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Books, roses, and bread in Barcelona

(article, Johanna Bailey)

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In Barcelona, Valentine's Day is no big whoop. April 23, on the other hand, is a day on which you'd damn well better remember to buy a flower for your sweetheart. La Diada de Sant Jordi (St. George's Day) is one of the most important holidays in Catalonia. 

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h1.Featured recipe




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The tradition (related to an old legend involving chivalry and such) is that every year on this day, men buy roses for women. In return, women buy books for men — although, with the dawning realization that females also possess some measure of intellectual prowess, most women are now receiving books from their partners as well as roses.

When I learned of this holiday shortly after moving to Barcelona, I first took a brief cynical moment to wonder where I might find a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Decluttering in English for my significantly disorganized other. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="The finished bread resembles the Catalan flag."]

Next, I wondered what special thing I was going to get to eat on this day of literacy and love. After all, every celebration needs a treat, and I soon found out that on La Diada de Sant Jordi in Barcelona, that treat is pa de Sant Jordi, a savory bread made with three types of dough. 

The first dough contains Majorcan sobrasada sausage; the second, Emmental cheese; and the third, walnuts. The contrasting streaks of color between the sobrasada and the cheese doughs make stripes resembling the Catalan flag. It's the perfect patriotic accompaniment to the day, since besides being a guy who once rescued a princess from a dragon, Sant Jordi is also the patron saint of Catalonia.
 
As I so often do after learning of something that sounds delicious, I decided that this bread needed to be tasted immediately, and with still more than a week to go before El Big Dìa, I had no choice but to make it myself. After finding a few variations of the recipe on the Internet in Catalan, I did a cursory translation and forged ahead.
 
I started with the sobrasada dough. Made with pork meat, salt, pepper, and pimentón (the Spanish paprika that gives it both its color and its slight spiciness), sobrasada is the color of a Brick Red Crayola crayon and has the consistency of a fibrous cream cheese. It took only a moment of kneading for the sausage to turn the dough the color of marigolds. A few seconds later, it was a more or less uniform deep burnt orange, albeit with a few fiery licks of meat still clinging together in minuscule clumps.
 
The cheese and the walnuts were then folded into their respective doughs, and the rest seemed fairly straightforward. Or so I thought. Because as tasty as my pa de Sant Jordi was, from a visual perspective, the finished product was less than ideal. In fact, rather than being the symbol of pride and patriotism that I'd envisioned, my loaf looked more like the Catalan flag as seen through the eyes of someone who'd had waaay more than their fair share of cava. In other words, it was a bit of a mess. Whether the problem was a faulty recipe, a faulty translation, or a faulty execution, I had no way of knowing.
 
As traditions go, pa de Sant Jordi is a relatively new one. The bread was created 20 years ago by Eduard Crespo, owner of La Fleca Balmes, the bakery founded by his grandfather in 1908. When I found out that it was a mere 10-minute walk from my apartment, I decided to head over and ask senyor Crespo if I could watch as he made this year's bread, because if anyone knew the right way to do it, it would surely be he.
 
Two days later, I found myself standing in the middle of the floury nerve center of La Fleca Balmes, the tangy scent of sobrasada punching through the sweet yeasty air. I watched as Crespo rolled out huge rectangles of dough, cut them into strips, stacked them on top of each other, wrapped the stacks in more dough, and then sliced them up into little slabs. The pinky-red streaks of sobrasada made each one look like combination of a cartoon pork chop and a cinnamon roll. So that’s how it's done.
 
Two hours later I emerged, squinting, into the street, looking like Johnny Cash after a coke binge (my decision to wear a black T-shirt and jeans to the innards of a bakery was not exactly inspired). It was worth it, though, because I knew the right way to make pa de Sant Jordi, and I had the original recipe written in my notebook. Even better, the whole inside of my bag (where I'd stashed my complimentary fresh-baked bread) was warm and smelled like baked cheese.
 
When I shared my experience with a few of my new Catalonian friends, one spoke a bit dismissively of the bread, saying that as delicious as it may be, its new-kid-on-the-block-of-traditions status meant that it wasn't a “genuine” part of the holiday. Ironically, the same friend was unaware, until I told her, that the ritual of giving books didn't begin until the 1920s, when an enterprising bookseller started to promote the holiday as a way to honor Shakespeare and Cervantes, both of whom died on April 23, 1616.
 
But this is how traditions develop, be they culinary or otherwise. Joseph and Mary certainly weren't munching on candy canes in the manger, yet nowadays those striped sweets are definitely firm residents in the pantheon of Christmas customs. People in Barcelona may not yet be saying that La Diada de Sant Jordi is the day to give roses, exchange books, AND eat stripey bread, but if the ubiquitous presence of the red-and-yellow buns in bakeries throughout the city every April 23 indicates anything, in another 20 years, they certainly will be.

h4. Assembling the Pa de Sant Jordi

Refer to the recipe for details. These photos show how to assemble the bread once the pieces are all in place.

[%image process1 float=center width=500 caption="Starting with the cheese dough, stack the strips on top of each other, alternating a cheese dough with a sausage dough to make stripes."]
[%image process2  float=center width=500 caption="Place your stack of alternating dough strips in the middle of the walnut-dough rectangle and wrap the rectangle around the stack."]
[%image process4  float=center width=500 caption="Place the “log” of dough so that the seam of the walnut dough is facing down."]
[%image process5 float=center width=500 caption="Slice the dough into smaller slabs as though you were slicing bread (each slice can be an inch or two wide, depending on your preference)."]
[%image rolls float=center width=500 caption="Place each piece down so that the stripes are visible. If the dough got a bit squashed in the cutting process, use your hands to re-form it into a more attractive, oval-ish shape."]

p(bio). Johanna Bailey eats, cooks, and writes in Barcelona, Spain.


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