Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bakers boys

Kurt Anderson at Breads Etcetera told me that the flour they use comes from Stoates at Cann Mills, Shaftesbury in Dorset. This is not too far away from me, in fact it’s just the place for a spot of lunch on a nice day, one of which we had today.

Shaftesbury has great charm; it was the setting for one of the most famous commercials of all time, the Hovis ad with the little baker’s boy pushing his bike up a cobbled hill. The voiceover, with its northern accent, suggested a location in Yorkshire, but the film was shot, by Ridley Scott, in Shaftesbury, on Gold Hill.

Just round the corner, in the High Street, is The Mitre. This pub, with wooden floors and bar stools and people doing the crossword, must have one of the best views i
n the county. I had a pint of prawns and good bread with unsalted butter.

Cann Mills, a mile outside Shaftesbury, is a water mill set in the most beautiful tranquil surroundings. On a bright spring day the blossom is blowing from the trees across the mill pond. Michael Stoate emerges from the mill with flour dust veiling his face, a huge smile and a warm handshake. It is half term and his children are around – what a place to grow up.

Michael took over the mill from his father. Milling has been the family business since 1832; Cann Mills can trace its history back to the Domesday Book and now produces stoneground flour with the help of the 19th Century waterwheel.

I bought several bags of flour and I can’t wait to taste the bread.

There are breadmaking courses at Cann Mills too, run by Paul Merry. Paul is an Australian who worked for ten years at The Village Bakery, in Melmerby, Cumbria, and I believe he built the wood fired oven there. He specialises in sourdough and runs one, two and three day courses in the delightful Dorset countryside. They now have a new wood fired oven too.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Wild Yeast Chase

I zoomed off from Somerset the other day in search of something that turned out not to exist – but in its place I found something much more exciting!

Anyone who makes, or attempts to make, sourdough bread will tell you that it’s like casting spells, it’s magic, and as such you get very superstitious about every element. Is the leaven hubbling and bubbling properly? Is it the right kind of flour? Should the water be bottled or can it just be tap? Will only the best sea salt do? And what about the proving basket, or the cloth to line the basket? Will a bowl do? Will an ordinary tea-towel be ok?

We don’t go through all this anxiety with yeast risen bread; we just throw it together and chuck it in a tin and it comes out fine. But sourdough isn’t just bread, sourdough is a mystery and an art. Sourdough captures an invisible vital ingredient from the very air and harnesses its strengths to make a subtle potion. Bread that rises without any visible means of support – magic!

After my little problem with the not very well floured tea towel (see post passim) I became convinced that what I needed was the right kind of cloth to line the proving vessel. I learnt that I could get one from Breads Etcetera and I was told that they were for sale at their new café in Clapham High St, London. (Blue fascia, just beside Sainsbury’s). I drove from Somerset convinced that the purchase of said cloth would be the finishing touch to my sourdough mise en place – the proved dough would virtually somersault on to the bakestone.

In torrential rain I found the place – so new on the High St that it doesn’t even have its own name above the door yet. Blank faces and mystified expressions met me – proving cloth, what proving cloth? I must have looked crestfallen, because they found one of their founder bakers, Kurt Anderson, and got him to come and talk to me. And talk we did, as his mobile jangled and his staff raced around and customers thronged through the door. (This place is going to do gangbusters business.) They don’t use cloths to line their proving bowls at all. They just flour the bowls, which are made of some sort of coiled wooden material that breathes and that I can order from them. And yes, sometimes the dough sticks a bit, but the amazing thing about sourdough is that the structure is so internally robust that sticking a bit doesn’t seem to do it any harm. If an ordinary dough got a tear at that point it would collapse. Not sourdough.

Kurt was a delight to talk to, passionate and enthusiastic, and having been up all night baking, remarkably alert. I bought one of his walnut loaves and, two days later, it is still moist and delicious. I bought cheese especially for it (see yesterday’s post), and I truly think I could live on it. But there were a few other things that caught my eye in the café; what looked like black rye, which I’ve never known how to get to work, and a pile of other goodies.

The best thing? Kurt invited me to go and bake with them. I was completely taken aback. Of course I said yes. Abracadabra!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Things to do in London when it's raining:

We still seem to be in the grip of an unseasonal monsoon. It’s May for heaven’s sake…where are the girls in their frilly dresses?

If you get the tube to Bond St you can get close enough to Selfridge’s to miss most of the puddles and not get stuck in the eye with an umbrella. The vast cathedral-like space is floored and pillared in marble, sensuous with the scent of cosmetics and perfumes, and jam-packed with gorgeous youth dressed in black and crowding around the Chanel counter. I avoid being squirted with something fabulously expensive and sprint for the Food Hall.

