From “Perque.” Falling in love again… Part 3 Fish Ladies and Hot Java

The first day of my new life as Jordi Asin’s prep boy began with a tour of the pre-dawn Boqueria. Shhhhh… there are two Barcelonas. Version 1 is crazy busy, sometimes stinky, way too crowded with too many people from God knows where eating muy autentico“tapas” and “OK paella” washed down with Don Simon sangria (which is actually not all that bad… but save the washing up and just grab a straw and suck it right out the box), street pie mined and insanely noisy… When I am alcalde I will ban all “tuned” 2 cycle 50cc scooters and imprison the hormone-spewing teenage boys with vertical greased hairdos known in the trade and by every school kid including my daughter as “douches… or “dooshes” if you are from Jersey… who with their cackling chicas clinging to their popped collar polo shirt clad espaldas rev their puny model airplane engine-driven juguetes up and down Carretera de Sants from 10pm until 6am every damn noche de jueves i dissabtes. “Joder tio… ¡Cálla-friggin-te!”

The other Barcelona is darkly romantic, tranquil, mysterious, peaceful, bucolic, song bird infused and drenched with a half light that makes you want to buy a ukulele and sing the Israel Kamakawiwo`ole version of “What a Wonderful World”, and just a heck of a long way from 82nd Avenue. It is also only available from the hours of 5am to 7am… so get yo booty out of bed and enjoy it. I do… and did particularly on that chilly November morning. At slightly before six I had descended the stairs from Karen’s spectacular flat. Except for the panaderia opening up I had all of Carrer Hospital to myself. I head up the narrow and seemingly medieval Carrer de la Petxina… which is this really beautiful sort of secret passage entering the Boqueria which is neither as unceremonious nor as stinky as the backend or as horrifically touristy as the main entrance just off the Ramblas… which as mentioned previously at this time of day was neither of those things and was all mine. The Alcalde of the Raval  was walking his beat, taking it all in and enjoy his city.

I made my way past the closed up paradas… “El Hogar del Pollo Quili”, “Menuts Javier”, “Tocineria Victor i Paquita”, “Fruites i Verdures Cal Neguit.” All was quiet now… their metal gates drawn while they finished their last moments of sleep before all hell broke loose. I rounded the bend to see that Jordi had just arrived and was beginning his morning rituals. We exchanged sleepy but warm bon dias and I hopped right in ready to do my best on my first day.

The thing about institutions like Pinotxo is that they really are living things that have a life of their own… and as such can, if need be, repel invading microbes like me. It’s best to take it a little slowly… to stand back and look and ask before you say… reprogram the cash register. I was intent on dodging Pinotxo’s immune system.

The early morning regulars were arriving and Jordi was preparing the first rounds of cafe con leches and cortados. Here’s a potentially interesting sidebar: Sorry Don Jordi Pujol but like many restaurants around the world the official behind the counter kitchen language of Pinotxo seems to be Castellano. No cafe amb llet or tallats for these sleepyhead fish sellers and delivery guys. At “o dark and early” it’s, “Look jefe save the Parla catala dot org stuff, I got 50 merluzas and 20 bags of snails to sling so I grunt and give me the joe, OK?”

After one of the members of the Pinotxo breakfast club showed me how to set up the long legged exterior tables “just so” I headed over to see if I could mess up anything in the kitchen.

Observing maritime and kitchen protocol I requested to come aboard the good ship Pinotxo. Let me state the obvious… the kitchen of Pinotxo is unbelievably tiny. It’s a submarine’s galley. It’s a tunnel, a small tube of culinary wonder. It’s dinky! It’s not like they just use the place for a final prep and a pass through the microwave… everything… and I mean everything…. 1000 meals a week… comes out of a space that is about the dimensions of a medium sized walk-in closet in Pedralbes.

