Food & Travel / Words & Photos
It is a sublime pleasure to realize that you’re in the middle of one the best moments of your life.
Last week over lunch at the Pinotxo food kiosk at Barcelona’s Boqueria market, I smiled so much that I hit a point where I couldn’t speak.
It happened like this…A very good friend and I sat at a pair of Pinotxo’s stools with three years of catching up to do. Beer and Cava are ordered. I recall the time where I spent a day shooting pictures for a story, wedged behind the bar in the galley kitchen and of the incredible meals I’ve eaten here.
Mushrooms appear, wading in an elixir of olive oil, vinegar, garlic and goodness, dusted with big flakes of salt. Did we order those? Is that important? I take a bite and my right leg starts jiggling.
Razor clams show up next, cooked a la plancha (think: screaming hot greaseless griddle), garnished with nothing and drizzled with olive oil that mingles with their liquor, followed by a plate of clams that are cousins of those at Cal Pep.
A roaring crowd mills through the market, and we talk about life, love, family, tragedy and happiness: the floodgates of three years of busy lives in different places burst out onto the bar. The axis of the world shifts to the center point between our stools and our plates.
My favorite Pinotxo dish arrives – baby squid known as xipirones sautéed with tiny white beans. Along with the drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt, there’s a swirl of a balsamic glaze that sharpens flavors and adds subtle sweetness. My left leg starts jiggling, independent of its neighbor.
More Cava, more connecting. I can’t stop smiling. If food can bring you to a higher place, I don’t know what that is.
Take all the three-star restaurants and elaborate presentations you want, this is purity in many forms - the center of the universe.
Pinotxo – Mercat San Josep – “La Boqueria” – La Rambla 91 – Barcelona, SPAIN
I’m being stalked by pork and shellfish.
Following cockles in meat sauce on the French island of Belle-Ile-en-Mer, fortune smiled on me again by mixing meat and bivalves, this time in Catalonia.
A few days ago at the Barcelona landmark restaurant, Cal Pep, I had tiny clams in white wine, parsley, garlic and … what was it???
Too thick to be olive oil, I asked chef, owner and landmark in his own right Pep Manubens if it was butter (an unlikely candidate in these parts) that gave the sauce such a wonderful texture.
He bristled, recovered, placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered his raspy voice into my half-deaf ear.
“It’s the ham.”
I smirked with pleasure as a larger understanding fluttered down; the little bits of the famous jamon iberico were indeed tasty, but what really contributed the flavor and texture that made me chortle with pleasure was the fat that surrounded the little bits of meat. Giving up the ghost on remaining a solid, the fat surrendered itself to heat and higher purpose, rendering a sauce custom-made to be mopped up with pa amb tomaquet – “tomato bread” rubbed with garlic and coated with olive oil.
Yow. Yow. Yow.
Perhaps I spend too much time wanting to eat on the rue Paul Bert, but needing to find a good restaurant nearby on a Monday changed all that. Mikael, man of good wines at Crus et Decouvertes, told me about Le Coup de Feu – “the gunshot” - not too far away on the rue Léon Frot – a parallel universe with a foursome of restaurants – Coup de Feu, the Italian Casa Vigata and the bistrot à vins Melac, and La Table de Claire (actually on the rue Emile Lepeu) that quietly give rue Paul Bert a run for its money.
Along with a tasty, organic-oriented wine list, we went three for three on mains at Le Coup de Feu – beef cheeks with root vegetables, flank steak with a soy-based yakitori sauce and calamari with pork belly and piperade (onions, peppers & tomatoes: blub, blub, yum, yum). Though nothing was Bistro-Paul-Bert-engraved-in-your-memory-good, the price was right and the food solid: main course for three and a nice bottle of K.O.’s cot (malbec) and a dessert split three ways for 25€ each. As a bonus, they threw in a tasty, honey-scented white as an apéro.
There’s good neighborhood buzz around the other three restaurants, particularly Casa Vigata, though I’ve heard a reports that the waiters at Melac tend to be on the crotchety side. Also of note is the café/bar/bistrot Carbon 14 – site of the last bougnat (coal depot) in Paris - specialists in good beer and good cheer.
