A warm breeze tousled my loosely knotted hair and grated against my legs as we walked down the cobble-stoned street. There was no one else outside and, for a generally bustling city, it was oddly quiet. Dark buildings rose up around us as we strolled away from the downtown. We wound up a steep avenue, underneath a long train of white bed sheets that hung off clotheslines, drying in the wind. There were three of us: Dave, Adam and me. We moved together, large backpacks slung over our shoulders—silent in a horizontal line. Our shadows blazed out behind us in the midday sun.
It was Christmas Day; Barcelona, Spain.
That morning in the hostel the three of us had exchanged holiday gifts while perched at a rough wooden picnic table in the lobby. Books and journals were passed around, wrapped haphazardly in recycled newspaper; I was fresh from my semester studying art in Florence and giggled as I gave Adam and Dave each a pair of boxer shorts with a select digital image of Michelangelo’s David imprinted on them. Adam had just finished his semester in Bologna, Italy – and Dave in Sweden. Before we returned to our home college in the States we wanted a bit more adventure. Spain, France, Germany… Barcelona was our first stop and we were shocked by its warmth and color, somehow expecting Christmas to come with cold gray.
We left the hostel that quiet holiday morning, still groggy from a late night filled with paella and a midnight Christmas mass, and walked a long and meandering path to Park Guell. The park sprawls out on top of a hill overlooking Barcelona and was one of the few things open that day. It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, a Catalan architect famous for his fantastical, color-strewn buildings. We sat on a terraced landing—one that was wrapped with an undulating line of benches, covered in vibrant mosaic. There was the light smell of smoke; it wafted towards me from the gray, wrinkled man smoking a cigarette nearby. Children were shrieking in pleasure as they chased pigeons, running around in nonsensical circles. The air was warm. I could see the peaks and whorls of the Sagrada Familia, a wildly designed cathedral by Gaudi towering over in the distance of Barcelona.
Looking around, I felt as though I had landed in another world. The colorful buildings in the park—complete with gyrating design and often pinnacled roofs—may have jumped straight from my imagination. The quiet, winding wilderness paths throughout the park were a displaced proof of reality. Suddenly—with the warmth of this strange Christmas day, sitting on an oddly winding bench in Spain—I felt overwhelmingly aware of the physical world around me. The sun had never hit each hair on my arm so carefully. A puff of smoke had never carried with is such layers of scent. The mosaic on the bench around me screamed in vivid blue, pink, yellow, white. The sound of Dave unzipping his backpack was momentarily set in bold typeface. I felt my heart vibrating in my chest.
I had a few moments like that—flashes of shocking focus—while I traveled around Europe. The bright light of fireworks under the Eiffel Tower on New Years in Paris—a whiff of strong lilac perfume while I stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid—a sweet mouthful of tart tatin in a small Parisian bistro—shivering through a snowstorm somewhere near Berlin. But never as wholly as in Park Guell. The vibrant awareness of what was around me was as its most acute in Barcelona.
I like to think that it was inspired by the world we sat in that Christmas Day: Gaudi's.
And how fitting, then, that the inspiration for my most recent moment of vivid corporeal awareness can also be connected to the Spanish architect. It was two weeks ago; I was far away from Europe and the sight of any architectural innovation. I sat in a stiffly linened and leathered dining room, midtown Manhattan. Clinking glasses and muted laughter, dark suits and shiny hair surrounded Becca and I, snug at a corner table. It was a moment of beautiful excess in our epic week of eating; we were dressed to the nines and eating a four course lunch at Le Bernardin.
Things have settled down in my life recently (after moving to NYC, finding a job etc.). There is a newly reinstated sense of control. And with that, the other senses seem to be rapidly reasserting themselves as well—comfort, confidence, not to mention scent. With my best friend and fellow food aficionado, Becca, across the table from me I was, for the first time, able to leave my loss behind and focus fully on what taste I do have.
For my first course I had a “Progressive Tasting of Marinated Fluke: Four Different Ceviches; from Simple to Complex Combination.” The idea is to begin with the ceviche cup on the left (the simplest) and work your way to the right (the most complex). Each preparation had the same basic ingredients and as you moved along in complexity there were simply more flavors added. One at a time, I took a bite of each, slowly chewing, concentration on my limited scent and power of temperature and texture to find flavor. Becca followed suit. The fluke, a white flatfish, was cool and soft.
After the first: “Citrus, right? Salt and pepper?” I asked, wondering how much I could actually discern using texture, body and muted scent to taste. I could taste the tang and detect the fruity scent when I breathed out.
She nodded. “Yes, definitely. Lime, I think,” she said, “It’s light, though. Mainly I just taste the fluke.”
The Second: “Olive oil,” I said, a bit more definitive in my assertion. I could feel the silkiness of the oil coating the fish, soft in my mouth
“I agree—it’s thicker, more flavor in the olive oil that calms the citrus.”
