With a warm smile, our chef Jaume Brichs picks us out of the teeming crowd at the main entrance of La Boqueria Market in Barcelona, Spain. He is dressed casually in a soft brown sweater and dress slacks. He welcomes us and invites us into his exciting and exotic world of Spanish — or more accurately — Catalan cuisine.
We are here in Barcelona participating in a culinary class with A Taste of Spain, a local boutique agency specializing in organizing private culinary tours, cooking classes, and other gourmet activities for foodies and food professionals who hunger to experience an authentic taste of Spain.
He knows La Bouqueria market, it is his “home market” where he has shopped for much of his life. We wend our way through the stalls listening as he explains about tomatoes, cod, then anchovies, and ham, and oil, and olives, and mushrooms, and on and on. At first, I was a bit skeptical about the salt cod. It is stacked like dried bricks as if someone is building a wall. Little did I know that this would be one of the delicious highlights of our culinary class.
Information rolls off Chef Jaume’s tongue. I cannot take notes fast enough. He’s patient, repeating information, answering questions in his soft, authoritative manner, over and over. Smiling, stopping to smell a tomato, finger a mushroom, point out the best cuttlefish. He is a walking encyclopedia of Catalan food and how it represents and expresses his culture. I already know more about this culture from our trip through the market than from weeks of scouring books and traipsing through dusty museums.
Then we are off to the cooking part of the class. After a short drive, we arrive at the upscale apartment where he teaches. Despite the website saying the class is held in an apartment kitchen, I had envisioned the massive glowing gas burners and stainless steel of a “chef’s kitchen” – but this is the kind of kitchen I live in, where I express my culture. I am at ease here. I can relate to cooking here. While he sets up for the cooking part of the class, we enjoy the view from this private apartment and get a glimpse of living in Barcelona.
Jaume is in his chef whites when he invites us into the kitchen. He is clearly in his element and in command of the food that seems to magically multiply from the refrigerator and his shopping basket. He toasts slabs of dark crusted, day old bread (it better accepts the tomato and oil) in the oven. He slices five different types of tomatoes, urging us to smell them and see if we can discern their subtle differences. He shares the characteristics of each variety as they are incorporated into the dishes he’s creating.
I grow tomatoes so I am especially interested in a rather scraggly looking one that he paid a whopping 8 Euro/kilo for in the market. Jauma flips the bread, toasting the second side. He explains how breakfast in Catalan is historically basic, usually something simple like “pan amb tomaquet” or bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt. I taste the scraggly tomato he’s rubbed on the toast…it is heavenly with a rich, sweet tomatoy taste.
“Without culture….it is a disaster,” he says softly. He embellishes the breakfast bread by adding cod, then anchovy. It is like watching, and tasting, a symphony of food. With each ingredient he adds, the dish becomes something entirely new, different, exciting.
He shares the cultural roots of anchovies and olives, and we taste a variety of different olive oils – some fruity, others tasting like green olives, still others almost smoky.
As I bite into a crusty piece of bread piled high with salt cod, I have forgotten my skepticism. Properly prepared, salt cod is neither salty nor fishy. It Jaume’s hands, it’s a masterpiece. He explains the history of cod, where it comes from, how it became a staple in Catalan Spain. Part of me doesn’t care about the history as long as I can have a little more of the cod salad please with pepper, olives, and oil. Here’s the recipe for Salt Cod Salad.
He brings out a container of San Pau beans – a silken, creamy variety I am afraid I’ll never find at home. For that matter, how will I find Bomba rice for paella? Jaume assures me there are substitutes that will give me similar flavors.
We sample the pork sausage sautéing on the front burner. It’s delicious. He layers it on the beans, adds a little of this, a little of that, always finishing with extra virgin olive oil – and always mouth watering.
While he is talking, RFT editor Bobbie Hasselbring grinds fresh herbs into a paste. Small, sweet green Padrone peppers sauté on the back burner; small cuttlefish we bought at the market sizzle in another pan. I ask about arroz negra – having been told it is a staple of Catalan cooking. It is the first time I see him pause. “No one has asked about that dish in the 10 years I have been teaching this class,” he muses. “Of course, we will make it.”
And we do. He is emphatic about the timing on rice, “Seventeen minutes, no more, no less; then let the rice sit, rest.”
I ask about rice cookers, so ubiquitous in my country, and he shakes his head. “Catalan style rice should not be covered.”
The rice dishes are so beautiful I can’t help taking photos as they bubble…I want the pictures to be scratch and sniff when they are printed. I want to capture the smell, the taste. I want to remember this.
Finally, all of the chopping, toasting, slicing, grinding, sautéing, and simmering are done. We have been here for hours, and yet, I feel that our class can’t possibly be almost over and are ready for the third phase, sitting down to enjoy a three-course meal with Jaume. Mind you, we have been sampling all day as ingredients have been sautéed, sliced, ground, and plated. I am still hungry for more. This is not a day to diet.
Chef Jaume brings plates to the table in the dining room overlooking the hills of Barcelona. He pours glasses of Spanish wine. Our shared meal is a time for conversation and savoring last bites of food that have awakened my senses. And I have more questions, Jaume has more answers, more tips, more patience.
San Pau beans with pork sausage are lightly seasoned with virgin olive oil.
In our A Taste Of Spain class, we havel feasted our senses on the food and the culture of Catalonia. Jaume is a kind tutor and endlessly patient with questions and in accommodating of different culinary skill levels.
As we eat, I suddenly realize I don’t want to leave Barcelona, not yet. Despite having been steered to the city’s restaurants by various “foodies,” now I have a deeper understanding about the region and the food, and I want more. On the spot, we decide to extend our stay. As Jaume scoops more food onto our plates, he suggests a couple of restaurants and even marks them on our map (see Eatery Reviews).
If you have taken a cooking class in the past, you may already know that it opens up the region and the culture you are visiting in a way that typical tours and guidebooks cannot. Spending time with someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about the food, the region, and the culture adds a dimension to your travels that will remain a gift for many years to come. A Taste of Spain , and in particular, Chef Jaume, delivered gifts to us that were far beyond our expectations. — Story and photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor
A Taste of Spain
34 856 079 626
34 956 232 880
34 934 170 716 (Barcelona)
Check out our our Foodie Profile on Chef Jaume Birchs.