What better way to get to know a city than through its food? Julie Sheridan shares the scoop on a delicious experience with Papa Serra food tours.
By Julie Sheridan
It wasn’t your typical Saturday morning in Barcelona. With weather that can only be described as apocalyptic (think leaden, laden skies, rain bouncing savagely off the ground, cantankerous Catalans inadvertently impaling each other with barely used brollies), and a head cold to match, I ventured out to huddle beneath the entrance of the Boqueria market. What had enticed me to get out of my bed on such a miserable Saturday morning? In a word: food. I had a date with Papa Serra – a new venture in Barcelona that offers market tours, cooking classes and the promise of a good time to be had by all.
A tour around the biggest market in Europe – the Boqueria
To get us into the spirit of things, our host Joel greets us at the Boqueria entrance with a big Antipodean smile and a bottle of chilled Cava. Amid the torrential rain, we’re grateful for both. There are six of signed up for today’s class, and Joel says he finds that groups of between four and eight are the ideal size for a Papa Serra adventure. Hailing from all around the world, we toast each other and delve into the riot of colour and confusion that is the Boqueria market.
I’ve been in the Boqueria many times, but being guided around by a knowledgeable chef is a totally different experience. Joel seems to have an inner culinary compass, directing him to the freshest, the juiciest, the highest quality ingredients. He points out some percebes (goose barnacles) – a crustacean from the coast of Galicia that people have been known to lose limbs trying to catch. The more dangerous the harvest, the more succulent the flavour, and we start to appreciate why a kilo of these otherworldly molluscs goes for an eye-watering 48€/kilo.
Suitably impressed by the weird and wonderful variety of seafood, we pay due homage at the chapel of jamón and deviate off past the olive stall (who knew there were so many types?). Our pockets stuffed with Spain’s favourite olive –the sweet green Sevillana – next stop is a fruit stand, where all the most exotic creatures hang out. We chomp on a chirimoya (a bit like a cross between a pear and a kiwi fruit) and skulk round the pink spiky things that Joel informs us are dragon fruit, before making our way out of the market and back to a nearby apartment to get on with the serious business of cooking.
Our table awaits
And an impressive one it is too. I start to experience mild panic at this point (it’s been a while since I last eyeballed my grill, and the other members of the group seem like serious foodies), but my trepidation goes out the window when Joel puts some music on in the background and serves us our first wine of the morning. I know nothing about wine either. In fact, I didn’t even know they made white Rioja. Never mind, the rest of the group take my ignorance in their stride, and within minutes we’re partnered up and merrily tackling our first dish of the day.
The recipes – all original Papa Serra creations – sound amazing.
Catalan-style allioli. Baked piquillo peppers with lemon goats’ cheese, thyme and garlic. Spiced carrots with orange, fennel seeds, and mint and cumin yoghurt. Lamb cutlets with salsa verde. Prawns and asparagus with saffron orange sauce. And for dessert? Figs baked in Cava, rosemary and honey with mato cheese, toasted walnuts and coriander seeds.
We set to work with gusto. Each pair is assigned at least two different dishes, meaning that you get a chance to vary cooking methods and equipment.
While we’re sipping, shelling and chopping, we’re chatting as we go, and we soon start swapping tips on our favourite Barcelona bars and eateries. Joel is a trove of handy hints. Look out for the Arbequina make of extra virgin olive oil, he advises, which is what any self-respecting Spaniard uses to book cook with and dress salads. Another stand-out local product is the herb liqueur Aromes de Montserrat, concocted from 12 different herbs that are picked on the hills surrounding the mystical mountain-top monastery. Absinthe-green, it goes down easily.
As the brew begins to work its magic, we take the chance to quiz Joel on how exactly an Aussie-accented blonde dude has ended up in Barcelona teaching classes on Catalan cooking. He reveals that he is in fact a second-generation Catalan, and the ‘Papa Serra’ moniker is a nod to his roots – his great-grandfather having provided the eponymous inspiration.
Joel is patently passionate about honouring and continuing his culinary heritage, and has an impressive track record of his own. A former contestant on Masterchef Australia, he launched Melbourne’s first hidden restaurant, before heading on something of a soul quest to Catalonia.
Lunch is served
After about half an hour the entire menu is ready to be served, and we sit down to sample our creations.There is so much food that it seems a herculean task, but heroically, helped along by the odd serving of Rioja and Tempranillo, we munch our way through the lot. I enjoyed everything, but my absolute favourite were the prawns and asparagus with saffron orange sauce. The baked figs, served with local mato cheese and infused with rosemary skewers, were another revelation. The ripeness of the fruit combined beautifully with the kick from the coriander seeds, and it’s something I can see myself cooking for friends in the future
With the rain still bouncing off the ground outside, the warm, cinnamon-scented flat seems all the more inviting, and leaving both the table and the interesting company is a struggle. Shopping, cooking and eating with travellers from the other side of the world has been a unique way to spend a Saturday in Barcelona, and I leave feeling heartened by the good food and conversation.
Leaving Joel, somewhat unfairly, with the washing up.
If you fancy a Barcelona culinary adventure of your own, visit http://www.papaserra.com or email Joel directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the chef: Joel is a chef who grew up in New Zealand and Australia. Following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Papa Serra, he now lives in Barcelona and runs Barcelona Culinary Adventures, where he combines history, culture, food and wine in market tours, cooking classes, wine tasting and private dining experiences. Follow him of Facebook or on Twitter.
About the writer: Julie Sheridan made the move to Barcelona from her native Scotland in spring 2011, after 10 years living under Scotch mist in Edinburgh. Out of an innate love of making things difficult for herself she deliberately chose a part of Spain where she knew no-one and couldn’t speak the local language. Her blog focuses on the social and cultural differences between Scotland and Spain, Caledonia and Catalonia. Find her blog at GuiriGirlinBarca.com and her ramblings on Twitter.
Julie was a guest of Papa Serra, but don’t worry, her opinions are all her own.