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November 01, 2011

A great book and a good movie on the Spanish failed golpe of 30 years ago

anatomia de un instanteReview of:

Javier Cercas, Anatomía de un instante (Random House Mondadori 2009)


El 23-F, film directed by Chema de la Peña (2011)

World’s literature is full of historical novels as well as of literary historical accounts – Herodotus, Caesar, Dumas, Tolstoy, Orwell, Lussu, etc etc. Yet Anatomía de un instante (English translation The Anatomy of a Moment, Blumsbury 2011), rewarded with the premio Nacional de Narrativa of 2010 is unique. It represents a genre of its own, a novel/essay/reportage hybrid that seems to have been invented to match my taste with perfection: literary skill, historical rigour, journalist inquisitiveness, political sensitivity and human depth. All in 450 pages which were a fantastic companion during my summer holiday, and to which I get back now having watched its cinema counterpart, El 23-F (17 Hours).

Anatomia de un instante is about the failed golpe of the 23rd February 1981. It is a very detailed historical account, but instead of starting from a historical problem (such as the origins of the golpe, the emergence of Spanish democracy...), it starts from a literary question on a specific instant, known to all Spanish people from the TV footage of the military storming of the Parliament: why did prime minister Adolfo Suárez stay seated at his place, while the soldiers shouted ‘to the floor’ and their bullets whistled around him? Was it a heroic act, mere political posturing, a form of atonement? Historians may be good at answering the big questions, but only an accomplished novelist can answer such intimate ones.

The book is built around six characters. The event of the golpe is described each time again, from the eyes, and the mind, of a different protagonist. The six characters are on one side the three members of parliament who did not obey the golpist orders: Suárez, the deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, who had himself taken part in Franco’s golpe forty-five years earlier, and communist leader Santiago Carrillo. And on the other side the three protagonists on the golpe: the lieutenant colonel Tejero, whom Cercas, importantly, refuses to treat as an isolated nutter as popular accounts do, and the generals Milans del Bosch and Armada. Of the six characters, though, the one Cercas is most interested in is Suárez, and with good reason: it is an ideal type of the ‘pure politician’ and therefore a universal character for a novelist, but also the core protagonist of Spanish democratisation, and therefore a prime object for historical inquiry. And if you read the book until the end, you will discover a much more personal, intimate reason why Cercas, who in his youth politically despised Suárez, came to be so fascinated by his figure... and why understanding Suárez is so important in order to understand today’s Spain.

The attention to characters comes at the cost of neglect for the context: both the international one (the roles of the USA and the Vatican, for instance) and the social ones (we are repeatedly told of social unrest, but what was it about?). This would be a problem academically, but it isn’t literarily. The description is in incredible detail and with such skill, that even if you obviously know the end, you get stuck in the suspense of the events, six times over (in fact, some recent research shows that books are more gripping when you know the ending: spoilers do not exist). Moreover, the style is beautiful, in particular through the multi-level discussion, in single long sentences, of multiple counterfactuals when investigating different possible interpretations of the event. It makes you love the most difficult bit of Spanish grammar, the intensive use of the subjunctive, much more precise than in Italian and especially French, and more faithful to Latin. I wonder how the English translator could cope with such multiple 'if', 'if only', ‘as if’, 'even if’ with different subjective degrees of probability...

El 23-FThe movie El 23-F tells the same story, but rather than in 450 pages of novel/essay, in 90 minutes of political thriller. The context which is just in the background in Cercas’ novel, here totally disappears, except short opening sequences of historical footage on the Spanish transition. The set is great: real tanks on the streets, and action in the real building of the Congreso de los Diputados (where the bullets holes are still visible). The movie is just on the 17 hours of the golpe, from Tejero’s storming in the Congress at 6pm to his surrender at 1pm the day after. And the focus is just on three characters: Tejero, Armada, and the king. The first two are fantastic Shakesperean characters, combinations of Richard III and Macbeth, evil conspirators but also tragically tormented by internal conflicts and occasionally ridiculous. By contrast, the king is here presented in a hagiographic way: he just does the right thing defending democracy, and he appears at the same time a hero and as a nice bloke. Shame that, as Cercas convincingly shows in his book, the behaviour of the king was actually unsteady, with major faults and if eventually crucially redeeming, only because of his secretary Fernandéz Campo’s interposition. At the Warsaw Film Festival, director de la Peña said that he showed the events ‘simply as they happened in reality’. I could not resist asking him why then we can’t see General Cortina (the head of the intelligence, whose ambiguous role is discussed from all angles by Cercas, and is still disputed in Spain). He answered ‘buena pregunta’, before making the point that the role of Cortina, if there was any, was before the golpe, and therefore outside the time frame of the movie. A good answer cinematographically, but a bad one historically. I don't trust who pretends to tell history ‘just as it happened in reality’.

The thirtieth anniversary of Tejero’s exploit has shown how literarily and cinematographically inspiring the drama of a failed coup can be. 2011 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘self-golpe’ by Jaruzelski in Poland and the twentieth anniversary of the failed coup in the Soviet Union, while next year will be the tenth anniversary of the failed golpe against Chavez in Venezuela. I am looking forward to Polish, Russian and Venezuelan writers and directors taking up this tremendous genre.

September 23, 2011

El Celler de Can Roca and Catalan cuisine

A couple of weeks ago, working-class outskirt of Girona. We are early. It’s half past midday, much too early to speak of lunch in Spain, but it’s already terribly hot. We notice down the road the Restaurante Can Roca, the original, unpretentious family eatery of the Rocas’ father. We find a bar to drink something in the shade while lazily read the newspaper, while listening to locals arguing over which newspaper is least objective, Marca (Madrid, and especially Real) or Mundo Deportivo (Barcelona). In a sea of Catalan, in this neighbourhood of immigrants, we hear more Castellano.

