Last night’s Barcelona Supper Club was a consumer event with members of the public paying £40 for a chance to try their hand at carving jamón, preparing a Catalan dish and enjoying a so-called Fizzness cava ‘masterclass’. ‘It's designed to be an interactive culinary experience celebrating the best of Barcelona and Spain’, Sarah Belizaire-Butler, the account director, had told me before the event.
So it was that 50 of us gathered for drinks and nibbles in the cool, well-lit space of L’Atelier du Chef in London’s Wigmore Street. It was a young crowd obviously keen to have a fun evening as the first glasses of the 2009 Codorníu Vintage Brut were rapidly emptied. We were split into three groups, each group with half an hour to be put through its paces learning about the culinary arts of Catalonia.
When in response to Nick Mantella’s question ‘what is cava?’, one young woman replied ‘a cheaper version of champagne’, it soon became clear that this was not so much a masterclass as an informative session learning the basics of Spanish fizz, or rather Codorníu, and its grape varieties. I didn’t observe a great deal of spitting although spittoons were provided and I’ll admit that I didn’t contribute to the spittoon myself. This young group (and I) were out to enjoy the evening.
On then to the session with Mr Jamón himself, Chuse Valero Ortega of Tozino. (www.tozino.com). Chuse had already stripped the fat off a glistening leg of a Jamón ibérico de Bellota. He explained the different grades: the free range acorn-fed, black leg bellota at the top, then recebo (pigs fed a mix of grain and acorn), cebo (grain-fed) and finally serrano (from the white pig). He explained the use of knives, how to carve wafer thin slices (‘you should be able to see the brand of the knife through the ham’).
He poked an instrument, called a cala, into the poor beast’s leg at various points, getting some of us to sniff it in order to demonstrate the different cuts of jamón; the maza, babilla, codillo and punta and their impact on aroma, texture and flavour. We were itching to know if he was right in his description of the acorn-fed black-leg yielding a tasty meat that’s sweet, salty, savoury and nutty. Judging by the speed at which the wafer thin, business-card-sized pieces vanished, he clearly was.
Our final session was in the kitchen with Rachel McCormack, a Catalan specialist cook, (www.catalancooking.co.uk). I would have liked to try out all the recipes, a salt cod and romesco sauce with curly endive, a duck breast with Codorníu cava soaked pears and baby squid stuffed with caramelized onions. Since there was only time for each group to prepare one dish, I was happy that ours was the squid.
We set about cutting out the eye (ouch!), pulling out the quill, and then spooning the pre-prepared caramelised onion into the small hollow body of the squid. Then we tossed them into a hot pan where they looked a bit like slugs being relieved of their guts (nice!). Needless to say they tasted quite a lot better than that.
After a well-co-ordinated hour and a half of learning, it was time to enjoy the fruits of our hard labour. We sat down, six to a table and chomped our way though the dishes, each accompanied by a selection of cavas with suggestions as to what went best with what.
Being the obnoxious journalist, and therefore not wholly convinced that sparkling wine goes with everything, I suggested to organizer Carolyn d’Aguilar that it might be an idea next time round to showcase one of their red wines, Scala Dei from Priorat for instance, with the duck. She graciously thanked me for the suggestion.
Soon it was time to leave. We said our farewells, in my case to newfound friends, Ryan and Sarah, and to James and Sasha. I rated the evening a success. Connecting directly with consumers is what so many brands would like to do but don’t have the means or the savoir-faire. Codorníu had clearly invested time and energy, not to mention finance, into this enjoyable brand-building exercise. Sombreros off to them for doing it – and doing it well.