The Close

12 months.

I thought it would take less time. I budgeted for 6. My sanity budgeted for about 8, then left me for a stable guy with a nine to five who owns his own semi (I have since heard he likes a warm spread of chocolate on the chest, if you know what I mean).

12 months ago we started on the search for a restaurant space in Barcelona. At first they showed me rubbish. I mean, these were really depressing establishments. The type that didn’t even have a past glory to live off. They were places that were never once new, never once loved, and certainly never fabulous.

They were terrible and they generally smelt of old squid.

Then I hit a rich vein, I saw venues that weren’t so depressing. They too smelt of squid, but at least the fryers still worked, even if nobody had ever cleaned them.

I made further enquiries, sniffed a few tangy butts. Nothing.

Come February, things were looking bleak. Then Eureka! I struck gold. We found a place in the Raval, the owners were nervous and desperate, they looked like they owed dangerous people money. We were in.

We got fucked.

We moved on, we struck gold again. Well, glittery lead.

Burned by our previous experience, we offered too much. Unsurprisingly the offer was gleefully accepted. We went through hell to convince the landlord that we were viable tenants. They wanted a 50 grand rental deposit, I called all my old contacts, bank managers, lawyers, accountants, suppliers. I begged. I built a dossier of references, translated them and presented them. My character was questioned over and over. After weeks and weeks they finally reduced the deposit to €15k.

Alright, we are go. And just in time for my birthday.

So we found ourselves in an office at a big long table with the landlord and the seller, the two men who had just spent the last month gnawing away at my character. We agree to sign in two days. I ask for their bank details to make the transfer.

“Bank details? What bank details?”

“No no no. Don’t be silly” As if they were giving me a noogie.

“You bring cash.”

Needless to say we walked from that one, especially after we discovered that you have to pay 18 percent VAT when buying a business in Spain. Seriously.

We then lurched from farce to headfuck and back to farce again, which included one old Catalan landlord who decided to increase the (long ago agreed) sale price by 30 percent the day before we were supposed to sign. He didn’t bat an eyelid when we said no thanks, but 6 weeks later offered it to us again before signing with someone else without telling us.

We experienced many stories like these, each one so insane and unbelievable that somewhere along the way it just became dull. So I stopped writing about it before this blog  became another one of those “foreign project whinge fests.”

And so I had started to become like Jack Lemmon in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” I just couldn’t fucking close. My daughter stopped hanging around with me and my wife started wearing board shorts to bed. As a man, I was nothing. Plus my hair had mushroomed up into a grey flecked helmet. I looked like Isabella Rossellini.

And then we found it. It was small, there were robots on the walls for decoration, It was painted dark purple, but it was in a good area. It had potential.

So we fought, we scrapped, we offered way too much again. We even went to important meetings without a translator and babbled Spanglish the whole way through. There were many many legal grey areas.

“So what was that bit they were talking about with the lease?”

“I don’t know, I thought you knew”

“I don’t fucking know, you were nodding away like you understood, so I started eating the lollies on the table. Did you try those, they were so old and chewy, I think I’m getting cramps”

But this time, we were going to close. We made it tantalising, they had euro signs flashing in their eyes. But it wasn’t easy. Spain is a place where the quick, illegal, cash route is still favoured in these situations, where you can end up with a massive tax bill, a jail term and the burden of someone else’s contractual obligations forever if you aren’t vigilant.

With the help of our gestor, we got through.

So here we are. About fricking time.

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Conejos y Coños

One of the most frustrating things about being a foreigner in a strange country is experiencing the difficulties of communication and what preconceptions it brings up in the locals. I mean it was years ago that I realised the ladies would never take me seriously, and I’ve made peace with that. But it’s an entirely different thing when you are trying to start up a business.

Ok, let’s just pretend you are an estate agent in Barcelona, and in charge of selling say, um, restaurants. You’ve had a hectic morning, 3 coffees, a croissant, 4 viewings, 65 missed calls (none of which you will ever return), and most recently a poo. You are just about to bill somebody 15,000 euros in commission for doing NOTHING, when the phone rings. On the other end is a guy who can only speak in capitals. Me.

“HELLO, I AM INTERESTING IN THE RESTAURANT IN THE BORNE! WHEN CAN I SEE IT?” That’s all I say.

What do you do?

You hang up right? Of course you do. You pause for a second, then cold as ice, you hit that little red button. A moment passes and the phone rings again, same number. This time it’s easy, the second kill. You just drop that shit without answering it. Boned by your power, you kick back, put your feet up on the desk, slide your free hand into your zesty, trimmed pubic region and think of bocadillos. Salty, sweet, jamon bocadillos. Mmmmmmm.