At 1:30 we move to the restaurant: still rather early, but this lunch will last more than three hours. We push the heavy door, leave behind the heat and, temporarily, the working class estate, and we enter the new, beautiful premises of the Celler de Can Roca. Even for one who despises league tables, whether of universities or of restaurants, the idea of second-best restaurant in the world (according to the San Pelligrino’s list) makes some impression.

Fine restaurants fascinate me – even though I dislike luxury. I don’t think there is a contrast there. Really good restaurants celebrate nature, art, skills and labour. Not that fine restaurants are the best places to eat: my best idea of eating is authenticity, either street food in non-western countries, where fresh produce is skilfully assembled under your eyes, or the food I cook myself everyday drawing on memories of my granny or travel experiences. Yet there is a link between the two. Great cuisine is actually a celebration of that food, elevating it to its essence, liberating it from technical and practical constraints. It requires skill and creativity, and it is inspiring. Like art, really.

This summer Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, Catalunya and world’s best restaurant until last year, closed down, causing much comment in the press. Many of those comments could not help criticising that level of cuisine as over the top, that after all it is just food. In Zoe Williams’ trenchant words for the Guardian, ‘art and fashion last, whereas food is evanescent (...) You'll eat it. You'll digest it. You'll expel it. And that will be that’. But leaving apart that Zoe Williams has actually never eaten at El Bulli (neither have I), it is off the point. It is not necessary for art to ‘last’: do the notes of a fantastic live concert ‘last’? the records maybe, but then so do recipes. And the reference to bodily functions is even weirder: cuisine is to feeding what erotic poetry is to sex, or Michelangelo’s David to the shape of a naked man. In fact, I find eating at a really good restaurant the opposite of a transient experience. First, there is a lot of expectation involved. When two years ago in Paris I ate at Ambroisie in Paris, I had been waiting for fourteen years, since my cash-stripped student year in the French capital, and for the Celler, I needed two months advance to find a table for lunch (no idea for dinner). And if it is really as good as it should, the memories will last. Of course, this is valid only if such dining remains a rare experience, and is not trivialised in a snobbish habit – but on academic salaries there is little risk for it.

While in the same region as Bulli, the Celler follows a very different philosophy. The place is not science fiction, but it is well grounded to earth, and each table has three little stones on it – referring to the three ‘Roca’ (rock) brothers, but also to the simplicity of where they come. While El Bulli was extremely conceptual and universal, regardless of where produce or techniques came from, the Rocas are very local, still in the same neighbourhood where they were born, at a short walk from their father’s simple local restaurant. They are firmly and proudly Catalan – although, as Cataluña itself, in a way that is open to the world. This is visible from the wine, which, in a place called Celler, is very important, and is looked after by Josep (the savoury food by Joan, the desserts by Jordi). The ones from Catalunya, both South and North (i.e. French Roussillon) are prominent, but also those from Andalusia, where many of their neighbours immigrants came from (in addition, good classic French can’t be missing, and Josep has a fascination for German Rieslings, which are sufficiently flavoured to match his brother’s dishes). Overall, this is very much nostalgic food, as with many chefs of the recent wave concerned with disappearing environment. It’s a sort of Proustian effort, which of course struggles to get to the same universal level that Proust could reach with literature. How can we tell if the Rocas actually manage to de- and reconstruct the exact flavours of their granny’s cuisine, given that we have never met their granny? I am quite lucky to at least come from a country (and granny) from the same sea, sharing the same ingredients and row flavours, but I did wonder what the nice Irishmen at the next table could guess (they had to ask the waiter what a bergamot was).

We both went for the festival menu, which in a way is excellent value: 155 Euros for something like twenty-one courses (nine starters, nine mains and three desserts). For an extra 75 Euros, a fine wine chosen by Jordi for each of the main dishes (for a total of fourteenglasses – which, unlike the small and light dishes, do leave a bit of a mark when you have to leave the table). Do your maths and it is, by the dish or glass, as cheap as your local pub... In fact, these restaurants generally run at a loss, the income coming from somewhere else (books, commercial endorsements...).

The first to arrive at the table is a small olive tree – a real one. It also has four olives, and these are less real. It was Adrià who made olives famous as a chef speciality: his are liquid, and the object of spherification. Joan Roca replies with the opposite, all-texture caramelised olives with anchovy, visually and physically attached to their roots. Of the other starters, the one that follows best is the joint serving of mushrooms bombons (you can’t avoid spheres in these restaurants) and of anchovy bones: an interpretation of mar i muntanya, see and mountains, the combination of food from the two contrasting landscapes of Catalunya. This is so typically Catalan in matter and in spirit, and so contrasting from the Mediterranean food I am used to: the hyper-analytical, nearly chauvinistic in its separatism, Italian cuisine, where sea and mountains are forbidden to meet in the same plate. Fortunately, over the previous months I had the possibility to acquire the catalan taste for these combinations, such as, a few evenings earlier in the Pyrenees, a dish of cockles where the valves without mollusc held small pieces of butifarra negra (catalan black pudding).

Each following dish was a new conceptual adventure and feast for the senses. The salted cod brandade referred to old times of scarcity. Where Roca seemed to stray a bit off Catalunya was the cherry soup, which sent my mind off to Hungary instead: there is no trace of cherry soups at all in Catalan traditions, but then, this one also had smoked eel, and almonds, and ginger ice cream - and the masterpiece was managing to combine all these catalan ingredients without ending up into something sweet. The steak tartare with mustard ice cream was an adventure in itself, with an escalation of four very different flavours in one little stripe of raw meat. But the most memorable dish was for me the whole king prawn. In line with the traditional frugality of Spanish cooking, which I admire so much, all of the prawn is used, included the head and the ink, and the caramelised legs achieve a rare intensity of flavour and crunchiness.

