The New Convivialist

Month: February, 2014

In the cava hills

berlin food blog convivialist

Ambling leisurely down the main drag of the Catalonian village nestled in the foothills of the Montserrat mountain range that we call home for the next week, we realized we were warm. Actually warm. This being our first day in Spain after a few months holed up in Berlin, enduring its notoriously gray winter months, this sensation was something of a revelation. Paul and I had walked out the door of our residence down the hill in the late morning, naturally preparing for the elements as we were accustomed to doing each day: by piling on as many sweaters as would fit under a long green wool jacket (in my case) or a short black polar fleece with Gore-tex overcoat (in his). The wrapping of scarves, pulling on of two pairs of gloves and final addition of sensible hats made us models of outdoor-preparedness in Germany. And in the late morning in this particular valley of a mountainous region, I can’t say I was unhappy with our sartorial decisions. We had, however neglected to take into account a key factor that exists in Spain that does not in Berlin: sunshine. More specifically, the strength of the sun. The strength of the sun when one is situated directly below it and on a mountainside. Elated at the sensation of heat via actual rays of sun, we simultaneously, without speaking, peeled off our hats and gloves, unbuttoned our coats and wished that, without daring to utter the words, we had sunglasses.

The village itself is small. Not many people appear on the streets on a weekday morning, though I imagine this changes in high season or on weekends when hikers and tourists en route to the Montserrat monastery seep into the area. Only a handful of stores, mostly practical, dot the calle principal. A tiny grocery store, a pharmacy, bookshop, simple restaurant and two or three convenience stores could barely provide a half hour of ‘shopping’. But we, happy to be in a new surrounding, browsed the tiny shelves of every convenience store with care, mostly in search of ‘jamón serrano’, but also for anything novel that we might be able to feast on, literally or visually.

About halfway through the walk downhill we peered into an empty, cave-like storefront. There were no doors to speak of, just a darkened interior, seemingly cut into the stone, the left side of which was lined with large stainless steel drums, each with spigots on the bottom. More enticing than the visuals of the space was the smell emanating from somewhere even deeper within the cavern: something dank and musty, sweet and bacterial, one that can be deemed neither a stench nor an aroma. These are the most enticing of all olfactory sensations that humans experience: those by which we are simultaneously repulsed and attracted. Like with a good, ripe camembert, we are a little horrified at how it smells, but unable to turn away, in fact, just the opposite: we want it in the ultimate way the nose’s desires can be satisfied. We want to ingest it. By the smell of this particular cave, it was obvious wine production was in process, but probably of a rather low quality, of dubious sanitary standards, or both.

As we tentatively entered the storefront chamber, unsure whether or not it was even open to the public, a petite woman emerged from another small room on the right side. Her jaw was slack (frozen?) and didn’t move as she spoke, making her already jumbled mixture of catalán and castellano even more difficult to understand. I asked if they had any cava available and she pointed us to two of the large vats – one labeled as 15 degrees and 2.10 per liter and the other as 13 degrees and 1.80 per liter. She asked if we wanted to try- why not? It’s almost noon. I responded , and she grabbed the first tiny glass she could find handy with her surprisingly large paw, and went to the back to rinse it out (to my relief). She poured us a small beaker of the first cava. Tiny sip. Not good, but drinkable. When it was apparent we weren’t quaffing it with delight, she took the beaker and filled it full with the next one, claiming it was softer and lighter. Read: even worse. As we choked nearer to the bottom of the glass, Paul noticed two small fruit flies inside. I laughed and showed the woman and she responded, grabbing the glass and throwing its fly-ridden backwash over her shoulder onto the floor: “No es nada- están en el grifo.”