Jordi asked me what I wanted to learn how to cook. I explained that I was here to help, to do menial labor… to be a galley slave. He acknowledged my commitment and then said we needed to whup up the first round of their famous garbanzos with morcilla. But first we needed the morcilla. Jordi asked me to run to a specific parada and bring back the required blood sausage.

Wow my first task. I felt like I was sixteen again and anxious about not messing up at my first job. Right! OK! Morcilla! Yes sir! You want morcilla? You will have morcilla. I flew out of the kitchen and followed Jordi’s directions to the letter. “To the left, two aisles over and one aisle down. The little cansaladeria on the end. Tell her you are from Pinotxo.” Within seconds I arrived at the little cansaladeria on the end. It was shut up as tight as can of anchovies de Cantabria. Joder

Should I show initiative and do the eager beaver, knucklehead thing and find the morcillasomeplace else? “Hey look coach they didn’t have the morcilla but a got you a zucchiniinstead!” Nah I reported back sausageless.

“It’s not a problem”… I was beginning to get the feeling that not much is a problem to Jordi… I mean serving 1000 demanding diners a week from a chicken coop sized metal box filled with flames, 6 to 8 dancing butts connected to 6 to 8 distinct and complex personalities 6 days a week 11 months out of the year probably keeps things like temporarily missing morcilla in perspective.

Jordi moves me on to cap i pota (head and foot). First thing you need to know about cap i pota is it’s only cap and no pota. So what exactly is cap… Brains? no. Cheek? no. Tongue. no…. cap is… wait for it… pig face. Yes… that’s right. Cara de Porky Pig. I don’t know why the world erupts into utter fascination with the occasional facial transplant… at theboqueria there’s a couple of paradas with stacks of pig faces. Happy ones. Sad ones. Grumpy ones. Laughing ones. Luckily the one I was dealing with had been cut into unrecognizable chunks which I stirred around and around in a big pot.

While I was dealing with porky Jordi had snuck out and returned with the morcilla. Either the shop had just opened or I had been waiting in front of Esther and Montse’s Bacalao n’More and didn’t know it. In any event Jordi gently issued the instructions for thegarbanzos and I dove right in to my new chore. I took a couple morcillas, slit and removed their casings and then cut them into big chunks. Then I squirted some olive oil in a pan and added the morcilla and commenced to busting it up a wooden spoon. After awhile I added a whack of caramelized onions that someone had thoughtfully prepared before. When everything was nice and cooked through I emptied a tupperware containers worth of nice fat garbanzos into the pan, gave them gentle stir and placed the empty tupperware container on the metal counter next to the stove. Jordi came over to compliment me on kitchen prowess and to scrape the melted tupper off the grill cover.

A this point the real crew showed up and as their 6 to 8 butts began to fill up the walk-in closet I thought it might be a good time to end my first day. As hearty hand clasps were exchanged and backs were slapped I made a promise to come back for lunch to taste the fruits of our labor.

I returned that afternoon and ordered the garbanzos and steeled up my courage for the cap i pota. Jordi brought the garbanzos which were and always are delicious. As he took the empty plate he delivered the sad news that the cap i pota had been sold out. With an imperceptible smile he suggested callos (tripe) as a substitute. I looked him in the eye and said… “Bring it jefe. Bring it.”

From “Perque.” Falling in love again… Part 2 Mongetes and Minuts

The opportunity arose as most opportunities arise by following a whim… or was that a hunch. Let’s just call it happenstance. A happy accident. You see I somewhat irregularly produce a show called “Xpat Stories.” I want to call it a live show but that implies it’s the opposite of a dead show or something involving naked people, pimples and black socks but it is definitely a live show… if you can get the audience of between three and eight people to shut up for 10 minutes while some poor guy or gal pours his or her heart out about just how tiny the coffee cups are. Anyway it’s a podcast too so thanks to this diatribe being on a screen rather than a piece of paper you can zip right over here to check it out. On this blog I will undoubtedly revisit the trials and tribulations of mounting this endeavor but for now let’s just say that it’s a bitch getting anybody to spill their guts to an audience of complete strangers many of whom would really rather be watching Lionel Messi grow a moustache… I am always on the hunt for speaker fodder.