This just gets better and better; it used to be a place for good smoked salmon and kosher canapés, but over the years it has become the place for food. (Harrods is pretty good, but I don’t go to that part of town much these days.) The cheese counter has a close relationship with Neal’s Yard Dairy – probably the best cheesemongers in the country – and it is lovely just to ask the question “What’s really good at the moment?” and get a considered reply.

I had a beautiful walnut loaf in my basket (and how I came by it is another story, perhaps for tomorrow) and I asked for cheese to eat with it. I was offered a taste of two; both were terrific and I bought them. The first was Wigmore - a soft sheep’s milk cheese made with unpasteurised sheeps milk and vegetable rennet by Anne and Andy Wigmore at Village Maid Cheese, The Cottage, Riseley, Berks. It’s a sweet, soft cheese and I can’t show it to you because I ate the whole lot for my supper. Cool and fresh and completely delicious.

The second cheese I tasted was Berkswell, a hard sheeps milk cheese made with unpasteurised sheeps milk and vegetable rennet from Ram Hall in the West Midlands.
It is developed from a traditional Caerphilly recipe but has been adapted and matured for four to eight months to give it a unique texture and flavour. To me it tastes a lot like Manchego, nutty and sweet, but not quite so hard textured. Ram Hall exports to lots of places, including the USA.

Both of these cheeses are absolutely wonderful – do seek them out - or order them online from Neal's Yard.

I bought some good Spanish paella rice for when the sun eventually comes out, and was impressed by Daylesford Organic, who come from Gloucestershire and have a new venture at Selfridge’s. They are not too far away from me in Somerset so I think a visit is in the offing.

I was hungry. It was still raining. I needed my spirits lifting, and Antonio Carluccio was just the man to do it. (When I first moved to the countryside I found mushrooms in abundance. Carluccio is THE man on mushrooms and I telephoned him to ask if I could preserve them in olive oil.
“Absolutely not!”
“You’ll get botulism.”
So I didn’t. I dried them in the airing cupboard instead.)

Just round the corner from Selfridge’s Carluccio has a café; tables outside for when it isn’t raining, and inside a riot of colour and a big communal table to sit at. Rain brings out the Dunkirk spirit. At least three people asked me if it had stopped and made sympathetic groaning noises.

I ordered a glass of Prosecco and my spirits lifted. I ordered a plate of antipasti and they soared. Another glass of Prosecco... A coffee...

Aaaaaaah. All is well with the world.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Things to do in Somerset when it's raining:

We had a dry winter and then we had hosepipe bans in the South East and now we have had torrential rain for about a fortnight. Raining cats and dogs and plagues of frogs, for days and days and days. The cricket has been rained off. Footballers are splashing around like little kids. Golf matches have been halted. Two and four wheeled vehicles have spun and slid and skidded and fallen over. The wet has a psycho-literary dimension, like the fog at the beginning of Bleak House, or the drizzle in A Hundred Years of Solitude. I think I have forgotten how to do anything but peer out at the bluster and mutter darkly about global warming.

Oh to be in a warm dry climate, with some colour other than green.

So, a quick comfort plate to excite the palate and warm the soul.

Elizabeth David’s Aïoli (from French Provincial Cooking)

She says
2 large cloves of garlic per person
and, for eight people, the yolks of 3 eggs and nearly a pint of good olive oil.

(This quantity of garlic might seem a bit much, even to seasoned garlic-heads, so I leave the quantities to you.)

Pound the garlic in a mortar with a little salt until really well squished. Add yolks and, when well amalgamated, start to add the oil, a little at a time.

(The first time I ever made mayonnaise I took the instruction to add the oil ‘drop by drop’ literally, and it took me all afternoon. These days I am a bit more cavalier, but I still make sure I have all the ingredients at room temperature and I add the oil with care and slowly. I think it is in Mastering the Art of French Cooking that they describe the consistency as being like thick paint. I have always liked that.)

A good aïoli should be, according to Mrs David, practically solid. You can, if you like, add lemon juice at the last minute; or not, if you like the flavour of your olive oil. Whatever you decide to do, let the aïoli sit for a while so that the flavours develop.

I’m going to eat this with chips. And turn up the heating. And dream of Provence

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dan Lepard's Sourdough

(A week ago I started a leaven, using the instructions in Dan Lepard’s book The Handmade Loaf.)

