As if the food, the cava, the displays, the tapas, and chatting to a cute Italian chef weren’t enough last weekend, the highlight for me was by far the aula gastronòmica, the lecture hall showing demonstrations from the exhibitors. I cherry picked the ones I prefered as work commitments on the Friday and good company and sunshine on the Saturday meant I couldn’t see everything I might have liked.
The demonstrations were varied and covered talks on healthy eating for diabetics and children, information about specific ingredients such as olive oils and the controversial foie gras, representatives from Mercabarna, the city’s wholesale food market who were demonstrating meat and fish presentation and chefs from the tapas tasting making us envious of some of their skills.
Despite my best efforts I couldn’t keep up with the long streams of Catalan during the ‘how to correctly cut meat’ and ‘preparation, cutting and serving Iberian ham’, without constant demonstration to reinforce the language I ended up completely lost. I did best with the ham presentation where I at least managed to grasp that there are three types of pigs which produce the pernil, that the meat is actually a source of ‘good’ cholesterol and high in minerals, particularly iron. I will chew guilt free on that melt in the mouth fat from now on.
Iberian ham demonstration
Three different types of knives are used to cut into the legs, a mid-length one for the removal of the external fat, a long blade for cutting long, wafer thin slices and a shorter type for slicing the meat in the more difficult parts near the bone. Long strokes coming towards the body produce thin slices of ham which it’s suggested is best served at a room temperature of 25°c, simple enough here, slightly more difficult in some foreign climes.
Slicing Iberian ham
Now I’d love to ham a ham at home but have seen the results of not storing it properly. A friend’s housemate once had tiny mites scurrying over the surface under the cloth placed over it. Euw. Here he demonstrated placing the cut outer layers of fat back on the exposed parts and then covering with a cloth.
Covering cut Iberian ham
On Sunday from Genova was Stefano Bruzzoni from ‘Il Pesto de Pra’‘, growers of basil for the best part of 200 years and manufacturers of that moreish pesto we’d sampled the day before. This presentation was an assault of latin languages, the host speaking Catalan, Snr Bruzzoni speaking his native Italian and a Spanish translator. I was shocked to learn that there are 60 varities of basil, the Genoese variety apparently the most prestigious and the small leaves from the plant are used for the pesto. The name pesto comes from the Italian verb ‘pestar’ which means ‘to grind’ and also gives the name to the common kitchen item ‘pestle and mortar’ and of course the ‘pesto’. Cooking and lingustics.
He was keen to stress that “the quality of the ingredients is vital” and that “there are pine nuts and there are pine nuts”, the best of which can cost up to 30€ a kilo, far removed from the cashews they are replaced with in cheap supermarket brands. This was pesto made with Ligurian love, no bashing the ingredients but gently twisting the pestle with one hand and hugging and turning the mortar with the other. The recipe for the pesto is at the end of this post.
However, it was a quick wristed woman, a mean wielder of a very large and sharp knife that enlightened me the most in these demonstrations when she answered the question ‘How do you correctly fillet fish?’ A very experienced hand from Mercabarna she is obviously used to doing this at lightening speed every day out at the vast 90 hectare wholesale market in Zona Franca which has gradually absorbed the cities wholesale markets over the years. She made light work of gutting and portioning a whole hake, two sole, some sardines, anchovies and a cuttlefish in just half an hour.
She began by explaining what we should look for in fresh fish; red gills, bright eyes, silvery and shimmery scales, and of course that whiff of the sea not fishy odours. She started on a large hake, snipping off the fins and sending scales flying everywhere as she brushed them away. As she gutted it she kept the liver, I didn’t understand what she said as to why she didn’t throw this away but I’ve never heard of a hake liver dish and she then deftly cut the peix into pieces and removed the cheeks.
That is one mean looking knife
From the two soles she filleted one into four pieces and the second she kept whole but just removed the skin. Her knife skills were astounding as she used the knife to not only fillet the fish but to hold it and the skin as she manipulated them and intermittently wiped it clean in a fearless manner. I would love one of those knifes but I worry I would probably do myself some serious damage.
With the sardines she destroyed any future misgivings I might have about buying and cooking them. No longer will the pleasure of eating delicious sardines be diminished by trying to pick my way amongst the bones. By bending the head back, putting a finger under the gills and pulling your finger downwards through the body the guts are removed in one fell swoop, the main bone and feathery bones can then be pulled out in one go, all still connected to each other. The process was the same with the fresh anchovies, although in this case you remove the head at the same time. By flattening out the anchovy you can then pull out the bones as before.
The final demo with the cuttlefish was slightly rushed as they were pushing her to take questions from the audience and my view was obscured by the camerman but it seemed she removed the large head and then cleaned it as for squid and cut the tenticles to go along with the firm white flesh. Cuttlefish ink is an important element of many local dishes such as arros negre (black rice) and fideu (a short cut, thin noodle dish) and she insisted on removing it carefully so it can be used and not colour the fronts of your kitchen units.
So, to end, here is the recipe for that mouthwatering pesto, enjoy!
Fresh Pesto for 4
3 handfuls of fresh basil
3tbsp of pine nuts
1tsp of coarse sea salt
Half a clove of garlic
3 tbsp of grated Gran Padano cheese
1tbsp of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1tsp of ewe’s milk
4tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
Start to grind the salt and garlic in the mortar and then add the basil leaves, oil and cheese. Turn the pestle and mortar lovingly, do not bash the ingredients together. The pesto is ready when all the ingredients are well combined.
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