Tapas in Barcelona is one of our absolutely favorite ways to take nourishment. But not all tapas bars are alike. Here are reviews of two tapas bars that couldn’t be more different: Cova Fumada and Cal Pep. These reviews were enabled and vastly improved by our wonderful traveling companion Giovanni Matta.
The Catalans have their quality of life dialed in to perfection. Take, for example, their working hours. Most Catalans arrive for work around 10AM and break for lunch at 2PM. This repast is generally followed by a siesta with a return to the site of toil lasting from 5 until 8 in the evening. Both lunch and dinner are often a moveable feast in that, exhausted from the daily grind, average denizens of Barcelona require a bite and a glass of wine or beer to muster the energy for serious caloric intake. Thus tapas or pika pika, the savory small bites often consumed standing at the bar while quaffing a restorative caña (a small draft beer) or vino tinto/blanco.
Team Mago seldom makes it beyond the first phase of the Catalan two step, because a) restaurants require a minimum commitment of two hours at table involving at least three courses and do not really get going until 3PM and 10PM respectively, and b) the tapas are just too damn good to stop at one or two — especially when they are spread out before you in all their glory, tempting you to order just one more (as well as something with which to wash it down). Instead, for lunch we hit a tapas bar right at opening, around 1 in the afternoon. After grazing on multiple dishes, Patti encourages me to eschew an early siesta for a swim in the Mediterranean or a long walk through one of the many parks or pedzone bestraddled neighborhoods of this lovely city (walking during the lunch/siesta break has the added advantage that the cacophony of the infinite restoration projects is stilled while the workers seek sustenance followed by somnolence). For dinner, we time our arrival for the gap between the initial burst of conviviality upon release from the salt mines and the onset of serious evening activity (roughly between 8:30 and 9:30PM). We then waddle home, with me inducing Patti to several “night caps” along the way sitting outside one of the many bars marking the path back to the love shack, which are just starting to fill (note to eager imitators: these are week day hours; Sunday lunch, for example, begins sometime between 3:30 and 4:30PM and we have never been up late enough to determine when dinner is served on either Saturday or Sunday).
This week we have been taking advantage of Giovanni’s redoubtable skill in the Castilian language to make multiple visits to two of our favorite tapas establishments. In order to justify the expense and calories associated with this mini-debauch, I have agreed to write the following reviews to accompany Patti’s wonderful photos of our gustatory exploits.
Address: Barcelonetta square, Barcelona, Spain— Get directions
Telephone: 34 932 21 40 61
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MudGuide Rating: 5
Cova Fumada is located next to Cafe Ke? on the Barceloneta market square. This is a real deal VFM establishment, but you have got to earn it. The entire restaurant consists of maybe 70 square meters (that is 210 square feet for the metric impaired) with two wooden doors that open directly onto the sidewalk. The Rough Guide claims that there is neither sign nor listing of operating hours. But there actually is a small sign, hidden by the doors when they are open, that gives the name and the hours — none of which, of course, match the actual hours of the bar.
We have found that the best thing to do is to check around 11:30AM on the day one plans to eat, and if it is open or looks like it soon will be, to start pestering Giovanni for a lunch date at 12:30PM. Giovanni then makes an appearance 30 to 45 minutes after the agreed upon time, ensuring that all the tables are occupied and the bar packed three deep. He unerringly picks out the padron from the group of 8 members of a three-generation family that runs the place. This gentleman, who has been eying me with clearly malevolent intent, breaks into a beatific smile and Giovanni immediately secures a promise of the next available table.
Then we wait for our table on the sidewalk in the blinding sun as Giovanni precision rolls a filter cigarette the width of 20 penny nail while simultaneously juggling four cell phones and as many languages (Italian, Sicilian, Castilian and English). Children shrieking and dogs barking in the playground just across the street filled with cars and mopeds provide a leitmotif for the wall of sound emanating from two adjacent renovation projects that bracket the love shack. Patti sees and imitates Giovanni’s numerous flourishing hand gestures, while I try to observe the kitchen staff through a barred window and fantasize about the padron kicking Guy Fierri in the balls while I intone “and that’s how we roll in Barceloneta you fat, spiky haired, bling-encrusted, jumped up carnival barker.”
