Pete Cashmore discusses why you should take a chance on Zarzuela the next time you head to Barcelona
This is a tale of one city, and two dishes which might be ordered within it. One of them is globally popular, the other seems to hit some kind of forcefield whenever it tries to migrate, and yet in a culinary face-off, I would choose the inexplicable prisoner rather than the international traveller, every time.
It’s something of a gastronomic truism that, when in Catalonia, one should eat as the Catalans eat, which is why so many people – British people, at least – head straight for the paella when they visit Barcelona. Which is fair enough. For one thing, there is paella literally everywhere in Barcelona. They say that in London you are never less than something like fifteen feet away from a rat. In central Barcelona, you can reasonably assume that you are never less than 20 metres than somewhere serving paella. Also, a good paella, especially one that veers away from the standard ingredients, can be a true experience to savour, a genuine oddity. When I was last in Barcelona, I had a rabbit and snail paella down by the harbour and it ranks among my top five meals (that are not pizza) of all time, a lunatic unctuous mix of stout gamey rabbit and chewy, almost whelk-like snails. A whelk comparison is a compliment, by the way. Lovely, lovely whelks.
Paella has conquered a good deal of the Western world. You’d be hard-pressed to find a high street Spanish restaurant in the UK which doesn’t serve it and it’s so very popular that most establishments insist on doing it for two people rather than a single serving – I suspect this has less to do with time and effort saved or preservation of ingredients, and more to do with the fact that they know that however much of it they serve, we will buy.
But there’s another dish you will find in most restaurants in Barcelona, called zarzuela, and it’s zarzuela which has failed to really make the international jump. In all my time as a zarzuela lover – I was 27 when I first had it, I’m 45 now – I have come across zarzuela in precisely three British restaurants. Two of them were in London, and one of those (which naturally I ordered) was barely recognisable as zarzuela, scant and scrawny and criminally low on broth. The third, oddly, was in the outer wilds of Stockport, a place called No. 48 Kitchen and Bar in Marple, a good £15 cab ride from the main Stockport station, but I took that cab ride nonetheless, because zarzuela. And my friends, it was worth every penny.
Horrifyingly, when I moved home to Wolverhampton in 2014, I found that there was a restaurant about 10 minutes down the road in the village of Albrighton which had zarzuela on the menu – and also that it had gone out of business two months before I got home.
I find the zarzuela-paella dichotomy absolutely bizarre because I’d argue that the former is, by some way, the superior dish. Whereas paella can often be quite arid and joyless, zarzuela is like a seafood riot, a glorious ordeal by fish. For my money, the best zarzuela in Barcelona can be found at the historic Can Culleretes, just a very small stone’s throw from the main drag of Las Ramblas. They’ve had time to perfect it – Can Culleretes is the city’s oldest restaurant, dating back to 1786 – and they have done just that. Also, it should be noted that Can Culleretes means ‘house of spoons’.
At the time of writing Can Culleretes zarzuela comes in at 18 Euros, about £15.50, an absurdly reasonable price which I’d argue will be one of THE most brutal casualties of Brexit. For that, you get an opulent tomato – it’s not really a broth, that’s too lightweight a word, it’s a gravy, brimming with mussels, clams, possibly razor clams, king prawns, possibly small langoustines, squid, and white fish like hake, halibut or sea bass, although I’m sure mine had monkfish in it. It’s like a bouillabaisse for the end of the World. And that gravy! Once all the fishes in the sea have been eaten, you’ll be calling out for ‘PAN!’ over and over until you have bread-dipped every last drop of it. The first, second and third best meals of my life have all been Can Culleretes zarzuela.
Some people put almonds, crushed, into zarzuela for flavouring – I am not convinced they do that at Can Culleretes because I hate almonds, so if they were there, they were buried deep in the fishy mix. Some people put pastis in for a little boozy kick, but Can Culleretes certainly don’t do that. The species of shellfish and white fish vary according to, I’d guess, time of year and weight of catch, but that gravy, that unctuous, diabolical (in a good way) gravy remains a constant. The more I think about that gravy, the more I am not just baffled by zarzuela’s anti-omnipresence, I’m genuinely aggrieved. Why should I have to suffer nor others’ lack of uptake?
It’s interesting, actually, to consider the etymology of the word itself. Zarzuela, loosely translated, means ‘variety show’. Zarzuela is a type of theatre dating back to the early 17th century, and it was a wild and colourful mixture of OTT drama, featuring gods, mythical creatures and fools, spoken word verses and song. Although it originated in Madrid, it was soon adopted and adapted by the Catalans. I can’t think of a UK equivalent except perhaps the music hall of the earliest 20th centuries, although zarzuela theatre combined all kinds of styles, from opera to the popular songs of the moment, and earnest drama through to bawdy slapstick, veering from high culture to low and back again in an instant.
And you can see how zarzuela (the theatrical style) lends its name to zarzuela (the casserole). The latter truly is a variety show in a bowl, with all the exuberance and randomness and rapid shifts from one taste to another that the name suggests. It is not a pretty dish, nor is it meant to be – at its best it looks like the bloody aftermath of a scrap between ten or more species of sea creature. Where paella is, to a certain extent, structured and efficient, zarzuela is chaos.
I’d love to hear professional theories about why zarzuela never ‘broke the UK’ – I’m pretty sure the ingredients are there. Maybe it’s just the traditional British reserve betraying us, and dictating that in a choice between efficiency and chaos, we always take the safe option. And that just breaks my heart.
Who is Pete Cashmore
Pete Cashmore is a freelance writer from Wolverhampton who has written for (deep breath)
The Guardian, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Independent, Marie Claire, Grazia, Loaded, Nuts, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Arena, The Face, Channel 4, Radio 1, Ministry, Mixmag, Muzik and the Lawn Tennis Association’s in-house magazine.
He was 2017’s West Midlands Journalist Of The Year and can’t find a decent zarzuela ANYWHERE.
He has just had his first children’s story Herbert The Honking Bee published. He can be found on Twitter at @tweetcashmore