The puddings by the youngest brother Jordi are much more abstract and less earthy – if there is a reference to Catalunya, is rather to Miró's art. The postre lattico (milk dessert – a cloud of sheep milk) is the most ambitious, but maybe because it is so famous, it was a bit lost, so to speak, in its own milk cloud – or maybe because the previous, deliciously but complexly refreshing lemon cloud had already spoilt the wow effect of Jordi’s clouds.

Going through the above took three hours, and the service was a perfect symphony, dishes arriving always at the right time with the wines, and waiters answering all questions we could think of. But it was not the end of it. After leaving the table we had a long chat, in French as a good compromise between his poor English and our poor Spanish or inexistent Catalan. This as such was not so surprising – I have seen other great chefs suspiciously spending more time with the customers than in the kitchen. But Josep Roca also invited us to a tour of the kitchen, with what he called the pianos where they play their gastronomic symphonies, and to the cellar, explaining his six preferred kinds of wines and the associations to their dishes. He finished summarising their experience: the whole team still eat traditional meals together every day at the family restaurant up the road, because that is life, where they come from – their restaurant is not life, it is a dream. Indeed, what a dream having a kitchen, or a cellar, like that.

So cheers for catalan cuisine. Were it for the wealth of the region or for the fortunate position at the intersection of Iberian and French gastronomic traditions (as very visible in the wide range of breads), it is spectacular, equally in the forms of fine restaurants or local traditional spots. In fact, we had equally enjoyed ourselves a few days earlier not far from Girona, at the Can Berris, an off the road popular restaurant that specialises in snails: you just say how many you want, in multiples of 50 (we went for just 100) and you receive a large tin of the little things, baked in the most exquisite sauce... the opposite of a twenty-one course tasting menu, but equally Catalan.

The night after the Celler, in Barcelona, we paid tribute to Ferran Adriá, the one who made Catalunya the centre of the culinary world. After closing El Bulli, which had to turn down something like 99% of booking requests, to democratise his foodhe opened two attached places on the Paral-lel, the tapa bar Tickets and the cocktail bar 41º (referring to Barcelona's latitude and the alcohol content of most cocktail ingredients). We could get a table, oops, bar seats with just a few weeks advance, and now we could try the famous spherical liquid olives and a few other creations. All, indeed, very good, and in the bar you can see the food being prepared in front of you, and the prices are extremely democratic (most food items cost just a couple of Euros each, and the cocktails 12-15 Euros, the same as the horrible ones served on the Ramblas). The cocktails also have a degree of deconstruction: in the Margarita, the salt rim is replaced by salt foam. The bar is in a cool science-fiction setting, but I personally prefer staying down to earth – on the rocks.

September 18, 2011

Catalan pride

While in my recent three months of study in Spain I did not have one single day of holiday, I now finally had almost two weeks of free browsing, with H, through Catalan natural, cultural and gastronomic heritage. All while the deepening economic crisis forced Spain to a rushed constitutional reform, in a few days and without any real debate, to appease the European Central Bank and the market: the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had only been amended once before, in 1992 to implement the Maastricht Treaty, and whenever Catalans asked for amendments it was replied that it was too important to be touched without years of deliberations...

Drawing on a pinch of ancient Roman and even ancient Greek legacies, Romanesque art, now so well displayed in the re-opened wing of the MNAC, is the first ground of pride for Cataluña. In the booming first Century Catalunya was arguably the most advanced place in Europe. I like Romanesque even more than Gothic, as it actually combined with classic architectural heritage well before the Renaissance, and it merged Eastern and Western influences: it is less pretentious, but more universal and certainly more spiritually Christian than Gothic. And so is the Romanesque heritage of Catalunya, dispersed from the coast to the green Pyrenees valleys. Catalan tourist promotions tend to say that Catalan medieval villages and towns are like Tuscany, but I’d even say that this is an understatement. Many of them are even better, and while equally well-kept and somehow exclusive, they are not as posh, nor as flooded with tourists as their Tuscan counterparts, whose heyday, by the way, came a little later. The setting is also more spectacular in Catalunya, whether on the coast (the St Pere de Rodes monastery on Cap de Creu) or in the mountains. Besalu

Cataluña was also strong in Gothic times, and the churches of Girona and Barcelona are impressive. But by then the centred of European art had moved north and east. This is particularly evident in the fresco painting by Ferrer Bassa in the St Michael Chapel of the Pedralbes Monastery in Barcelona: fascinating, but a long shot from the Giotto’s ones they wanted to imitate.Sant Pere de Rodes

Then Catalan power declined, with Aragon and Castilla taking over, and Columbus’ discovery of America, together with many other disgraces, brought about the decline of Barcelona, relegated into the backwaters of trade. But I’d say that the dark periods of Catalan history help highlighting the glorious periods. Industrialisation in the XIX Century is the other one, with economic, social and political turmoil, modernist architecture and an orgy of artistic experiments. The rest is too well-known: civil war, Franco’s oppression, revival.

The economic success of Catalunya is very visible along the Costa Brava and inlands, but it becomes clearest when you cross the border into France – or what the Catalans call ‘Catalunya Norte’. While we are used to consider France richer than Spain, the French side of Catalunya (for the French, Roussillon) is actually poorer: while the Spanish side was the driving region of industrialisation, and produced a very rich bourgeoisie, the French one is just a rural peripheral region. Add to this the EU cohesion funds for Spain, but not for France, and possibly a better self-government in Catalunya (Sur) than the centralised French administration of Roussillom, and it becomes clear why as soon as you cross the border northwards the roads are worse, more houses are empty or run down, there is less economic activity and overall you feel going back in time. Take Prats de Melló, a pretty medieval village once linked to Melló on the South Catalan side: there are Catalan flags here too, but there is no press in Catalan language, and despite good wine and local produce, there is little of the pulsating innovation of (South) Catalan cuisine (I will get back to this in another blog). In a way, Prats is more atmospheric, exactly because not as neat and revamped as the (South) Catalan villages. But when you drive back South, admiration strikes you again.Prats de Mello

Maybe the best proof of Catalan civilisation is not even the heritage itself. It is how accessible the heritage is made. All is explained in at least three, often four languages. Even more, nearly all of the many Barcelona’s museums are accessible to disabled, including the blind, and in many cases those with learning disability. Having spent some time, long ago, accompanying learning disabled through Milan’s museums, I remember how great experiences they may be, but how little support there was – now this is starting to be available, for the benefit also of an emerging category of visitors, people with Alzheimer.

