Showing posts with label Featured. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Featured. Show all posts

Côte Edinburgh review - a welcome culinary pick-me-up to mark chaning seasons

Steak and frites - Côte Edinburgh
Classic steak frittes.
The week following the final weekend of the Edinburgh festivals always has that air of the party being over, the carnival having shipped out, and summer most definitely coming to an end.  How nice then to receive a text message from JML enquiring if I wish to be treated to an early, post work dinner.

A perfect antidote to Edinburgh's annual festival hangover, when the chorus of a month of music and laughter is replaced by the rumble of tumbleweed gambolling down George Street, the thump of brick-sized bank statements landing on doormats, and the occasional, distant  popping that signifies someone else's liver finally exploding.

But where to dine to banish our post-celebratory blues? Our first choice - I will keep my powder dry on this for a later review - was catering a private party, so no luck. El Cartel, round the corner from JML's office, was full to bursting.  “Côte is also round the corner from your office" I say.  "You do realise it's part of a chain?" says JML?  Well sometimes restaurant chains can get things spot on, as a recent visit to Dishoom revealed

Salad with poached egg - Côte Edinburgh
Poached egg on a salad - yes please!
First impressions the restaurant are those of a stylishly, yet subtly decked-out brassiere; subtle grey walls, polished oak floors, marbled-topped tables.  In fact a fair bit more high-end than might have been expected from a chain.  Our friendly server had no trouble seating us - this being midweek after the Edinburgh festivals there were only a smattering of fellow diners in the surprisingly expansive space, we immediately treated ourselves to wee appetisers.  A lovely Kir Royale and superbly flavoursome French cider were sipped whilst perusing the menus.

I say 'menus' because as well as an a la carte, Côte also offers a lunch and early evening menu which represents excellent value at £10.95 for two courses / £12.95 for three.  And as we were dining at the start of the evening it was this menu we chose from.  On offer was a decent range of French and Mediterranean inspired dishes, all of which sounded pretty inviting, so much so we changed our minds several times before finally ordering.

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Cod croquettes with roast pepper sauce.
Often, it is the seemingly most uncomplicated, straightforward dishes that can reveal how decent a kitchen is. My starter of frisée aux lardons was a case in point. A simple salad of endive, with crisped chunks of pancetta, topped off with a perfectly poached egg, this was a really nicely put together dish, although the dressing might have benefited from a smidgeon more of the promised mustard, but that's probably just my taste.  JML went a wee bit Latin for his opener, choosing a Spanish-inspired dish in the form of salt cod croquettes.  Another apparently uncomplicated dish that can be very easy to get wrong, Côte's offering was really tasty, featuring lozenges that were crisp on the outside yet satisfyingly moist on the bite thanks to smooth potato – as opposed to béchamel - filling, with the rich flavour of the bacalao being intense but not over domineering.  The accompanying roast pepper aioli also complimented the dish very nicely.

Chargrilled chicken with potato dauhpinoise - Côte Edinburgh
Grilled chicken with potato dauphinoise.
Steak and chips. I’m sorry UK, you might think it’s a key dish in our national culinary repertoire, yet with a few exceptions the French and Belgians do it so much better. So how would this French-inspired restaurant’s take on this classic fare?  Very well indeed, according to my dining partner, as he tucked into a lovely medium rare piece of beef, soused in garlic butter and perfectly complemented by beautifully crisp frites. Personally, I fancied being a bit rustically Gallic in my choice of main, so poulet grille certainly seemed to fit the bill. Now usually I prefer chicken thigh to breast, as I find the latter can be a bit dry and tough.  However, this certainly wasn’t the case for the chargrilled breast at the centre of this dish. Perfectly seasoned and coated with herbs, it was succulent and tasty.  Adorned with a veal and thyme jus, and accompanied by peppery watercress and beautifully creamy gratin potatoes, it certainly appeared that I had made a good choice of main.

