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Operation: Ham Fisted

I don't really get how certain foods reach near mythical status. Sometimes it’s a matter of price such as with luxury ingredients like kobe beef or black truffles. Other times it’s a n issue of scarcity. Up until recently, mangosteens, Sichuan peppercorns and raw milk cheese were verboten in the U.S. (I think we’ve loosened up on the first two). Jamon iberico falls into both camps, making it extra attractive for carnivorous thrill seekers.

PernilsJamón Iberico de Bellota, essentially ham from black footed Iberian pigs that have been fed on acorns (bellota) is supposedly the shit. Americans are putting down $200 deposits now to get their meat hooks on FDA approved $1,200 hams that won’t be ready for eating until 2008. I’m not that crazy (or loaded). I am curious if it's indivuals or restaurants that are going this whole ham route.

JamonI’m very much a non-foodie (is there a grosser word? Mirth and wound are also two uglies) or else I would’ve researched D.O.’s (denominaciones de origen) bought from a specialty shop like Jamonisimo. But the vacuum packed €84/kg jamon from Can Via at the Boqueria (above left photo) was sufficient for me. We got 600 grams, a little over a pound, for about $65, if I’m doing the math right. It’s not as if my palate is so advanced that it would shun a more pedestrian jamon.

The fun was more in deciding how we’d get our half kilo back to NYC undetected. Just tossing the plastic-clad lump of meat into a suitcase seemed like asking for trouble. And after the terrorist scare started hitting the news, we got more nervous. If even breast milk was suspect, what hope was there for an innocent ham?

DirtyworkWe committed total blasphemy and butchered our little porcine prize with a 99-cent type store (who knew they had these Brooklyn staples in Barcelona?) pocketknife that we paid €3 for. Hand carving is prized over machine cut jamon—here’s the proper way to do it—but I don’t think our man handling would come recommended from anyone. Rather than nicely balanced sheer strips, we sheared off irregular wedges with fat blobs in weird places. I'm sure the hotel housekeeping staff loved us.

First, we ate a bunch with a loaf of bread. Not only am I not a foodie, I’m not much of a food writer either. I can’t describe how food tastes to save my life. I like writing about eating, but delving deeply into flavors and nuances of taste is tricky. I’m shallow. Yes, the ham was earthy–how about that for cop out food description shorthand? It’s better than “interesting,” right? There was a faint sweetness, jamon isn’t salty like prosciutto at all. As for the acorns that I was likely supposed to be experiencing, that’s debatable since I’m not sure that I even know what acorns taste like. Who’s eaten an acorn? Maybe nutty would be a better overarching term. Eating jamon iberico is like dealing with an annoying bug bite that you vow to only scratch one last time and then keep compulsively going back to. One slice will inevitably lead to four more. At least instead of resulting in raw, bloody skin, you merely end up full of ham.

ContrabandThen we got to work stuffing the rest into 12” or so lengths of bread, simulating bocadillos that we’d bought the evening before from Bocatta, a fast food chain. We’d saved the sleeves the original sandwiches came in for this nefarious purpose. After sticking our hacked Spanish sandwiches into the paper wrappers, we had a close approximation of a store bought sandwich. James and I each wrapped one in a plastic bag and packed it in our own suitcases. Perhaps if one of us got nabbed, the damage might be softened by keeping the two separate, like how the royal family can’t fly in the same plane (is that even true?).

Operation: Ham Fisted was a smashing success. I ended up salvaging the porky bits and plastic bagging them up, which I’m sure also breaks some sort of purist rule. Ignorance can be bliss. I ate the last tiny remainder last night and relished it since it was the only souvenir I brought back from Spain. It was certainly beat an Olympic stadium magnet.

La Vinya del Senyor

I'd read in The New Spanish Table and in a Food & Wine round-up (by the same author, so it was sort of like only one very enthusiastic recommendation) about a coca (Catalan pizza, as opposed to Italian pizza, which we ended up eating this same night) with candied red peppers and I loved the idea of it. I wouldn't have necessarily sought it out but the wine bar happened to be just down the street from our hotel.