This quest lead me to meet poet, journalist, writer and former New Yorker Karen Swenson who has decided to make her home in a remarkable apartment on Carrer Hospital which depending on who you are talking to might be considered as either colorful or dodgy. As it turned out the schedule for the next Xpat Stories and hers would not be in alignment but what was discussed was her upcoming trip to Berlin and her cat’s need to have a companion for a week. Over the course of my time here I have lived in many of Barcelona’s barrios but never in the Raval and certainly not in a stunning piso like hers. What the hey… she needed a house sitter and I volunteered.

Other than comparing and contrasting the tasteful and reserved opulence of Karen’s digs with the lively surroundings of the intersection of the Raval profundo and Las Ramblas, as discussed in the last installment of this serial rant, I wanted to revise my opinion of the Boqueria and the aforementioned Bar Pinotxo which is just a block away from Karen’s flat. I hatched a plan. Each day I would visit the Boqueria and have lunch at Pinotxo where one plate at a time I would divine a new appreciation for this tourist-battered part of town.

I installed myself in Casa Swenson and having always been an early riser I found my first morning to be no exception. I had been adamantly grilled in the manner in which the cat was to be fed. The system was simple: Place three kibbles of cat food in the bowl. Wait for the cat to eat. Pet the cat while eating. Wait five minutes. Add three more kibbles. Wait for the cat to eat. Pet the cat while eating. Add three more kibbles. Repeat until .5 cups has been consumed. Estimated required time: 1.5 hours. Important: Unless this procedure is followed the cat will vomit. I didn’t follow the procedure. The cat vomited. All over the ancient imported Italian floor tiles. Many times.

The morning was a joyful blur of me cleaning up cat puke and trying to get some work done. Eventually the bells from the what had been the ancient hospital (but is now the national library of Catalunya as well as many other cool things…) from which the street takes its name announced that it was time to implement phase one of the plan. Looking for authenticity I entered the Boqueria from the side the tourists never see… the culo… back by the giant, oloroso industrial trash compactors. I passed by the famous Petras Boletsparada featuring seemingly every non-hallucinogenic fungus known to mankind… and maybe a few hallucinogenic ones if you ask them nicely.  Here’s a question for my Catalan friends… mud might be good for you but I just can’t used to eating dirt with my rovellons. I know… use a brush and never wash… but is there a trick I am missing?

I pushed on and into the inner fish circle. Like some sort of hell for aquatic animals the Boqueria’s fish section is set up in concentric rings with the stands for mariscosbacalaoand other preserved fish on the outside and an unbelievable number of fresh fish folks glaring at each other on the inside. I then moved through the “Zona de Offal”… five stands selling nothing but innards, variety meats, menuts… guts. God bless you Iberians and your desire to use up every bit of animales but is there really that big of a market for tongues, brains, stomachs, lymph glands and testicles? I am in general an adventurous eater but not once in my life have I ever shot straight up in bed at 3am with an insatiable desire to consume a pig’s colon.

Eventually I arrived at the Boqueria’s frontline and my destination; Bar Pinotxo. It was as hopping as usual but I was able to plop down on a stool that miraculously had just been vacated. I took this to be a good omen. The Pinotxo crew was in fine balletic form bobbing and weaving to match the rhythms of orders and calmly helping the patrons decide on what to have for lunch.

Confession… For as long as I remember I have been staring at other peoples plates of food. Some people gaze into their partner’s eyes, watch birds, planes and/or various attractive and unattractive people and their various attractive and unattractive body parts. I on the other hand stare at plates of food belonging to complete strangers. On my right a young couple was sharing an order of garbanzos and morcilla and washing it down with cava… on the left a couple of Asian ladies were having beautiful brown and gooey estofadoand a whack of baby squids… AKA chiperones… AKA calamarsets. My gaze shifted from the pile of tiny loligo vulgaris to the big brown soulful eyes and wry smile of the waitress (whom I would find out later was named Maria) and who had guessed that this would be what I was having.