Chocolate fondant - Côte Edinburgh.
Chocolate fondant and ice cream.
Based on our experience of our first two courses, Côte’s offering certainly seemed pretty decent, but could they deliver on the puddings?  Well yes and no.  JML’s dark chocolate pot turned out to be decent stab at a warm chocolate fondant, richly dark and oozing an unctuous liquid cocoa centre.  However, my experience of the sweet course was much less favourable.  My first choice of crème caramel was apologetically identified as being unavailable, which was surprising given that the restaurant bills this as its signature pud, and it was very early on in the evening.  My alternate ‘crumble aux pêches’ was so-so. The crumble was certainly crunchy and rich with butter, but what lay beneath it was more akin to the filling of a Mr Kippling apple pie in texture, and certainly wasn’t packed with peach flavour.  This, and the lack of crème caramel made me wonder if, like a number of other restaurant chains, Côte ships in desserts that are pre-prepared off premises.

Peach crumble - Côte Edinburgh
Peach crumble - or was it?
All things considered, our dining experience at this restaurant made for a suitably pleasant evening.  Accompanied by a pretty decent bottle of Viognier, the food was generally well presented and flavoursome - with the possible exception of my crumble - and nicely served in an inviting venue.   For the price, it really was difficult to crumble.  So if you are seeking a pick-me-up to mark the changing of the seasons, or cheer up a dull midweek moment, sometimes it pay not to dismiss a restaurant just because it happens to be a chain, and certainly not Côte.   

Food  7/10
Drink 7/10
Service 7/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a trendily relaxed bistro/brasserie. 

Courgette, broad bean, beetroot and feta salad – home-grown cooking

Courgette, broad bean, beetroot, and feta salad
A terrific salad featuring home-grown beans and courgettes.

One of the key reasons for relocating to Scrumptious Scran Villas some two and a half years ago was the garden. It’s on a big slope, as we live opposite a burn (brook, to those of you in England- shire), but pretty much south-facing. This probably won’t mean much to those of you who are not green fingered, yet the main thing to consider is that this means it has great potential for growing fruit and vegetables.

A couple of years of renovating said villas – well more a modern-ish Dutch town house, but this isn’t an interior design blog  – has meant that to date the garden has been maintained rather than developed, and things are about to get worse before they get better in terms of landscaping. The final piece of the building renovation jigsaw involves an extension that will result in a kitchen-diner. This development will provide a great cooking and entertaining space but of course will also cause havoc in the garden too.

Courgette in garden.
There's no hiding, my lovely courgette!
Ultimately however, I imagine that I shall stroll out of the French doors of the kitchen, in a style akin to Nigel Slater, to gather herbs and vegetables from the terraced raised beds (any tips on these greatly appreciated) but for now I have to make do with a relatively compact veg patch.  And for a number of reasons, this hasn't been at its most productive this year.  The French beans have been disappointing, and the beetroot and spinach seedlings all succumbed to slugs and snails (if only I could find an organic control method for these that really worked).

However, all is not doom and gloom, because growing conditions in south-east Scotland this year have been ideal for two crops; broad beans and courgettes. And it just so happens these rate as two of my favourite ingredients.  There is something delightful in gathering these from the garden knowing that I have tended to them, that they are organically produced and, whilst it might be purely psychological, that they taste all the better for it.  So what to cook with my vegetable harvest?

Well certainly I wanted the flavour of the courgettes and broad beans to shine through, so it couldn't be a dish that featured anything else that might be overpowering.  Also, gathering summer crops is, well, indicative of summer so something a bit lighter would be appropriate, even if the weather in Scotland hasn't exactly been continuously scorching.

Broad beans and courgette from the veg patch.
Just some of my home-grown haul.
So a sumptuous salad seemed to fit the bill, where blanched beans and char-grilled courgettes are centrepiece, but complimented with deep sweet-earthy flavour provided by beetroot (preferably roasted) and salty sharpness added by a smattering of feta cheese.  Add a fresh grassy-aniseed note from dill, piquancy from green spring onion, and bring it all together with a good quality dressing, and the result is a tasty, satisfying and fresh summer dish, that can be served warm or cold.

