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Friday, 20 July 2012

One off The Bucket List: Meeting Juanito Bayen

So...the planned order of operations upon touching Barcelonan soil was fairly straightforward:
Off tarmac and into airport.  Out of airport and into apartment.  Dump bags.  Out of apartment and off to meet Juanito Bayen.

Step 4, my friends, was the sole purpose and mission of my Barcelona trip. 

And so: I. MET. HIM.

Juanito Bayen – the man behind the Pinotxo bar, the tiny L-shaped, 14-stool kitchen that whips up creative Catalan classics in the heart of the gastronomic wonderland that is La Boqueria.

And now: I will die happy.

By the way, I knew I was far from being the only person dying to meet this man of legendary fame – the internet is rife with photos and writings about him, his food, his smile, his attire, his way-larger-than-life personality.  And so I’d read about him. About how tourists and locals and celebrities alike, jostle to get a place at the coveted counter and observe the busy goings-on in Juanito’s kitchen. I’d read and I’d wondered if he was worth the hype.

And so, it had to be the first thing we did upon arriving in Barcelona. It was required. Full stop. So, off we went.

It is prime lunchtime when we arrive, and I’d prepared myself for a 30-45 minute wait for a place to open up.  But just as I catch my first glance of the bright orange, slightly crooked Pinotxo sign and Juanito himself, dressed in an immaculate black waistcoat and bow tie, two people get off the stools right in front of us and without missing a beat, Sid and I slink in. There is even space for the pram.


Even luckier for us is that our little corner is being serviced by Juanito himself. And oh my, IRL (in real life) the man is every bit as dapper as in his pictures – he’s somewhere in his 70’s, totally full of life, as tiny as the establishment he runs, with spiky hair, an incredibly expressive face and eyes that smile. So yes - to end all potential speculation - he is worth the hype. Every last little bit of it.

See for yourself:

I turn to Sid and say simply, “I love him.”

Juanito notices us, greets us like long lost family, and places a placemat and clean cutlery on the counter, while we plonk ourselves down, somewhat in disbelief about how lucky we’ve gotten to be seated without a wait…you don’t understand, this kind of thing NEVER happens to me…

Within seconds, he’s back with an enquiring look, holding up a slim green bottle of something.
I have no idea what’s in the bottle – but hold a bottle in front of my face and I won’t say no.

So I don’t say no. He winks jovially and vanishes momentarily.

“Will you ask for the menu?” Sid says, “I’m starving”

“Haha,” I say, “there’s no menu. He just brings us stuff and we tell him when to stop.”

“How does he know what we want?” Sid asks slightly alarmed, conjuring up visions of broccoli and other green monsters in his head.

“Where’s the trust?” I retort, at exactly the same time that Juanito places two glasses of Cava 
in front of us

I think I’ve just answered my own question.

Barcelona is HOT HOT HOT and the Cava – ice cold and fizzy – comes as a very welcome respite. One sip later, our spirits are already lifted.

The next hour goes by too quickly.

An oven-fresh, floury loaf is placed rustically on our placemats – this is not to be eaten now, but saved for later, to mop up the leftover juices from the plates of food…
…which begins to come out thick and fast.

First comes a plate of garbanzos...chickpeas cooked with butifarra (Catalan white sausage), golden rasins, pine nuts and parsley, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic and sprinkled over with course sea salt to kick up the flavours.

I taste a mouthful of the chickpeas and stop mid-sentence. I mean - I’m no pro, but this dish is decisively competing for top place in my amateur but eventful food-writing life.

It’s stunning.

And it just shows you how the simplest ingredients entrusted to a pair of masterful hands can be transformed into gourmet cuisine with such utter perfection.

Six minutes later, we’ve inhaled it.

Juanito’s back now and is asking us something, while pointing to the plate of almost-over garbanzos that we have shamelessly chased around until the last round pea is gone.

I think he wants to know if we liked it.

“Muy Bien!” I say exuberantly, thankful for my vague recollection of a few choice words from Spanish class at undergrad.

But it’s the right thing to have said. For the look on his face is one I will never forget. The wide smile he flashes back is one of pleasure and gratification, and most of all, pride. It is clear that this is a man with passion.

And thus, over a dish of chickpeas, begins my infatuation with the genius that is Juanito Bayen. Because nothing is more appealing to me than one who takes pride in his work – say what you may – it always shows.

And so as a tribute to Juanito, here’s my version of the dish. I neither know where to get the butifarra, nor do I know how to cook it, so I’m doing the vegetarian version...

