(Not so) hale fellow, well-Quimet
Part 5 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue
by Thor Iverson
17 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain
La Boqueria – Take two. This time we’re not visiting, but shopping. We’re soon staggering under the weight of bags of pork products – if it’s made from Ibérico, we’ve got it by the kilo – cheese, and even some token fruit. One can’t live by pig alone (though here, one could definitely make a go of it).
Unfortunately, my consumerist joy is muted. I’m as ill as I’ve ever been. It feels like the worst flu ever, except I’m not nauseous; the sickness is mostly aches, pains, and sinuses that feel like they’re the size of the Hindenburg (and about as explosive). Whatever it is, there’s also lingering respiratory damage from last night’s cigar extravaganza, and I’m having a good deal of difficulty breathing, or even staying upright.
It’s raining, so I haul our loot back to the hotel via the city’s efficient subway system, while Theresa does some business at an internet café – a dying breed in these wireless days, especially in Europe’s advanced mobile culture. I’m tempted to simply collapse and nap the rest of the afternoon away, but there’s more to do and see, and it seems a shame to waste what little time we have left in the city.
At a small grocer around the corner, I collect a case of bottled water, hoping against hope that I’m not asked some complicated question at checkout. At the wine shop across the street (something Baccus; the name eludes post facto clarification), I do a little browsing and then ask them to assemble a case of wine for me, which they (somewhat amusedly) do. Fortified for the next few days’ travel, it’s now time to worry about today’s first meal. Assuming, that is, that I can even enjoy it.
El Quim – We arrive at this tiny countertop in the immediate aftermath of some terribly bitter argument between the proprietors. I mean, seriously bitter; each looks like they may strike the other at any moment. Our order is taken, and our meal delivered, in near-silence from both. I suspect that, later, someone will end up with a stick of chorizo lodged where it probably shouldn’t be.
In the interim, we enjoy our bites and snacks. This tapas bar specializes in more adventurous (for the international palate) selections, which makes sense as the ammoniated and rather nauseating aroma from the massive display of organ meats immediately behind us casts a restroomy pall over the culinary aromas. No offal aficionados, we decide play it fairly safe…and taking chances with my digestive system is probably unwise at this juncture. Asparagus are fresh, vivid and inspiringly simple, albóndigas are rich pillows of meat, and sardines in an escabeche are small and terrific, but the supreme dish is a plate of intensely-flavored eggs with ham. I think Universal is a little bit better (it’s certainly friendlier), but then again it’s hard to properly judge while arbitrarily avoiding at least half the menu.
Museu Picasso – Since it would be a completely wasted opportunity to ride out my malaise back at the hotel room, we opt to visit a few more sites between lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, we’ve missed whatever magic visiting window exists for several destinations – both the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Palau Reial Major are closed, despite our guidebooks’ insistence to the contrary – and so we find our way to this famous museum.
Now, I must confess that I’m not a Picasso fan. To be honest, my interest in what I call “flat art” ends before his ascendancy, though I do appreciate his early work (up through his color-designated periods), and this museum is spectacularly thorough in its presentation of his life’s pursuit. So it’s not surprising that I spend a great deal of time in the museum’s earlier galleries, somewhat less in the middle-period rooms, and then fairly race through the finish. I sit and guzzle a few troughs of coffee while Theresa (who’s much more interested in such things) finishes off her tour. Nonetheless, this museum is, itself, a masterwork, and not to be missed…whether or not one enjoys the contents.
Full of discordia but starting to pine for sustenance, we walk along the city’s peaceful waterfront, passing under giant smiling lobsters and dramatic, artsy archways, and finally just sitting and enjoying the fraying ends of the evening. As night falls, we wander into less touristed, slightly rougher (though by no means “rough”) neighborhoods in search of a place to stand and eat. No, really.
Quimet i Quimet – A lot has been written about this place, and it’s all true: the tapas are primarily derived from the canned, jarred, tinned, wrapped, preserved and pre-made rather than the fresh, the place is impossibly tiny (two micro-tables plus a tiny wraparound counter) and packed to the gills with locals and a few undaunted tourists, it’s standing-room (more like jostling-room) only, and the beverage options are rather staggering. One simply enters and carves out some sort of nook, orders something from the counter, selects a beverage from the wall (higher shelves are reached by a proprietor bearing a long, hook-like device), and gets on with the noshing. More food? More wine? Drinks? Just keep ordering…as long as you can avoid the desperate stares of those waiting for your square foot of real estate. Such a complete lack of pretension or artifice is barely to be believed in these modern times, yet this closet-sized eatery could hardly be more successful.
To the extent that Catalan or Spanish have been necessary in restaurants, I’ve mostly been the one to struggle and mangle my way through. But tonight, I’m too sick and dazed (especially after three successive trips to the pharmacy, with new symptoms to describe each time) to torture another proprietor with my incoherent mumbling. Theresa takes over, finding that French works better than English in the absence of the correct local dialect. A nearby cluster of Russians reaches the same conclusion, but far as we can tell, everyone else is speaking Catalan. That has to be a good sign, right?
Instead of choosing our own tapas, we let the owners feed us, and though the various takes on smoked and preserved fish (with and without accompaniments) are brilliant, the highlight is a stunning plate of Spanish cheeses…the best we’ve yet tasted. And let’s not forget the small dollops of caviar, which has become an unattainably expensive luxury back home; here, they’re practically given away.
Gancedo “Sestal” 2002 Bierzo Mencia (Northwest Spain) – Balanced, with black and red fruit, aromatic flowers on a bed of rich organic earth, and fine structure. While quite flavorful, this is in no way overwhelming; it’s warm-climate, but it’s balanced and pure. Ageable? Probably…a short while at least. Very nice.
Conde de Osborne Brandy de Jerez “Solera Gran Reserva” (Jerez) – Feeling somewhat refreshed by the wine and food, I once again put myself in the staff’s hands, asking for a brandy of some sort. I receive this: simultaneously bitter and rich, with spicy fruit and a keening flor-like note (perhaps just the power of suggestion, perhaps not). Complex and warming. Delicious.
The price for all this elbow-tucking bacchanalia? Just forty-one euro, and we’re both stuffed and suffused with a warm, alcohol-induced glow. (Also, the medication might be at work.) But while it’s an unquestioned bargain, it’s more important to note that this is simply a terrific restaurant.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.