The recipe is makes enough to amply serve two as a tasty supper, or could feed more as a great accompaniment to likes of grilled pork chops or some chunky, roast fish steaks, should you wish not to stick to being vegetarian.  And of course, the vegetables don't have to be home grown.  But eating this dish would undoubtedly bring a smile to your face if they are.

Serves two as a decent supper.


For the salad
  • 1-2 courgettes (depending on size) around 200-250g, plus a couple of tablespoons of oil for brushing
  • 200-250g broad beans - post podded.  You can double pod them if you want, but I like the outer skins and life is too short
  • A couple of medium sized beetroot, either bought ready cooked (absolutely fine, if not in vinegar) or peeled and roast until tender in the oven (about 30 minutes)
  • 100g of decent feta cheese - use a reduced fat variety if desired
  • A couple of small spring onions, chopped
  • A tablespoon of chopped dill.
For the dressing
  • 1 tablespoon of decent vinegar – good quality cider or sherry vinegar would be ideal
  • 3 tablespoons of decent oil – I used cold-pressed UK rapeseed oil
  • Half clove of garlic, very slightly crushed
  • Sea salt and black pepper to season.
 Preparation and cooking
  1. Put a griddle on a medium heat, and whilst it comes up to temperature, slice the courgette into medium rounds no more than a centimetre thick.  Brush each of the courgette disks on both sides with a little oil.
  2. Place the courgette disks on the griddle (you may need to do this in batches) and grill until they begin to soften and exhibit lovely charred lines, then turn over and repeat on the other side. Set aside.
  3. Whilst cooking the courgettes bring an appropriately sized pan of salted water to the boil.  Drop in the broad beans and return to the boil, then cook for around 3-5 minutes (depending on how chunky the beans are) until just tender.  Drain the beans from the hot water and then immediately transfer to an appropriately sized bowl filled with cold – ideally iced – water to stop the beans overcooking.
  4. Cut the beetroot – which is either pre-bought (but not preserved in vinegar) or previously roasted – into 1cm or so cubes.
  5. Break the feta cheese into chunks which are also around 1cm cubes.
  6. Place the garlic clove in the bottom of a small bowl.  Pour in the vinegar and oil, season with salt and pepper, and then lightly whisk for a few seconds. Rest for a couple of minutes for the garlic to infuse the dressing, then whisk again until the dressing begins to emulsify. Leave to rest again whilst the salad is assembled.
  7. In a roasting dish, layer the courgettes, beans, beetroot, feta and onion, sprinkling a little dill on each layer. Remove the garlic from the dressing, and whisk again until smooth before pouring over the assembled salad.
  8. Gently toss the salad as it is served to distribute the dressing evenly around the salad ingredients.

Let the festivities begin – Foodie frolics at Edinburgh’s festivals

Lobster ice cream and roasted cockroach.
Lobster ice cream and roasted cockroach, anyone? (edfoodfest).
The sound of torrential rain clattering off the roofs of Edinburgh in late July can only mean one thing.  Yes, it must nearly be Edinburgh’s festival season again…  Yet seriously, I hope we have a modicum of good weather during late July and August, because as well as the world’s greatest arts extravaganza making camp in Scotland’s capital there are also some very alluring food and drink-focused activities and events taking place during the festival period…

Culinary debates and celebrations at Edinburgh Food Festival (Assembly, George Square)