Please note, this is how I think he makes it.  If he spoke English or I, better Spanish, I’d have asked for the recipe. But alas, our communication was limited to smiles and winks and many thumbs ups, so this is all me, and it’s probably way off. But here goes nothing:

Here’s what you need:

-  400 grams can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
-  4 tbsp golden raisins
-  4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
-  1 medium onion, thinly sliced

-  Handful, pine nuts

-  1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
-  1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped

-  1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
, to drizzle
-  Coarse sea salt, to taste

Here’s how you do it:

Soak the raisins in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes till they swell up, nice and plump. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a pan and cook the onion until browned. Add the raisins, garlic and pinenuts. Add the chickpeas and parsley, reduce the heat, cover, and cook, stirring from time to time, until the chickpeas are cooked and the flavours well combined.

Pile onto a plate, drizzle olive oil and vinegar. Sprinkle over with coarse salt and serve hot.

Right.  That done, kindly rewind back to Bar Pinotxo, por favor.

Where we are merrily on our way to our second course.

Our garbanzo plates have just been cleared and it seems Juanito is showing us something. 
He’s dangling a dead crustacean in front of us. 

“Gambas?” he asks, politely.

Now – at the risk of repeating myself: Hold a dead crustacean in front of my face and I won’t say no. Or a live one for that matter. I don’t discriminate.

So, Gambas it is. Langoustines fresher than a freshman at college, easily accomplished because Juanito simply has to walk over to one of the multifarious stalls around him to have his pick of fresh seafood – all of which has literally come off the boat a few hours ago.

And boy, can you taste the freshness! Like all his food, Juanito’s langoustines are simply cooked – dunked in boiling water, if I were to guess, drizzled over with salt and olive oil and that’s it.

The flesh is sweet and succulent and infinitely pleasurable.
I could have eaten a few more platefuls.

Next, we get bacalao – salt cod, a must-have Spanish delicacy.  These are cod fillets, first dried, then re-hydrated and deep fried. The result is a light and crunchy exterior yielding to steaming hot and moist cod pieces interlaced with slices of caramelised garlic, drizzled with olive oil.

The dish is simply superb.

This duly consumed, we are sated. For now. But not without dessert. (Naturally!)

So when Juanito comes by again, I point to of what looks like a huge tray of flan, topped with a hard shell of burnt sugar lying not far from us on the inside of the counter.

“Ah, postres!” he says with a wicked wink. And off he goes to dish us up an insanely generous hunk of crème caramel and two sticks of flaky, buttery pastry, covered with almond slivers and filled with stewed calabaza.

And promptly places it in front of Sid.

Which is fine by me, because Sid is the one who wanted it. “Go for it” I declare magnanimously - “I’ll have a little taste later.” But, here’s the problem with the “I’ll have a little taste” declaration. It never stops there, does it? If you’re like me, that is. But hopefully you’re not.

So, before I know it, “a little taste” becomes half the blessed plate, and I can’t stop myself till all three of us have licked the plate clean. And I don’t even like sweets.

And so concludes our meal.
But just for that day.

Because, a few days later, after Sid leaves for London, I go back.

The second time I go, Juanito is wearing a bright green vest and matching bow tie. I eat pa amb tomàquet (pronounced pom to-mah-ket), which is basically toasted bread  rubbed with a garlic clove and the cut side of a halved tomato, then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled over with salt.  This comes alongside scrambled eggs with razor clams, which come apart magnificently a la plancha, (on the grill). I end with perfectly fried croquettas, stuffed with rock lobsters and salt cod – a delightful crunch of creamy, salty, faintly sweet flesh.  

I leave wholly satisfied.

The last time I go, I get there bright and early – not really by choice, but because I need to catch a plane.  Juanito looks debonair in a pale blue and pink striped waistcoat and bow tie to match. This time, I pass on the cava (even a person of my mettle can’t get myself to do it at 8am in the morning), opting instead for a cortado – black, oily Espresso with a dash of milk - and a xuxo (chu-cho).

Oh my Lord.

Really, I think it’s been many years since I’ve felt the delight of experiencing an entirely new sensation. 

Because tasting this stuff takes me back to the time my baby went from milk to solids – the look on his face when I gave him something he liked for the very first time.

I feel exactly like that - like a kid tasting something utterly delicious for the first time - marvelling at the novel and utterly wonderful discovery of taste.

I don’t know how to describe the xuxos, but I’ll try – it’s a kind of deep fried pastry filled with vanilla perfumed crème anglaise.  The pastry is fresh and fluffy and warm, lightly dusted with sugar. The inside is filled with a delicate, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth softness with notes of nutmeg and spice.

It’s rapturously good.

I ask for more. Juanito laughs and promptly brings me more.

I won’t tell you how many he brings. But I eat it all.
(Lord forgive me, for I have sinned)

As I say goodbye, Juanito gives me a kiss on the back of my palm. And my heart leaps in a bittersweet way because this gesture has just reaffirmed why meeting him has been on my bucket list all this time.

And now I’m lucky enough to be able to strike it off.
If I want to.
I could pretend it never happened and go back sometime and do it all over again.

Which is what I think I will.

Just. That. Good.

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