I don’t blame you. Back in my other life, I did that all the time. No problem.

When I had many employees to complain about, I was constantly putting ads in the paper for new staff (chefs mainly. Actually, only chefs). Being that England is such a multicultural society, it was only normal to expect varying levels of English on the other end of the line.  What surprised me was that A LOT of them could speak little or no English, so after awhile,  instead of dragging them across town and wasting their nervous sweat on an interview, I just said no. And then I hung up the phone.

Equally so, I could pick out an arrogant little turd with a greasy comb-forward, who hailed from an insignificant country pub in the midlands and thought he was the only person in the world cooking seasonal, local food. You’ll be happy to know that I hung up on them too.

However, my true prejudice was reserved for the French applicants. Those guys got the hangup, hands down the trousers treatment, like I’m getting now. I hated the French chefs, they are exactly as you would expect; smarmy, condescending, a-holes. Everyone of them. WITHOUT FAIL.

One time at a party, a french chef I knew came up to me and shouted in my ear “So, ow iz your little cafe?” No, really. He even smelt of garlic.

So now I am experiencing the other end of the phone. I am the chipper, ever enthusiastic, hopeful foreign guy, who never gets further than “hello, I am calling very special job.” Maybe it’s karma, maybe I’m here learning a lesson about patience and caring and stuff. Or maybe I should just get Poppy to call from now on. What do you reckon?

Which leads me to a lovely story from back in the day when I was just a Spanish language rookie (rather than what I am now; an under achiever).
                                                                                                                                       Several years ago we were staying at a weird campsite in the Pyrenees during our honeymoon. It was a bit eerie and trailer-park for my liking, but it was home for a few nights. On our first evening, when dusk fell, a curious thing occurred. From out of the bushes emerged dozens of beautiful, fluffy, show breed bunnies. It was magical, every kid’s dream. Bunnies of all colours and nationalities frolicked amongst the tents, knocking each other over and giggling bunny giggles. It happened like that every evening. Unfortunately, there were no children there to enjoy this. I think they had all been killed by the creepy, silent people who inhabited the campsite, or maybe the bunnies ate them. Who knows. But a couple of days later, after taking all we could of the zombie people, we decided to check out. Whilst paying the bill, I made a rather lame attempt to be friendly to the grumpy old cow who ran the place. I wanted to draw attention to the the fact that there were many rabbits on her premises, you know, find some common ground, raise a few smiles. Instead, I leaned over the desk towards her with my idiotic grin and proceeded to mix up the only two Spanish C-words I knew.
                                                                                                                                       “Perdón, hay muchas coños aquí.” I said.
                                                                                                                                            And I wasn’t wrong.
                                                                                                                                               This recipe is for my good buddy Xavier, who is stuck out on the farm with nothing to keep him company but a couple of rifles and an urge to kill bunnies.
                                                                                                                                           Twice cooked Southern Fried Rabbit                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                                  I braised this bunny in pig’s trotter stock, which was a by product  of trotter croquettes that I made earlier. Here’s how I did that.
  • 4 pig’s trotters
  • 1 onion, peeled, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled chopped
  • 1 sticks celery
  • 2 heads of garlic
  • A bunchof thyme
  • A handful of peppercorns
  • 1 large glass white wine
  • Enough chicken stock to cover the trotters

Place the trotters into a pot of water and bring to boil. Simmer for 5 minutes and then drain. This step encourages early scum production. I’m sure there is a Chelsea football joke in there somewhere (actually I don’t even know what that means).

Now place the trotters into a pot with all the other ingredients. Bring to boil, cover and slowly simmer for 3 hours.

Remove the trotters and garlic and set aside for the croquettes.

If you don’t have trotter stock (which you won’t) just get hold of some really rich chicken stock, a head of garlic, sliced sideways, half a lemon and 3 bay leaves. This will be our braising liquor.

Now for the dish itself.

  • 4 farmed rabbit legs or a whole rabbit, jointed
  • fennel pollen
  • lemon zest from half a lemon
  • Trotter or chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 180c. Season the rabbit pieces with the pollen, zest and salt and place in a snug fitting roasting tray. Place the lemon, garlic and bay, then submerge in the stock. Cover with foil and place in the oven for about 2 hours or until you can almost slide the meat off the bone with the back of a spoon. Remove and allow the rabbit to cool in the stock.

  • 1 heaped tbsp of dijon mustard
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • zest and juice of half a lemon
  • the leaves from a bushy stick of rosemary
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • sea salt to taste

Blend all ingredients in a blender for 20 seconds until blended but chunky and blendy.