On Saturday night the leaven was doing practically nothing. Just a few bubbles on the surface and the scent of – well – water and flour. I went to bed despondent and before I went to sleep imagined what I thought it ought to be doing, hubbling and bubbling and singing Wagner to itself...

Imagine my surprise when I came down on Sunday morning!

I cleaned up the mess and, it being Sunday, had a leisurely breakfast and read the Sunday papers. Remembering some old advice to treat your leaven like a pet I gave the mixture a spoonful of flour for its breakfast too.

10.15 Time to get started

200g white leaven
325g cold water
500g strong white flour
1 ½ tsp fine sea salt

In a large bowl, whisk the leaven with the water. Add the flour and salt and stir until you have a soft, sticky mass.

I followed the exact measurements but the mixture is very liquid. The next step will involve taking the dough out of the bowl and working with it on the work surface and there is no way I can do that, so I add more flour until I have a ‘soft sticky mass’, cover the bowl and leave it for 10 minutes.

(The rest of the leaven gets a drink and a decent meal and has been put into the fridge.)

Dan’s method is to work the dough little and often.

10 minutes later
Mixture still too sticky to work. Add more flour for a still very soft dough. Wash and dry bowl, oil it lightly, put dough back, cover and leave for 10 minutes.

10 minutes later
Dough looks smoother after its little rest. Knead for 15 seconds only and put back in covered bowl.

30 minutes later
As I take the cloth off the bowl the smell of proving bread hits me. I knead the dough on a very lightly floured surface for 15 seconds and put back in bowl.

1 hr later
During this 1 hour wait I had a look at Dan’s website – – which has a good FAQ section about all sorts of things including temperature. Mostly from hot places rather than cold, but it’s clear the ambient temperature is important for getting the leaven to start itself up properly. Pictures of loaves with lots of holes in them encourage me!

I knead the dough for 15 seconds, shape into a ball and put back in bowl.

1 hr later
Repeat above step

2 hrs later
Divide dough into two pieces. Shape each into a ball and leave on work surface for 15 minutes.

15 minutes later
Rub two clean tea towels with flour and use to line two bowls approx 20 cms across. Dust work surface with flour, reshape balls of dough and place seam side up in bowls. Leave at room temperature until almost doubled in height – approx 4 ½ hours.

(I have to say there is no way I would have left this for 4 hours if I were not following the recipe to the letter, and that may have been a fault previously!)

Approx 4 hrs later
Heat oven to 425ºC (I am using a bakestone and an oven thermometer)

½ hr later, oven up to temperature

Unmoulded the first loaf onto a non stick baking mat – it stuck really badly to the tea towel – let that be a lesson –more or less poured itself on to the mat, and I was so thrown that I forgot to spray it with water immediately it went into the oven, but, ah-ha – when I remembered five minutes later and opened the oven door it was actually coming along quite nicely. It took about 35 minutes to cook – Dan says 50-60, maybe it’s my mad oven. When it came out it looked good and felt incredibly light. I think that’s a good sign.

Loaf number 2 stuck badly to the tea towel too – will have to find a way round this – but this time I got several sprayings in in the first ten minutes.

Both loaves look good and feel light.

When they had cooled and I cut into one, I was really pleased. The crumb is creamy, the crust is thin and crackling, the holes are even and well developed, the sour taste is definitely there and very pleasant. And I did it all in my unreliable oven. This is the loaf I have been trying to make for years and I think M Poilâne would be impressed!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dan Lepard's Leaven (2)

Day 4
100g water at 20º C
125g strong white flour

(The contents of the jar look pretty unappetising today; a brownish liquid has separated from some putty coloured stuff at the bottom of the jar.

Remove and discard ¾ of the mixture – I always find this bit hard to understand. Add the water and stir well. Pour the mixture through a tea strainer to remove raisins. Pour mixture back into jar, add flour and stir well. Cover and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Note: There was practically no sign of fermentation by Day 4. I wonder if I had too much water in the mixture…wonder if the temperature was correct. Hmmmm.

Day 5
100g water at 20º C
125g strong white flour

The surface of the mixture has started to bubble up nicely.

Remove and discard ¾ of the mixture.
(I poured the whole lot into a measuring jug so I could see how much there was. I had 300g of mixture, so that left 75g, which didn’t seem like very much. I rinsed out the Kilner jar and dried it.)
Add the water to the remaining mixture and stir well. Pour back into jar. Add flour so that you have a thick paste.
Cover and leave again at room temperature for 24 hours.