Located at the famed Edinburgh Fringe hub that is George Square, Assembly’s acclaimed (and free to enter) Edinburgh Food Festival makes a welcome return for a third year.  Unlike some other food festivals, this initiative isn’t just about tasting tempting morsels and drams, although there are plenty of those to be had too. It also features a range of engaging and thought provoking events that encourage visitors to devote some consideration to what they are consuming, and why/how they are doing this.  Highlights from amongst the varied programme include:
  • Eating insects: buzzy, buggy or grubby?  – Entomophagy - that’s the human use of insects as a food source, to you and me - has become very much in focus in recent years, as this animal group has been hailed as a cheap and readily available source of protein.  Millions of people across the globe regularly eat insects, but they barely make an appearance in western diets.  So can they really be the food of the future, or are they just too terrifying to be tasty? (Saturday the 29th of July in the Piccolo tent).
  • Hipsters and Hobos: Urban Foraging – Certain high end eateries such as Denmark’s – temporarily defunct – Noma, together with TV cooks such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, have shone a spotlight on how gathering ingredients from the wild – as opposed to the aisles – can result in some superb dishes.  Yet you don’t necessarily need to the trek to the countryside to forage interesting and nutritious additions to your cooking, as this event demonstrates. (Saturday 29 July).
  • Jannettas Gelateria – Back in the day ice cream was, well, a little bit predictable. Sure, it’s nice to nibble on a rum and raisin cone, or spoon up a tub of raspberry ripple. But maybe you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted parmesan and Vegemite gelato, as I find out on a recent trip to Australia.  So if you favour savoury over sweet why not join these leading ice cream makers as they demonstrate how umami-laden ingredients are pushing the boundaries of frozen foodstuffs. (Thursday 27 July).
  • The Great Gin Debate: Part II  – Over the last few years artisanal Scottish gin distilleries seem to have sprung up like thistles on a sunny brae.  However, are these iconic new Scottish gin brands all they appear, and indeed are some of them even really “Scottish” at all? Find out as gin experts, brand owners, and distillers debate what makes our gin truly Caledonian (Friday 28 July).
And if all that chatter about food and drink makes you hungry and thirsty the festival offers a super array of stalls, serving the likes of “raw soda” on draft, (as well as prosecco for the more mature consumers), spicy Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, and the best of Scottish seafood, to identify but a very few.

Checking out Checkpoint’s new cocktails (Bristo Place)

Draft prosecco van - Edinburgh Food Festival.
Draft prosecco on wheels - what's not to like?!
Here at Scrumptious Scran Villas we love a nice cocktail – innocent or alcoholic. Well, mostly alcoholic, to be quite frank.  So I was naturally intrigued to receive an email informing me that Checkpoint was putting together a special cocktail menu to mark this year’s festival happenings. Situated an ice cube’s throw from the Fringe nexus that is Bristo Square, this airy and laid back, yet trendy, restaurant and bar – think Berlin via Brooklyn – has a really nice vibe to it, which might explain why The Times has named it one of the '25 coolest restaurants in Britain'.

Whilst still featuring classics such as an Espresso Martini and Negroni (one of my personal favourites) their new menu also celebrates festival time with a batch of specially created offerings designed to provide something a bit surprising and unique in terms of flavour profile.  Notable amongst the 18 drinks featured on the list are:
  • Smoke In The Grass - Zubrowka Bison grass vodka, smoked chai syrup, yellow chartreuse, Peychaud’s bitters, lemon juice, soda
  • Red Eye - Absolut Vodka, tomato juice, beer and a whole egg
  • Grow A Pear - Tequila Blanco, pear & black pepper syrup & lemon
And if the 'Red Eye' sounds a bit too much like a hangover kill rather than cure, as part of their 'day break' menu Checkpoint also offers three inviting variations on the classic Bloody Mary, based on either vodka, gin or mescal. When hanging at the bar do say "Heavy on the smoked chai syrup in my Smoke In The Grass, thanks". Do not say "Hey, I’d love a Babycham"…

Toasted Radish – "'Come, Watson, come!' he cried. 'The game is afoot....'"

Festival time in Edinburgh is not merely about drama, music and comedy, oh no. As part of the season’s multifaceted artistic offering the city also host’s the world’s largest literary event in the form of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  Perhaps somewhat fitting then that Toasted Radish supper club is paying homage to one of Scotland’s literary legends that is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a Sherlock Holmes-inspired event taking place in Edinburgh New Town’s historic Arthur Conan Doyle Centre.