Gently remove the rabbit from the stock and place into a bowl. Pour over the marinade and again, very gently mix together. Refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours.

Remove from the fridge about 45 minutes before you are ready to cook.

In a bowl mix together

  • 100g of white flour
  • 100g fine bread crumbs
  • The finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 50g of finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • Salt to taste (go on, nobody’s watching)

Fill a saucepan about 5 cm deep with sunflower or vegetable oil, making sure that it is no more than about 1/3 full. Heat over a medium to high heat. To test the temperature, throw in a cube of bread until it turns golden.

Place all the rabbit pieces into the flour mix and gently coat. Gingerly place the pieces into the oil and cook for about 5 to 8 minutes, or until golden brown. You may have to adjust the temperature if the oil is too hot or cool. If you need to cook in batches, just keep the other pieces warm in a low oven.

Remove and drain on a paper towel, then serve immediately with chunks of lemon to squeeze over.

They should be salty and crunchy on the outside with a tangy, meltingly unctuous inside.

This dish is perfect served with pan roasties and this salad

This Strawberry life.

If you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to lately, well, this past month my life has been all about strawberries. This is the time of year where I spend my days in the field picking strawberries from the strawberry trees in our orchard. I wander from tree to tree, my neck craned back, gobbling buckets of strawberries until I get giddy and vomit gushing pink torrents. I just love strawberry trees, the way the pink blossoms dance daintily on the branches in March, and then burst forth the following month like a loaded D-cup. Fat, juicy strawberries, all jostling for attention.
It’s no coincidence that in April I can often be found alone in the fields, shirtless, wearing nothing but tight denim dungarees. I load my sack full of these crimson beauties and when the weight of my haul gets the better of me, I find a quiet, shady patch under a laden tree and do the thing that lonely shepherds have been doing for centuries. No not that thing.
In my quest to find cakey breakfast delights for our non starting restaurant, I came upon this recipe. I was sure that I had totally messed them up when the mixture started to separate in the bowl, but they turned out to be the best frickin’ things I have eaten since the crumpets we made a couple of months back.
Strawberry and White Chocolate Friands
  • 125g fresh strawberries, chopped
  • 185g unsalted butter, melted
  • 6 egg whites
  • 100g almond meal
  • 1/2 cup plain flour
  • 1 1/2 cups icing sugar
  • 100g good quality white chocolate, chopped
Preheat the oven to 180c. Lightly grease half cup capacity friend pans or shallow cupcake tins.
In a large bowl, mix half the strawberries with butter, egg whites, almond meal, flour, sugar and chocolate. Stir until combined.
Pour evenly into prepared tins, then scatter with the remaining strawberries. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (depending on the depth of your tins) or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
Stand for 5 minutes and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
Eat straight away with your morning coffee or serve with a little scoop vanilla ice cream.

The Deal

It was like a scene from a West London dinner party.

She said, “you should totally write blog about it.”

“Yeah” screamed the other guest. “You should totally write a fucking blog about it. Make them think you’re all down and out and about to go home, and them bam! Hit them with the goods. You could even post a picture of you standing out the front giving the two thumbs up, or better, the guns!”

I started to warm to the idea, I love throwing the guns in photos, well I did, until Poppy banned them about 4 years ago. These days, if you see a photo of me, I’m likely to be standing alone with a pocket full of buckled fists, holstered. And sad.

I cast a glance at Poppy, and she seemed to be into the idea too. Yes, a sanctioned guns photo! What should I wear?

The topic of the conversation was that we were a dead certainty to buy a restaurant we’d had our eye on. The french owners had originally dismissed our pitiful offer weeks earlier, citing a long line of people lining up to buy their failing, dull, but perfectly located restaurant. Now however, defeated, nervous and broken, they were offering it to us. At first we declined.

“I’m not in the business of dull” I said (while wearing a black polar neck and sucking on a cigarillo) in response to their claim that we should continue the restaurant in their mold. They insisted they wanted to sell to somebody who would not sacrifice their baby, that’s why in the end they “chose” us. Little did they know that we were sharpening our blades as we negotiated, ready to gut, skin and bone that little bugger. We would offer it’s tiny throbbing heart to the gods. The rest would go into sausages.

Make no mistake, we wanted this place. After months of staring at the computer screen, scrolling through thousands of pictures of the most depressing bars, we had finally found something that had potential, and was in a great part of the old town.

So now we had the upper hand. There was nobody else. Just us. We were as good as in. And I was going to write a post that would fool you all into thinking that things weren’t going well and that we were on the verge of going back to England. Then, I was going to drop the happy bomb. With guns and a stylish new haircut.