I contemplate death by starvation as wonderful aromas drift into the street and Giovanni commences his rant aria above the construction chorus:
“The psycho dwarf (a common nick name for the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi) has poisoned the entire society. How can you say it is a democracy when the man that controls all the television, all the radio, all the news papers can call up a police station where they are holding his 17 year old whore and tell them that they must release her because she is the niece of Hosni Mubarak? She isn’t even from Egypt. But when Berlusconi sends one of his big tits bimbos who is in charge of procuring him girls for his orgies to the police, they turn her over. Then where do you think this woman, who is actually part of the regional government, takes the little slut? Does she take her to an institution for orphans or runaways? No, of course not. She is turned over to some brothel madam in Milano!!”
As Giovanni nears his peroration, the eight restaurant staff (one bar tender, two waiters, and five kitchen workers, two over the age of 70) rotate one at a time out of the establishment to a communal ashtray perched on a fraying wicker chair resting against the building’s wall. They take turns pulling a drag or two off of a perpetually lit cigarette that rests on a mound of butts like a nicotine altar to Vesta. Smoking has been banned indoors at bars and restaurants throughout Spain for less than six months and the Catalans have already learned to adapt. The result is that every dish is cooked by at least five people: one preps, the next fires, the next flips, the next corrects seasoning, the last one plates. No one cook does the same thing twice. Meanwhile, the bartender draws three beers and then heads out the door, passing a waitress who runs in and grabs the dish from the half wall dividing the kitchen from the dining area and slams it onto one of the seven marble tables.
Giovanni’s cigarette has gone out, but he does not seem to notice or care.
“You know how we know about all this? Intercepted cell phone calls. These people are so stupid, so arrogant that they do not even try to conceal their criminality. Does Berlusconi apologize for making Italy the laughing stock of Europe? No, he pays off enough members of parliament to pass a law that makes it illegal to use cell phone transcripts in court. Can you imagine a NATO summit with this clown? â€˜Hey Barrack, I don’t got time to bomb Libya because I need to take more Viagra for my bunga bunga party this evening.’ Ah! Time to eat.”
The padron emerges to tell Giovanni that our table is ready, finish off the last of a cigarette, light a fresh one, and charge back inside.
Dining is cheek by jowl with the tables seating 3 to 6 patrons and it is just a little less noisy than the street. We are seated right up against the partition between the kitchen and the dinning area with a perfect view into the chaos of both. Somehow they have managed to squeeze in a stove with two large burners, a flat top grill, a sink, and several floor-to-ceiling shelves into the tiny kitchen.
I notice that most of the locals are eschewing the ubiquitous pa amb tomaquet for a milky white substance slathered on their slabs of toasted bread. Giovanni duly requests this mystery topping and three 6 by 4 inch trenchers arrive at light speed. The white stuff turns out to be a thin translucent aioli of incredible garlicky intensity.
The propitious start is followed by bombas, a half inch disc of boiled potatoes that have been rolled in bread crumbs, fried, and served with large dollop of aioli topped with a smaller one of fiery hot sauce made from the reconstituted dried peppers that are otherwise ground up and used as the key ingredient in hot Spanish paprika. Local legend has it that the bomba was invented at Cova Fumada. I voice my doubts in this matter, but Giovanni seems inclined to support the thesis.
“Look at the care they lavish on this humble tapa. First the barista takes a spoon and makes a dent in the top. Then he carefully spreads the aioli and then, instead of just sloshing on the hot sauce, he makes perfect bulls eye before serving.”
Indeed, with the possible exception of the nicotine delivery shrine, the bomba seems to hold pride of place at Cova Fumada.
Next to arrive are fried artichokes, which are something like carciofi a la judaia in Rome but with several important differences. First, the hearts have not been removed. Second, these are fried, but not deep fried like the ones in Rome’s ghetto. In fact, there is no fryalator of any type in Cova Fumada’s kitchen. Everything is fried in a large double handled concave pan that sits atop a burner perpetually set on high. Staff grab the handles with unprotected hands so frequently that one suspects they lost all the nerve endings in their extremities years ago — all the restaurant staff are in fact late middle aged to elderly. Finally, the artichokes are fried in paprika infused olive oil. This reddish oil leaks out of the artichokes onto the plate as the gringos try to cut the edible bits away from the tough outer leaves with knife and fork. Giovanni imitates the locals, picks one up and chews off the delicious heart and tender inner leaves, staining his goatee a reddish brown. The oil itself adds another flavor dimension to the incredible bread and we wipe the plate clean.