Hosted in such a grandiose setting, it isn’t only the architecture that seems set to impress, as the evening’s food is being billed as being "worthy of a crime fiction heavyweight".  And given Toasted Radish’s ethos of using, wherever possible, ingredients sourced within thirty miles of Edinburgh, as well as ensuring meat and vegetables are organic and fish responsibly sourced, all clues suggest this has the potential makings of a highly enjoyable culinary thriller. (Arthur Conan Doyle Centre, 12 August 2017).

If you have any other foodie or drinkie (is there even such a term?) highlights associated with the Edinburgh festival season let us know and we may let our readers know about them too.

Pa amb tomàquet - A mighty-vine Catalan tapa

Pa amb tomàquet - catalan tomato and bread tapa.
Mighty vine: Pa amb tomàquet - catalan tomato and bread tapa.

Hopefully some of you out there - possibly, my Dad at least - may be aware that my previous post on Scrumptious Scran was a foodie travelogue encapsulating culinary discoveries made during a recent visit to Barcelona.  Publicising such musings on social media, as is the want of most food bloggers, I was a bit surprised to be accused by some, seemingly, smart Alec that the article was ‘completely oblivious to its [Barcelona's] culture.’  'How odd' thought I - or words to that effect.  For what could typify a city's, region's or country's culture more than the food and drink that is uniquely associated with it?  For it effectively represents a place's history and literature on a plate, or in a glass.

And when it comes to Barcelona and Catalunya, there is one dish that ultimately typifies the culture there.  It is uncomplicated, harking back to when what is now modern-day Catalonia was much more rural, and certainly less of the industrial powerhouse it has become in modern times. It uses locally-sourced ingredients, and stems from a time when wasting any food - even stale bread - would be treated with disdain.  I talk, of course, of the straightforward yet exquisitely delicious tapa/dish that is pa amb tomàquet, which literally translates as 'bread with tomato'.

Pa amb tomàquet is a dish that is ubiquitous in Catalunya, being served from high-end restaurants to neighbourhood canteens, as well as consistently cropping up in the kitchens of practically every household. It's also a dish that is ideal for easy dining on warm summer days, so great for an alfresco lunch or supper back in the UK, when the sun is shining. And what’s more it takes just minutes to make and involves the use of just four or five ingredients; bread, tomatoes, salt, garlic (optional but adds real flavour and a little kick) and olive oil.
So if you fancy a bit of Barcelona on a plate, back in Blighty, here’s my guide as to what you will need to make your own, pretty authentic,  pa amb tomàquet, and the achingly simple process for putting the dish together.  ¡Salud!

Serves 2 as a tapa or part of a light lunch.

  • 2 large, thick slices of rustic bread - sourdough is really ideal for this.
  • 2 tomatoes, halved - these should be ripe and sweet with not too much acidity, and ideally posses a pulp that isn't too watery.  Catalans traditionally use tomàquets de ramallet (tomatoes still on the vine) so go for properly vine ripened heritage ones, if possible.
  • A clove of garlic, peeled and halved - a nice fat juicy clove is ideal.
  • Olive oil - the best quality one you have in the kitchen, a fruity, extra-virgin, Spanish variety would be right there in terms of flavour.
  • Course sea salt.
Preparation and cooking
  1. Heat a grill to a medium heat.  Place the bread on a tray under the grill and cook for a couple of minutes each side until just beginning to turn very slightly golden.  Remove, and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Sprinkle the bread with a few grains of the sea salt, then gently rub one side of each slice all over with the garlic, so that it releases its oil on the surface. A little salt on the bread will help with this.
  3. Rub the same surface of each slice with the tomatoes.  The pulp of each tomato half should cover the bread leaving just the skin behind.
  4. Generously drizzle the olive oil over the tomato-laden side of each slice, and sprinkle with a little more sea salt, to taste, if desired.  Consume with gusto and a crisp, cold beverage.

¡Viva Barcelona! - A foodie homage to Catalonia's capital

Tomatoes in a market in Barcelona
Terrific tomatoes - Mercat Santa Caterina.
Oh Barcelona, how I have missed you!  It's been over ten years since we last experienced your cultural, architectural, and − possibly most importantly  − culinary delights.  As I have previously eluded to on Scrumptious Scran, it was Barcelona that ignited my love of Spanish cuisine, and probably made me realise how it was possible to cook really good food with simple ingredients purchased from a market just hours previously.