But then last week, we got screwed.

While we sipped margies in our banana lounge beside the pool at Hotel Smug, our french buddies were cooking up another deal.

We played the game, we were keen, but not too keen. We came up with offers and counter offers. We were close. Or so I thought. Then the calls stopped. Then they weren’t returned. When they finally did, the nervous french voice said the words that made me want to be sick,

“we’ve signed with someone else.”

After I vomited, I shrugged off the news, thinking it a tactic to squeeze another grand or two out of us. I put my polar neck back on, feeling the strength it gave me. And then I sat there all afternoon, smelling of sick in my creepy sweater and underpants, waiting for the call to say that it was all a mistake.  But it never came, they actually had sold to someone else. And for the same amount of money that we had offered them, only slightly more “dinero negro.”

“Those bastards” said my friend at dinner tonight, “you should totally write a blog about it.”

Here's me in bad jeans during happier times, outside the first ever Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is a pose similar to what I would have pulled, but with 6 shooters cocked. My hair would obviously have been better.

Crumpet lovin

So I’ve had loads of feedback from my last post, most of it along the lines of “you bloody whinger, get on with it.” My friends, my wife and even my mum got in on the act with an email calling me “a girly-girl ninny muggins.” So this week (ha! As if I actually post every week), I’m just gonna stick with the boring recipe part.

While I’ve been scouring the city for a space that doesn’t suck, I have also been working on menus and trying out various recipes. As it has always been my weak spot, I focussed  mainly on baked goods and breakfast stuffs. People in Barcelona generally spend 20 minutes or so each morning standing at a bar, drinking a bitter, burnt coffee with UHT milk, and eating a pillowy, cardboard croissant. I swear that there is a secret law in this country that requires all bakers to age their pastries for a minimum of 4 days in a dark, damp room, followed by a thick coat of sugar syrup, then another 4 days exposed to the elements on a roof top, 6 floors up. The pastries are then kicked off said roof one by one, down to the street below. There, a delivery guy must scrap with the local vagrants in order to load them into the truck and off to the coffee bars for sale.

So I figured I would see what I could find as an alternative to this temple of mediocrity. And thus far, my most successful discovery is the humble crumpet.

I, like most people have only experienced the shop bought, TipTop variety of crumpet. These are generally pretty good, toasted up and slathered in butter and honey, or whatever. But this recipe I found (in an old Gourmet Traveller) is part hotcake, part crumpet, and quite frankly, fucking amazing.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve tweaked this recipe, it’s a straight up rip off. I get so annoyed when some twit on a blog writes “this is my adaptation of Elizabeth David’s classic recipe.” You didn’t adapt anything, you just changed a couple of grams in the measurements here or there. Elizabeth David (or insert  other famous chef here) was a trailblazer, you are not.

Anyways, the recipe is as follows

  • 800 ml milk
  • 40g butter
  • 500g plain flour
  • 7 gm dried yeast
  • 2 tbsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp caster sugar
  • 1 tsp bicarb soda
  • butter to grease

You will also need maple syrup and loads more butter to spread on top.

Heat the milk and butter over a low heat until the butter melts, then leave to stand until luke warm. In another, small bowl, combine sugar and yeast. Add 200ml of the milk mixture, stir to dissolve and then stand in a warm place until foamy.

Combine flour and a pinch of salt in a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add yeast mixture, stirring to incorporate a little flour. Add the remaining milk mixture, stir until smooth and combined. Cover and stand in a warm place until very foamy (1 to 1.5 hours).

Dissolve bicarb of soda in 50ml of warm water and add to crumpet batter. Beat to combine. Cover and stand until bubbling (25-30 mins).

To cook, heat a heavy bottomed frypan over low-medium heat. Add a little butter to the pan and place 10cm-diametre, 2.5cm-deep rings in pan and fill each 2/3rds full with batter. I did this two at a time.

Cook until batter begins to show bubbles and small holes in the top of the batter (4-5 mins).

When the batter looks set, gently remove the rings. Flip the crumpets over and cook for another minute, or until golden. Serve immediately or keep in a airtight container and toast em up the next day.

When you toast them, be patient and make sure you properly toast them and not just warm them. Otherwise they will be soggy and floppy, instead of light and crispy. I’m talking to you Veronica.

You will need lots of butter and maple syrup.

The search.

I’m not going to blame you guys for my laziness, but….. you know, maybe it’s your fault that I haven’t written anything for a while. Maybe YOU are responsible for my lack of creativity. Sit with it for a second.

