The chiringuito, the quintessential no-frills summer food destination, has been home to numerous gatherings over the years, triggering revelations and confessions around approachable, comfort food in Spain for almost a century. Come summer, its presence becomes ubiquitous all over the country, particularly at the beachfront, with many chiringuitos standing out for their simple yet well executed, produce-led, short-order cooking. No wonder it has at times served as an inspiration to renowned chefs. The first chiringuito—a word of Cuban origin, brought back to Spain by returning emigrants—opened in Sitges in 1913. Our venture into the Spanish food scene coincides with the one-hundred-year anniversary of this memorable cultural exchange. We take a look at Spain’s food scene, strolling through the city of Barcelona, Madrid and beyond. We reveal some of our favorite places and discover that the pulse and drive of Spain’s gastronomy, from casual to fine dining, is alive and kicking, as open to new possibilities and influences as ever before.
Sitges is just half an hour away by train or by car from Barcelona, I explain to my caffeine-deprived US visiting friends the day after their arrival at the end of the summer. It is not yet ten on a Saturday morning when—after their first coffee ever from the traditional Spanish cafetera—they walk out the door with directions to Sants Station, the gateway to both distant destinations in central Spain such as Zaragoza and Madrid as well as nearby outposts in Catalonia. For roughly seven and a half euros they can take the train round trip to my favorite year-round weekend escape at the seafront. I feel this is a good occasion for them to venture out of their comfort zone in the city center and explore on their own. Plus, after a number of back-to-back visits, I have errands to catch up on.
Driving south on the coastal, curvy road to Sitges has always felt good to me. I have taken this route a few times since the beginning of the summer. It provides me with a glimpse of what if feels like to belong to a place; it’s a shortcut to reconnecting. In a heartbeat I am linked again to that Mediterranean essence. “This is it!” The words burst out of my mouth, a scream almost, intersecting with Dalida’s Parole, Parole pounding out of the stereo. Words mixing up with words, but never colliding. I indulge in the surrounding views of pine trees, the sea as the backdrop, feeling the anticipated urge to jump in the water and feel amphibious for a few minutes, until confronted with the inevitable need to gasp for air. Afterwards I’ll dry up under the sun while considering the options for lunch at a nearby chiringuito. A fideuà or a bocadillo de calamares, maybe; it’s all up in the air.
My hold of the wheel softens and I turn up the music. The curvy road reminds me of the drive from San Francisco to Stinson Beach in Northern California, one of my all-time favorite escapes. Sitges is also an escape. Despite Gaudi’s impossible silhouettes and Barceloneta’s musical rhythms providing a good counterbalance to Barcelona’s restless pace, it is just good to be away for a few hours or days. Sitges is an easy-to-reach antidote to urbanity and pose, the capital’s corsé far away in the rearview, crooked mirror. If only one could remember to head south more often. Perhaps I should just get a head-south tattoo.
Food at a chiringuito is simple, almost by definition. I can’t help but wonder if Ferran Adrià—the innovative chef responsible for sparking and leading a worldwide revolution in our approach to food—is himself heading south more often in search of simplicity, now that elBulli, his restaurant, has definitely closed doors to give way to a Foundation.
The phone rings and I am back to reality. It’s my mother calling. I turn on my laptop and start searching for airfares to the Canary Islands, to visit family in a few weeks. I am always excited to go back and catch up with everyone. Also, I will have the chance to explore. The renovated restaurant scene surprised me in my last stay. Deliciosa Marta, in my hometown, is on everyone’s list but I hear of a number of new openings. I can’t wait to go back and see what’s going on.
It was only a matter of time before modernist, sun-drenched Barcelona became a year-round destination. My friends and I walk past the new Stella McCartney and Michael Kors stores, on our way to dinner. Has the increasing number of visitors somehow triggered the relaxation of quality standards?, I wonder. At Carles Abellan’s Tapas 24, which doesn’t take reservations, we manage to score four stools at the bar. Here we’re to be wowed by an army of well-coordinated cooks and waiters, no movement or plate ever out of tune. We sample platter after platter – from black rice with aioli to Iberian ham croquetas to an upgraded version of a bikini sandwich, with truffles, Iberian ham and manchego cheese – with plenty of nods to the flavors and atmosphere of Spain’s South.