Le Carbone 14 – bar/café/bistrot - 6, rue Emile Lepeu 75011 - 01.46.59.04.28 - www.lecarbone14.fr
Casa Vigata - 44, Rue Léon Frot - 75011 - 01 43 56 38 66
Melac - 42, Rue Léon Frot, 75011 - 01 43 70 59 27 - www.melac.fr
I recently interviewed American food icon Alice Waters for a story I’m working on – Alice is down on France – particularly on the way the farming industry is run – now preferring to go to Italy where they still “get it.”
She should meet Baptiste Vasseur, an organic farmer in Belle Ile’s tiny town of Kerzo.
I met Vasseur, 26, while wandering the cliffs of Belle-Ile. He was out there with his friends, 100 feet above the ocean, fishing for the sea bass known as bar and “whatever else will bite” using shore casting rods to cast their bait a country mile out into the water. How they got the fish up to the top of the cliff remained a mystery.
Vasseur is in his second year of production on his farm with no name, now harvesting late-season tomatoes along with eggplant, cabbage, leeks, turnips, pumpkins and spuds.
It seems a lonely existence for a young guy (Kerzo is a tiny town on an island with a total population of only about 5,000 and mainland France is alternately known as “The Continent” or just “The Other Side”), so why here?
“I’ve got some family here, but mostly I just like it,” he explained. “I found a farm, I studied to make sure it was going to work and got a farmer’s loan. We’ve got a lot of debt, but the loan helped us get going.”
I ask the same question everyone eventually asks me as a freelance journalist: “You can make a living doing this?”
“I sell in the market in Le Palais, to restaurants, at the farm itself, and once a week a group of island farmers sells at the aerodrome. That’s it – that’s all I can grow.
What he doesn’t say (I’ll later learn this from chef Epron, who buys Vasseur’s tomatoes for his restaurant, La Table de la Desirade) is that some jerk once came by and poured pesticide in the cistern Vasseur uses to water his plants. This could strip a farmer of his organic certification in a heartbeat, but Vasseur rapidly realized the problem with a minimum of damage.
“It can get political,” he adds, “but in the end, it’s working. We work hard and believe in what we do.”
Le Palais – Belle Ile, FRANCE - Maybe it’s all the clean air, but I’m getting into this ‘lunch on the seawall’ idea. Perhaps it’s because everyone in Le Palais, Belle-Ile’s biggest town, shrugs when I ask for a good place to eat (there are a few), but I’m learning that while the towns are picturesque, people don’t leave “Le Continent” for the island’s social scene or a destination restaurant. It’s more about taking a long walk or watching the waves crash.
I realize this while leaning against one of the two mini-lighthouses (the red one) that mark the entrance to Le Palais’ tiny port. I’ve brought a baguette, a half-dozen plates (flat oysters) from Quiberon, a tomato from a little farm one side of the island and a pepper-coated dome of fresh goat cheese from a cheese maker the other.
Here, this may be the version of ‘eating out’ I like the most.
I spoke too soon. Belle-Ile chef Pacôme Epron has brought me back in from the seawall with one dish.
Though the man has mastered roasting turbot at La Desirade, it was his dish based around cockles (cockles!) that brought me in. His recent millefeuille de coques, rosace de pomme de terre et courgettes au thym, jus viande au foie gras might be a little long in name, but what’s most important is the mix of cockles and meat jus. Some here will cry heresy at the idea of mixing of meat and fish, but theirs is a waste of hot air.
Pouring what tastes like the delicious fond from the bottom of a roast beef pan over the dish turns it from a dainty seafood course to something almost carnal – I wish I was eating this on a date.
Francois Mitterand might have preferred the frou-frou of the nearby Castel Clara (think: thalassotherapy, buffet tables and crisp white jackets), but I like Epron’s and La Table’s simplicity.
La Table de La Desirade - www.hotel-la-desirade.com – “Le Petit Cosquet” – 56360 Belle-Ile-En-Mer - +33 (0)2 97 31 70 70