Bodega Bartolí: A neighbourhood wine shop-cum-restaurant on a Barcelonian back street. Garlic hangs from the ceiling. The tables are dressed in those red and white lawn-striped paper cloths commonly found in family-run bistros across continental Europe. We’d just finished a shared dish of snails – caracoles, as they call them – cooked in tomato, garlic and paprika.
Though it appeared ‘finished’ wasn’t the operative word. Pointing to the half empty terracotta bowls, the servers gave us a look so as to say, ‘aren’t you going to polish that off?’ along with the respective Catalan words we couldn’t translate. Were it not for the vast quantities that had been rolled out of the kitchen (subsidised by the Catalan Tourist Board during this part of a press trip, I should note), then I’d be asking the same questions of myself.
During the meal, this would become a common theme for any dish not polished off – the tripe stew, the grilled octopus, the crema Catalana. Anywhere else, these servers’ indignance could have been construed as rude. But here? This is peasant food, and back in those times, you ate everything you cooked. Or found some way of saving it for later.
In a world full of waste and excess, you’d think there’s a lot we can gain from this way of thinking, as well as the philosophies and approaches to food that come with it. Dishes read as simply as: ‘Escalivada’ (grilled peppers and aubergine with anchovies), ‘beef stew with ceps’, ‘scrambled eggs with horn of plenty’ or ‘blood sausage’. But there is another ingredient at play here. One that’s ineffable, intangible. Is it the alchemy of ingredients once they come together? Is it the provenance of the ingredients themselves? Or the history and tradition associated with these dishes?
Whatever ‘it’ is, it’s worth celebrating. In fact, in Catalonia there seems to be a festival for almost everything. Each year, there’s two festivals dedicated to artichokes. In late May, at Alpec del Caragol, twelve tonnes of snails are consumed. During the third week of January, Catalans have long made a habit of grilling large spring onions and chucking them down their throats.
Experiences like these make you realise that, in Britain, we’re not as reverent of our food history as maybe we should be. The fact we don’t have a strong food heritage doesn’t help, and while our pursuit of the new, different, and interesting is admired around the world, it more often than not means we’re frantically trying to carry forward fashionable ideas. In other words, we have an insatiable appetite for ideas not tried and tested, rather than a contentment with the ones that are.
Looking towards Britain’s food heritage (beyond what we’d consider cliché), and how it fits into the restaurant world, the word ‘neglected’ comes to mind. Simnel cake has strong roots in British Tudor times, but where will you find it baked now, if albeit very rarely by the hands of the home cook? Gentleman’s Relish was invented by an Englishman in 1828, but how often do you see it applied to toast as a starting course? Pottage, which was originally cooked up by Norman peasants, has a history that transcends the dish itself and, with the right ingredients, can be more delicious than its ‘thick soup’ descriptor might suggest. But at which establishments can we experience it?
In Catalonia, not to mention the whole of Spain, Michelin star chefs have developed a penchant for little green peas they nickname ‘green caviar’, which they sell at €150 a portion. Meanwhile, at places like Bodega Bartolí, cheap food with a rich heritage is abound. So you know what? Keep your green caviar, however intriguing it sounds. Even if it means figuratively going back in time – nay, especially – take me to a place that gives strong sense of where I am. Take me to a place where culture is embodied in the food. But just as importantly, take me to a place where the servers nod in approval as I lick the plates clean of tripe stew.
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