June 27, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Here comes another one of my confessions: I’m kind of obsessed with chestnuts (yes, I’m still talking about food). So when I was in Montseny and found out I’d be visiting a chestnut farm (!!!), I got all sorts of excited.

My passion for chestnuts began years ago in Madrid, during chilly months when my fingers were frozen and my stomach empty. You see, each winter, carts pop up in city squares, outside shops and on street corners, all hawking rolled-newspaper cones stuffed full with dark toasted wintery nuts of love (what? That’s not what you call them?). Peeling off the flaky, burnt outside, you’ll inevitably blacken your fingers, savoring the warm doughy inside. They’re like Christmas in your mouth, and conjure up images of a fireplace and Jack Frost nipping at the air.

I’m not sure that the Catalans have this same Christmas-nut connection, but what I do know is that they dig them too. The region, in fact, holds a yearly celebration on November 1st – called a Castanyada (castanya/castaña meaning chestnut in Catalan/Spanish) — to honor the ancient seed. Indeed the chestnut used to be a lot more important to Catalunya, until the 19th century came along, and with it corn and potatoes (here’s looking at you America).

During the fiesta, families come together for a Thanksgiving-style meal, including roasted chestnuts, panellets (a bite-sized pastry often made of almonds and pine nuts), and even sweet potatoes. Let’s be honest, the only crucial element missing is some pumpkin pie and maybe some stuffing.

It’s this nut-driven passion that motivates the folks at Castanya de Viladrau: a farm committed to sustaining and growing chestnut production in Montseny. They not only harvest the nuts, but also focus on evangelizing all the marvelous things you can do with them.

As a food, they can be enjoyed beyond just roasting on an open fire, but also for use in honey, beer, chocolate, cookies, sausage, cake, liquor, jam….really, the list goes on. And the tree wood – both sturdy and rot-resistant – can be used for everything from furniture, to planters and more. Basically, it’s a miracle tree.

The fine folks at Castanya de Viladrau care so deeply for castañas, that their work is actually just a hobby. By day, the group of volunteers report to their full-time jobs, but in their free time, the chestnut enthusiasts give tours of the farm facilities, go to fairs, and generally just make the world a better place. My kind of people.

If you are ever in the region, please pop by and say hello to my new friends at Castanya de Viladrau. Who knows – you might just run into me, as I’m seriously hoping to return in the fall to not only help on the farm, but also to celebrate what might very well be my new favorite holiday.

*Disclosure: I traveled through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

June 21, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I woke to the smell of a crackling fire as its fumes swirled up the stairs, around the thick stone walls and into my room. Disoriented, I peeked out my window only to be blinded by a wall of green mountainside, reaching for the sky across the valley. “Welcome to Montseny,” I thought that first morning, followed by: “I’m hungry!!!”

That’s not terribly unlike how most of my trips start, either, because I believe food goes with travel like peanut butter and jelly (a combination that my European friends don’t seem to understand, by the way).

 

Sticking to my foodie philosophy, I popped out of bed and eagerly followed the scent of breakfast like a hunting dog on the tracks of a fine, fine catch. I stumbled down the stairs and into the kitchen of our rural hotel La Morera, where I found an almost-ceiling-tall fireplace glowing with bread-topped embers, and a giant wooden table covered in tantalizing treats. From one end to the other, each delicacy nearly piled on top of the next: a plate of sizzling skewered chorizo, a bulging bowl of plump tomatoes for rubbing on freshly sliced coca bread, bricks of white cheese trimmed with a moldy blue rind, and jars of chilled homemade jam. If this was any indication of the tastiness of my trip, then it was clear: I wouldn’t go hungry…or fit into any of my clothes when I returned home. Ugh.

Day two. Sigh. I had resolved to go a little lighter, but somehow between sunset and sunrise, I forgot about that. So the next morning, when the familiar fragrance of horse replaced the scent of fire logs, I got excited all over again for my big day of food and farm at the hotel-meets-equestrian-center Can Vila. Yeehaw.

On this morning, the sun glistened off the dew of freshly cut grass, the surrounding hills glowed in the morning light, and laid out in front of me for my feasting pleasure was a spread of jamón, sliced cheese and jars of marmalade. The hotel’s owner even whipped up a homemade lemon cake, because really, is it every too early for dessert? I think at some point I then re-resolved to go light for lunch and dinner, but I think you can probably guess how that turned out.