The Third: “I can taste more salt—and a bit of a bite, which makes me think there is something vinegary… something Asian inspired…” I said.
“Soy sauce, I think,” Becca said, taking another mouthful, “or something similar.”
“And then there’s that crunch,” I said, “The green—scallions?”
“Jalapeno…” Which would make sense of the lingering spice in the back of my throat. “And shallots perhaps.”
The Fourth: “In this one I don’t even need to put a bite in my mouth to know the basic addition – the white milkiness is either cream or… coconut milk,” I contemplated.
“Tastes like coconut milk,” Becca said. “Curry too.”
“I can’t taste the curry, but the color gives that away to me.” The visual aesthetic of the food, I realize more and more, plays a huge roll in what my I can detect in taste. The orange-red on the plate gives direction to my olfactory neurons; it gives my brain a hint in discerning and making sense of weak scent. I took another bite. “I can, actually, taste a bit of curry flavor lurking around when I breathe out slowly. It’s weak, but vaguely sweet with a spicy bite.”
The texture of the coconut milk was strikingly similar to that of olive oil, the hint of thick viscosity. That feeling in the mouth, coupled with the light nutty flavors, implies inherant deliciousness. There is something undeniably palatable about the texture of a fat.
I tasted Becca’s first course, a Warm Sea Urchin Custard; Shiso Julienne, and was struck by its light milky texture. A smattering of foam on top was a salty foil to the rich cream. When I exhaled, slowly, I could taste the urchin; it was a briny sea-filled breath.
For the second course Becca had the “Skate-Pork” – a Surf and Turf of Crispy Pork Belly and Skate Wing, Gingered Squash Mousseline and Brown Butter Flavored Jus. I don’t remember my reaction to that dish as much because this was the point where Gaudi entered the equation and my taste buds were overwhelmed.
My own main course was the Monkfish, “A Tribute to Gaudi,” – Pan Roasted Monkfish; Confit Peppers and Fiery “Patatas Bravas,” Chorizo-Albarino Emulsion. It was a beautiful dish—carefully arranged with a few well placed barrages of color—slightly asymmetrical and just fantastical enough to implicate the Spanish architect in its conception. I took a moment to digest with my eyes, before attempting on my tongue.
What struck me the most in this dish was the texture of the monkfish—light and heavy simultaneously—smoothly flaking while dissolving softly in my mouth. The salt of the chorizo-albarino emulsion—a pale brown river running beneath the fish, complimented the sweet crunch of the pepper confit—a Gaudian swath of color pinnacled on the mountain of fish. The potatoes, three bronzed wedges angled on the side, were drizzled in white and red concentric lines of sauce—spicy and cool. It was a well balanced amalgamation of tastes, a flavor-tribute to Spain (I read somewhere that the Chef, Eric Ripert, spent part of his childhood in Barcelona). The nod to Gaudi in this dish would not have meant so much had I not already held a good deal of memory-infused value for his influence. And yet again while eating, I was acutely aware of all around me, all that went into me. I felt like I was tasting, both intuitively and intellectually, for the first time since the accident. Each taste was more vibrant and tangible than I had remembered possible. I think that had part to do with Becca’s comfortable presence and understanding, the high caliber and interest of the food itself, of course. But who knows, perhaps Gaudi’s presence infused within the meal gave me a subconscious but palpably heightened awareness of flavor.
For dessert I had the “Strawberry”: Strawberry, Mango, and Basil ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ and Organic Strawberry Juice—sweet and cold between the fresh crunch of strawberry meringue. Becca’s “Chocolate-Cashew”: Dark Chocolate, Cashew and Caramel Tart, Red Wine Reduction, Banana, and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream was thick and understated in its sweetness. The only thing we did not like the entire afternoon was Becca’s ice cream; we aren’t malted rum sorts of people, really.
The waiter then brought us a white napkin filled with piping hot mini cookies; I could smell their sweetness. They tasted warm.
And then, surprised, small white vaulted cups were place before us. In each was an egg shell, open on top. “From the kitchen,” the waiter said with a smile. Inside the egg was a delicately balanced milk chocolate pot de crème, caramel foam, maple syrup with a smattering of Malden sea salt sprinkled on top.
“I saw Michael Laiskonis, the pastry chef here, on Iron Chef America,” Becca said excitedly. “For the coconut and chocolate battle he made this! Well, with coconut, but still, everyone loved it! Especially Jeffrey Steingarten, one of the judges that night. I remember so clearly, because he made me laugh when he said the only thing he would change about this dessert would be to put it in an ostrich rather than a chicken egg….”
It was a wonderful combination of salty and sweet (of which I am already an unabashed fan). I would certainly have eaten an ostrich egg full.
We left Le Bernardin a bit giddy from the rich food and unaccustomed glass of afternoon wine and went for a walk in the park. A warm breeze tousled my loose hair and I could (almost) smell the scent of summer hanging in the air.