My cousins from New York (of bagel fame) and a couple of good friends from Austin are going to Barcelona this month, lucky dogs. These two couples haven’t met, and won’t meet up in Spain as they will be there a week apart. Too bad, as Barcelona is a wonderful town and great fun to share with friends. I’m lucky. I’ve been there twice and I’d go back in a heartbeat. Tapas and tile work… and a culture that believes that ice cream at 6 PM (since dinner isn’t until 10) is perfectly normal. I love it! I wrote about part of one visit for my writer’s group. The prompt was “share the best (or worst) meal you ever had”. (Yup, I provided the prompt that month…)
Getting sick is never fun. Getting sick on vacation is awful. Getting sick on vacation in a strange country without the language when everything is supposed to be perfect is the most dreadful of all.
I got sick in Barcelona. It wasn’t the food, certainly not the tapas I sampled in the ancient bars or the olive oil or even the good Spanish beer. It had nothing to do with the hams hanging festively in every cafe, and it couldn’t have been the ice cream or the churros and hot chocolate. Nor was it because of the salami I bought to turn into lunch from the market. It was a fever, the light-altering kind that makes everything crystalline, sharp and painful so that you squint even behind sunglasses. This is the fever that makes skin hurt from the inside, that defies aspirin, precludes thought and leaves one no option but to take cover and sleep if at all possible.
I first knew I was sick at the museum that morning. I remember thinking instinctively that I needed to go home and sleep. Home was three thousand miles away, a closer haven was required. I still don’t remember getting myself back across town to the pension. Surely it involved buses or maybe the subway. Perhaps I walked, past the Gaudi dripping buildings that seemed perfectly normal to my fevered eyes. All I know is that I got back somehow, got my room key and fell into bed.
Some time later, that afternoon or the next day, I heard someone in the room. I poked my head out to see, blurrily, the woman from the desk straightening the room up. We startled each other; apparently she had forgotten all about me. One glance, though, and she poured a torrent of Catalan my direction. One thing about this fever: while it didn’t enhance my ability to speak any sort of Spanish, somehow I could understand every word I heard.
You must go to the pharmacy, she told me, you are sick and they will help you. You have the flu, she said, half of the city is sick but they will make you well. I summoned almost my entire Spanish vocabulary and tried to smile at her saying, si si, gracias, mañana… as I fell back into sleep.
Later, I woke again. I thought by the slant of the light that it was early evening. The fever had broken. I was shaky, but I was the right temperature and I was hungry! I took stock of my traveler’s provisions. A swiss army knife and plastic-ware from an airport restaurant were my entire kitchen, a couple of granola bars, some dried fruit and water completed the larder. This was not what my body was screaming for. I needed proper sustenance and now, not later.
I stuck my head out the door, checked out the hallway and sidled to the bathroom 3 doors down. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and felt slightly closer to human. Then I knew I had no choice but to venture out. As I pulled on my jacket I remembered a little restaurant around the corner on a side street down past the cathedral. Just a hole in the wall sort of place, but there was a rough hand-lettered sign in English in the window that read Breakfast all Day. It had looked like a diner when I peeked inside, with a few tables and a Formica counter with stools, and had smelled clean and good. I figured it was worth a shot.
I realized that it was closer to dinner than to breakfast, but I didn’t want morning food anyway. I craved that one thing that almost every culture seems to embrace in some form: chicken soup. From avgolemono to zuppa di pollo, the chicken is a base ingredient in soups and stews world-wide.
I had, just had, to have chicken soup, but I was in no condition to dine out. I peered into the little restaurant and saw a few patrons at the tables. The bar man looked at me and tried not to flinch. I think he must have seen me as a walking health violation. I entered his establishment, walked up to the bar and, summoning up what was left of my Spanish, said sopa de pollo? Si, si, he replied and I made motions of taking it out the door. He looked confused, then relieved and again, si, si. I waited, crumpled on a bar stool, as he disappeared into the back.
In what must have been a land-speed record for dinner service in Barcelona that or any night, he re-emerged with a plastic salad container sloshingly full of soup. I paid, balanced it as best I could while I managed the door, and exited into the night.
Back in my room I opened the container to find heaven. Just inhaling the rising steam as it fogged my glasses made me feel better. Now I make a good chicken soup myself, and have eaten chicken soup in some form almost everywhere I’ve traveled, but this was truly exceptional. It was saffron-yellow, brimming with noodles and errant bits of carrots and onions, and, floating on top was a perfect poached egg. I broke the yolk into the soup and began to eat.
I would have been content just sipping a cup of stock, but this was bliss, nirvana. It was the mother lode; as I ate I could feel myself slowly returning to sanity. Egg in the soup, yellow egg noodles, sweet onions, tiny globes of chicken fat swimming with bits of carrots, saffron and herbs to enhance it, this was not just a fine meal, but a true life-saver. I have eaten great meals made even tastier by eating with great friends, enjoyed intimate dinners, and have certainly dined in more pleasant surroundings than that tiny room above the alley in Barcelona. Still I’m not sure that even the most glorious groaning delights have ever truly tasted as fine or done me as much good as that magnificent yet simple Catalan chicken soup.
Catalan Chicken Soup
one fresh chicken carcass, or backs, necks and wings to total about 2 lb
one large sweet onion, rough chopped
2 large carrots, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 t cinnamon
salt and pepper
branches of fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano (from the churchyard next door)
1 bay leaf (from the tree in the courtyard)
saffron (from the market in Grenada) steeped (see below)
6 cloves garlic, peeled but whole
water (from the town pump in the square behind the church)
fresh eggs (1 per person)
white vinegar (for poaching the eggs, see below)
To steep the saffron:
For 3 or 4 threads (enough for this soup), put the threads in a glass or ceramic container. Add 3 teaspoons of liquid; using a thin-bladed knife or other delicate instrument make gently sure that the saffron threads get properly immersed (do not crush the threads). Let the saffron soak for a minimum of two hours. The mixture can be left soaking for as long as twelve hours, but two hours will give you the proper results. The threads will expand to 1-1/2 times their dry size.
To make the soup:
In a deep heavy Dutch oven, saute the chicken carcass or parts in olive oil 4 or 5 minutes on each side until browned. Remove and set aside. Add a bit more oil if necessary to cover the bottom of the pan, add the onions, cinnamon, salt and pepper and cook over low heat for 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Add the chicken back in, add all other ingredients except noodles and eggs, and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, skim, reduce heat and simmer covered for 2 hours or longer. Top off with water if necessary.
To poach an egg:
Use the freshest eggs available. Let eggs come to room temperature. Break eggs carefully into individual small bowls (if you break the yolk, use it for something else). In a large deep skillet, bring water with 2 t of white vinegar to a bare simmer. Spin the water with a spoon to form a whirlpool. Slide the egg in, gently, let cook for 2 minutes, remove from pan with a slotted spoon, slide immediately into soup, as below.
Using a colander with large holes, strain liquid into a clean pot. Pick any meat off the bones and add back into the stock. Discard all other detritus. Bring to a boil, add noodles and cook until done. Just before serving, poach one egg per serving, add eggs to soup and feel better immediately.