Food and wine

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.

April 17, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Europe

Confession: I didn’t do my homework on Prague. With travel plans swirling around in my head like a blender full of gazpacho (mmmm, gazpacho), I barely even remembered where I was when I landed at the airport to meet up with an old college friend. Training it into the city center, neither of us knew what to expect, apart from everyone’s enthusiastic proclamations that the once communist city was GORGEOUS.

Yeah, yeah, Prague was super gorgeous – candy-colored buildings, a stone bridge, hilly vistas. Pretty, very pretty. But even better? That place is cheap, like crazy cheap (and I hear it used to be a lot cheaper, too). So we did what any two smart girls would do – we gallivanted around town like two ladies of leisure with a fat wallet full of cash. Obviously.

To be more precise, here I present you with the list of our Prague escapades in case you too should find yourself in the Czech capital for three days and with 4,000 CZK to burn (it sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only about 160 euros!).

We ate
We learned quickly that a proper Czech meal costs next to nothing. Seriously, if we spent more than six euros each, we felt like we’d been robbed and taken for an over-priced ride. I sampled meat-stewy goulash, countless bowls of traditional potato soup, and cake, lots of cake. It seems as though they really like their baked goods because around every turn, a new glistening and frosted creation tempted us. Our favorite? The nation’s famous honey cake – a compilation of cake-y ingredients with an extra helping of honey mixed in, all crusted in crushed cookie.

We drank
There was an unpleasant chill in the Czech air, so sightseeing of course called for brief recharges between stops. Take the castle for example – we marched all over a Prague hilltop looking for the stony structure, but it turns out that the term “castle” should be very loosely translated. Instead of towers, spires and gargoyles, the “castle” consisted of a collection of buildings, such as the gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral, the rather underwhelming Vladislav Hall, and the unexpectedly charming miniature neighborhood on Golden Lane.

After all the invisible-castle hunting, though, we worked up a thirst for something warm. And this was generally what happened every two to three hours throughout the trip, so we ended up discovering countless coffee shops across town. Winning our “favorite cafe to lounge in while escaping the cold” award was Grand Cafe Orient with its cappuccinos, cubist decor, and, of course, honey cake.

We went to the ballet
We’d heard that a visit to the ballet or opera was a must, so we figured since we were rolling in cash, we may as well do something extravagant. We popped by the Národní divadlo (national theatre) and dropped a total of almost two euros each on tickets to that evening’s ballet (big spenders!). For that price, I expected the performance to more closely resemble my third grade dance recital than any proper professional performance. But, wrong again. The theatre seemed better fit for royalty than my worn-out sightseeing self. The auditorium glowed with gold tasseled curtains, velvet chairs, a chandelier the size of my apartment, and a live orchestra. Fan-cy. And the ballet was pretty darn impressive, too!

We traveled
Feeling the urge to escape our pied-à-terre (AKA the hotel), we decided to take a train to the UNESCO heritage sight Kutná Hora. Once rivaling Prague in terms of size and promise, the quiet town now attracts visitors with its Saint Barbara’s Church, and the rather morbid bone-filled Sedlec Ossuary.

Perhaps even better than our excursion to Kutná Hora, was accidentally taking the train in the wrong direction on the way back, ending us up in a random village called Čáslav. Still cold, we resorted to our go-to activity – warming up in a local bar/cafe. A coffee, cappuccino or even water wasn’t happening, though, as apart from being the only girls in sight, we were also the only English speakers. After several failed gestures for water, I settled on pointing at a picture of beer. Yes, I finally had some famous Czech beer, and considering my affection for beer (non-existent), my assessment was that it tasted like….beer.

Yep, Prague surprised us alright. Sure it was gorgeous, the people were lovely, the food was tasty, and the beer was, well, famous, or something. But making the experience that much better was the fact that we could bop around the city as we pleased without feeling like we were hemorrhaging cash. I’m glad that not doing my homework paid off – literally – this time around.

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April 3, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I found love in Catalonia – in the colorful hanging buildings of Girona, inside the quirky walls of Dalí’s house in Cadaqués, and while tip-toeing across river stepping stones in Besalú. But my biggest Catalonian love? The calçot.

The Catalonia region claims cuisine fame for many things: pan con tomate (bread with tomato), crema catalana (similar to crème brulee), the sparkling wine cava and, sure enough, a special little onion called a calçot. With their long green shoots and wiry roots, they look an awful lot like leeks or oddly monstrous green onions.

Sure, so you’re thinking, big deal, Tortuga – I’ll see you your gigantic special green onions and raise you some organic jicama from Whole Foods, or something. Ah, but there’s so much more to a calçot than just simple, giant oniony goodness. This is because a calcot’s future is so much more exciting than that of your typical grocery store produce.