Vinya_del_senyor_bacalao Totally discombobulated, we stopped by on our first evening in Barcelona. I couldn't figure out the seating etiquette (I'm spastic about following the rules and doing things the right way to the point of annoyance). All of the prime tables out front were taken, as were the stools at the bar. No one was standing like in some tapas places so I couldn't decide how to position ourselves as to not be in the way, but still have a place to put food and drink if we ordered.

Eventually, I mellowed out and ordered two glasses of cava and the coca, which they were out of. Somehow I wasn't surprised, not to be a naysayer, but this typically happens when I have a strict idea in my head about what I want. Vinya_del_senyor_sardinesInstead, we tried bacalao, which came cubed, splashed with olive oil and topped with crunchy sea salt and thin tomato shreds (this was the only actual tomato we ate in Spain. Barcelona is all about the pa amb tomaquet–I love Flickr pools obsessively devoted to single food items–tomato rubbed on bread. I couldn't figure out why the essence seemed more coveted than the flesh) and what I swear was called an anchovy empanada, but turned out to be breaded filets. (I just discovered this afternoon while looking at a Salvadoran menu from Queens that empanizado means breaded, so the words are related). I was just happy to be eating some fish and fresh vegetables after my brief meat and boiled carrots and cabbage stint in the U.K.

On our last night in Barcelona, a mere four days later, we thought we'd do a quick try for the coca again. It was that weird time of night where it's too early to eat dinner in Spain but well past lunch. A lot of restaurants hadn't opened yet, but La Vinya del Senyor seemed to be doing business so we popped in, got a couple cavas and asked for the coca…and were thwarted again. They don't start serving food until 8pm, only cured meats or a cheese plate were available. No wonder everyone had the cheese plate. We got it too. Cheese is great, but I started feeling like god didn't want me having that sugary red pepper coca.

La Vinya del Senyor * Plaça Santa Maria 5, Barcelona, Spain

Even the Escalators Take Their Time

I don’t have a very good response when people ask what I did on vacation because I didn’t really do anything. Maybe that’s the best kind of vacation? Other than paying for meals (which I’ll be documenting in the near future, despite no one I know sharing my enthusiasm for photographing and talking about things I’ve eaten). I barely even bought anything, just some rubber bands (I actually have enough hair to make a pony tail, which feels odd because I haven’t really had hair much past my chin in decades) and a green tea and 90% chocolate bar at Xocoa. But just because I didn’t do shit except eat, walk, sweat and take siestas doesn’t mean I don’t have a few less than stellar observations on northern Spain to share with you.

You can smoke and drink at any opportunity or time of day, duh. Any place and any time is appropriate for cigarettes and a glass of cava. I hate napping, but the siesta concept came in handy after over imbibing in the afternoon. With dinner occurring so late in the evening, it’s easy to sleep, shower and change before going out again and you’re totally refreshed. Too bad that here, having a job gets in the way of this lifestyle.

The 10pm+ dinner thing also was ideal for my favorite vacation past time: first and second dinner. You can eat in the early evening and then again late night. This was also de rigueur in S.E. Asia by eating around 6pm and then going to hawkers near midnight. Of course, no one’s stopping me from doing the same in NYC but two dinners on a regular basis could only end in tragedy.

I could also get used to a constant diet of Spanish food (it’s a nonstop pork fest) but inevitably I would miss tacos, Thai food and bagels. I’m dying for Mexican food this very second and I’m not normally a Mexican food fanatic (though it’s definitely somewhere in my top 5 cuisines). Now that I think about it, our first meal after getting back from Hong Kong last summer was Mexican. Bad Mexican, but Mexican (oh, we ended up at Mezcal’s last night—it’s turning into a post-vacation tradition).

