Sunday, 10 May 2009

Can Paixano - The Perfect Last Meal

I spend a lot of time indulging myself in fine dining and writing about my experiences in what are known here in Spain as 'restaurantes de alto nivel'. It's my chosen career, so I make no apology for my hedonistic extravagance in the pursuit of knowledge. Fine dining has brought me great pleasure, but there's another side to my relationship with food.

There's no feeling quite like being out with your friends at a really good local hostelry where they serve top quality local produce prepared with love and pride. During my time in the Catalan capital I learnt how the ordinary residents of the city eat, if 'ordinary' is a term you could ever apply to Barcelonistas. I began to share their passion for simple food, deeply rooted in the local culture, cooked perfectly and shared with friends, family, neighbours... or whoever happens to be sat next to you. And so it was that a week ago - my final Saturday night in Barcelona - I wandered out in search of the ideal way to celebrate my departure from the city.

Stroll a hundred metres south from my former apartment, cross the Passeig de Colon and you come to Barceloneta. With the Port Vell and its massive World Trade Centre complex to the west, the city's proud Olympic Park to the east, trendy El Born to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south, Barceloneta should by rights be some of Barcelona's most prime real estate. But Barceloneta was always a working-class barrio, ever since it was created from derelict and reclaimed land by Flemish engineers 250 years ago to house the poor families displaced by the massive city developments of the time. And, despite the tourism and a half-hearted attempt to clean up its beaches and replace its sea-front chiringuitos, so it remains today. As working-class as Barcelona gets.A Barceloneta street scene

Saunter to the edge of the little part of Barceloneta cut off by the massive Ronda del Litoral ring-road and you find the 173-year-old landmark Les Set Portes (Seven Doors). Turn your back on the bourgeois opulence of the city's first ever restaurant - with its grandiose architecture and classical Catalan haute cuisine - and amble round the block into the Carrer de la Reina Cristina. All at once you find yourself in a cluttered passageway filled with tiny electronics shops and jewelry stores. And if you don't wander straight past without spotting the place, you'll arrive at a very different eating establishment.

The unmarked entrance to Can PaixanoBryan Miller, former restaurant critic of the New York Times and celebrated gourmet described the place nearly two decades ago when he discovered it one night during the Olympic Games. I can't possibly improve on his sketch, so I'll leave you in his skilled journalistic hands (I've added the links and photos).

"Can Paixano offers a rollicking, rough-edged taste of working-class Spain just a 10-minute walk from the Columbus statue. You won't find any foreign tourists at Can Paixano. It has neither a phone nor a sign. Even the street number, which is normally posted above the door, is missing. Starting about noon, local artisans, students and squat, bag-toting women flood into this narrow bar and charcuterie, with its napkin-strewn cement floor that appears to be in a converted garage. The bar is three deep in no time. Pushing and shoving is part of the fun here.

Behind the counter and under grease-splotched signs listing all kinds of sausages and cured meats, cooks hustle up charcuterie platters and sandwiches. Taste a ración of the delicious air-cured ham, lusty chorizo, butifarra (Catalan pork sausages that come both white and dark), or cecina, the dark, minimally salty air-cured beef that is a specialty of Burgos. The butifarra is especially savory; so too is a strong, chewy Basque chorizo called chistorra. Raciónes go for €1.25 to €2.25 - no wonder the place is always packed. There is also a good selection of cheeses at a retail counter in the back (if you can shove your way over there).A struggle to get anywhere near the counter

The local fizzy roséAlong the chest-high counter are bottles of cheap sparkling rosé that go for €2.75 a bottle or 50 cents a glass. In any other setting this sweet, bubbly drink would be dismissed as a step above ginger ale. Somehow, though, the obstreperous Iberian setting and rugged food elevate it to a higher status."

Not at lot has changed in the seventeen years since Bryan's brush with Barcelona's proletarian cuisine. A few tourists can be found in Can Paixano these days - you can blame eGullet and Flickr for that - but there's still no sign or street number. They've acquired a telephone, but I wouldn't advise anyone to call the number in the hope of reserving a table for Saturday night.

Prices have shot up. What cost €2.25 in 1992 now costs the princely sum of €2.85. No wonder it's still packed most days. And just when you think it's reached capacity more people arrive and join in, like a queue at a football stadium or a crowd at a demonstration. Can Paixano is not a place that has to advertise itself, or particularly wants to. In fact I was amazed to discover that the place actually has a website, until I realised that its main function is to entice foreign distributors for the local cavas and own-label fizzy wines for which they are famous. Bryan was right about the retail counter - the only problem for cheese-monkeys is the near-impossible task of shoving your way over there. If you can manage to shout the Catalan for "make way, make way... cheese emergency", you could just be in with a chance of taking some home.

Can Paixano was the perfect venue for my last meal in Barcelona and I couldn't have picked a better night for it. An hour or so earlier at the Camp Nou Barcelona had thrashed Real Madrid 6-2 in the country's most high profile derby 'El Clasico' and I was packed in amongst a crowd of celebrating Catalans. Horns were still sounding, flags waving and the atmosphere on the streets and in the cafés was simply incredible. I gorged myself on my favourites - morcilla and chorizo sandwiches and a bikini, washed down with a couple of glasses of Can Paixano's best own-label cava rosado.Best Catalan bar food

Refreshed both in body and spirit, I headed out into the warm night air and made my way back across the ring road and into El Carrer del Comerç - a route I'd taken many times during my year at Comerç 24. My timing was perfect. Service was finished, surfaces cleaned down and the chefs were emptying out into the street. Off we wandered to the plaza for 1:30am mojitos, laughing and joking all the way, with me looking decidedly the worse for wear. What a great way to go out!

With Comerç 24 chefs Dylan, Oliver and Shane
Thanks to Héctor de Pereda, Michal Sänger, Óscar Suárez, Hector Garcia and Rutger Straatsburg for the photographs.


Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Definitely a perfect end to your time in Barcelona! I feel totally out of my depth in VERY fine dining places so this would be my ideal night out in BCN.

docsconz said...

Great, great, evocative post! Best wishes on the next phase of your training. I am keen to follow your continuing exploits!

Trig said...

Amanda - I'm sure you could manage to feel comfortable somewhere that's neither a stand-up sandwich bar nor a three-star Michelin restaurant. There are a few levels inbetween!
John - Thanks again. I'm doing fine here and really enjoying it. I'll publish something soon.

A Girl Has to Eat said...

Good luck with your next venture. I will be sure to check out this restaurant when I am next in Barcelona

Lizzie said...

It sounds like a great last meal. What are you doing now?

Trig said...

Cassie, Lizzie - I'll publish something about my new job later today, after lunch service.

The Landers said...

Can Paixano is no where near as good as you say. it's better. we finally squeezed in on Sat night. Extraordinary and wonderful. I could love there.

Off to Rome (I think!)

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