Note: It hasn’t been very warm this week, probably not up to 20º C. I wonder if this affects the fermentation time. Also, it’s quite difficult to measure 100g of water – I had to translate from fluid ozs.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A nice cup of SFTGFOP1!

I come from a nation of tea drinkers and yet I realise I know practically nothing about tea. The other day I ran out of the English Breakfast teabags that I habitually plonk into the pot at 7.00 in the morning. Coincidentally I later passed a newish shop selling teas and coffees. Oxalis, in Bath, is a Czech retailer specialising in Čaj and Káva – I think that’s tea and coffee in Czech.

I told them I wanted to buy an alternative to my usual teabags and that I drink my tea without milk. Three big glass jars were produced, half full of tea leaves for me to sniff and savour. I chose one, black tea from Assam. It smelt lively and fresh; I also bought a little bell-like tea infuser on a chain. In the morning, eyes half open, it was a bit of a struggle. First you have to get the little bell to open! Then you have to get the tea into it – those little rolled up leaves just get everywhere. Then it takes at least twice as long for the tea to infuse and that disrupts the whole breakfast routine. But is it worth it? You bet. Wow. It’s as if I had been drinking tea through a sock previously. There’s a clarity of taste and a depth of flavour that is in a whole new order of experience. I don’t know enough about the vocabulary of tea tasting to be able to describe it well, but it was just what I wanted to start the day, like a strong clear musical note.

It does take longer to infuse, but when you empty out the little bell you realise why – a couple of pinches of tea have expanded to fill the entire infuser, and swelled right back to their original shapes.

I thought I would find out a bit about tea and discovered an excellent and concise explanation at Stash.
Whilst browsing in Oxalis I had airily mentioned that I usually drank Broken Orange Pekoe. They didn’t have any. I thought BOP was a variety of tea. It isn’t. It’s a grade. And it’s pronounced Peck-oh.

Briefly, all tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Names like Darjeeling and Assam and Keemun indicate the region in which it is grown. There are no varieties, only grades of leaf picked. Picking is by hand or by machine. The best is picked by hand. Leaves are graded according to whether they are whole, or torn, or broken etc. According to what happens to the leaf after it has been picked you get black tea, green tea, oolong and white tea.

The grading system for black tea is fantastic! Orange Pekoe is a whole leaf tea where the leaves are of a generous size. The top grade is Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1 – it has nothing to do with oranges but all the rest of the words mean what they say. So the top grade of black tea would by SFTGFOP1.

Years ago when I was in Sri Lanka, a great tea growing nation, they showed us around the tea grading house and told us gently that what goes into English tea bags is the dust, the sweepings. That’s a grade – and mostly it tastes like it.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Dan Lepard's Leaven

Every year, at some point, I start in to make a leaven for sourdough. The leaven or biga or starter or callitwhatyouwill goes well, frothing and cavorting and making merry in its jar, emitting more or less sour scents and heaving to be useful. I make the bread and put it to bake, on a stone/ not on a stone/ under a hood/ naked in the oven, and time after time it comes out heavy and close textured. I, after all that, swear it is the very twin of the superloaf from Poilâne, but I know in my heart that is not true.

This year I have two new books, one by Rose Prince (The New English Kitchen) and one by Dan Lepard (The Handmade Loaf). Rose Prince is the sister of Sam Clark, who with her husband, also Sam Clark (really), runs an excellent London restaurant called Moro, and they are the authors of the eponymous cookbook Moro. In it they detail how they make their sourdough bread, greatly praised by Rose Prince. It starts with a bunch of organic red grapes, 500g of organic unbleached strong white bread flour and 1 litre water. You need a rolling pin and a bucket and you have to feed it twice a day for two weeks. I stopped reading at that point but promise to return.

Dan Lepard is a baker and his book is lovely. He travels all over Europe and the Old Soviet Empire learning about bread from country people. His photographs show bread made in his home oven, which has exactly the same temperature problems as mine, and his bread is light looking with a good open texture and lots of holes. I have started in to make his leaven. Here we go:

Day 1
50g water at 20º C
2 rounded tsp rye flour
2 rounded tsp strong white flour
2 rounded tsp currants or raisins
2 rounded tsp live low-fat yoghourt

(actually I had sultanas so I hope they are all right)

Mix all together in a Kilner jar. Leave at room temperature (approx 20º C – I didn’t check the room temperature)

Day 2
50g water at 20º C
2 rounded tsp rye flour
2 rounded tsp strong white flour

Stir the above into the leaven, starting with the water. Cover and leave again at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 3
100g water at 20º C
4 rounded tsp rye flour
4 rounded tsp strong white flour

Method as above.