Then there’s the language. For me, fighting to get my Spanish to acceptable standards, Catalan is a bit of a turn off: written, it is perfectly intelligible, but the sound is not to my liking, although it makes a good ingredient to chansons, also thanks to its similarity to French. Still, I admire its centenary resilience and its respectable production: Jaume Cabré’s Jo Confesso is the book event of the year in Spain. His previous Les Veus de Panamo got eleven translations and sold millions across the globe, this one should also get an English one and reach the depressingly insular British bookshops.

The Catalan language, right in the days I was there, was however the target of a ruling by the Catalan High Court, deciding that Castellano should also be offered as medium language in Catalan schools. Imagine a Belgian court imposing French in Flemish schools or a Canadian one imposing English in the ones of Québec, and you can guess the uproar. All Catalan parties protested, with only the rightwing Partido Popular welcoming the ruling, which in turns threatens the Catalan ruling coalition between them and the Catalan nationalists (CiU). The Catalan government has appealed the decision and refuses to move an inch, saying that there already three hours of Castellano per week, and that anyway Catalan children already get better exam results in that language than those of many Spanish-only regions. Not only: education in Catalan is indispensible for social cohesion and to avoid the segregation of immigrants in second-class Castellano ghettoes. Castellano defenders reply that it is actually Catalan teaching that marginalises Castellan speakers, whose educational attainment in Catalunya is much lower than for Catalan native speakers. I’d say that social cohesion is more important than attainment, and long live linguistic variety. Even when it means defending the language I don’t speak.

August 19, 2011

Back to the continental crisis

The EU crisis is deepening. Italy is succesfully managing to get its "I" back from Ireland in the PIGS group. It may be an opportunity to finally move on with fiscal and economic union, or a negative one where capital exploits a good crisis to weaken labour and democratic prerogatives - as it is happening with the Italian reforms apparently forced, in the middle of the August holiday, by the European Central Bank.

In any case - the situation is foggy and Stirling is definitely not a good observatory for the European crisis. So tomorrow I am flying back to Spain, sorry, Catalunya, for a couple of weeks. On my way back, I will stop for a week in Switzerland, for a conference and hopefully some good mountain hiking, but don't take this as a run to the Swiss Franc.

Stirling castle

July 10, 2011

The changing nature of Spanish markets and cuisine

I am strongly pro-market. Not in the political sense, of course: I mean food street markets. I grew up above the largest (bi-weekly) market in Milan, Viale Papiniano, at the shouting soundtrack of ‘belle le pere mille lire, signora, le pere!’. Despite the obvious downsides in terms of noise, traffic and occasionally smell (the fish stalls were at the other end of the street, fortunately), the market institution became something very familiar to me. I also learnt from my father’s advice, although it wasn't always logics-proof: ‘before buying from a vendor, you must become familiar with him’ – but how on earth can I socialise with a vendor without buying from him... Later on, Milanese street markets became for me the ‘battlefield’ of political campaigning. Their replacement through private shopping malls and supermarkets, where campaigning as well as begging are forbidden, is not just a defeat for good food: it is a defeat for democracy and the social texture of urban places.

My interest in markets, however, increases proportionally to the distance from Milan. Far away, it is, unlike supermarkets, a way to practice language (I learnt to count in Mandarin in Xi’an and Beijing night markets), learn about new food and its preparation (the fish market in Sandakan, Borneo, beats any maritime life museum), and experience local customs, such as bartering in Morocco. Generally the quality, choice, price and freshness (especially for fish) are better than in supermarkets – even in a rather ugly and impoverished Coventry, the retail market is excellent.

San MiguelSpanish markets are particularly interesting, but also undergoing deep changes that are at least ambiguous. In Madrid, the historical central San Miguel market, round the corner from the flat were I was staying, has been elegantly restructured and turned into a ‘market + tapas bar + gastronomic fancy boutiques’. The opening time (10am-2am) reveal that the ‘market’ component is just ornamental and reduced basically to one fruits and veggies stall. The gastronomic stalls are very touristy, and the variegated tapas bars a place for tourists during the day and a ‘place to be seen in’ for Madrid’s middle-class youth at night. All pretty and enjoyable, but not what a market is supposed to be.

San AntonThe same fate has been followed by the San Anton market in Chueca, the gay village. This is not a heritage building and it has just been reopened in a stylish setting, with excellent, if pricy, food stalls on the ground floor, a supermarket in the basement, tapas bars on the first floor, and a restaurant/bar with terrasse, open all night, at the top. In the restaurant you can ask them to cook what you bought in the market, for just a 4 Euros extra per person – an excellent custom I had first enjoyed in Morocco. It may be because of the novelty, but the place is packed with people at all hours. It might be an effective recipe for ‘reborn’ markets.

The same cannot be said for markets turned into posh shopping malls. This has happened to the Puerta de Toledo market, now a cold and deserted agglomerate of soulless posh shops. The same is going to happen to the Barceló market, subject to a current expensive rebuilding project.