By my third day, I was actually starting to wake with a tinge of trepidation – after all, I was perpetually full. But I’m a committed traveler and taster, so I decided to go for a run around the tree-lined streets of Gualba in hopes of combating my rising fear of food.

And you know what? It worked, because when I returned to our latest pit stop – Rural Montseny – I felt the slightest touch of hunger – just a touch. Not one’s to pass up this opportunity to stuff me like a Thanksgiving turkey, our hosts had prepared us yet another breakfast spread overflowing with plates of jamón, varied sausages of Catalan botifarra, blocks of soft goat cheese, trays of pastries, and more slabs of bread accompanied with even more tomatoes. And yet another homemade cake. So yeah, I ate.

At this point I was starting to think they should just roll me from stop to stop or, even better, put me in a cage and send me back to Can Vila where I could join the horses and other farm creatures. But first, one more breakfast.

You can imagine my surprise, though, when arriving for breakfast at a 9th century monastery — now home to Hotel San Marçal — that they only handed me a menu. I opened and shut the menu, set it down, stared at it for awhile, reopened it, frowned, scrunched my eyebrows, looked around me for signs of plates of jamón or a homemade cake. Hmmmph. What the??? I realized that I finally had the opportunity to pick something healthy and light for change.

Perplexed, I settled on this little number. Oh yeah, and did I mention that these were just our breakfasts? Not surprisingly, I’ve been eating nothing but vegetables ever since.

*Stay tuned for future posts on the ridiculous amounts of food consumption in Montseny. They’re calorie-free! Also, soon I will be posting reviews on every place we stayed, ate at, saw and so on.

**Disclosure: I’m traveled through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

June 12, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

My journey started in the bustling Barcelona center, smack right in front of La Sagrada Familia cathedral. Surrounded by tourists and the buzz of street traffic, I had no idea that only a half hour later I’d be engulfed in a nature paradise – Montseny.

Designated by UNESCO as a biospere reserve, Montseny Natural Park is a flora-and-fauna-covered mountain range that staggers into the skies just inland between Barcelona and Girona. Reaching over 1700 meters in elevation, the rain-saturated landscape seeps H2O from every crevice — so much so, in fact, that 50% of Spain’s bottled water originates from the mountain fissures, rivers and lakes.

The classification as a “natural park” rather than a “national park” is a unique distinction. According to a Montseny park guide, since the Montseny land has been occupied and used for quite some time (since the Palaeolithic Age, to be exact), rather than taking a passive approach to its conservation – as with national parks – the government works proactively to ensure the evolving land use doesn’t harm the region’s ecosystems.

Take for example Sr. Farmer. Let’s say he’s got a herd of cows munching on a lush grassy pasture, just like they have for generations. But Sr. Farmer’s son isn’t super keen on the whole cow thing – I mean, he could be a DJ, astronaut or, say, travel blogger. So, chances are that when Pops retires, so will the cows. And, along with them, say “adios” to the entire ecosystem that was created around them. That’s not cool.

But natural parks like Montseny work to mitigate this problem. Filled with loads of animal and plant species, public funds are dedicated to researching, maintaining and supporting the fragile ecosystems. So, while much of the land is privately owned, careful checks and balances enable a more promising future for the area. And good news for the rest of us: a nature-filled playground for years to come.

In the coming weeks, I hope to share with you this little natural paradise only a short drive away from Barcelona and Girona. Grab a snack and some comfy shoes, because it’s going to be an active and very food-filled journey.

Disclosure: I’m traveled through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

June 5, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I’m not entirely sure where I am, as late last night we weaved up through the mountains, past the clouds, and finally stopped at a hidden stone villa, where a warm fire awaited and the promise of some much-needed sleep. What I do I know is that I’m somewhere in the Monsteny mountains, only a short drive away from Barcelona. Judging by the crisp mountain and air and the chorus of birds outside my window, I can’t be sure, though. More to come soon, but first: A couple quick shots from yesterday, which started at 4:30am in Madrid, followed by a healthy stop in Barcelona, and finished with me prancing around a Montseny farm full of plants that smelled so delicious that I wanted to roll around in them.




Disclosure: I’m traveling through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.