Imagine a village on the northern coast of Spain. Picture a hundred ruddy-faced, rough handed peasants who usually spend their days in the fields, in their metal workshops, in their carpentry sheds. (Move the clocks back a century or two if it helps the visuals.) Tonight they gather in the village hall. Tomorrow they go back to their labour and toil, but tonight, tonight they will feast, they will drink, they will dance, they will laugh, and they will feast some more and then some more still.
Rachel McCormack of Catalan Cooking and Franz Schinagl (ex head chef of Asia de Cuba) have spent the day cooking enough food to feed all of them, with a little more for them to bring home.
Except there aren't a hundred villagers. There's just 18 of us curious city slicker eaters, tucked into the various charming nooks of Beas of Bloomsbury in London this Saturday past.
With no idea about the variety and scale of food that's about to wallop us at this debut Catalan pop up dinner.
Rachel is a native of Scotland, but spent much of her 20s living, working and evidently eating and cooking in Barcelona. She's now a maven of Spanish cuisine and produce in London, and runs a schedule of Catalan homestyle cooking classes at Beas. I have ambitions of attending one of those classes this year, but in the meantime, jumped at the opportunity to taste her cooking beforehand.
We begin the evening with manchego cheese, olives and fuet, a Catalan-style cured chorizo. It's flavoured with pepper rather than paprika or garlic, and so its taste is much more subtle than its Castillian cousins. The lovely manchego is rosemary covered, brought in by Flavours of Spain.
Rachel paired this course with La Pamelita, apparently Spain's only sparkling red wine, made by Pamela Geddes, another Scot who lost her heart to Catalonia. It was refreshing with just a tinge of sweetness that didn't descend into cloying. I could stand to drink a lot of this. And I think we did!
Here's the very fiesty Rachel serving what turned out to be my favourite course of the evening: Sopa de Carn D'olla, or the stock from all meats. Apparently just about everything that was cooked that day had a long baptism in this stuff. It looks like a light consomme, but it's got the hefty flavour of Bovril, a treacly essence-of-beef from my childhood that invokes memories of (who knows why) shuffling around indulgently in pyjamas on a rainy day. This is stuff to mend the soul. Especially with a drop of wine. This particular one was the Raimat Abadia 2007 from Lleida. Great with soup, also very enjoyable straight up.
The hot mains were served buffet style at the cafe's small front counter. Which proved to be my personal undoing because each time I'd come back to my table with a sensibly full plate, I'd realise that yet another slew of dishes were just making their way out. So of course back to the counter I would go. My dining companions just about had to wheelbarrow me out of Beas after dinner, I was so full! In fact even after a very raucuous karaoke session which lasted till 3am afterward, I woke up at noon on Sunday STILL FULL! How many times has this happened in the past after a large buffet meal? ZERO.
So, Rachel and all the Catalan villagers on whose shoulders you stand, I salute you.
But back to the food. The arroz al forn amb bolets -- rice cooked (in the all-meat stock and some tomato sauce) in the oven with wild mushrooms, holds tons of potential, but was a touch too al dente for my taste. Just a splash more stock and another 10 minutes in the oven, for me personally. The dish seemed plenty popular with the other diners though.
The Tarragona-style hake was absolutely gorgeous -- its firm white flesh standing up well to the romesco sauce. A friend of mine whose parents have a house in this corner of Spain spent a recent dinner with me raving about the hake there. It might be time to see if his parents are maybe looking to adopt.
Here's Franz cracking open the seabass cooked in salt (above).
The best rendition of this dish I've ever had was at the now-defunct Korfez in Istanbul. Saturday night's version was pleasant, but Korfez still holds the title for me. Specifically, the seabass flesh at Korfez was much firmer. Whether one fish was fresher than the other, or whether one was wild (firmer) while the other was farmed (softer and a touch powdery), or whether one was somehow affected by the cooking method, I'm not sure.
Have you met my darling girl kopibren? This is kopibren (below) right after Rachel's told us that the next course to come is pig trotters. If there is any group of people who love the more awkward bits of a pig more than the Spaniards, it's gotta be the Chinese.
And there they are, cooked... in the pot along with everything else I guess ... just one of the many off-menu bonus dishes that night.
The trotters trot out fond memories of my Dad's side of the clan, who roundabout this time of year chow down on many of these, braised in dark soya sauce and chili and garlic. I also find myself thinking fondly of my friend Su Lynn's Mom, Aunty Lisa. I remember studying for my A-levels in her house while trotters were being slowcooked in black vinegar in her kitchen. The fragrance was utterly intoxicating.
Here's the meat course: (from left) Black and white pudding; simply cooked and flavoured chicken, and lamb (the last of which could have done with some spicing I think).
On the side were 2 kinds of aioli -- regular, and apple. The lighter, fruitier applie aioli was amazing with the chicken and the giant pork-and-beef meatballs below.
It seems Rachel went easy on us on the meatballs -- she says they're sometimes the size of footballs!
And now on to desserts. I wonder if the bunyols -- donuts -- are usually football sized as well. Even though these were quite petite, and ludicruously scrummy with their various lacings of lemon, amaretto and gin(!), by this time I was so full I could only nibble on these donuts for a taste.
I lied. I did find a way to finish my sopa d'avellanes amb el seu cruixent (hazelnut soup with hazelnut crocanti and ice-cream). Trust me, you would too.
And finally here's Melf looking sheepish because by now we're all in gluttonous pain but we STILL can't say no to turron (kinda like hazelnut-based compressed paste, as far as I can tell) served with coffee.
For £35 for the food and an extra £10 for the wine, I am completely bowled over by the sheer generosity of Rachel, Franz and Bea. If the blitz had restarted outside that night, I think we could have stayed holed up and fat and happy for about a week before we even noticed.
But given that it didn't, I wonder if this is one of those rare moments where there was indeed too much of a good thing -- we were fighting to just keep up with the food, and I felt like my attention was too scattered to really give each dish the attention it deserved.
It'll be interesting to see how the approach evolves for next time. Or at least, I'm hoping there's a next time. Rachel's tantalised me before with cooking paella in a wheelbarrow when the weather gets warmer. I'm definitely going to hold her to it. And I'm telling you so you can help me nudge her too!
Click on the logo below to keep track of Catalan Cooking's upcoming events.
Disclosure: I'm the founder of Edible Experiences. Unless otherwise stated I attend events as a paying guest.