Paris to Barcelona

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Me and the missus decided to celebrate five years of married bliss by going back to the scene of the crime, Paris, France.

We had gone out on a few dates in the spring of 2000, before I went off for a fellowship at Oxford. We kept in touch during the spring by email, and when the term ended, we rendezvoused in the City of Light. Not much happened in Paris that would make for exciting reading – we toured the markets together, made dinner together, smooched a little on the couch of a friend’s borrowed apartment in the 13th Arrondissement, and somehow the spark got struck.

Given the utter improbability of us finding each other, getting hitched, and actually staying in love for five years, we probably should have gone to Lourdes to give thanks, but we went instead on a meandering trip through the countryside. We stopped in the Loire Valley and Burgundy to visit old friends, and then headed to the Dordogne, home of truffles, ducks, geese and foie gras.

Foie gras seemed to be on nearly every menu in Dordogne, and I will confess that I ate my share: a big tranche of foie gras as an entree at L’Os a Moelle in Paris; roast quail over foie gras at La Recreation in Les Arques, foie gras and artichoke heart at La Belle Etoile in Roque-Gageot. It’s a very sensuous taste experience – with a flavor both impossibly rich and extremely delicate.

It’s also a touchy subject on this side of the Atlantic – the city of Chicago has banned it from restaurants, and the state of California has set a deadline of 2012 to end production and sales of the fatty bird livers. The charge is cruelty, since the birds are force-fed a high-salt diet to produce the delicacy.

I’m in sympathy with the motivations of animal rights activists, and I eat a lot less meat than I used to. I try to support the restaurants that serve humanely and sustainably produced meats. But based on everything I have read, I am not convinced that the force-feeding of ducks and geese (gavage in French) causes nearly as much suffering as the meat production practices that are routine on factory farms, especially in the US. In the Dordogne, local farmstead producers even offer farm tours, with tasting of their products, and demonstrations of gavage. You’ll have a hard time finding a commercial producer of pork, beef or eggs in the US willing to let consumers see how their animals are treated.

At any rate, I didn’t take notes on my dining experiences – I promised Carol that this wouldn’t be a working vacation – so now a lot of wonderful food swims in my memory as a diffuse fog of recollected pleasure – succulent lobster ravioli in a langoustine sauce at La Recreation, a hearty plate of steak tartare in a Paris bistro; magret de canard medium rare with tender cheese quenelles at the Belle Etoile.

One meal was a pilgrimage – a few years ago, I had read Michael Sanders’ book, From Here You Can’t See Paris: Seasons of A French Village and Its Restaurant, about a struggling village in the Lot whose inhabitants recruited a young chef from Marseille to turn their abandoned schoolhouse into a destination restaurant. When I discovered that the village, Les Arques, was near our route, we made a point of a lunchtime visit. The 30 Euro ($42) five course prix fixe menu was one of the gastronomic highlights of our trip, with highlights including lobster ravioli in a langoustine sauce, scallops in passionfruit sauce, medallions of monkfish with stuffed zucchini blossoms, and a sublime nougat glace.

Our final destination was Barcelona. Barcelona is just a short train ride from the French border, but the culinary culture is vastly different. Catalan cooking isn’t as delicate or sophisticated as French cuisine, but what it lacks in delicacy, it makes up for in robust flavor. If in France, food is a religion, in Catalonia it is a sport. Our best meal in Barcelona – our anniversary dinner, actually -was a perfectly seafood paella for two at the venerable Set Portes, the oldest restaurant in the city. But perhaps the most memorable meal was a late-night outing for tapas at La Flauta on Balmes. At 11 p.m., every table in the dining room was taken, with a line as long as the tapas bar of eager customers waiting for a seat – and diners were still arriving when we left around midnight. The dishes we sampled, like an eggplant tortilla (a kind of frittata), a shrimp salad, patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce), offered robust flavors that matched the energy level of the diners.

I don’t want to stereotype Catalan cuisine as hearty but unsophisticated, though that’s just the kind of food that we sought out. Catalonia is actually at the cutting edge of world gastronomy, thanks to such celebrated chefs as Ferran Adria at El Bulli; neurologist-chef Miguel Sanchez Romera at L’Esguard, and Quique Dacosta at El Poblet. (To get a sense of the direction in which these chefs are taking cuisine as art form, spend a little time surfing the El Poblet website.)

I didn’t even try to get reservations for any of these gastronomic pilgrimage sites; reportedly El Bulli gets 300,000 calls for reservations every year, and its hopeless unless you call many months in advance. Maybe if I start dialing now, I can get a reservation in time for our tenth…