Sant Joan, or the feast of St John, the festival that marks the longest day, leads us literally with a bang into the long sweltering summer. Not uniquely a Catalan holiday, nor celebrated in every region of Spain, this is the time of year when the night sky is lit up with fireworks and the city rattles with the sounds of booms, bangs and blasts from those focs artificials and firecrackers. It is also, bizarrely, the exact point when the temperatures start to sky rocket and the mosquitos start to eat me alive.
Whilst the rest of the city headed down to the traditional haunt of the beach to let of their pyrotechnics, I followed some wise locals in the opposite direction towards the Collserola mountain that looks out towards the sea. Laiden with a picnic, coques de Sant Joan and moscatell, our location afforded us amazing views of the illuminated city whilst out of the fearful way of children armed with firecrackers.
Our destination, which I have been sworn to secrecy not to reveal, gave us almost 360° views at one part of the ascent. The spot, which once played a key part in the defence of Barcelona during the bombardment or bombardeig, was also a fitting spot to witness the eruption of noise and colour being emitted from the city. Although this was a festive occasion my mind fleeted to what it must be like to live in a city under seige, when those blasts and bangs are an ever present sign of danger and fear whilst trying to go about your daily life. I felt thankful that I never have had, and hopefully never will have to, live in such a dreadful situation.
This being a fiesta there was of course, once again, something specific to be eaten for the occasion. To quote a book of mine, deceased famous Spanish writer and gastronome Manuel Vazquez Montalban “counted 50 days in the year when there is a special and uniquely characteristc sweet cake or pastry”. The coca, yeast dough baked in large shallow pans, come in many varieties, but the one traditionally eaten at Sant Joan is topped with creme patisserie, candied fruits and pine nuts.
Coca de llardons, the llardons being small pieces of pork fat mixed into the dough and then topped with sugar and pine nuts, is much more delicious than it may sound and is crisper and less doughy than the coca de Sant Joan. Staunch vegetarians beware when lured into the cake shops, many Spanish cakes and patisserie items are made with lard, including ensaïmada and many croissants.
Washing all this down with sweet dessert wine moscatell (pronounced ‘mooscatay’ as I was frequently reminded), there was also a third, this one topped more generously with creme patisserie and yet more of those expensive little pinyons. As I was handed a generous piece of all three for my research I devoured them all and gave up all thoughts of ever dropping a few pounds in this city.
The celebrations peaked around midnight then slowly died away as the night progressed, my friend commenting that the economic crisis the country is suffering has definitely hampered the length and intensity of the night’s celebrations in the last couple of years. As an outsider I can barely imagine how it was before.