A taste of Paris, Barcelona, Madrid

You couldn’t possibly have thought that I’d write about trips to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid and forget about the food. No, no. The food is getting its own blog post.

We’ll start in Paris, where I went for the stereotypical ham and cheese crepes followed by ultra buttery croissants on my lunch breaks. The dinners were standard three-course affairs and oh-so French.

My last meal was the highlight, enjoyed with my friend Grace and our kind host from Couchsurfing. We picked a random, inviting spot in a cobble-stoned alleyway in the Latin Quarter, where a grizzled man played the accordion for hours.

First course: salade de gésiers. A simple salad topped with birds’ second stomachs, or, gizzards. Cooked long and slow in lots of fat, the organs came out rich and tender.

Second course: steak-frites. Our Parisian host scanned the menu options, with tantalizing mains like trout with grapes and boeuf bourguignon, and insisted that the classic steak-frites was the only way to go. We obeyed and we were pleased. The sirloin was juicy, the sauce was peppery and the fries were even up to Belgian standards.

Third course: île flottante. My first encounter with this French dessert, literally translating to “floating island,” was a rousing success. Light, fluffy meringue sits atop sweet crème anglaise, and in this case, a dash of coffee liqueur was drizzled on for good measure. Think of that soft, airy belly of a pavlova, and set it against a thin vanilla custard. Heavenly.

Spain was an entirely different story, filled with small bites and fast wonders. It begins with Mercat de La Boqueria, a rightfully overcrowded delight of the senses.

The market is a huge, covered maze right off La Rambla in Barcelona, selling everything edible you could imagine. Rainbows of fruit captivate hoards of tourists, as do long rows of fresh seafood, featuring enormous fish, eel and live crustaceans. Then there are the meat counters, with whole rabbit and various preparations of succulent pig. Then there are mini restaurants, serving up probably some of the city’s best food to the lucky few squatting occupants. Then there are small tapas stands, frying up mini octopi (pulpitos) with a squeeze of lemon, as pictured above. Sugary confections are available too, and I couldn’t resist diving into a flaky Catalan pastry — which I unfortunately I can’t remember nor find the name of! — topped with fried pork rind. Sweet, salty, slightly meaty goodness.

Our last night in Barcelona was spent at a random restaurant on a random side street, which ended up much more elegant than we had expected. The seafood paella — a Spanish rice dish with meat and saffron — was by far the best I’ve ever had. The top and sides were crunchy, the cuttlefish was fresh and the shrimp heads were prominent.

In Madrid, the market of interest was the Mercado de San Miguel, a positively gorgeous indoor market in the city center. It’s chic, gourmet and clearly for foodies. Most impressive was the array of Iberian Ham, likely the most mouthwatering cured ham in the world, requiring just the right pigs fed just the right diets and dried in just the right way.

Lunches were bocadillos, long Spanish sandwiches, from traditional, Spaniard-filled bars around the city. On one occasion, healthy calamari was freshly breaded and fried before being laid on the baguette. Another instance was a baguette stuffed with tortilla, the thick and oily fried potato omelet. Another meal was at a mini bocadillo chain, Cerveceria 100 Montaditos, where we partook in smoked salmon with sea worms (gulas). Crunchy!

A necessary stop for legendary churros and chocolate took place at San Gines, which boasted a line out the door, an old-fashioned, upscale interior and chaotic energy. Churros in Spain aren’t lathered in sugar and cinnamon like they are in Mexico. They’re simple and fried, either in the traditional skinny fashion or as porras, which are thicker and chewier. Then they’re dipped in hot chocolate, if you could even call it that. The chocolate may be served in a mug, but it’s thick and dense, more readily consumed with a spoon than by sipping.

And that leaves tapas, the ultimate experience left for my last dinner in Spain.

Four of us trekked out to El Respiro, a nondescript bar with a pulsating energy, old ladies on slot machines and a live football match on the television. My friend was somewhat buddy-buddy with a bartender, and our hope was for more free tapas.

Yes, I said more free tapas, as in tapas are free to begin with. You go into a bar, order a small beer or sangria, and the food comes as a complimentary accompaniment.

Our night started out ordinary, with one tapa of potatoes, peppers and chicken and a plate of patates bravas. The patates bravas, a common dish of pan-fried potatoes drenched in a spicy tomato sauce, was devoured in minutes. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the plate to be refilled.

Then our cheeky bartender bought out flowers for the girls, and a new tapa of potatoes, crispy lardons and spicy peppers. Then one girl ordered croquettes so I could experience the dreamy, deep-fried fritter of béchamel and ham. Then the bartender brought out mini croquettes. Then he brought bright yellow paella. Then more patates bravas. Then lollipops.

My old and new friends were as floored as I was — this kind of love and this level of free food hadn’t happened to any of them in their three months in Madrid. And yet, it was so very Madrid.

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