So visiting once again over a decade on, would Catalunya's capital still be so alluring?  And what new food and drink-related experiences might be awaiting discovery?  Here's what I found...

Tapas, cava, and vermut

Pa amb tomaquet, fried fish, Bormuth, Barcelona.
Pa amb tomaquet, fried fish, Bormuth, Barcelona.
Like everywhere else in Spain, Catalunya seems to have an obsession with the myriad of bite-size morsels that constitute tapas, and this possibly reaches an azimuth in Barcelona.  Even when wandering down the most insignificant back street it would be almost improbable not to encounter a diminutive neighbourhood bar offering at least five or six choices of tapas to accompany a cold glass of caña (draft beer).  Yet the city abounds with numerous venues that succeed in turning simple small plates of food into a culinary art form, whilst still maintaining an air of unpretentiousness.

A case in point is Bormuth in the now achingly trendy, but still utterly charming, El Born/La Ribera district. Seemingly always bustling, it’s little wonder that punters frequently crowd outside this compact bar/restaurant to feast on tapa stalwarts such as the utterly moreish croquetas laced with Ibérico ham, and the oh-so-simple, but totally delicious pescadito frito – literally little fish fried – which is a superb Iberian take on whitebait.  They also turn out a splendid version of the Catalan staple of pa amb tomatoquete (more of that later).  But also available are new twists on what might be thought of as a tapa, such as char-grilled peppers combined with goat cheese in a mini gratin.

Salmorejo, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Salmorejo, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Yet the food is not the only attraction of Bormuth, as a wee tangential consideration of the name might suggest. For this is a fantastic place to enjoy a glass or two of the traditional, now voguish, tipple that is vermouth.  Mention vermut (as it is referred to in Catalan) to Brits of a certain age, and memories of Great Aunt Maud's sickly-sweet festive tipple are often invoked.  We are not talking about mass-produced, Italian brands here, however.  Whilst Sherry may be king in southern Spain, it’s maybe surprising to learn that northern Spain has a long-standing tradition of producing fortified wine infused with herbs and other aromatics.

Traditionally, vermut was consumed as an aperitif, especially before Sunday lunch. Thankfully, these days, locally-produced varieties of the drink can now be enjoyed at any time across Barcelona with glasses often being theatrically poured from large oak barrels nestling behind the bar.  At Bormuth I enjoyed a couple of glasses of the superbly aromatic Vermut de Falset (produced close to Tarragona, in southern Catalunya) which combined honeyed sweetness with lovely herby notes and a great balance of earthy-bitterness. Fantastic with tapas and a bargain at just €2.60 for a generous glass.

Confit of cod on a bed of samfaina, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Confit of cod on a bed of samfaina, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
And whilst speaking of drinks that are natural companions for tapas – or indeed the reverse – no visit to Barcelona should be complete without a ‘copa’ (bowl like champagne glass) of cava. This superb sparkling wine – whether in white or rosé form – probably needs little introduction, given its massive popularity in the UK, but nothing can compare to consuming a really good vintage in the region it was produced.  And if you get the chance, do try and sample cava in one of the bars that specialises in serving it in combination with a delightful tapa or two.

El Xampanyet located in the El Born barrio looks as though it has scarcely changed since before George Orwell was paying homage to Catalonia in the 1930s.  Even the house cava served here is excellent, especially when combined with a plate of delicious boquerones – anchovies in vinegar – or pintxo of tuna loin with padron pepper – a word of warning, the ‘picante’ version is ‘muy picante’!  Authentic though El Xampanyet is, given the popularity with tourists of the area in which it is located you may struggle at times to hear a word of Catalan or even Spanish being spoken amongst the clientèle.  So for possibly a more authentic experience seek out Can Paixano secreted in a lane heading towards Barceloneta.  Reminiscent of the neighbourhood bars that used to abound around the old port area, this is frequently a standing room only venue - albeit you'll be standing under a forest of hanging Serrano hams - thanks to its excellent rosé cava and selection of tasty plates of charcuterie, cheeses and tinned (yes that’s right) produce tapas.

