A cook's tour of Barcelona 0
A pan of paella almost ready to eat in the Bon Appetit Culinary Center aboard Oceania's Riviera. ROBIN ROBINSON PHOTO
BARCELONA -- Chef Kathryn Kelly knows her way around Santa Caterina market almost as well as she knows her way around a kitchen.
Clad in chef whites, she greets butchers, fishmongers and fruit-sellers by name, and makes small talk as she strides confidently from stall to stall inspecting and sampling the just-picked produce, just-caught seafood and local products such as artisan olive oils.
Today, the chef (who likes to be called simply "Kelly") is accompanied by an entourage -- about a dozen guests from Oceania Cruises' just-launched Riviera. We are taking part in a new Culinary Discovery Tour -- a sort of "gourmet safari" offered in 36 ports of call.
Oceania puts a heavy emphasis on cuisine, and Kelly is the cruise line's director of Culinary Enrichment and executive chef of the Bon Appetit Culinary Centers on board Riviera and sister ship Marina.
She helped design Oceania's new chef-led shore excursions, which give participants a chance to explore the authentic food culture of the destination. Each tour is unique but typically includes a market visit, lunch with local wine, and a hands-on cooking class.
You don't have to be a foodie or amateur chef to take part but you should have an interest in food and be willing to try a few new things to get the most from the experience.
The Barcelona excursion starts in the city's gothic quarter at Santa Caterina market, which is frequented mainly by locals. Kelly prefers the smaller spic-and-span market to the famous La Boqueria on Las Ramblas, which is a vast and chaotic warren of stalls thronged with locals and tourists.
One of Europe's oldest markets, La Boqueria is worth a visit but difficult to navigate as a group, Kelly says. There is a saying in Barcelona that if you can't find it at La Boqueria, which has hundreds of stalls, you can't find it anywhere.
Santa Caterina is also a treasure -- both for its culinary offerings and its architectural design. Its undulating and colourful ceramic tile roof -- reminiscent of a magic carpet -- is made up of 325,000 hexagonal-shaped ceramic tiles from Seville. A riot of reds, yellows, blues, greens, oranges, etc., the new roof is meant to represent the colours of Spanish food, and is the crown on a seven-year restoration/building project that blends old and new.
The chef encourages us to walk around the market and select some unfamiliar foods to try later. The welcoming vendors indulge us in an "any friend of Kelly's is a friend of ours" sort of way.
Individuals with a sensitive nature, might not want to gaze too long at the delicate pink piglets and skinned rabbits dangling from their hind legs, or the sea bream staring vacantly from eyes that no longer see. Focus instead on the rosy apples, mounds of juicy blood oranges, and hearty sausages and cheeses. Or take an espresso break at one of many cafes.
After the market visit, we move to the nearby Aula Gastronomica cooking school, where local Chef Beatriz Crus shows us how to make tapas -- one of the cornerstones of Spanish cuisine.
These small plates could possibly be the world's original "pub grub." There are various legends surrounding their origins but one of the most popular involves King Felipe III, who -- during his reign in the 16th century -- was so worried about drunkeness and rowdy behaviour that he decreed all taverns must serve a small quantity of food with every alcoholic beverage.
Hundreds of delicious little hot and cold snacks evolved over the centuries -- everything from a simple bowl of cheese and spiced olives to calamari, albondigas (meatballs and sauce) and empanadillas (meat, cheese or vegetable-filled turnovers). Today, all Spanish restaurants serve tapas, and some have extensive tapas menus.
When dining out, Spaniards will often make an entire meal of tapas. But tapas newbies beware, what looks like a little bit of this and a little bit of that can be deceptively filling. It's best to start with a few varieties and order as your appetite allows.
During the lesson, Crus teaches our group how to make several types of tapas, including an authentic Spanish omelette, ham croquettes, gazpacho, a simple grilled bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, and a delicious cheese and quince millefeuille for dessert.
The informal class is a combination of hands-on and demonstration cooking. We also learn about -- and taste -- some excellent Spanish cava (similar to Champagne but not as pricy), white and red wines, and olive oils. When everything is ready, we feast on the fruits of our labours -- and sip a little more Spanish wine of course.
We wrap up the afternoon back on board Riviera. After a little break, we reassemble in the Bon Appetit Culinary Center for a hands-on lesson in making paella, another staple of Spanish cuisine.
Under Kelly's direction, we wash up, don white cotton aprons and hats, and take our places in the state-of-the-art kitchen outfitted with stainless steel refrigerators, granite counter tops, a chef's prep and cooking area, convection ovens, flat-screen TVs, and 12 cooking stations (each designed for two students and equipped with an induction cooktop and sink).
Kelly mixes up a vat of white sangria to accompany the operation as we start layering the paella ingredients into the heavy flat-bottomed, low-sided stainless-steel paella pans she has bought from the market. We caramelize onions, saute green peppers and tomato, add the seasonings, rice, seafood (scallops, shrimp, mussels, fish, calamari), clam juice, and bring everything to a boil, then turn down the heat, cover with foil and let the fragrant concoction simmer until the seafood and rice are cooked and most of the liquid is absorbed.
Strangely, although we have all used the same ingredients, and the same basic tools, each steaming pan of paella is similar but with subtle differences.
That's the human factor in cooking, Kelly says.
Baking, she says, is a science, requiring ingredients to be exactly measured, and cooking time to be closely followed. Cooking, on the other hand, is more about interpretation and personal taste. Measuring is less precise.
Your paella may have a smidge more saffron or garlic. Your vegetables may be sauteed a bit longer than the person's next to you. Your rice may be cooked one minute less or more, until you decide it's "perfectly, done."
Despite these minute differences, the results are all delicious. And at the end of the day, we have made some new friends on land and on board, seen a slice of real Barcelona life, and created and sampled some authentic Spanish cuisine.
The Culinary Centers aboard Oceania Cruises' Riviera and Marina are said to be the only hands-on cooking schools at sea. Produced in conjunction with Bon Appetit magazine, expert chefs offer a range of classes from The Joy of Grilling to Mexican Fiesta and Healthy Cooking.
NEED TO KNOW
Riviera is currently sailing in Mediterranean waters and will reposition in late November for Caribbean service. For information on Oceania Cruises, see oceaniacruises.com or your travel agent. Be sure to check out the "Promotions" section of the website, which details specials such as free airfare, two for one cruise fares, etc., on select voyages in 2012 and 2013.