La CebadaFortunately, there are ‘real markets’ that survive as such. In the posh Salamanca district, there is the excellent Mercado de la Paz, the only XIX Century surviving one, apart from the San Miguel. But I prefer the more popular ones, of which in the centre survive Anton Martin and especially the largest, La Cebada. The great thing of Spanish markets, compared to the rest of western Europe, is the amount of spectacular ‘real’ food you can see on display. Not for the fainthearted: entire tunas and swordfish being chopped, live shellfish and crabs, whole suckling pigs and quarters of muttons and beefs. And a special place is reserved to offal: brains, livers, hearts, oxtail, bull’s testicles, tripe... Rabo de toro, criadillas and callos a la madrileña have all important roles on Madrid’s tables. Offal is the most socialist food I can think of: cheap, nutritious, good, and achieves great value through labour. In some western countries it is strangely despised, although it is routinely eaten, unawarely, in the shape of hamburgers and sausages. The fish stalls are also great. Unfortunately, in the huge Cebada restaurant half of the stalls are shut: crisis is looming and I dread it might be turned into a shopping mall too (too big for a tapa bar). In Spain, as already in the UK, popular markets are largely kept alive by immigrants. For a broader appeal, I can only think of two developments: a major increase in fuel prices that might discourage trips to retail parks and hypermarkets, or proper culinary education – not through TV chefs, but through visits to the market.

Last mention in Madrid, even though it is not technically a market but one large, 100-year old pavilion, is the Pescaderias Coruñesas, the best, if pricy, place to buy fish in a city that despite its distance from the sea is considered as ‘the best port of Spain’. Their website includes interesting information on any sort of seafood, and an exceptional variety of cooking suggestions: a few ways of cooking octopus that I did not know of, for instance.

In Barcelona, the market story is similar. The Boquería market off the Rambla is a major tourist attraction, the food is still great (Ferran Adriá declares that he shops there, which is quite a strong endorsement), and in some bars you can eat fish straight from the counter. Also in the old town, the Santa Caterina has been completely restructured with the addition of a futuristic roof, but it is still ‘a market’. In the stylish Exaimple, the Mercat de la Concepció is quieter and excellent quality, while the huge, historical Mercat del Ninot is undergoing complete restructuring – the fact that the stalls have been moved to a temporary market make me hope that it will reopen as market. In the outskirts, the picture is more mixed and supermarkets are more aggressive. The Sant Cugat’s market is a little gem with fantastic fish, but the Vallvidrera one is shut and its future is still unknown.

Once you have bought Spanish ingredients, there is the issue of what to do with them. And here I have a theory on the evolution of Spanish gastronomy.

Spain has exceptionally good produce. It shares with only France and Morocco the privilege of access to both Atlantic and Mediterranean, with the result of a double variety of fish and seafood – for instance, percebes are one of the great discoveries of my Spanish stay. The land extension means that most agriculture, at least before the greenhouses of Almería, has been much less intensive then elsewhere, resulting in greater variety, more taste, and more care. From tomatoes to ham, from eggs to fruits, the quality is generally outstanding – they do not have anything to envy the more famous French and Italian produce.

However, such great produce combined, until recently, with delayed social progress, and notably an obscurantist aristocracy, relative isolation and extreme land poverty. Central Spain is also far from any port and from any other countries, and therefore, from the XVIII Century to Franco, less open to circulation of ideas and gastronomic fashions than most of Europe. Neither aristocracy nor bourgeoisie nor merchants engaged in status-symbol cuisine as they did in France, but to some extent also in Portugal and Italy; while the poor peasantry and emerging proletariat, given the quality of row materials, did not need to elaborate sophisticated techniques to make up for shortages in the way, for instance, the Moroccan or Chinese did.

Therefore, the traditional Spanish cuisine is, if varied in terms of ingredients, extremely basic if compared to the rest of the region, not just to France and Italy, but also Portugal and Morocco. I have learnt to cook a few Spanish dishes, and they are stonishingly simple. Nothing requires the same skills as a French sauce or Italian handmade pasta. Paella can be spectacular, but extremely straightforward to prepare in comparison to risotto, which involves more careful cooking and the tricky step of mantecatura. The cocido madrileño and the potaje de garbanzos y bacalao are tasty and nutritious, but the only skill they require is the capacity of reading a watch and check the cooking times of the various ingredients. No Spanish soup, and even less pudding, can compete with the Portuguese or French ones in terms of elaboration. The only gastronomic field on which I admit the Spanish have traditional talent is eggs, from tortillas to revueltos. For the rest, the theory goes, excellent produce combined with remoteness, oscurantism and poverty do not provide incentives for great cuisine. Pan

To test my research hypothesis, I have also tried a number of traditional Madrid and Castillan restaurants. The ones with the best reputation are the related Casa Lucio and El Landó, in the old town. And they both confirmed mSant Cugaty theory exactly. The service and the atmosphere are very old-fashion, and so is the food. Outstanding ingredients and produce, from the bread with tomato, to the cured anchovies, to the tartar steak, but the dishes are extremely simple: the roasted lamb shoulder was the best I have ever eaten, but thanks more to the animal than to the chef, who, actually, had massively overindulged with olive oil (and I love olive oil). All this for substantial bills of 70+ Euros, so that at the end I only wanted to plead the chefs to just tell me where they bought those tomatoes and that lamb – so to never need to come again.

There are of course many cheaper places to eat good Castillan food, for instance Casa Perico in c/Ballesta, or a couple of places around and within the above-mentioned Mercado de La Paz. The lunch menus tend to be excellent value, but again, good real food but little sophistication.

There is an important corollary to my theory. More recently, as in general with Spanish society (e.g. gender), as a reaction to such traditionalism, a boom of revolutionary innovation has exploded. While Italian food remains identical to itself, Spain has become the forefront of innovation, with strong spill-overs from pioneers of new techniques. Of course, normal eateries do not engage in molecular food nor cook everything sous-vide, but a lot of new trendy restaurants and tapas bars in Madrid present innovative, sophisticated dishes. For instance, the recently opened Treze in c/San Bernardino.