There was a sandwich board near our hotel advertising a Mexican restaurant serving nachos and the like and that's the kind of scary food adventure I'd only be able to justify if we’d had more time to waste. Kind of like how I had to try Thai food in Hong Kong and pizza in Thailand, knowing fully how wrong that was (however, pizza in Barcelona was surprisingly good. Maybe that's not surprising since the foreign accent most frequently heard was Italian, followed by French, German and British. American, not so much. Where do all the Americans go on vacation, anyway? I never seem to see any when out of the country and it’s not like they’re/we’re known for being quiet or discreet).

Mullet_subway_adOk, the mullet. I know you've been waiting. I was completely baffled by the sheer ubiquity of this shlongy (I never hear the SHort LONG nickname these days, and I just now learned about the Kentucky Waterfall moniker) ‘do in Barcelona. Clearly, I’m not the only one—just Google Barcelona and mullet and you'll find all sorts of musings like this and this. I know, you're like aren't there youngsters in most major cities pulling off this same '80s kitsch in the name of style? Uh, no, not like this. I don't get the sense that the typical Spanish mullet wearer is doing so with an ounce of irony. Certainly, Barcelona has more than it's fair share of cool kids, it's that kind of city, but it's laid back, totally Euro and completely un-American in spirit. All of the rat tails, long wispy bits feel organic and natural not electro-clash hard edged. There were countless versions, but they weren't all fashionable and they definitely weren’t only on top of Hispanic hipsters’ heads.

City_worker_mullet The mullet spanned all social groups and ages. There were little kids with long chunks in the back, middle aged women with almost skin head looking hair, all cropped short and bleached with fringes all around the edges, sporty soccer, pardon me, futbol, curly mullets, hippy dread mullets, garbage collector mullets (see left) regular guys probably the equivalent of frat boys with an extra inch or two draped down the napes of their necks. Like I said, it's not always carried off or intended with an air of uber chicness. Our female cashier in the housewares section of El Corte Ingles, which is like the Spanish Macy's, meaning mainstream, not cutting edge, had super short, tight man hair with feathery layers sprouting down the middle of her back. Bizzaro. I can't tell if this is a recent phenomenon, completely new and they never had the original mullet wave of the '80s or if it just never went away. For all I know the mullet craze is totally played out and I was just catching the (rat) tail end.

While I'm on the topic of style, you never feel more American than when you're not in America. Or in Europe, to be more precise. My limited experiences in Asia weren't that incongruous with what you see people wearing in NYC (no, I didn't spend time in rural China or anything). Hong Kong isn't so different. Spain is dizzying. To generalize, I think Asians embrace American culture where Europeans deride it. To generalize even further, it appeared that all men in Barcelona dress like gay men in NYC, or maybe there are just a lot of homos in Spain. All the guys are clad in tight tank tops or sleeveless tees, snug cropped pants or jeans with pockets in odd places and are frequently sockless. And I couldn't tell sexual orientation from mannerisms or vocal affectations either because my rough understanding of Spanish isn’t that nuanced. I’m not still not whether or not some of the bars we were in were gay or not (despite women and hetero couples as clientele, there were packs of men together and I totally couldn’t gauge if they were buddies out and about or interested in each other).

I keep mentioning S.E. Asia, I suppose, because it's my favorite area to visit. If I'd had my druthers that's where I would've been last week so my brain can't help but compare Singapore to Spain despite the two obviously being very different places. Total opposites. This was exemplified by the speed of the two country's escalators. I was thrilled by Singapore's being faster than NYC's even though transplants didn't seem to notice. Spain, where our broken hotel internet never got fixed, no one seems to work, meals last for hours, stores and restaurants close in the middle of the day (you know, many Asian countries have six-day work weeks. I was reading an article in the Financial Times while on the plane about how Korea is loosening up on this and how everyone is spazzing out over too much leisure time and not knowing how to fill it) and their escalators move at a snail's pace. Despite being sedentary and slothful, I do love walking fast. Strollers and dilly dalliers make me violent and it was very hard to suppress this outrage in Barcelona.