Flam (flan), La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Flam (flan), La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
A final mention in terms of tapas has to go to a great bar located in the Eixample district that, despite being round the corner from our hotel, we only discovered on our final evening. Kserol is a trendily-relaxed neighbourhood venue with a tapas menu that's a wee cut above - this is the Eixample, after all! Salt-cod (bacalao) croquetas are sublime, the stalwart that is patas bravas is creatively flavoured with rosemary and paired with a sophisticated spicy sauce. However, the simplest of Catalan tapas that is pa amb tomaquet - quite literally bread and tomato - is simply superb at this place. Beautiful sour-dough lightly toasted and rubbed with a garlic clove, then rubbed again with acid-sweet tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt. So straightforward, just so delicious.

Menu del dia

Curd cheese mousse, rosemary ice cream, honey, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Curdcheese mousse, rosemary ice cream, honey, La Mar Salada.
For those not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of dining in Barcelona – or even more widely in Spain – the menu del dia (literally ‘menu of the day’) may be a neglected culinary delight.  For lunchtime has customarily always been when the main meal of the day is consumed, thanks in part to the continuing – and extremely civilised – tradition of a one and a half to two hour lunch break (the Spanish working day does extend into the evening to compensate).  In order to attract hungry workers seeking lunch, historically restaurants began offering a pared down, three course menu which changed daily depending on what ingredients were available.  Accompanied by bread and often a drink, the menu del dia frequently offers excellent cooking at an extremely reasonable price.

A case in point is La Mar Salada (roughly translating as 'to sprinkle with sea salt') which is a jewel that stands out amongst the throng of - not so cheap and sometimes less than cheerful - tourist-orientated  restaurants located along Barceloneta's  Passeig Joan de Borbó.  As the name eludes to, the place specialises in serving seafood dishes that wouldn't be out of place in a Michelin-listed establishment, so at €18 for a three course lunch their menu del dia represents incredibly good value.

I absolutely love the classic cold tomato, garlic and bread soup that is salmorejo, but at La Mar Salada this simple entrée was inventively enhanced by the addition of white shrimps and a quenelle of goat cheese ice cream, taking it up a couple of notches. Equally superb was JML's starter of fresh fusilli pasta with baby broad beans, asparagus, roast cherry tomatoes, and courgette and rock squid tagliatelle.

Empadrat, Casa Amalia, Barcelona.
Empadrat, Casa Amalia, Barcelona.
Fish and vegetables were excellently paired in the 'segonds' (mains courses), consisting of confit of cod served on a bed of samfaina - a sort of Catalan ratatouille - infused with Ibérico ham; and megrim (a type of flatfish) deep fried and set atop artichokes bathed in suquet - Catalan fish stew - and shrimp broth.  Pudding (postres) may have been deceptively simple-sounding, but a mousse of cottage cheese paired with fragrant honey (and I am usually not of fan) and rosemary ice cream was subliminally excellent.  Flam (flan, or crème caramel) was sumptuously gelatinous and creamy, all bathed in a dark, bitter-sweet caramel sauce. An excellent example of, what is possibly, Spain's national dessert.

There actually wasn't a day during our trip when JML and I didn't avail ourselves of the menu del dia, not least because it is often an excellent way to discover local dishes.  I have Casa Amalia - a bistro that nestles in the shadow of the Eixample's Mercat de la Concepcio and is renowned for offering uncomplicated and tasty Catalan cuisine - for introducing me to 'empedrat'.  A quick search on Google translate indicates this equates to "pavement" in English! Fear not, as there is not a flagstone in sight with this delicious, and deceptively simple combination of tender haricot beans, bacalao (salt cod), tomato, olives, and onion, all beautifully dressed to form a starter ideal for al fresco dining.  And then there is 'arroz a la Cubana'.  Eaten in many Spanish speaking countries it's a combination of rice (as the name suggests) with a rich tomato sauce, plantain, and topped with a fried egg.  Uncomplicated, certainly, but definitely tasty.