And as another major recent development in Spain is immigration, ethnic food is great. In the Spanish case, this means essentially Latin American food, which in turn means largely Peruvian or Mexican, the two great cuisines of the New World. Apart from a number of honest cheap Latinos places (for instance the historic Cuban Zara in Chueca), the Entre Suspiro y Suspiro is a nice arty Mexican off Plaza Isabel II, and with regard to Peru, Madrid has the only European restaurant by Astrid and Gastón. Gastón’s story has been told by none the less than Nobel prize Vargas Llosa: a Peruvian law student at Complutense who got into food at the time of the transition, learnt the newest French techniques and now recreates the most authentic Peruvian tastes (the first spoonful of cebiche sent my mind straight to Lima) with the smartest, neatest texture and presentation.

Final acknowledgment: my comments on cuisine refer to Madrid and Castilla: of course, Galicia, the Basque country and Catalunya are different stories and will deserve more research.

July 05, 2011

Museums and exhibitions, Madrid and Barcelona

As already in Berlin, an extended stay in Madrid and Barcelona allowed me the time for visiting the local museums at human pace. It matters little that I had already seen them most, and not just because fantastic works like Guernica or Bosch´s Jardín de las Delicias never tire. Museums grow, expand and change.

Some have new architectonically interesting extensions: it's the case of the Reina Sofía and the Prado in Madrid , but even more of the Museo Picasso in Barcelona. When opened in 1962 it was hidden in the narrow medieval Montcada street, as it was more than inconvenient for the regime. It kept enlarging and the last expansion has just been presented. Its crystal walls contrast well with the medieval buildings as a good example of 'old meets new', and, when inaugurated, will provide a new main entrance from Jaume Sabartés Square and possibly reduce the overcrowding. Although, as far as Picasso Museums go, I will probably keep preferring the more orderly and thorough Parisian one.Picasso Museum

Santa Maria del Taull, XIIaCThen there are the new or re-opened collections. In particular, after a long closure, the Romanesque collection of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya has just reopened. Its collections of frescoes from the Romanesque churches scattered around the mountains, from a time when Catalonia was a ‘world’ power, has been carefully readjusted, with more realistic lighting and a more respectful background paint. The videos on the ‘ripping’ technique used in 1919-1923 to remove the paintings from the Churches, to save them from traffickers and – unknowingly – from the anarchist devastation that would have exploded few years later, are also gripping. Overall, as the Museum director says, Maite Ocaña says, the collections has recovered its ‘mysticism and spirituality’ – which is the essence of Romanesque art after all.

In Madrid, instead, since the last time I was there the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has added the international part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, which the former-Miss Spain baroness collected over the 1990s: it could go under the title ‘how many masterpieces you can collect in a decade if money is not an issue’.

Then there are also the temporary exhibitions, many of direct appeal to me. The ‘Polonia’ one in Madrid’s Royal Palace (until the 4th of September) presents Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’. But that is a painting I know well from its home in the Kraków’s Czartoryskich museum, where it can be admired closely in total quiet and with the intimacy it deserves (after all the Lady, Cecilia Gallerani, was a fellow Milanese). Moreover, while exhibitions do have a point, I am not sure about ‘celebrity tours’ of first class paintings: as Botticelli’s Primavera or Leonardo’s Gioconda do not trot the globe, the Lady shouldn’t either. So I refused to queue for her in Madrid. By the way, after Madrid she will come to London, but I repeat: don’t queue in London – wait and go to Kraków.

A more intriguing exhibition was ‘Heroínas’ in the Thyssen-Burnemisza (already over, sorry). It aimed at presenting women as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ throughout art history: that is not as doing-nothing beauties and saints, but as 'empowered' heroines, athletes, readers, mystics etc, and of course as painters too, especially if self-portraying (Sofonisba Anguissola’s is particularly good). If the idea may sound soppy, just go to the Prado immediately after: and among all Goya’s Mayas and Raphael’s Madonnas, you will really struggle to find works portraying women as subjects. All the Heroínas paintings do it, and very well.

Still in Madrid, and even more of professional interest for me, was the ‘Worker Photography Movement’ at the Reina Sofía (until 22nd August). The movement started in post-revolutionary Russia, equipping workers with one more revolutionary weapon, cameras. It then spread to other countries with strong communist movements, especially Germany, Austria, Belgium and Czech Republic, to the USA and to a much lesser extent Britain and Mexico. Many photographs are exceptional in both exalting the dignity of the worker while documenting the abjection of the surrounding conditions – although those from the Soviet Union, except the very first ones, obviously do only the first of these jobs. The works are presented with lots of contextual materials and one can spend hours reading pages of worker-photography magazines from different countries. The only bewildering part is the Spanish one, which is not about workers but about the Civil War: who thought that they were the same thing? Or is the Civil War the only thing about the XX Century they can sell to tourists in Madrid?

Over here, in Barcelona, the Picasso Museum presents ‘Feasting on Paris. Picasso 1900-1907’ (until the 16th October). Originally at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Van Gogh is particularly well presented among the sources of inspirations that Picasso found during his first visit to Paris. By directly confronting Picasso’s works to his predecessors, the aim of the exhibition is defending Pablo from the (rather idiotic, in my view) charges of having done nothing new. In this, the exhibition is successful, although the impression is that Picasso was lucky that in 1900-1907 they had not yet invented plagiarism-detecting software.

And a final personal impression. One of the very first works in the exhibition is Picasso’s amusing little drawing of himself arriving to Paris. It’s one of my favourite pieces from the Berggruen museum in Berlin, which I had re-seen last Autumn. Is Picasso going around Europe with me?

July 04, 2011

Spain vs Italy, gender relations

A couple of years ago Spain overtook Italy in the GDP per head – something unthinkable 30 or even 20 years ago. In fact, when I first visited Spain in 1994 I could not avoid the unconfessable impression that the Spanish were our poorer cousins: very similar, but a bit old-fashion or run-down, simpler, less smart, in dirtier cities and with more provincial attitudes. Well, now it’s better not to compare Naples with any Spanish city...