The fried dishes continue with squid rings, savory beignets made with salt cod, and doughnut holes redolent of anchovy. The doughnut holes, served piping hot with flakes of parsley embedded in the light, chewy dough surrounded by a deliciously thin crust, are perfect with the small glasses of ice-cold draft beer that the Catalans favor with such food.
Next, it’s time for plump thumbnail-sized clams and muscles, simply placed in a covered pan over high heat until they open and shed their juices and then served with a generous splash of olive oil. Along with the bivalves comes a whole small octopus that has been stewed in olive oil and tomatoes.
Not content with this bounty, I — near delirious from the olfactory orgy in the tight confines of the restaurant — beseech Giovanni to order cold steamed muscles with a dollop of thicker, and even more intense, aioli on top of each morsel still in its shell, chopped stewed calamari , and salt cod in a spicy tomato sauce.
As the wretched gastronomic excess continues unabated, Patti complains about the lack of vegetables and a query by the ever-helpful Giovanni brings sautéed mushrooms as well as the jewel in the crown, chickpeas cooked with blood sausage. The dried chickpeas have been presoaked and the blood sausage removed from its casing and slightly crushed with a mortar and pestle. They both go into a dual handled concave pan with the ubiquitous squirt of olive oil that seems to dress just about every dish at Cova Fumada at one point or another during their preparation.
The chickpeas shed liquid that combines with and thickens the oil under heat, while the blood sausage turns the sauce a rich purpely black with an intense mineral flavor that ends on a cinnamon note. The texture is also profound, the perfect combination of creamy and chewy mouth feel.
Clearly neither of these final dishes qualifies as veggies in the eyes of Patti, but I’m too busy tucking into them to catch the warning signals. Fortunately, one of Giovanni’s phones rings and he heads out to the street with Patti to buy her some basil and strawberry ice cream from the nearby organic gelatoria owned by a blond giant from Iceland, while booking a tremendously expensive villa on the island of Pantelleria for a client in London and rolling another cigarette. [MudGuide Update! Sadly, this gelateria is no longer in existence.]
I am left alone wiping up the various dishes using the last of the garlic infused with a few bread molecules and wondering how antelope blood would work in a sausage back at the Montana love shack.
Address: Place de les olles, 8, Barcelona, Spain— Get directions
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MudGuide Rating: 5
If Cova Fumada is the alpha of tapas, then Cal Pep is the omega. Positioned in the southeastern quadrant of the old city in the La Ribera neighborhood, Joseph’s House (shortened from the Catalan Josep) stalwartly refuses to accept reservations unless you bring a group large enough to fill the whole back room. What most diners insist on in any event is a place at the fifteen-seat bar that constitutes the front room and kitchen. With an approximate lunch opening time of 1PM Tuesday through Friday and 1:15PM on Saturday, this means that the line begins to form around 12:30.
We have been trying to get Giovanni to join us at Cal Pep for over a year. Agreeing to a date certain, much less a precise time during said day, is an exercise in existential angst for Sicilians. Their very language stands in mute testimony to this elemental feature of the Sicilian psyche by virtue of the fact that it has no future tense.
For three weeks, Patti has woven a trap for Giovanni more intricate than Hannibal’s maneuvers at the battle of Cannae. First, a date certain is cemented over the course of several meals through the ruse de gastronomique of suggesting that certain dishes are better and/or more authentic at Cal Pep than the ones we have just consumed. Then an exact rendezvous time at his apartment is established through the binding ties of obligation that substitute for blood in Trenacrian veins via claiming that the only way we can be paid back for the “super sandals” that his “super friends” brought him from the US is to meet at the incongruously early hour of noon.
And yet no plan survives first contact with Giovanni. We arrive precisely at high noon, but despite promises of “venga ju subito” on the intercom, it takes Giovanni 15 minutes to descend the four flights to the street. Then an additional 10 minutes are squandered taking pictures of the local dog while lamenting the recent assumption of his beloved Cookie to the kennel invisible. Finally, as Giovanni begins a familiar rummage through his sling briefcase, Patti turns to the last refuge of a scoundrel by utilizing the carrot of nicotine addiction and informs him that there will be time to smoke outside the restaurant.
