There is nothing easier than taking a group of people around the boqueria, spewing forth a handful interesting sound bites before taking them to an apartment that has been staged and cooking up a paella. Maybe they get to keep the apron.
That’s not what Sarah, who runs the Barcelona Food Sherpa market tour and lunch is about. She starts off at Santa Caterina, a market she has been using since her days as head chef and owner of Tapioles 53. Breakfast is at Bar Sant Joan. Thin tortilla with whatever vegetable is in season on a seeded baguette that Sarah brings them.
After plying her guests with breakfast and coffee, Sarah begins the tour in ernest. It’s obvious the stallholders hold her in high esteem. At the egg stall, the owner reaches under the counter where she keeps the ‘special’ eggs, from chickens that are not on the grid and roam among the vegetable patches – to give to Sarah. Sarah’s bags begin to fill up. At every stop, we get another glimpse into the world of these stallholders, the majority of whom own and work at the stalls. “Unlike the Boqueria, where the people working the stalls are employees.” she tells us.
She picks up some secreto iberico (a cut of pork that comes from between the shoulder-blade and the loin of the Iberian pig) from the butcher’s. “When I first opened my restaurant in 2005, I knew that this was the best butcher but initially he wouldn’t sell his produce to me. I had to take him out to lunch and convince him.”
“Why wouldn’t he sell to you?” someone on the tour asks.
“Because he was worried that I wouldn’t treat his meat properly.”
At some point we stop for an olive oil tasting and she teaches us to warm the olive oil in the palm of our hands before slurping it up loudly. “Bread interferes with the flavour of the oil.” She admonishes us.
We leave the market and meander slowly to Sarah’s home. All the while she regales us with stories. We arrive at her home, which she shares with her Galician husband and her two children.
Sarah’s apartment is alive with pattern. From the tiles on the floor, to the throw cushions on the sofas, to the boldly coloured paintings (most painted by her father) on the walls. The doors to rooms are left open, so on the way to the bathroom you can stop and marvel at her pantry to which she has dedicated an entire room.
Ambient music on, she settles us down with a bottle of Cava and encourages us to explore before retreating the kitchen. Only to reemerge what seems to be minutes later with bowls of olives, boards of cheese and meat. Later some young broad beans cooked with slivers of jamon. Cups of steaming hot broth. “Cloudy broth because in Spain broth is about nourishment and not aesthetic.” She tells us.
Every ingredient has a story and is put in context. Not rigidly, pointed out on a laminated map but woven into an easy narrative. A lot of tour goers like to watch her in the kitchen. She is unflappable. She can carry a conversation and make sure the food is cooking as it should simultaneously.
She leaves us again. This time to prepare our main dish. The afore-mentioned iberico is salted and put in a dry pan, tender green beans and medallions of pan-fried pears. Two types. She serves it family style. “A teaspoonful of anything tastes amazing. Try to make a whole plate of something taste incredible.”
It is nourishing food. Unassuming to look at but exquisite in its flavour. A plate of good food relies upon more than the dexterity and talent of the chef for it to taste good. This is a fact. Dan Barber has an entire farm behind Blue Hill. Alice Waters saw the respect chefs had for the terroir (literally soil in French which refers to the characteristics of where it something was grown.) as a young woman on a trip to France and brought that back with her to Berkeley. A chef, a cook is nothing but a pair of hands without ingredients that have flavour.
Sarah understands this. She doesn’t rely on splodge of reduction or anything molecular. She is brave enough to serve the least embellished plate of food you are likely to eat for some time. She is brave because she knows that her food is reinforced by her primary ingredients. She has bought from the best and as a customer of over a decade, they have given her the best.
For dessert – a rich almond cake. Naked, except for a generous sprinkling of caster sugar. I think, there is no way the flavour of this cake will seduce me when so little is happening on the plate. Yet it does – tender perfect mouthfuls.
Sarah smiles at our surprise and we continue our sobremesa until nothing remains of the cake but crumbs.
NB Sarah is a great friend of mine and I was invited along to this meal.