With an ice-cold Manzanilla (a type of sherry) glass in hand, I listen as my friends tell me about their day in Sitges, how they had fallen for its laid-back lifestyle. Tonight is their chance to get acquainted with the flavors of Andalucia, the delicious, fragrant olive oil from the south more piquant than the arbequina, Catalonia’s indigenous sweeter variety. Pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato and olive oil) reaches perfection with arbequina olive oil, though I prefer the picual varietal from the warmer south for some pungency in a gazpacho.In the middle of dessert, a modern take on a childhood, mid-afternoon snack – chocolate with bread, olive oil and salt – an instant memory of a meal at José Andrés’ Bazaar in Los Angeles comes to mind. A storyline connected one dish with the next back then. His rendition of papas arrugadas con mojo picón, wrinkled potatoes with a spicy olive oil and smoked paprika (pimentón) sauce, tasted like heaven in the restaurant at La Cienaga Boulevard. Thousands of miles apart, both chefs—Abellan and Andres—offer a compelling, non-intimidating dining experience and outstanding flavors, unknowingly complementing each other, sharing similar schools of thought, not taking themselves too seriously and in the process, surpassing every expectation. Granted, this is not your everyday comfort food. Berro, a 24-hour, Cuban-run diner in the heart of the Eixample, a few blocks away, provides the usual backdrop on Sunday evenings, with a prix-fixe home-style cooking menu.
A couple of evenings later, I am meeting my friend Sara, a foodie who is visiting from Madrid. I’ve suggested we barhop through El Paral·lel for tapas after work. It is a part of town known for its theaters, music halls and cabarets, though its weight in Barcelona’s nightlife has progressively declined over the last few decades, passing the torch along to the Eixample, the Gothic quarter or el Born. This is also the place where, not long ago, brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià and their team decided to open Tickets, their own homage to tapas in the shape of an urban chiringuito. The enjoyable, laid-back atmosphere reigning at the front of the house has little to do with the hectic, devoted work occurring in the kitchen. Back at the front, tapas-style dinner becomes a spectacle on its own merits. Convinced at that point that there is no business like tapas business we decide to go on with the stroll. Map in hand, my friend takes the lead, pointing up at stunning façades which I had never noticed as we wander throughout the neighborhood, an area continuously repopulated by successive layers of immigration. Her energy is contagious and I am able to play along with little effort. After my second glass of cava, I forget about my late-night gym appointment. At Quimet i Quimet we discover impressive bite-size, canapé-style tapas, many build up, layer upon layer, from ingredients out of a can. Need cockles or capers to fix a tapa or a salad? “Pop a can!” seems to be the credo. There’s no hesitation or stigma among Spanish home cooks and chefs in opening a can – of mussels, bonito tuna or piquillo peppers, as needed.
Terenci Moix, Joan Brossa, Salvador Dalí and many more: he had them stand still, if only for a few seconds, for a portrait. Sometimes, though, he prefers to catch the subject off guard. Sitting next to one of the country’s most acclaimed photographers the next day for lunch, I decide to go for a tomato salad with anchovies and olives followed by a tuna carpaccio as he orders the albóndigas con calamares (meatballs with squid). We’re at Bodega Sepúlveda, a railroad restaurant with an excellent wine list– plenty of well price-ranged Riojas, Rías Baixas or Penedés wines to choose from.
“I can’t stand tapas,” he confesses, meaning, he can’t stand the idea of tapas-style dining, hence the choice of place. We are in the right place for a full-portion, casual, sit-down lunch. Casas de comidas like this allow for a paced progression through the season’s flavors, captured in their menu de temporada, and simple yet well-executed signature dishes. Although the idea of him – gregarious, outgoing – not being keen on eating tapas style catches me off guard. Fair enough. One should be able to have a nice, friendly chatter with everyone sticking to her or his own plate.
Trip Within A Trip
At dusk I am Madrid-bound on the AVE, the high-speed train. The need for a coche-cama is now a thing of the past ever since the construction of high-speed trains started connecting Spain’s main cities. My first trip from Barcelona to Madrid, years ago with my cousin, was overnight. In the morning we woke up in our pajamas to snow flakes greeting us through the window, as the train slowed down taking its final push into Atocha station, in the heart of Madrid. Today, the same trip takes not even three hours. Traveling in almost no time between Spain’s two major cities has turned the capability of being ubiquitous almost into a reality, I reflect, while wolfing down a bikini sandwich (just boiled ham and cheese, no truffle or Iberian ham on this one), also referred to as mixto, and spilling in the process some coffee on my white shirt, minutes before descending the train.
I decide to walk from the station on my way to meet a friend, a talented, but struggling actor that just moved into the big city to advance his career. We catch up over a plate of sautéed níscalos (chanterelle mushrooms) and a glass of Rueda (a zesty white wine) at El Cisne Azul. The place may look like a bareto at first, but they cook mushrooms like no other. My friend hands me over a flyer for a play that he is in, which is about to open in a few days. Madrid’s contagious energy is all over the place. Here, the modern—as in Alberto Chicote’s Pan de Lujo- and old-fashioned coexist with ease. Bar hopping, from tasteful bite to tasteful bite of simple yet delightful tapas and raciones is the way to socialize and chat up. We end the night in Mercado de San Antón, a trendy spot in Chueca that offers dozens of tapas along with wines-by-the-glass to match. Break a leg, I say, as we walk apart at the end of the night.