“My God, there is already the line,” Giovanni pants following a forced march up Passeig de Joan de BorbÃ³ Comte de Barcelona and into the medieval warren of the old center.
Patti surveys the orderly group with a practiced eye (this will be Team Mago’s third visit to the House of Joseph) and quietly reassures me that the mission is still on track. If you line up too late to claim one of the seats at the bar, then you join the hungry horde behind them four deep and wait for one to become available — watching and salivating as your betters dine leisurely with their backs to you for the better part of an hour, while the staff encourages the swilling fiends to have but one more little dish, coffee, a digestif on the house…
“Gaddamn it!! How can I be such a stupid man?” Giovanni emits a cre de cour that turns heads not only in the line, but also amongst the patrons of two nearby restaurants. “I was so concentrated about bringing them when I left. They must be here. “Minchia.” (This is Sicilian slang for the male genitalia, but it is best translated as a direct cognate of our f-word) “How can I be so stupid?”
He paws maniacally through his sling case, arm jammed into its copious bowels up to the elbow. He is searching for rolling papers and a filter, two of the three ingredients necessary for his signature coffin nails. The stream of rapid fire Sicilian gives way to the silence of a trained hunter as his piercing blue eyes (a sure sign of Norman blood) scan the line, then each of the outdoor seating areas of the other restaurants. There! At a near-by table, the tell tale signs of a roll your own aficionado have been spotted: pouch, papers, and grazie Dio, a tube of small white little filters (not the large ones mind you, but the exact size that our dining partner prefers). Giovanni arrows over to the unsuspecting mark, charms him senseless in whatever tongue is required, obtains additional supplies for later, returns to the line, rolls and smokes a cigarette, which he finishes just as the front doors open and the patient masses file into the tapas temple one by one.
Patti is indeed correct (of course), we not only have seats, but we have the best in the house, directly in front of the three man stove top with the glass door larder just to our right. The staff is deployed in a double file. Those in front handle customer interface and they can be divided into two positions: barista and expediter. The former start filling small glasses of draft beer and opening bottles of red and white wine even before all the seats are taken. The latter face their assigned sections of the bar and begin taking food orders and calling them out to the second file, who remove product from the larder, prep and fire the dishes. A grizzled centurion stands by the door demanding the size of the parties that enter after the seats have been filled, committing them to memory and then moving them into seats as the patrons push their stomachs off of them and waddle out into the street.
Our expediter shows Giovanni the hook where he can hang his sling case under the bar, explains that there is no menu, and that they serve traditional tapas made from the best of the nearby Santa Caterina market. In the two minutes required to place a plate of de rigueur pa amb tomaquet and our drinks in front of us, Giovanni has turned the tables on this veteran of many lunch campaigns. As long-time Giovanni groupies, the Cybergypsies know that everyone always falls hopelessly in love with our Sicilian charmer, but fortunately he only uses this incredible power for the forces of good.
Giovanni now plays the role of pivot man between expediter and us. The proposed dishes are relayed through him to me who accepts or rejects them based on whether they were consumed in recent visits. Without letting the tripartite negotiations flag for an instant, Giovanni seamlessly coaches Patti as she records the meal on her camera, suggesting different settings and lens angles.
First to arrive are perfectly fried calamari and croquettes de marisco. The squid is the best we have encountered anywhere, Italy included (although our Sicilian friend will never admit this, his sighs of almost sexual pleasure as he eats a forkful of tentacles is all the confirmation needed). The secrets are a light breading of extremely fine corn meal and then a fryalator handled by a cook who has the timing genetically encoded by millions of repetitions.
The croquettes are named after Christian converts from Africa who were expelled from Spain by the Castillians after they kicked out the Jews and before they began to suppress the Catalans. Nobody seems to know why they have this appellation, but one suspects it has to do with Catalan nationalism, a true force to reckoned with. In any event, they are also perfectly fried, producing a crust that could only be a couple microns in thickness (think a savory M&M shell), which provides an exquisite contrast to the potatoes beaten with salt cod. The mouth feel of the croquette’s interior has more in common with cream and butter than the humble spud.
