Saturday mornings have taken on a comforting form over the last month or two, centring around collecting my orders from the Bar 44 group’s new online Mercado collection service.
Choose your treats, choose between Asador in Cardiff or the branches in Cowbridge and Penarth as a pick-up point. The shop is a deft selection of the stuff they have built their reputation on: impressive wines, plenty of sherry, a range of gins. Bar snacks like corn kernel kikos and fat, fleshy Gordal olives, or cupboard essentials like PX vinegar and their own unfiltered olive oil, and home cooking staples like chorizo, and a selection of finish at home dishes, Castilian classics like cochinillo and lechazo and their renowned croquetas.
There are plenty of raw ingredients too, so we roast bone marrow flaked with sea salt crystals and spread it on Alex Gooch sourdough.
This hunk of Mallorcan black pig sobrassada finds its way into a few dishes- the ubiquitous breakfast eggs fried until crisp-hemmed (con puntilla) in its paprika-spiked oil; or spread thickly on toast, topped with goat’s cheese and a drizzle of orange peel-infused honey against the sharpness and heat.
It takes a starring role in another batch of croquetas, where it collapses into the bechamel, turning it a striking shade of orange-gold in preparation for rolling and frying.
There’s some superb charcuterie in the form of vivid chorizo de bellota, a deep russet cecina, delicate lomo and rugged wild boar salchichon. Pressed slabs of Duroc pork, brined one night and cooked the next, need only a hot pan to finish. Thick octopus tentacles just get a sprinkle of smoked paprika as they sit on top of confit potato slices in the Galician style.
A slack handful of hefty prawns is best interfered with as little as possible, so they are briefly tossed into a pan amid a mound of garlic and some of their own Rama olive oil, finished off with a nod to surf and turf via their frankly outrageous jamón butter.
Some bread, crusty, warm from the oven, to mop up those buttery, salty, lemony, garlicky juices, and what more could you possibly want in the moment? Yes, you’ll get messy. Yes, you’ll get sticky. Yes, you’ll end up sucking your fingers clean. And call me old-fashioned, but if you don’t end up sucking juices off your fingers at some point on a Sunday, I firmly believe you’ve wasted your weekend.
But the star turn? That’s their beef. Asador 44 is no ‘steakhouse’, but it happens to serve the best steak in the area, beef so good it has been called the best in the world.
José Gordón’s bodega in Jimenez de Jamuz might just be the best place to eat it, close to where the animals are raised. With typical rigour of preparation, the team spent time there at El Capricho to find out how to get the very best out of that beef. It didn’t stop there: to show how important it is to them to be a true asador, they travelled to the sublime Gueyu Mar in Asturias too, where the freshest fish is treated with something approaching religious awe. Add the Basque Country and Galicia, as well Castilian asador strongholds like Segovia and Madrid. They sought advice from Casa Marcial’s Nacho Manzano, Quique Dacosta of Dénia and Arros QD. Little has been left to chance: diligence and immersion clearly matter here. They rarely trumpet this stuff, and perhaps they should. Lesser kitchens would shout twice as loud.
It’s beef which has the power to redefine what you can expect from beef, the possibilities of animals given a long life. It’s old meat, not the young animals slaughtered young and rushed onto shelves we usually see here. As a result the flavours are leggier, gamier, richer.
First up, a 1kg chop of Galician Blonde beef. The advice is simple: bring it to room temperature before you start, then salt it, leave it for 10 minutes while you get your cast-iron pan hazy-hot. Wipe off the think layer of liquid the salt has coaxed out, then salt again. Heavily. A couple of minutes maximum on both sides. It will smoke like a bastard, but it’s worth it.
Rest. Eat. Slather in a wobbly béarnaise- because when is that not a sensible idea?
The second is a different proposition. Six months of ageing is designed to develop strong flavours in the meat, but they have doubled down by smearing the chop in Ibérico lard, and as a result it is almost too rich, too heady for newcomers. There’s a visible bloom on the fat, the livid colours of a fading bruise, a counterintuitive sign of good things to come and a welcome reminder of the El Capricho kitchens.
The blue cheese notes are more pronounced, the fat funkier: for what is extreme ageing but controlled decay? It might well be a step too far for many, on the edge of what you find appealing or even palatable. But if you want to get to grips with beef treated in a way you’ll rarely encounter elsewhere, it’s unmissable. I struggle with its sheer heft, though over the next days I render the leftover fat for other things, like roast potatoes and patatas bravas.
Is this all sounding bit too much? It’s intense, certainly, as a concept and in reality. The raw fat smells like already-roasted beef. The cooking process is the same simple process as before, but this time the cap muscle is sliced and served separately.
The Bar 44 recipe is a simple one. Find the best produce you can, invest the time and care in getting to know farmers and charcutiers and wine growers here and especially in Spain. Treat those prime ingredients with care and respect and refuse to compromise. I dare say there are easier paths to success. But if you can take people with you, if you can get them to understand that what they are eating is not only excellent produce of its type but cooked and presented with imagination and with respect paid to its origins, then you’ve got something special on your hands. With this level of sourcing and obvious love for their food, with their knowledge of Spanish producers, and in lieu of being able to book a table with them right now, Mercado is comfortably your best local bet for the best of Spain.
Even when the restaurants reopen, I’m hoping Mercado 44 will continue to offer this sort of quality and convenience for home cooks.This week sees significant tweaks to their line up, with three separate ‘boxes’ (Asador and Bar 44 experiences, and a cookalong at home kit) it’s clear why B44 have set the standard not just for Spanish food in South Wales, but for many independents in the area.
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.