and then the broth -- which was much like the broth of the classic French onion soup -- was poured from a pitcher onto them. A quick stir, and there you go. The waitress also did something unexpected. She asked me if I'd like some bread with it, and then brought a basket of excellent bread. I'd noticed on the menu that bread with olive oil and salt was €3.95. This was €1.00, without the olive oil and salt. The soup was then followed by an incredible rabbit cooked in vermouth.

It was garnished by the biggest green olives I've ever seen, big old mouthfuls, each of them. The vermouth is a nice touch: lots of bars in Barcelona advertise that they make their own, and this seems like it's worth investigating at some point. I know very little about vermouth except that it's essentially a fortified wine, and I've done some cooking with it long ago. (In fact, I just remembered one thing I made that may make me purchase another bottle...) This was rich and complex. It was also accompanied by a bottle of Alonso del Yerro, a 2010 tempranillo, that was just as rich and complex as the rabbit, with undertones of spice and earth that were still developing as the meal went on. And no wonder: I doubt I'd have ordered it if I'd seen the label first. It weighed in at a whopping 14.7%! A magnificent meal and, should one not spend as much as I did on the wine (which was half the entire bill), surprisingly affordable. Barcelona has a bunch of good restaurants in it, so it almost seems like a shame to keep going back to the same ones, but Mata Mala will see me again. 

* * * 

In Which I Learn A New Word In Spanish: If only the next day had been as wonderful as that meal was. All that remained was to pick up my ticket back to Montpellier. I'd ordered and paid for it on line once my schedule for the end of the trip, which had never been fixed, became clear. It had been bad enough changing the New York-Barcelona ticket on Delta, none of whose online stuff was working (they even told me to go to the wrong terminal at JFK!), so I figured this would be easy: I had two codes which, when presented with the card I'd bought the tickets with, would result in the issuance of my ticket. I'd even gotten a nice bargain: first class tickets for the same price as second class. So I took the subway to Barcelona Sants Station. 

First, I stood in the wrong line. Then, I stood a while longer in the right line. The ticket agent spoke no English or French, but he refused to give me a ticket. "Go to France," he said, and then took to ignoring me. Ridiculous, I thought. I'd bought a ticket on Renfe, the Spanish national railroad, in Montpellier, so why couldn't I get a Renfe/SNCF ticket in Barcelona? I went to the Customer Service department. There, nobody spoke English, either, but "No" is easy enough to understand. I protested: I'd spent €80 on the piece of paper in my hand! Where was my ticket? The woman at the counter and her boss stared at me, then extended their arms with the palms of their hands facing down. Putting their fingers at a 90-degree angle to that, they made little sweeping gestures with them. "Fuera, fuera," they said. 

"Get lost. Go away." 

I remembered that, a couple of years ago when I'd missed a connection in Barcelona, the tourist information people had been very friendly and helpful, so I went and stood on that line. The woman there didn't really speak English, nor could she figure out why I couldn't get Renfe to give me a ticket. But I had to wait until her colleague, who spoke much better English, she assured me, came back. This took about 15 minutes, during which I helped a couple of English tourists understand how to get to the airport, thereby helping out the tourist info lady. Finally, the other woman returned, and her English was worse! But a tall, elegant Spanish woman who'd just been helped said, in virtually accentless English, "I speak English. Perhaps I can help." And she did. I told her what my problem was, she translated, the tourist info lady then went off with me to some machines to enter the code. Which didn't work. Back to the Customer Service desk, where the same two unfriendly people were, and they told her that it was impossible. Finally, she deposited me with a ticket seller who told me that the only thing I could do was buy another ticket -- for a little over €80 -- and issued one for me. Same train, same time. But it cost me €160 to get home. Of course, when I was back, I looked at the ticket I'd bought. The first half, to Figueras, was non-refundable. The Figueras-Montpellier ticket was non-refundable after the time of departure. The moral of this was simple: have a hard ticket and don't expect any cooperation between Renfe and SNCF. You don't want to get fuera-fuera'd. 

* * * 

The rest of the day consisted of going to the Corta Inglés, the huge department store on the Placa Catalunya, to buy boxes of chicken broth (a product utterly unavailable in France!) and some ham chips to season food with, then hiding in my hotel room from the hordes of tourists until it was dinner time. 

Fortunately, I was in good enough mental shape to attempt a trip to a neighborhood I'd never been to, Born, for a visit to the Bar Celta, famous for its Galician-style octopus. Yes, it's a tapas bar, but the prices were so low I wasn't sure I'd ordered enough. The waiter, though, had good impulses, and here's 3/5 of what I ordered. 

Padrone peppers, ham croquettes, the famous octopus. Let's not forget the anchovies:

Again, those mammoth olives. And, although oil-cured, these weren't those aggressively fishy, super-salty anchovies you get in American pizzerias. Gotta figure out how the Spanish do it. The star of the show wasn't the surprisingly underflavored octopus for which the joint's renowned, though. It was something that, I calculated, I hadn't eaten in 43 years, and I'd already started in on before I thought of photographing and then decided not to. Razor clams! These were tiny next to American ones, but no less flavorful. Quickly cooked, then doused with olive oil, they were sweet and nutty. What a meal! I'll be back to this place, too, next time. 

I had a 6am wake-up for the train, and still had to pack, so I walked back to the hotel and collapsed. The next morning, I was all too ready to leave. The incident at the train station had affected me disproportionately, and made me wonder if I really did want to move to Barcelona. I can't make that decision now, at any rate: I don't have the money or enough information. But it did puncture the fantasy some. Still, isn't that what fantasies are for? 

At least the trains on Easter Sunday were deserted, and I looked off into the Pyrenees as we sped along towards France. Summer wasn't even a hint yet. And the year ahead is more of a mystery than ever. 

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