On the train back to Barcelona, I type a few recommendations for a friend in Austin, Texas, to pass along to her friend, a chef, who will land in San Sebastian in a matter of hours. Quaint San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque Country, I write, is a beacon of fine, heartfelt dining. The city is home to the strikingly beautiful Playa de La Concha and rumor has it that it holds the highest number of Michelin stars per square meter in Europe, which definitely is a good credential to claim your place in food heaven. Regardless of stats, what always has impressed me is its accessibility, how willing and eager to open their doors the local chefs and the food world as a whole are—from the cheese maker (Idiazábal, from sheep milk, made by shepherds in the mountains in smoked or un-smoked versions, is the specialty here) to the txacoli (a young, thirst-quenching white wine, from local grapes) producers.
A walk in San Sebastian’s parte vieja—I continue—is the best way to get to see the display and bounty of seasonal ingredients. Seafood such as cod, anchovies, octopus, hake; cheese, piquillo peppers or padrón peppers from Galicia and local meats fill the markets. Iberian ham has a place here too, as it does all over Spain. Going out for pintxos—the local name for tapas—just before lunch is blissful second nature among the donostiarras, the local inhabitants. Acclaimed chefs— Arzak, Aduriz, Subijana, Berasategui, to name just a few—are being key to defining the local food scene. Although, it’s good to bear in mind that—in addition to looking into traditional cooking and street life for inspiration—they also view seasonal ingredients as the key elements to their creations. Their cooking is further propelled by state-of-the-art technique and the unique approach to cooking ignited years ago by Spanish chefs—with Adrià and Arzak at the forefront. That shows all over the country, as you move from table to table, in well-defined, enlightening, flavors. It also shows abroad, as with chefs Alex Raij and Eder Montero’s unflagging efforts to demonstrate and teach about pintxos, Basque cuisine and more at Txikito in Chelsea, in New York City. The piperraks (blistered peppers) and the delicious ensaladilla rusa with picos de Jerez—a potato salad with homemade mayonnaise and tuna—come instantly to mind. Don’t be surprised— I wrap up—if you hear a hallelujah in the back of your head as you go for the first bite. That was my reaction when I tried Arzak’s Flor de huevo y tartufo en grasa de oca con chistorra de dátiles, his own homage to humble huevos con chistorra, some time ago.
A Seasonal Celebration
This comida callejera—a neighborhood lunch on the street—takes place in early October year after year, just before the harvest, soon to unfold all over the country. The daytime celebration for which my friend Elisa is getting ready was set in question, blame it on the gloomy economy, if only to come back to the calendar in full determination. The food is all done and she runs in front of the mirror to apply some final touches of make up. This is after all a chance to gather and be merry and thankful around the table while sharing foods and dishes concocted in unison within the dozens of wall-to-wall home kitchens in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Sarrià. Escalivada, brandada de bacallà, and other hearty Catalan dishes populate the table next to Moroccan breuats, paper-thin pastry leaves filled with almonds, chicken, onion and egg. Elisa rejoices when the second leg of roasted, Canary-Island style ham comes out of the kitchen to be carved at the side of the table. As in Cuba or Puerto Rico, mild temperatures in the islands don’t allow for air curing. Dessert time is announced when a large bowl of polvos uruguayos is passed around. This is a more elaborate occasion than my sporadic escapes to Sarrià for a taste of patatas bravas over a clara—beer with lemonade—at Bar Tomás.
A Walk Before Sunset
My friends took off in the early morning. The night before their departure we had dinner at La Singular, in Gràcia, a small, affordable restaurant of Kahlo-esque colors and bold, seducing flavors, within walking distance from my apartment. I went for the toast topped with slices of banana and anchovies, followed by lamb with mint, accompanied by a Montsant wine. Earlier in the afternoon we visited a ferretería (a hardware store) in search of a cafetera for one of them to take back home.
I go out for a run. A friend is throwing a couscous dinner party later in the day, a good opportunity to reconnect with friends on this side of the ocean. He is a great cook, with dinner usually ending with a ceremonial serving of fragrant cilantro tea. In this sunny afternoon I find myself gravitating towards the beachfront despite the decreasing temperatures, the memory of the last time at the chiringuito de la Mar Bella, at the beginning of the summer, still lingering. I bump into familiar faces and join them at their table. It’s getting chilly. Over the last glass of sangría, Anna spills out a tiny secret of her own. She will be doing the hair and make up of the bride of R.A.—a famous dancer—on their wedding day.
“Where is the wedding?” I ask.
“That, I can’t reveal."
It’s her Brazilian friend’s turn and he explains the reasons that made him move to Barcelona a few months ago. Chatting as the sun goes down behind the distant mountains I feel the new season growing in me.