Truly, I didn’t want to buy any of the subpar cava, but I felt obliged to do so, given that this wistful, lonely woman had gone out of her way for what may be her only two customers all morning. As I paused and pondered, she gave me a taste from yet another vat, this one a smaller barrel. “Vermouth,” she explained, “para martini.” Yes, it was deep brown and intriguing, a great deal better than the cava, but, still, I didn’t exactly have an itching desire for the liter and a half minimum quantity of vermouth. But, my rusty Spanish failing me, I acquiesced: vale, ok, I’ll take it. The woman happily filled up a 1.5-liter water bottle (after kindly emptying it of its previous contents- whatever they might have been) with the sweet vermouth and took my seven euros twenty-five. Upon leaving, she pitched me an array of colorful necklaces and pins displayed behind her cash register, explaining she had made them herself and if I wanted to come back and purchase a little something for myself, they would be there, waiting. At once charmed and guilty, I couldn’t possibly feel swindled for the unwanted vermouth after this pitiful offer. Blinking in the momentarily-forgotten sunlight, I emerged from the cave to Paul, who had long-since made a discreet exit from the shop, with a knowing look on his face: “so she got you, did she.”



Flourless Chocolate Cake – an original recipe

convivialist-food-blog-flourless-chocolate-cake-recipe 1

Happy Valentine’s Day. And all the more happy because the holiday doesn’t knock you over the side of your head here in Germany. But my skepticism towards this Hallmark Holiday doesn’t necessarily preclude partaking in Valentine’s-related things that I actually do like, such as cut flowers and flourless chocolate cake. Especially flourless chocolate cake.

We are usually under the presumption that such an endeavor as baking a flourless chocolate cake is a signifier of a special occasion. Yes, the rich, dense, deeply chocolatey cake or torte is one that impresses a guest or a lover, but it also need not be complicated to make. In fact, this particular flourless chocolate cake comes together so easily you don’t have to wait for the next 14th of February to make it. Why not the 18th of March? Or the 4th of August? Or tomorrow?

Now, this cake is not of the species of flourless chocolate ‘bomb’ that sort of crusts on top, the kind that can be gently tapped open with a spoon to reveal a chocolate lava flow. Those are great. But ours is different. I liken it more to a steamed, creamy texture, probably due to the inclusion of the coconut milk. The texture was unexpected ­-we just threw in the coconut milk because we had some leftover in the fridge- but nevertheless welcome and comforting.

It was both in an effort to save money and because we have both been under the weather for the past week that Paul and I stayed in last night. To be perfectly honest, though, as soon as the mere mention of baking a flourless chocolate cake appeared on the table at, oh, around 6 pm and my chocoholic boyfriend dashed out the door to pick up some chocolate reserves, you couldn’t have paid me to go out to the finest restaurant in town.  We even found an appropriate film to watch while eating our two slices of cake each (my god, to write that- are we already that much of an old married couple?) – Spinning Plates – a documentary featuring three very different restaurants in the US and the specific challenges they face. Fascinating, concise and highly recommended!


Recipe: Flourless chocolate cake with coconut milk

convivialist-food-blog-flourless-chocolate-cake-recipe 2 

200 grams dark chocolate, around 50% cacao content, chopped

125 grams butter, cut into small pieces

100 grams coconut milk

four eggs, separated

100 grams sugar (ideally raw sugar)

1 tsp vanilla extract

60 grams unsweetened cacao powder


1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (350°F) and grease a 25 cm (10”) spring-form pan.

2. Place the chopped chocolate and butter in a double boiler and melt slightly over medium heat. When it’s about half melted, add the coconut milk and continue stirring until everything is smooth, but be careful not to overheat. Remove from heat. 

3. Meanwhile, separate the four eggs into two small bowls. This is where it comes in handy to have two preparing the cake together. One person can beat the egg whites, either by hand with a whisk or with an electric beater, until frothy and slightly stiff. The other can stir the sugar into the chocolate mixture, followed by beating in the egg yolks, one at a time, until completely incorporated.

4. If the bowl of your chocolate mixture has grown too small, transfer to a larger one. Slowly stir in the cacao powder until incorporated. Gently fold in the egg whites until incorporated. Pour batter into the prepared spring-form pan and set in the center rack of the oven. Check after 25 minutes by inserting a toothpick in the center. As soon as it comes out clean, remove from the oven (not overcooking is the key here!) and let cool on a rack.

5. When completely cool, remove from pan and serve, with some whipped cream if desired. The next day, the flavors and textures are even richer.