Squid and potato salad, Rosa Pinky, Barcelona.
Squid and potato salad, Rosa Pinky, Barcelona.
Heading to the quaint and character-full Gracia district we happened across a delightful restaurant Rosa Pinky, nestled down an unremarkable side street, and (bar ourselves) seemingly entirely populated by Barcelonans.  This provided another menu del dia insight into how reasonably-priced food, composed of a few simple ingredients, can be really flavoursome.  Combine steamed potatoes with parsley, garlic, paprika, olive oil and octopus and the outcome is a super salad which is certainly greater than the sum of its constituent parts.  Similarly the simplicity of perfectly baked dorrada (a fish not often found on menus in the UK), confit potatoes, and red peppers roasted until soft and sweet was uncomplicated but a really great dish as a result.  So the moral of the story is, if you are in Catalunya  - or even elsewhere in Spain - eat like a local and make lunch your main meal, reserving the evening for grazing on tapas.  You certainly won't regret it.

Mercats (markets)

Jamon, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
Jamon, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
If you love food, you will find the markets in Barcelona utterly wondrous.  When I last wrote about the city I made mention of the place's biggest and most renowned 'mercat' - La Boqueria located halfway down Las Ramblas.  It offers food retail on an almost industrial scale, and the range of produce to be found there is unimaginably diverse.  There are, however, some mumblings that - like a lot of places in central Barcelona - it is becoming overrun with tourists, who food gawk rather than buy something for dinner.  So for a somewhat less crowded experience - especially if you are looking to fill your shopping basket - there are a number of smaller, yet equally impressive, market venues that are certainly worth checking out.

At the heart of the El Born / La Ribera / Sant Pere district is the beautifully stylish Mercat Santa Caterina.  The original market building was inventively renovated a decade or so ago by the architectural team behind the Scottish Parliament building and the sinuous roof-line and slatted timber façade they bestowed upon the building is just as striking as many of the city's Modernista structures.  Or head to the Dreta de l'Eixample to find the beautiful, 19th century, wrought iron structure that houses the Mercat de la Concepcio, ornately fronted by picturesque flower-vending establishments.

Take time to wander around either of the above markets and you will find pretty much any type of foodstuff you might wish to cook with and consume.  Stalls piled high with great Spanish and international cheeses, a bewildering array of fish and seafood, tubs full to bursting with a multitude of different olives, the freshest fruit and vegetables, including a dazzling range of tomato varieties. I could go on and on...

Bacalao, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
Bacalao, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
Yet in any market in Barcelona there are two types of vendor I always seem magnetically pulled towards, because what they have on offer is so typical of Catalonia, and indeed Spain.  I'm always mesmerised by stalls serving a plethora of Ibérico, air-dried hams of various origins and appellations.  And I love the ghostly-white produce on offer at those stalls that specialise in bacalao - or salt cod, to give it it's much less glamorous Anglicised moniker - both as bone-dry fillets, or re-hydrated portions that are ready to cook with.  Both are ingredients that lend themselves to inclusion in a plethora of dishes, especially crisply coated, silkily smooth-filled croquetas.

So a decade since my last visit, is Barcelona still a 'must visit' location for anyone who is a lover of food and drink?  The simple answer to that question is 'absolutely!'  So if you have never ventured to the city before, or even if it's a while since you have, do think about spending at least a long weekend there.  Wander round the wonderful architecture, lose an hour or two in one of the city's superb markets, discover an unfamiliar dish courtesy of a menu del dia, and graze on excellent tapas accompanied by a chilled glass of vermouth or cava.  For it is true to say that for food lovers everywhere, Barcelona never ceases to be one of the best culinary destinations in the world.

This post is dedicated to families of all types, everywhere. Treat them with love, and never take them for granted.