So, I hate lollygaggers who waste my precious vacation time, but I love lying on beds and watching TV (it was very disturbing that the B&B in Wales didn’t have the TV in the same room as the bed. I’m not going to crash out and watch bad U.K. sitting in a rocking chair—the only other option in our room). The Spanish news (or at least the channel in our hotel) spent hours and hours just on segments about what residents were doing on vacation. There was like 20 minutes devoted to senior citizens taking siestas at the beach. Oh, my favorite was how restaurants and shops were banning decamisar (sp) (shirtless) and had these stickers with a line-drawn naked male torso with an X through it. I’d been repulsed by the amount of topless men in shorts I’d seen about town, so I was glad to see I wasn’t merely being a prudish American. But I almost shit myself when Threshold, my favorite cancelled show in recent history, came on. There’s nothing like indie dwarf Peter Dinklage speaking in a deep dubbed Spanish voice. They also played Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane, a blip of a bad show that I never really watched, but it did have fatso Sara Rue (who really was fatso in the late ‘90s, not Less Than Perfect fat) playing a fat meanie in a wheelchair.

I totally didn't fulfill my promise to take lots of photos. So much you see is pretty but could be better represented in a postcard, so why bother. And what's truly interesting is hard to capture either because it's fleeting or would invade personal space and I'm not an in your face photographer. I did put up some shots on flickr—just ignore all the family-ish stuff.


I knew this would happen. My birthday somehow seemed to get lost in the shuffle this year. This was my annual celebratory dinner from way back in July. Now I've already gone on vacation and it's practically the middle of August. Barcelona is fresh in my mind and Cookshop seems like old news despite being a very charming restaurant.

Every time I've started to describe Cookshop to someone it ended up sounding mundane. Nice or interesting don't really cut it. To say, "I had a salad with blue cheese and bacon" doesn't really cut it. But I did have a salad with blue cheese and bacon. Simply, the food tasted like food…but better, and that's kind of novel. Rather than elaborate, I'll show some semi-pretty pictures.

Nice to see that carbs are back. I could've sworn the dip had tarragon in it, but supposedly it was a creme fraiche and onion blend.

Chile dusted fried hominy is a total appetite killer. I could eat the whole plate myself, though it's probably best suited for sharing.

Here's that bacon and blue cheese salad. I was thinking that it was iceberg, but I think it was butter lettuce. It was one pile of rich, creamy goodness.

Heirloom tomatoes, opal basil and fried cornbread chunks. This is a perfect example of the simple  food food approach.

Sea bass with zucchini and I'm not sure what else since this wasn't my dish.

Grilled rabbit with polenta, favas and salsa verde. This was the dish I was least crazy about. Maybe I'm not fond of rabbit as I thought.

Warm donuts, buttermilk ice cream and blueberry compote.

Brownie, caramel, cocoa covered almonds and what I think was coconut ice cream.

Cookshop * 156 Tenth Ave., New York, NY

A Wale of a Time

Well, I got back into NYC last night and I'm still a little off kilter. The whole so called vacation was almost too short to even count as such. I hardly feel like I was gone at all and that's because I wasn't really, only ten days and travel took up a chunk of that time on both ends and the middle. Initially, I was nervous about the hyped up security measures on U.S. bound flights, but it wasn't that big of a deal (and we even managed to smuggle in some pricey jamon Iberico). My general perception is that travelers (and accordingly much of the general population) are just kind of retarded and clueless. I mean, if the news is all about not bringing on carry-ons or any liquids, then why would 95% of passengers in line hold up efficient rule following me with all their bags of crap that need to be gone through and discarded or put in clear plastic?

Rv The more traumatizing leg of the journey was in getting to freaking Wales from NYC. A rainstorm kept our plane on the ground for two hours (long enough for them to turn on the movies to keep us quiet. I refused to watch any out of principle and I almost lost my shit when I noticed that a majority of the plane was watching Robin Williams vehicle [pun sort of intended] R.V. and screaming and howling at every foible. I was like wow, Americans really are inane, which was only proven further on our return flight on Alitalia, rather than Continental, which didn't have individual TV screens and the entire plane was subjected to R.V. again. But this time the crowd was heavily European, and believe me, no one was laughing out loud during the flick. Maybe the subtle humor just got lost in translation. To be fair, the Italian language movie they showed afterward, Three Steps Over Heaven, was pretty schlocky too) so we missed our connecting flight between Gatwick and Manchester.