An order was placed and within moments I was looking at a plate of cephalopoda niños y niñas snatched from the prime of their lives. Snatched or not all those lightly “planchared” tiny completely intact bodies looked incredibly tasty. The squidlets had been laid to rest on a mound of tiny white beans. Hmmm… could these be the famous… Like I had a rare form of Tourettes that caused me to shout names of exotic legumes the words “Mongetes de Santa Pau!” involuntarily exited my mouth. Suddenly six heads turned as one from their stations at the plancha, the Pilsner Urquel tap, the espresso machine and if memory serves the dishwasher. It was like in that ancient Groucho Marx TV show “You Bet Your Life” where if during the introductory chat a contest would say “the magic word” a model T horn would go off and a rubber duck on a string would drop down signaling that the contestant had won a set of steak knives or a bathmat. Apparently “Mongetes de Santa Pau” was the magic word.

Although there was no rubber duck there was a lot of staring, gesturing and whispering behind the counter. The tribunal made their decision then Jordi, a thin, angularly good looking and prematurely gray haired guy (whose name I discovered thanks to it being embroidered on his chef’s jacket) and who had been working the plancha and the fogonslooked me in the eye and said, “What are you doing tomorrow morning?” I looked over to Maria. She was doing that wry smile thing again. “Uh…  well… what time?”, I said trying to figure out just what I was getting myself in to. “6:30… You and I will open up and I’ll show you how to make a couple of things.”  He raised one eyebrow and without missing a beat I said, “OK. I’m in.” Maria nodded her head as he turned back to rescue the almejas from under the upturned pyrex loaf pan. I seemed to be levitating a few inches above my bar stool. The die was cast, I was going to help open the world renowned “Bar Pinotxo.”

From “Perque.” Falling in love again… Part 1

When we came here 12 years ago we explored the city in the usual ways. The Pedrera. Casa Batlló. Getting purposefully lost in the plazas of Gràcia. Getting unpurposefully lost in the Gótic(o). The Sagrada Familia at dawn. The Sagrada Familia at dusk. The Sagrada Familia at noon. The chapel under the Sagrada Familia. The towers of the Sagrada Familia… they used to let you climb them then. The Cathedral and the Sardana in front of the Cathedral and the pile of coats in the middle of the Sardana in front of the Cathedral watched over by the octogenarian dancers who would get excited and let go with a “whoo-hoo!” when the cobla would crank up the volume just a notch.

Of course we sauntered down the pre “Pakistanis selling glow-in-the-dark helicopters and mysterious bird whistles” Las Ramblas and the stands with flowers and chipmunks, canaries and lizards and the human statues and the shell games and the pickpockets circling the shills and the marks watching the shell games. And then the 8th wonder of the food world… the Boqueria.

Back where I come from, fresh fish more or less still comes in a plastic wrapped styrofoam tray and is called either surmi (AKA “Krazy Krab”) salmon or “red snapper”… with “red snapper” standing in pretty much for anything that isn’t salmon. Here there was salmon and… salmonettesrape that looked like a cross between Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre towards the end of his career, sad but vicious looking merluza, dorado, lenguado, sepia, adolescent sepia, baby sepia… chiperones, bacalao…  esqueixada, soaked or dry as a chunk of granite, in bunuelos… calamari, atún, mero, emperador, lubina, aringas, sardinas, buey de mar, necoras, bogavantes, tallerinas, mejillones, seemingly 10 other kinds of amejas, ostras, gambas… big ones from South America and smaller, redder and really expensive ones from Palamós… cigalas, navajas, higado de rape, rasca, pulpo, pulpitos, percebes… most of it whole, most of it with its head on and looking at you, and some of with its head on and still kicking.

