[Pink Pig Time Machine by Wilfrid: November 16, 2007]
As promised, a quick step sideways across Europe took me from London to a long weekend in beloved Barcelona, ten years ago this week.
(Public domain image of Casas' painting for Els Quatre Gats)
So attached have I been to this incredible city, that when I lived in London I often visited for just a few days; such a quick trip. This jaunt followed a well-tested itinerary.
After checking into the Hotel Oriente, a large but simple old establishment on La Rampla near metro Liceu, I slipped down to c.Ample for some crab claws at the well-known Galician seafood tapas bar, the name of which I can never recall.
After a nap, the blinds closed against the late fall sunlight, I started the evening with a stroll over to Els Quat' Gats. The Four Cats, secluded in an alleyway near the Avinguda del portal D'Angel, is a cabaret which survives from the golden era of Picasso's bohème - he sketched its clients, decorated its newsletter.
The founder, Pere Romeu hosted Barcelona's demi-monde of writers, artists and architects here. The bar room is decorated by a large and droll portrait of Romeu sharing a tandem with the artist Ramon Casas. There's a dining room in the rear, but I found the bar a sympathetic spot for a flute of cava.
(Els Quatre Gats is in a beautiful house designed by Puig-i-Cadafalch)
Next stop, one of my Barcelona essentials: the hard-to-find dive El Portalón on c. Banys Nous. This dark, brick-walled cavern, which feels like nothing more than the inside of a vast wine barrel, is hard to locate when closed, the big iron shutters completely concealing the interior. It's not so easy to find when it's open either.
A surviving example of the type of bodega which used to be common in the old city, El Portalón offers standing room at a long-ish tapas bar to your left. Wine is drawn into unmarked bottles from big kegs to your right. Beyond are makeshift tables, where groups sit to eat the specialty fideu - essentially a paella in which the rice is replaced by thin noodles.
I stand, drink vino clarete, sharp pink wine, and eat true tapas: small dishes of anchovies and cuttlefish in oil, hot snails jerked from their shells with a toothpick, crisply fried artichokes.
Then a restaurant long dear to me, the Ateneu Gastronómic on a small, dull square - not much more than a car park - just off the Ramblas. This is a restaurant with a mind as well as a soul, and it guides you through local history and political philosophy, as well as through a menu. The food, sourced from the valleys and forests of Cataluña, is served in simple presentations.
The foie gras was all eaten up on this occasion, so I started with big slices of country bread, toasted and streaked with anchovies. Next, local wild mushrooms, picked that day, with a chicory salad. Memories of plates of artisanal sausages, fresh thistle salads, horse (yes!) tartare...
The main meat dish, pheasant with a black truffle stuffing, was typically restrained: the slices of bird fanned across the plate, and lapped with a buttery white wine sauce. No further garnish. The kitchen has several ways of pairing cheese with sweet things; in this case a goat cheese with a tomato marmalade to finish the meal. A Raimat Abadia Reserva from the nineties to drink, at the usual indiscernibly small mark-up.
Into the small hours at Bar Pastis, a hole-in-wall playing the old chansons, accessed by running a gauntlet of tranny hookers built like heavyweight wrestlers.
After breakfast next day - tortilla at one of the bars in the Mercat del Born - clothes shopping. These were the days when the dollar bought you something. Then a marvellous retrospective of the Catalan photographer Leopoldo Pomés at the Palau de la Virreina. Among the portraits, figure studies, and inevitable bull-fights, a painstaking record of Barcelona's old streets, buildings, corners and people.
Another great place to begin an evening is El Xampanyet, the prettily tiled cava bar hard by the Picasso museum. Specialising in fine canned seafood tapas, and very sweet local cava or sidra, the kitchen also sends out tray after tray of montaditos - choice titbits simply spiked to small slices of bread. The pale butifarra sausage is one to grab.
Can Culleretes is thought to be Barcelona's oldest restaurant, feeding the Barri Gotíc since 1786, only Madrid's Botín (1725) has seniority in Spain. Classicism seemed in order, so I began with a typical Catalan plate of mongetes - tender white beans - stewed with pork. Next, a stewed partridge with rovellones - large, pinkish wild mushrooms. Mel i mató to conclude - fresh cheese with honey.
If you can visit Barcelona only rarely, Set Portes will not be near the top of your list. Older elements of the city's chattering classes were still gathering for late dinners in the 1990s, but it was already metamorphosing from a serious dining destination into a historical institution - with great tourist appeal.
A series of connected formal dining rooms, down near the water, the restaurant boasts traditional service - bow-tied waiters clustering around serving stations to carve, reduce, spoon and plate. Small tables beside your dining table are reserved for your bottles of water and wine. There is a great sense of comfort. There's some good food too, especially the characteristically dark paellas. Any cut of kid can usually be recommended.
Having started the evening chasing some morçilla around the bar of Amaya, the old Basque restaurant near the bottom of the Ramblas, I began my Set Portes meal with familiar salt cod fritters, served over a light tomato sauce. I was looking for a light supper, because instead of meat or rice, I followed with a dorado al horno and a few chipped potatoes. The traditional crema Catalana to finish, and a bottle of Penedes rosado.
In subsequent years, Barcelona has become a veritable destination for avant-garde dining. These simpler classic pleasures also deserve to survive. Dawn saw me head red-eyed to the airport.
Book of the trip: Eduardo Mendoza's City of Marvels, a novel set in turn-of-the-century Barcelona. Most of the places mentioned have a web presence - some with English available:
Set Portes (the web-site claims this to be the oldest restaurant in Barcelona; not true.)