This will go on for 5 days in total. His instructions are incredibly detailed, to the extent that I am worried about the sultanas. The leaven should be ready for use at the end of the week, so next weekend I shall make a loaf with it and we will see the results.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


When I was a kid, about twelve years old, I found some beautiful white flowers growing in the dappled woodland around my school. In the lunch break I picked a huge bunch of them and left them in the school cloakroom. The pungent smell of garlic penetrated the entire building. What I had picked were the flowers of the wild garlic plant, known colloquially as ramsons. A few weeks ago the dark green strap leaves appeared in the hedgerow and this week the flowers have burst into life. They like dappled shade best, but along the roadside there are banks of them, frothing and foaming in the May sunshine. All parts of the plant are edible; the leaves are good used in salads, or cooked like spinach, but the revelation is the stems of the flowers…they are crisp and juicy, with a garlic zing that hits the back of your throat. Not acrid at all, but perfumed and long lasting. I used one stem, chopped, added to a risotto near the end of the cooking, to give a mild background garlic flavour that gently pervaded the whole dish.

Growing just near the ramsons you are also likely to find a plant called Jack-by-the-Hedge, or garlic mustard. It has a milder flavour than ramsons, with fresh green, slightly toothed leaves and tiny white flowers. The leaves are excellent added to salads but are delicate and wilt quickly after picking. They make a good sauce for lamb, chopped with a little mint and mixed well with vinegar and sugar – the mint sauce idea that the French find completely perplexing about English cookery!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Saturday at Borough Market

Whilst I was gazing in awe at La Boqueria in Barcelona (see posts passim) it appears that half the Spanish market stallholders were in South London. The 250th anniversary of Borough Market has just taken place, and they were in England to celebrate.

On a Saturday morning the market rings quietly with the sound of last night’s hangovers. As the morning progresses it fills with a definite sense of excitement and anticipation – and that’s just the customers. People come with open mouths, rumbling tummies, pushchairs and lists. First stop is the Monmouth Coffee Company for a fresh brew; next stop is Flour Power City for a chocolate brownie to go with it. The pyramid of brownies welcomes you to the market and this is how Matt Jones makes them:

Heat the oven to 180C/fan 160/gas4. Butter and base-line a 20cm-square baking tin with baking parchment. Gently melt
400g dark chocolate (at least 55% cocoa solids) with
325g unsalted butter
in a bowl over hot water until smooth, then cool a little.
6 whole eggs, 2 yolks and 300g caster sugar together until pale. Fold the melted chocolate mix into the eggs.
Sieve 50g cocoa powder with 80g plain flour then fold everything together until evenly mixed.
Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 20 mins until slightly risen at the edges. Allow to cool completely in the tin.

Serves 12
(Recipe from BBC Olive Magazine June 2006.)

As May breaks through the miasma of winter the market comes alive with wonderful English asparagus fresh from the countryside, fresh violet coloured garlic from France, cockles and mussels, wild mushrooms, fish and bread and meat. So many baskets, so many dinner parties…

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Lunching with Lucullus

Don’t get me wrong… I love those long lazy festive meals shared with friends or family. I love the planning and the preparation, and even the slightly hazy clearing up afterwards. I like what my father used to call the “backwash” – the leftovers of cold roast potatoes, collapsing trifle, the sticky bits under the roast. I know that when I wake the following morning, hung over and stiff, it means a good time was had by all, and I am glad.

But sometimes it can be very agreeable to dine alone.

The famous story about Lucullus goes like this:
Lucullus was a Roman general of fabled hospitality and with gourmet sensibilities. If anybody ever ate dormice, or had relays of runners bring oysters from Colchester to Rome, it was Lucullus. This man set a table to frighten the gods.

Anyway, one evening he had invited no guests, there were no supernumeraries at dinner, Lucullus was dining alone. And so his servants set the table with the second best silver and served simple dishes.
“Why?” asked Lucullus
“Because tonight, Master, you dine alone”
“Tonight” roared the general “Lucullus dines with Lucullus”.

And so, on many an occasion, I have set the table with good linen and with Georgian glass, and pale porcelain – for one person.

The other day I was in a market town nearby, and had planned a swift strike on the library and then a retreat to a homely sandwich. Then I changed my mind. The day was fair, it was approaching the hour of lunch, and I found a pleasant place to eat. I looked around and said I would be back in the length of time it took to put another parking ticket in my car. They asked me if I would mind eating upstairs as downstairs was all booked. I said not at all.

