Catalan Cuisine Connoisseur
Jaume Brichs, chef, pastry chef, food and beverage consultant, and cooking class instructor, is a man passionate about his Catalan food and culture.
A food service professional for nearly 20 years, this resident of Barcelona, Spain, is on a mission to teach others about the quality of ingredients the Catalan region of Spain has to offer and the simple and delicious techniques that make Catalan food some of the best in the world.
We have met Jaume (pronounced Jou-me) in Barcelona’s La Boqueria Market to shop for ingredients for the cooking class he’s leading us through today (see A Taste of Spain culinary class). This is Jaume’s home market. He lives only 10 minutes from this busting nexus of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, fowl, sausages and chacuterie, cheeses, olives, oils, and more, and he has been shopping here for years.
As we move through the market, people call out greetings to him. He knows exactly the vendors he want — the ones that sell the top quality of each thing. He goes to one seller for wild mushrooms and Rosettas, tiny tomatoes on a string used to make pan con tomate (tomato bread); another for baby cuttlefish; still another for salt cod or red mullet; yet another for just the right bread. “Every day in the market we have different things,” he says, moving easily through the crowd. “We have to buy only what’s best every day. Only top quality.”
It is Juame’s dedication to using the best ingredients, including many from the Catalan region, and staying true to the old techniques to make Catalan dishes, that has made him in-demand as a chef and as the only chef-instructor for Barcelona’s A Taste of Spain cooking classes (see our review of A Taste of Spain culinary class). It’s also why he’s been a food and beverage consultant for the area’s Rafael Hotels, helping them develop their restaurants, including Mexiterranean, Casanova Hotel’s unique Mediterrean-Mexican restaurant.
With his skills and passion, Juame could easily be an executive or head chef at one of Barcelona’s top restaurants. But he’s a man who marches to his own rhythm, preferring to work as a consultant, honing long-term relationships with customers who have come to value his expertise and his independent spirit. It is not an easy life.
He works several mornings a week as a pastry chef, then bicycles to one or more Rafael Hotels to serve as food and beverage director. Sometimes he gets calls at midnight to come solve a problem in one of the restaurants. In between, he teaches, primarily foreign tourists who want insights into Catalan cuisine. And he’s well qualified to offer simple, delicious cooking secrets.
After shopping, we head to the home of one of A Taste of Spain’s co-owners where Juame teaches in a small kitchen. He slices thick pieces of a rustic bread, explaining this coarse brown bread with its slow-rising yeast, makes the best toast for pan tomate. He oven toasts the bread, drizzles extra virgin olive oil over the slices, then uses a cheese shredder to pulp the Rosette tomatoes over the top. A sprinkle of salt and we savor the delicious result.
He explains the differences in olive oil, pouring various brands for us to try. One tastes fruity, almost like banana, another citrusy, still another with spicy notes. He brings out various olives, tiny green ones shiny with oil, dark shriveled “muerta” ones that have been allowed to dry on the trees.
He shows us how to make sofrito, the classic Spanish paste of onion, tomato, and sweet peppers. As he works, quickly chopping, sautéing, boiling regional ingredients, he gives us tips on Catalan cooking. “Never cook onion with rice. It makes it stick and overcook.” “if your onion is too strong, soak it in water.” “Make your liquid hot — boiling — first and then add the liquid to the rice, cooking only 16 minutes and letting it rest for one minute.” “Always add parsley, paprika, and garlic to your rice.” “To de-salt cod, you put it in water for 24 hours; then change the water for another 24 hours; and then once again.”
The lessons roll off him easily and he keeps giving more, wanting to impart everything he knows to our eager ears. All the while we sample different tastes, drink a bit of wine, laugh.
“I have always loved food,” he says as we sit at the table sharing the fruits of his mornings labors — salted cod salad with olives and peppers, negro (black squid ink) rice with tiny cuttlefish, salted red mullet, pan tomate. All of it is delicious. “I like the opportunity to taste; to discover the products of the region.; mixing the flavors of the sea and the mountains. It is my culture and it is important.”