But the field were the Spanish have overtaken the Italians at fasted speed is not the economy, fashion, cuisine, football or urban management. It is gender relations. Spain, with until just 35 years ago the most retrograde regime and Church in Europe, has gender parity in the government, fast growing female employment rate, gay marriages. In Italy, 35 years ago at the forefront of women movements, machismo has been elevated to a government ideology, female employment is stagnating as the lowest in the EU, and just forget about civic marriages or gay marriages: hate violence against gays is on the increase and there is no regulation against homophobia. As Teresa Jurado and Manuela Naldini have shown in a recent joint Italo-Spanish paper (“Towards a Dual-Earner Family Model: Italy and Spain in Comparison”, SASE Conference 2011), for a complex set of reasons gender arrangements are much more ‘modern’ in Spain than in Italy.

That calls into question Italian men. They are an easy target for any sort of jokes, stereotypes and denigration. When these come from Northern Europeans, an Italian man can just smile and perseverate in the secret belief that such denigration only betrays protestant repression, industrial-society frustration or just simple envy of ‘our’ (supposed) capacity to enjoy food, music, flirts, sensuality. But when it comes from Spanish cousins, the criticism cuts much deeper.

Take the brilliant article by Elvira Lindo in yesterday’s El País, ‘Berlusconeando’. She describes the Italian men she sees in Rome (of course, in Milan it would be different!) and she sees many Belusconis: ‘I must say that they are extremely likeable to the sight, that included the ugly are handsome, even more, I’d say the ugliest are the most handsome (...); but that beauty does not blinds me I often meet a male self-esteem that is very Berlusconian’. On an honest note, Lindo concludes that she also sees many Rajoys and Camps in Spain, but that is not as demeaning on Spanish men than the Berlusconi charge on the Italian.

I will postpone in-depth observations of Italy to the time I go there later this year. But it needs to be added that the incredibly fast women emancipation and cultural change in Spain have also produced what seems a strong case of what feminism calls ‘male backlash’. Women are getting their way in the economy and in politics, but at the margins some men are escaping in the worst ways. Spain has been described, for instance by The Independent, as the ‘world’s capital of prostitution’, and even if statistics on this topic are by nature unreliable, what anybody can observe is how prostitution is pervades Spanish life. Even a serious and progressive paper like El País has pages of sex services classified ads every day: I can’t imagine not just The Independent, die FAZ, Gazeta Wyborcza or Le Monde doing the same – even for Repubblica or Corriere della Sera it is unthinkable. Even worse, Spain has bas records for domestic violence. And when the fight in the Socialist Party for Zapatero succession came to the tie between Carme Chacón and Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, it also took a strong traditional-gendered tone, with her in tears and him boasting his sporting career. But then again, at least the Spanish government takes domestic violence seriously, and hgh number may reflect higher reporting; Carme Chacón has been a strong minister of defence; and indeed the Spanish prime minister is unlikely to invite underage prostitutes to his home.

July 03, 2011

AVE, high speed trains?

AVE 'flying' through AragonOver the last month I took the new AVE train between Madrid and Barcelona, or vice versa, five times. 2h38’ for 621km, and never one minute delay – very much unlike my recent flights. It’s the same distance as between London and Edinburgh, which requires 4h22’, delays not included, making it impossible as a day return trip and forcing people on the plane.

Spanish high-speed railways are the best in Europe in all regards: faster, longer, more comfortable, more punctual. Until May they were also cheaper, but crisis is striking hard and the many generous advance economic fares have been tacitly removed – a cheeky way to increase prices without saying it. The AVE has more legroom than in the countries of supposedly taller races, headphones and on-carriage movie, quick unobstructive security checks (the Atocha station bombs are not easily forgotten), and a display tells you all information you need (next station, outside temperature 42C, speed 305km/h...), while the arid Castellan and Aragonese landscapes gives quickly way to the green Catalan one.

2,655kms of high speed rail (only China has more) have not come cheap or without controversies. The first lines, in the early 1990s, to Andalusia were criticised as clientelism by the Andaluz Felipe González. The total bill for the infrastructure so far is 100,000m Euros, i.e. some 2,200€ per head, if the EU hadn't taken up a part of the bill. It is legitimate to ask if the money couldn’t have been spent better differently. The Toledo-Albacete high-speed service connecting all Castilla-La Mancha capitals, has just been closed, after only six months in operation, after realising only 18 passengers used it on average...

Yet in such a large country with such strong centrifugal forces, the under-three hours connections between most main cities do have sense and provide excellent alternatives to internal flights. The Spanish mistake, rather, is to have simultaneously invested similar amounts on motorways and airports – as if any provincial city had the right to be connected to Madrid by all options: plane, high-speed train and motorway. Spain has now 48 airports, of which only 11 are profitable, according to a reportage by El País (Aeropuertos para todos). The main ones, Madrid’s and Barcelona’s, have seen pharaonic new terminals built - indeed, Barcelona’s is the only European one to compete with the big Asian ones in terms of comfort and posh (it even has, quite uniquely, a large courtyard), but it is not particularly crowded. Worse with the small airports built over the last ten years in a ‘Ryanair rush’: every town believed that it only needed an airport to attract crowds of heavy-spending tourists. Take Burgos: it had five airports within 125 km, but it still needed its own. Or Castellón, inaugurated with great pump, but with no plane yet. Or Huesca, with more flights than passengers in 2009. The crisis has hit, and Ryanair is engaging in threats to local authorities: in Catalunya, after withdrawing from Reus airport, it is threatening to leave Girona too if the local council does not contribute with 5 Euros per passengers. Apart that Catalunya is the most indebted region of Spain, and that state aids are banned by the EU, if Girona really wanted to promote tourism it could spend the money much more cleverly than sponsoring one, controversial company. In fact, the fascination with cheap airlines has made no favours to Spain, contributing to the construction bubble and to a cheap-tourism industry that damages the environment and creates no good jobs – in fact, most jobs it creates are so bad that only impoverished immigrants take them up.