We got to London early morning and the next flight wouldn't be until evening and I wasn't going to waste a full day sitting in a airport, so we decided to try the train instead (not a cheap option, never mind the huge amount we'd already paid for our plane tickets, and the second leg which was now unusable). It involved four transfers, the longest part being an hour and half chunk on a Glasgow bound train that was filled with Fri. afternoon early weekenders. There was no where to sit or our put our luggage we got to stand in between cars after already exhaustedly traveling for 18 hours by this point. And I got into a minor altercation with a fat drunk guy who shoved and then rubbed against me while passing through the corridor (I knew it was intentional, despite being shoved and pushed up against by the other 20 people or so who'd also passed by us during this fun train ride, because I could see him and all his buddies with their beer cans [I forget about the drinking and smoking culture in the U.K. And I don't care what anyone says about Americans, the British have some really bad manners-I couldn't believe how rowdy and out of control the kids were on public transportation. I never thought I'd say that NYC teens are well behaved, but there, I just said it. There's also a big drinking and smoking culture in Spain, but I didn't see much bad behavior] harassing females who walked past them and pretending to grab their asses. That shit would not fly here, but all the passengers were weird and timid and no one would say anything. On the train back to Liverpool I traveled with James, my mom, my grandma and the stepdude, and these kids were playing cell phone music and blaring sirens and my mom yelled at them. It was a sight).

So, by the time we finally made it to Wales we weren't in the most jovial mood. And while in the back of my head I knew Wales wouldn't be the nearly 100 degrees that NYC was when I was packing, I just couldn't bring myself to put cold weather clothes in my suitcase. I knew Barcelona and NYC would be the same heat-wise so I only brought short sleeves and open toed shoes and in Criccieth it was gray and raining and chilly enough that people were running heat and wearing coats. Bastards. I couldn't even buy an umbrella because there aren't really even any proper stores in the town and at 7pm everything was closed anyway. James had made a big fuss before we left about how we needed to find out if there was an ATM in town because we had to pay cash for our B&B, and I was like don't be stupid this is 2006. Well, we didn't have internet that weekend, which almost killed me (we stayed at a perfectly modern hotel in Barcelona, Banys Orientals, and their internet only worked the first night there and ceased functioning the following five days. My favorite part about Barcelona was the response when we asked about when it would be fixed. You just get a shrug, a disinterested look and "no se" [I don't know] which became kind of comical because you could ask someone in Spain almost anything and you'd get no se and it wasn't that they didn't understand our Spanish and it wasn't particularly rude, it was just that they didn't really know, no biggie, no hurry. We ended up at a random bar on our last night and I was delighted to note after sitting down that it was called No Se. I want the no se concept to infiltrate NYC-havoc would ensue) and there was only one ATM in the town and it was broken.

I eventually mellowed out, borrowed a sweater from my sister, an umbrella from the B&B owner, came to terms with no internet (unfortunately, James had lugged a laptop with him, which was rendered useless the entire vacation. Luckily, his Blackberry, which frequently irritates me, came in handy for at least checking email, not that I ever received any earth shattering messages-I just can't stand being out of the loop) and began drinking like a fish (I didn't begin smoking like a chimney until Barcelona-I seriously think I took six months off my life in one week flat). Criccieth was really about seeing family anyway. Especially since I don't do the multiple visits/holiday excursions per year like I guess most people do. I think I might average one family meetup every two years. I last saw my mom in 2004 and my sister in 2003.