Next up are clams two ways. The usual quarter-size bivalves come knapped in a broth of their extruded juices, a fine dice of aged Gran Serrano ham, and drizzle of emerald olive oil. It is a very close call as to whether the clams themselves are the star of this plate or the ham juice mopped up with the pa amb tomaquet. But they both pale in comparison to the navalles (razor clams). These are not so much earthly creatures as reflections of perfect forms from the Platonic realm. Preparation is dictated by some gastronomic version of the Hippocratic oath: a sprinkle of sea salt followed by a brief encounter, a mere buss, on the flat top. But the most impressive thing about the razor clams at Cal Pep is their state of cleanliness. To eat six of these chewy flavor bombs without encountering the slightest hint of grit is testimony to some ball-busting devil in the prep kitchen, which is located in the basement with a dumb waiter being its only link to the surface. In short, these babies could grace the table of Addaphagia, the ancient Sicilian goddess of gluttony, and at $3.50 per clam they better be that good.
Meanwhile Patti’s veggies have arrived in the form of fried artichoke wedges and pedrots del padron (dad’s peppers). The artichokes are an interesting contrast with the version served at Cova Fumada. At Cova they are an excellent example of thrifty Catalan peasant fare: what to do with artichokes that are bit old and tough, especially if you do not mind getting messy while you eat them. Cal Pep’s take is composed only of the freshest and smallest that can be found that morning in the market just before dawn. Rushed to Dante’s subterranean prep station before the sun can accelerate their aging process and ruthlessly paired into wedges the size of half a pinky finger, they are then breaded like the calamari and finished by the same fryalator artist, who produces something akin to artichoke popcorn.
While said artist fries the artichokes, preps a kilo of chorizo sausage, and cooks a filet to perfect medium rare, he also fries up and presents the peppers.
These small dark green specimens are almost as ubiquitous as patatas bravas in Barcelona’s myriad tapas bars, but as usual, Cal Pep does them best in our experience. Now I know that somewhere in this vast gastronomic urbs, Ferran Adria’s recently opened tapas laboratory is serving deconstructed pedrots del padron which have been broken down to quark level then frozen to one degree above Kelvin before they are combined with superheated oil and bombarded by neutrinos in a supercollider-driven oven, but minchia, who cares? Pep’s version supplies the perfect balance between silky smooth texture and vegetal, slightly bitter aftertaste with nary a bottle of liquid nitrogen in sight. And, for once, the price is a steal compared to what Ferran is extorting from the foodie morons that wait years to get a reservation in his chemistry set disguised as a restaurant.
The food, the beer, the sheer ecstasy of being in Barcelona with Giovanni begins to take its toll on the well oiled MudGuide’s review machine. As new dishes arrive, we start eating them until one of us shouts, “damn it, the beauty shot!!” Then the dish is hastily reassembled for a photo with food stopping half way to gullet, Giovanni repositioning things and turning the plate to best effect and Patti snapping away while I make quick notes, knowing full well that after the siesta memory can be quite a fickle thing.
The crowd behind us is getting restive. At first they laughed and joked with our expediter who was obviously having fun with the gringos and their Sicilian handler in impenetrable Catalan (a language even Giovanni, our autodidact polymath translator, cannot parse). Then they started drinking cava (the Spanish sparkler that Patti prefers to champaign, proseco or sekt). Well into their second bottle, they are coming to the realization that being ten back in the line will mean at least an hour on their feet while we play Travel Channel wannabes in front of them and the expediter makes eyes at Giovanni. Once again the man saves the day, turning around and beguiling the squiffy stooges with his Cuban-accented Castilian. In no time they have been transformed from a hungry mob into a chorus urging us on to the Catalan equivalent of going for the entire left-hand side of the menu.
While Giovanni works his magic I, secure in the knowledge that a Sicilian has my back, step into the breach and order an omelet, fried baby sardines, tuna tartar, and a beef filet before Patti can put a stop to the madness. The omelet or tortilla is yet another apotheosis of a dish found in every Barcelona restaurant and household kitchen. It is made with the usual eggs and potatoes, but all comparison stops there. The potatoes have been slow cooked in oil until they have almost completely broken down. Then they are added to about one and a half beaten eggs and cooked just long enough for the surface to stiffen, then flipped for a ten second count and turned out on a plate with a criss-cross of aioli from a squirt bottle on top. In the runny gooey interior, potatoes are indistinguishable from eggs forming a delicious hybrid of intense egginess, and all done without a spec of methyl cellulose (eat your heart out Ferran).