I returned in twenty minutes and was escorted to my table with grace. The upstairs dining area was airy and lit by windows in the roof. On the table was a small round piece of dark grey slate and on the slate was a pat of butter – at room temperature. I realised how much I hate, but have grown to tolerate, butter straight from the fridge, which ruins any decent bread you try to spread it on. So they knew I was coming!

The bread was home-made and delicious. The wine was chilled and perfect. The menu was thoughtful and good value. The waiter was French and charming. We talked about butter and rhubarb and mostly he left me alone. I read my book – MFK Fisher’s “Last House” was in my basket – I enjoyed my fish and my rhubarb tart. I felt relaxed and peaceful and at my ease, in my own time.

It was like meditation, with calories.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Rose Prince's Boiled Dark Ginger Cake

At the Blueprint Café in London they serve Montgomery’s Cheddar (see posts passim ) with ginger cake. Rose Prince has cooked there and this is her recipe, from the just published paperback edition of The New English Kitchen.

120g butter
120g soft brown sugar
120 g sultanas (optional)
2 tbsp water
300g black treacle
1 ½ tsp ground ginger
2 eggs
180g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
60g ground almonds
1 tbsp blanched split almonds

Line and butter a 20cm square cake tin. Preheat the oven to 150C/gas mark 2. Put the butter, sugar, sultanas, water and treacle into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Boil for exactly 5 minutes, then set aside to cool until hand hot. Beat in the ginger, then the eggs, one by one. Sift in the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ground almonds and fold in well.
Turn the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake for about one hour, scattering the split almonds on top after 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and try to leave it for a day or two before you eat it!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The back

Winter has gone on a bit too long in England so it was great to leave the drizzle behind for the Mediterranean warmth of Catalonia. Barcelona was pretty much transformed by the Olympic Games in 1992 and the legacy is one of a modern stylish European city, the second largest in Spain, very nationalistic, very much itself. The astonishing modernist buildings of Gaudí are a total shock, none more so than the amazing Sagrada Familia cathedral, rising like a mountain in the city and with a current completion date of 2030.

The market of La Boqueria, on Las Ramblas, is a jaw dropping must see, one of the greatest markets in the world. The fish stalls at the centre are a poem of piscatorial bounty, the scent is of the sea not the fish, and round about are stalls specialising in offal, chickens, Iberian ham and sausage, fruit, salads, mushrooms, ice cream…all of them with queues of Barcelona housewives buying their daily dish and restaurateurs stocking up on produce.

A little further down Las Ramblas is the Barcelona Opera House, El Gran Teatro del Liceu. Twice consumed by flames and twice reconstructed it offers opera and recitals and some of the best coffee in the city. Catalans don’t eat lunch until at least 2pm, and dinner starts around 10pm, but there are lots of delicious pastries to keep you going.
Round the corner from the market, at Junta de Comerç, 25, is La Biblioteca, a restaurant offering modern Spanish and Catalan cuisine based on the freshest produce. The décor includes a table full of cookery books in several languages for your perusal!

You can’t go to Spain and not have tapas, and one of the hippest tapas joints is Qu Qu, at Passeig de Gracia 24. Expect Catalan sausage – fuét - and their famous three cheese croquettes, as well as Iberian ham and some great matchstick potatoes with allioli.

You will want culture of course, and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, housed in a majestic building called the Palau Nacional which was built for the 1929 International Exhibition, offers amazing Romanesque works from the Catalonia of the eleventh twelfth and thirteenth centuries as well as other classical art from the region and more up to date collections including photography.
The restaurant – Oleum – is elegant and restful with a fabulous view out over the fountain below to the city beyond. The food is inventive and beautifully presented, made from the freshest local ingredients. My starter of quail salad with basmati rice, sultanas and rosewater was particularly memorable. It’s only open at lunchtime, which is a bit of a pity because that view at night must be astonishing.

Don’t eat paella in the tourist parts of town; instead head down to the beach where there are excellent restaurants, including Cal Pinxo at Baluard 24, right by the sand. I felt uncertain about ordering seafood paella until I realised the whole restaurant had ordered the same dish.

We heard from other people that they had had rather poor food in Barcelona; as with any large city full of tourists I think you have to avoid the obvious places and take recommendations – we would never have found La Biblioteca ourselves – but there are lots of helpful sites. I particularly recommend Eat Barcelona because my friend Tim writes it!
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