Carvery I wasn't really sure what to expect from the wedding. I figured it would be low key and lacking in typical matrimonial pomp and circumstance, and mostly it was. I kept hearing about this "marquee" they had set up in a field and I was like what fuck is that (I forget about these British/American English confusions, and I'm still highly amused by the names of things. Like these friends of my sister were at a pub eating what looked to be mini pizzas but doughier and filled with meat and potatoes [I got so burnt out on meaty heavy food, as pictured on the left, and I was only there for a weekend, one day of which was catered vegetarian wedding fare] and I was like what is that called and they replied, "it's a buster." How can a food be called a buster? Never mind the baps and sarnies. I do like pasties, though. And I'm baffled by the ubiquity of "jacket potatoes." Aren't those just baked potatoes? I guess we don't top ours with prawns and Marie Rose, a.k.a. ketchup and mayo, however). Apparently, a marquee is a fancy white tent. And here I was imagining the bride and groom's names in lights.

Fancy_portapotty_1 I was actually the most impressed by the portapotties, which had blue water, artwork, piped in music, flushing toilets, flowers, real sinks and of course, ashtrays (unfortunately, the women's room went kaput as the evening wore on–I'll spare the graphic details. But if you're craving gross fecal tales, I'll give you one when I get to posting about Barcelona in more detail. Let's just say that spending a couple hundred euros on a meal is no guarantee that the next day it won't end up on the floor of a department store bathroom). The ceremony and music was a little more folksy and hippyish than I'd expected, but it was fitting enough and my mom was bawling, which isn't really the mark of anything since she cries over sappy commericals. My sister's three dogs wandered around during the vow exchange (and not to go scatological on you again but I wasn't the only one who was getting nervous when one of the pups looked like it was about to take a dump during the I dos). I'm no dog-lover, but why not have pets participate.

To_the_dogsI'll concede that the setting was picturesque on a long green expanse of grass with the Irish Sea as a backdrop. The sun even came out enough to cause sweating, which bothered me a bit as one of the only good things about Wales was not worrying about sweating. I never got the full story, but part of the field was taken up by some Christian youth group who were holding some camp for troubled teens and some feud had developed between them (as well as a neighboring woman who lived in a cottage next to the groom's grandma's cottage) and my sister's group of friends who'd been camping in the field over loud music and the lights being on too late over the past week. My grandma got into a spat with some Christian teen dressed like Snow White, proselytizing in the town square who said they were going to ruin the wedding. Small towns are great fun.

Welsh_sunburn I managed to drink cava for 12 hours straight, ate that dense fruitcake that English pass off as wedding cake and got a severe sunburn, which one wouldn't imagine happening in Wales (the joke becoming that I was even pastier than the British). Somehow the event turned into a big drunk party and in the middle of the night a scary bonfire was built and my sister went wild throwing things into it and everyone ran and James's glasses got crunched (to survive, he had to buy chunky reading glasses at the airport, which made him look like a weirdo German tourist). We left around 3am, but the campers stayed up until sunrise. Most of my time in Wales was spent feeling incredibly tired and ill, likely from a nice jetlag/hangover combo. It was fun to see relatives and catch up over the weekend, but I was glad to move on to Spain by Monday. My stomach couldn't take another full English breakfast or fried potato.

Next up: mullets are alive and well in Barcelona.

Off Like a Dirty Shirt

Bon2 Ok, so apparently I'll be in Wales in like 12 hours. I've never been one for blogging on the go, so I have no idea if I'll post anything between now and when I return (in a measly week and a half). This vacation I'm determined to take lots of photos. I have a mental block with picture taking. I hardly ever indulge in NYC out of fear of being pegged as a tourist or some sort of rube. But in Europe I will be a tourist, duh, so I might as well have at it.

There was a handful of semi-interesting things that I was going to post here but now I'm running out of time so they'll have to wait. I even had the day off yesterday because I miscalculated when I was leaving town when I asked for the time off work. Normally, I might be concerned about wasting one of my precious ten days off, but it wasn't a waste because I unexpectedly had a most promising meeting yesterday. I think anyone would agree that getting jobs that you haven't even applied for is a good route (plus, it distracted me from the Forbes rejection I received on Tues. I was actually relieved by that since the atmosphere struck me as classic nutty, downtrodden corporate library). If all goes as planned, I might have something new to look forward to when I get back from vacation.