The fried bait, as Patti the fisher-person styles them, sparks the next crisis. When Giovanni asks for lemon to squeeze over the crisp golden yellow minnows that the fryalator god has set before us, the expeditor refuses, explaining in the tones of a spurned lover that these fish were swimming mere hours ago and that their delicate flavor would be completely overwhelmed by the harsh acidity of the lemon.
“All that is required is a bit of sea salt, here taste,” the expeditor says as he delicately feeds Giovanni a single tiny fish between thumb and forefinger.
The cultural clash between Sicilian and Catalan gastronomic sensibility is healed by the arrival of the surf and turf course. The tartar is composed of small perfectly cut cubes of sushi grade tuna (the prep bitches obviously have incredible knife skills) that transmits pulses of basil to the tongue. The filet consists of six bites of perfectly cooked and seasoned beef accompanied by the same number of exquisite roasted potatoes.
Patti announces that her camera battery has died, hoping that this will bring an end to the meal before a second mortgage is required to finance the bill. But Giovanni has seen something “interesting”. This turns out to be the best dish of the day, the reconciliation between him and the expediter as well as another link between the rustic cooking of Cova Fumada and the refined traditions of Cal Pep. The dish is chickpeas again, but this time instead of blood sausage, they are accompanied by chipirones, baby cuttlefish.
When Patti protests that we cannot document the rest of the meal, Giovanni produces a camera from the tardis bag hanging by his knees and the debauch is reignited. The chickpeas and the ink from the infant squidlings blend into a grayish black broth at once more subtle and intense than its rustic cousin made with tincture of pig blood. Patti and Giovanni eat the stuff right from its bowl, rejecting the offer of separate plating arrangements from the delighted expediter. Once every morsel has been fought over and consumed, the broth vanishes under predatory swipes of pan amb tomaquet.
Suddenly for the first time in over an hour and a half there is nothing left to eat. I am resigned to my fate. With a down to stems and seeds look, I try to organize the bill. However, no Sicilian can leave a meal without a dessert. It would be an unimaginable sin, all the five families would turn against us, our political contacts would run for cover, etc. Yet the Mago Team are channeling Mr. Creosote and dreading that last thin wafer. Meanwhile, with two dead cava soldiers piled up behind us and the portal centurion refusing to let anyone else in the restaurant, the congenial drunks behind us are showing renewed signs of morphing into a lynch mob.
Then the expediter plays his trump card. He delivers a mousse quartet served in demitasse glasses: chocolate, whipped cream served over tiny pieces of wild strawberries, lemon, and crème brûlée. Patti is transported and declares the meal worth any cost. I am so taken with the crème brûlée that I fail to use Giovanni’s camera in movie mode to capture Patti’s declaration for posterity. And Giovanni launches into flights of praise concerning the ethereal lemon moose.
Morgan is the first to recover his wits. He secures the check, quickly handing over his credit card so that the other two do not see the amount (it is down right dangerous to carry that much cash around Barcelona). Then he asks Giovanni the name of the moose for his notes.
“It is called espumes in Castilian and spuma in Catalan. What you call it in English?”
“You are terrible,” laughs Giovanni laying his head on Patti’s shoulder and eliciting a jealous glance from the expediter.
“And drunk,” adds Patti.
“Is this cum from the backside of the angel?” Giovanni holds up the remains of the chocolate spuma.
“Well if angels actually defecate, that’s what it would taste like,” I respond, signing the credit card receipt and figuring one could eat about four meals at Cova Fumada for the price of one at Cal Pep.
Giovanni laughs so hard that he has to hold onto the bar. Patti gets into the spirit of things by declaring that the heavenly aioli at Cova Fumada should be considered “fallen angel cum.”
The drunks behind us take the signing ceremony as a signal to surge forward and we vacate our seats just before they can physically remove us. There is something of a scrum as we retrieve our bags and hats from under the bar, dragging our belongings across their laps and from under their feet. Then we are out in the street, past the scowling centurion and blinking in the intense Mediterranean sun.
“Minchia,” sighs Giovanni, “where are those damn filters?”