Right, back to me please. Have you ever read those chick baking blogs where the writer is suddenly gripped by a melancholic autumnal urge to bake? You know the ones, where she gets all fucking weepy about her grandmother’s family muffin recipe and has to share it with us? Yeah? You with me? The ones where said muffins (hello? Pumpkin? Yuk) are styled with little  woollen hats made out of  mascarpone icing and photographed cooling on a grey, moody window sill like little SouthPark characters? Don’t lie to me, I know you have. You once spent an entire afternoon trawling those blogs, sharing the seasonal changes, the time-out for new babies. You may even have sobbed at the passing of muffin granny. The same afternoon you discovered so many new ways to cook kale and cauliflower that your partner ended up having an affair just to get the taste out of their mouth. Maybe you still have all those recipes. Maybe you even tried to bake some of those muffins. Well I hope you did a little choke-sick on the pumpkin, because I hate those blogs. They make me mad.

You know why?

Have you seen the feedback those blogs get? They get hundreds, sometimes thousands of comments, SINCERE comments, supportive comments, grateful comments, sharing comments. They get the LURVE. Oprah sized lurve. Sisterhood lurve.

Don’t get me wrong, if any of you guys wrote that sort of shit in my comments section, I would delete you. But the fact is, you don’t.  And that hurts.

Again, sit with the guilt for a sec. How is it?

Nah, I’m just messing. seriously, I couldn’t give a rat’s butt about the comments. I know you guys have missed me. I even got an email from my sister saying something like “just been to Melbourne and a couple of people, can’t remember who, asked me why you haven’t written your stupid blog in a while.  Are you getting mum anything for Christmas?”

The real reason I haven’t posted is because I’ve been trying to find a venue to open up something here in Barcelona.  It’s not just that it has been taking up all my waking moments, it’s also because the process is so fricking soul destroying that I didn’t want to share my bitterness with you, until now. I preferred to keep it stored tight inside my stomach, until it eventually manifested itself as a plague of mouth ulcers (wow, how hungry does this cooking blog make you feel?) that robbed me of tastebuds for three weeks over Christmas. I heaped so much salt on all my meals for about five days before I realised what had happened. My poor old ticker must have taken a beating.

Ok, exhibit 1. Look at these beauties. Go ahead, click on the photos and take advantage of the new gallery option.

Here are your typical examples of restaurants for sale in this city. You might be interested to learn that they are not even near the centre of Barcelona. You might be even more interested to learn that they range in price from 170,000 euros through to 1.5 million. Oh wait, that’s not to buy the joint, that’s just to take over the lease. That yucky green one there, is a smidge under half a mil, and the one that you can see with no windows (oh sorry, I forgot, NONE of them have windows), a snip at 1.56 mil. And that doesn’t include the 8k rent you have to pay each month. Most of them have decrepit kitchen equipment, dangerous wiring and absolutely no customers, zip, as in no income and not worth buckshit. It’s an orgy of delusion.

Sometimes you go to a meeting to view a property and the owner doesn’t even bother to show up. Sometimes that happens twice. How do you bargain with a guy who can’t even be bothered to front for a viewing? It fucking kills me.

So we are left with the question. Who the hell would buy this shit? Who would part with their life’s savings just to display their name above the door of a place that nobody wants to go to? The answer is anyone who wants a liquor license in this town. You see, it is muy dificil (see what I did there?) to get a license here, and in some areas, namely the only places you want to be, there is a moratorium on any new applications. So it has created a new currency; a bloated, overvalued, but essentially  worthless currency, much like the euro. It seems like it’s the only buoyant market in a country with nearly 50% youth unemployment. Just my luck eh? Welcome to Spain.

So what to do my little chickadees?

You just gotta keep searching I guess.

Supper Club!

As I have been sitting on my arse for the last 6 months, going to the beach and writing the occasional post, I thought I would greet the coming of Autumn (which doesn’t actually look like it is going to arrive anytime soon) with a bit of hard work. Yes that’s right, I am dusting off the clown pants and white jacket, and getting back into the kitchen this Saturday night for a supper club at Plataforma Gallery in Poble Nou.

I have prepared a menu of tasty treats that reflect the slow, sunny slide into chilly October, using only the finest ingredients from La Boqueria and Santa Caterina Markets. I have limited cooking equipment and it will be a bit of a shit fight, but I am ready. My chef regime has begun in earnest; I am drinking 9 coffees a day, smoking fags and dusting the crack of my butt with talcum powder in preparation. To make the experience authentic, I am going to stay up drinking all night the night before and begin cooking at the latest possible moment.

But I WILL pull it off. Just.

I also have my in form buddy Yoz helping me.

Four courses. From summer to Autumn.

Come down if you dare.