There were bags of snails and piles of entrails, white fluffy tripe bath towels, tongues that invariably had tales to tell the piles of ears which were listening for the magic phase, “y cuatro orejas y una cara, a que no estar sola … éste, es muy guapo.” And speaking of tales… of course they had tails… toro, vaca y cerdo. And rabbits dressed in their fur coats hanging by their feet like bats which amazingly they were all out of.

The frontline of paradas was dug in to conquer the waves of snapping, drawling, pushing, gaping tourists all speaking in a tidal wave of different languages but seemingly not one word of “Spanish” or God forbid … “what… they speak another language here!?” Catalan. Ok maybe an “hola” or “si” or a “gra-thee-ath” but the torrent of questions like “What is that thing with a hoof?” or “How much is that in dollars, marks, pounds, yen, kroner, bat?” were delivered just like they were talking to the checker at Ralphs, Tesco, Penny Markt or Monoprix.

Just off to the right and thronged by a huge mass of people was tiny Bar Pinotxo where at the prow stood a short, wirey “well-preserved” guy, enthusiastically greeting customers, pouring cava and beer, helping the newbies into plates of gambas, doing the cuenta on a tiny, narrow pad of paper and cycling the happy diners on and off of their stools in record time. We newly-arrived guiris assumed this whirlwind of smiles and commerce must be the namesake and owner of the joint. It must be the famous, “Señor Pinotxo” no doubt. “En-cantar-do.” “Yo tambien! I have fresch shrimps from Palamos and almejas too-day! We cook for you! OK? Siente.”

As the years passed I began to become jaded about the Ramblas and the Boqueria. I found my shopping home at other mercados and yep the “super.” As beautiful as it was, the Ramblas was for extranjero rubes looking for giant beers, buckets of Sangria, “OK Paella”, Mexican sombreros, fake Barça jerseys and, down across from the wax museum, aggressive low rent putas who if you weren’t careful would tell you how much they loved you by grabbing your weenie, johnson or schwanz. Obviously the mossos were in on the shell game. The Boqueria was a trap for suckers looking for “Jamon Serrano Español” andzumos that got cheaper and better the farther you went into that great beautiful barn.

I gave lectures to naive guests from many countries explaining that the best place for your passport was in the nightstand, if you had to take a day pack it should be slung in the front with both of your arms over it. Wallets should be in the left front pocket with the owners hand resting firmly on top of it for extra good measure and should only contain enough cash for immediate purchases, and all the plastic belonged at home with the passport.Cuidado!!!

Even at the height of my season as the world weary expat “lifer” I knew it was all a ruse. I had seen the Ramblas at dawn. I had watched the crew of Pinotxo quietly and graciously accommodate a six-deep gaggle of confused and anxious putzfraus, notebook-toting foodies, pushy investment bankers and their trophy brides, nintendo-wielding picky niñoslooking for mcnuggets, still-drunk lobster-red lager louts and lout-ettes, Frenchies looking for waiters and tables and more silverware, Taiwanese salesmen ready to go to the mat over the freshness of the mariscos and of course the local regulars… all while simultaneously dodging butts in a kitchen the size of a walk in closet. Somehow they had time to steer an older couple from Des Moines away from their neighbor’s capipota and intolo mejor de lo mejor estofado or the simple but brilliant garbanzos con cebollas andmorcilla or to a single egg fried to perfection in a tiny skillet on bed of a couple of like slices of pancetta of the Gods and a few crispy hand carved slivers of potatoes.

I had seen in a parada just off the main drag, at prices less than at Dia, personally harvested bledes and artichokes from out by the airport stacked like they were the crown jewels by a smiling, sweet-looking woman who couldn’t have been a day under 90. My cynicism was a sham. Like with just about everything in Spain and Catalunya I was in love. Like everything in Spain and Catalunya it was both simple and complicated. And really was paying one or two euros for a watery zumo that much of a surcharge for lo mejor del mejor mercado en todo del mundo? It was time to rekindle the affair. It was time for Bar Pinotxo to take me home.