So, compared to airports and motorways, high-speed trains look like the least evil in Spain – but they still have a hard time around Europe. The new Portuguese government, given the notorious financial situation, has just suddenly withdrawn from the planned Lisbon-Madrid line – for the anger of the Spaniards who had already started work on their side. In the UK, the plan for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and Manchester has so far survived the public spending cuts, but reactionary planning laws make the project extremely arduous. But the biggest disruptions are in Italy, where already the Milan-Roma (2h59’ for 517km, but the Apennines in between) was controversial, and now the planned Turin-Lyon line through the Alps is causing civic resistance and violent protests – also today.

Even if enjoying the Madrid-Barcelona train, and dreaming of a fast connection between England and Scotland, I’d say that the Alps are an exception. Such a delicate and unique environment requires slowness and respect, rather than being violated by long tunnels, mountains of excavated soil and noise. Indeed, in the Alps even more than elsewhere trains are better than planes and cars (motorway valleys have record incidences of cancers, as the exhaust pipes stick there). But the existing lines have enough capacity, and they only require an hour or so of calm – rewarded by the views.

June 13, 2011

After 'yes we camp'

Summer is arriving and the protest camp of the treeless Puerta del Sol, after 4 long weeks, is over. The indignados, in these four weeks, have made the world news but also very fast through all the dilemmas and difficulties of direct democracy. From technicalities –how to run assemblies under the rain – to stall – the near-impossibility to reach decisions by universal consent – to bureaucratisation – dozens ‘commissions and commissions’ commissions – to organisational boundaries – from the initial total openness they moved to the opposite of extreme distrust towards any newcomer, for fear of infiltration – to gradualism – once the original demand of a ‘real democracy now’ started to appear a bit too difficult to achieve within days. Worst of all, at a very fast speed, the sectarianism vicious cycle. When the protest is in a camp, the natural outflow of militancy occurs particularly fast, and the core that remains is particularly ‘tough’; this core, with its radicalism, puts even more people off, and so on. This explains why the camp went on for at least two weeks more than it was necessary.

Yet this is far from the end and far from a defeat. Uniquely for a radical, numerically rather small movement, the indignados are very popular: opinion polls show that a majority considers the protests justified. On Saturday, protesters have been again in the spotlight, contesting the investiture of the new mayors across the country. The protest is now starting to be more focussed, whether on local issues or against the labour market and collective bargaining reforms just passed by the government: a direct effect of the movement has been to add a bit of backbone to the Spanish unions, that have rejected the reform. Moreover, also thanks to an effective use of new technologies, the movement is spreading, also to new countries and especially Portugal. Stéphane Hessel's Indignez-vous! pamphlet that inspired the protests has spread like wildfire across continental Europe, although not the UK that is as usual quite insulated from outside world’s ideas (it is not even published in English, apart from a translation in the magazine Nation).

Indignados in Sant CugatIndignados in SitgesI have become aware of the widespread extension of the movement only now that I have left Madrid’s city centre for Barcelona. You find indignados everywhere, not just in the central Plaça de Catalunya, but in the central squares of all little towns across the region. Even in conservative Catalan Sant Cugat del Vallès. Even in tourist-packed Sitges. Thinking about it, if I were 20-year old and had to choose a place and time to start a revolution, I would choose Sitges beach in the late Spring over St Petersburg in November any time.

June 06, 2011

Neoliberalism is dead, long live neoliberalism…

And now Portugal. In all EU countries most affected by the economic crisis that was caused by the market, elections have been won, paradoxically, by free-market conservatives: first in Latvia, then in UK, Hungary, Ireland and Portugal. Spain will surely follow within a year, judging from the PP victory in the recent local elections. By contrast, the Left has lost – with the partial exception of Ireland.Mirador

Despite the apparent absurdity, there is a logic behind. The crisis, much more than undermining neoliberal logic (see also Colin Crouch’s recent The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, Polity 2011), has destroyed the ‘Third Way’ argument (do you remember? only 4 years ago Giddens was defending it in Over to You, Mr Brown). After all, the most keen supporters of market reforms in the last twenty years have been centre-left, not centre-right parties. The Right was supporting the market because it was in the long term efficient, not because it was just; and at times it also compensated with identity politics, e.g. nationalism, xenophobia, or moral conservatism. By contrast, ‘Third Way’ social-democrats have supported the market twice: because it was efficient (ideological defeat) and because it was fair, in terms of opportunity. After the crisis, the Right can still say that we consume more than 10 or 20 years ago, and that crisis is just a temporary downside of capitalism. The spending cuts are not hurting their voters, who already, as savers, benefited from the state rescue of the banks. It is this Centre-Left’s argument that has gone to the dogs: redistribution before and after the crisis has been enormously regressive, and the crisis has shown that there is nothing fair in the markets: those earning millions managing banks or companies do not deserve it on merit – they are by and large total w***ers. Their remuneration is the opposite of motivational: it insults the values of reason and work, which should be the values of any Left.

It remains to be explained why more radical Left also loses – most visibly in Portugal. The easy explanation is that it is not that their argument is weak – rather, that they have no argument. It is also very fragmented among countries, and a progressive answer probably requires co-ordination: each country left alone is placed in apparent ‘There Is No Alternative’ positions. An orderly restructuring of debt, by shifting the losses to creditors and those who have rather than on those who have not, could be politically attractive (after all it has worked so many times in Asia and Latin America, while the current tough measures in the EU have just no chance). But nobody proposes it.

Let’s at least enjoy the relief that Latin America is much cleverer than Europe. It’s now Peru to have chosen progressive politics over a return of criminal conservative ones – I share the joy of so many Peruvian immigrants here in Madrid, and of the Andean people I spent some time with in 2006.

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