The special-ness takes place during early winter and late spring, when the famous veggie comes into season. Since the onions are so fabulous, Catalonians often partake in a proper gastro celebration, called a calçotada – a feast filled with wine and food, but mostly mass quantities of calçots.

They start by spearing loads of the stalky green onions onto a wire, like a necklace, before draping the creation over a blazing fire. The exterior layer chars on one side for a few minutes, before getting flopped over to the other side. Wrapped up newspaper, the calçots stay warm, while strand after strand of vegetables has its turn above the flames.

At the table, hungry mouths water while sleeves get pulled up, ready for the impending mess. After all, they won’t be eaten tidily with forks and knives, but rather by hand. You see, to get to the sweet interior, one must pop the bottom off, then slowly peel away the outer layer with care. Holding the calçot by the green stalk, the tender tip is then dunked in a bowl of romesco sauce – a fire-colored concoction made of bell pepper, garlic, olive oil and nuts like almonds, pine nuts or hazel nuts. Honestly, everything at the table (at least my table) ends up getting dunked in that amazing sauce – bread, spoons, fingers – it’s that good.

Peeled and doused in romesco, it’s time to dangle the calçot above your mouth, noshing away at the toasty sweet bottom portion, just up until the green part begins. Then you repeat the process again….and again…and again, because it’s amazing, and even better, it’s crazy healthy, so there’s no logical reason not to eat these things like you’ll never have another meal for the rest of your life. Truly.

The only tragic part about this whole experience is that I feel as though there is a pre- and post-calçotada aspect to my life these days. Now, whenever I see anything resembling a calçot at the store, I get really excited, thinking it’s my beloved onion. But not only is not a calçot, but even if it were, I can’t quite see myself whipping up a bonfire on a Madrid sidewalk in order to get my calçotada on. Although…..I’m totally not above that….

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

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

Pueblos, rivers, art, bla bla bla. Let’s get to the really important stuff: the Catalán food. Am I right?

Remember that first day in Girona? We schlepped up, down and all around town. I adored that city, but wow it made me hungry. And thank goodness for that because, unbeknown to me, a nine-course meal awaited. Allow me to share with you the highlight of that lovely dinner: this little treasure on a plate below.

See, I’ve never liked artichokes. On several occasions I’ve re-tried them, convinced that I’ve been mistaken – after all, they seem like something I should like. But alas, every time I give them another chance, my taste buds say no. This time, however, a tender artichoke heart resting on a bed of sweet sobressada (a Catalonian sausage often served as a spread), finally seduced me into not just liking the once off-limits veggie, but falling passionately in love with it. I rode that artichoke-high through all nine plates – from the deconstructed tortilla española, to the jamón ravioli, and fusion patatas bravas.

I rose the following morning still dangerously full from the night before. But one overcomes such obstacles when faced with a giant brick of sugar-encrusted bread, called coca. Tell me who could possibly resist this? I wanted to nestle it under my arm and gnaw away at the squishy dough for the rest of the day (I didn’t, but I seriously thought about it).

Still digesting the coca (and plotting how to get my hands on another baguette), we arrived at a bodega-topped mountain blanketed with rows upon rows of dry vines. The sun blazed outside and a fire blazed inside, where we feasted on homemade butifarra (Catalonian sausage), anchovy pinchos, pan con tomate (bread with tomato), and a steaming stew of alubias blancas (white beans), all washed down with a range of wine from the Martín Faixó vineyards that surrounded us. Good thing we were up on a hill because really, after that meal, I just needed to be rolled back home.

At this point, I’d probably already done enough feasting to last me until early fall, but low and behold, another massive meal was in store – dinner by chef Lee Pennington at our hilltop villa in Cadaqués. Among the favorites: toothpick-pierced cubes of membrillo (similar to jam) and queso fresco (a light cheese), and a dessert of chocolate truffles made with olives (sounds weird, but it was all sorts of delicious).

A tortilla española here, a paella there, and a few days later the gastro madness came to a close. But not before snacking on these little pastries below – one of which was even filled – yes FILLED – with chocolate.

Oh yeah, and one more culinary adventure still remains – the famous calçotada and all its onion-burning glory….but you’ll still have to wait to hear more about that.

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

March 6, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I departed Girona feeling like I’d left a piece of my heart behind, but it was time to move on to our next destination: Cadaqués. The journey wouldn’t be easy, though, requiring a twisty turny drive up and over the mountains to the secluded fishermen villages at their base.

Cadaques shoreline

Stomachs all topsy-turvy, we arrived in Cadaqués, its cluster of villages, and our ludicrously glamorous villa (no joke – details in a future post!). The area is indeed so remote that until only about a century ago – when the curvy highway was constructed – people living there were virtually isolated from the rest of the region. As our tour guide would later tell me, her grandfather knew Cuba (by boat, of course), long before he ever knew Figueres – a city just over 20 miles way. This also apparently explains why the area maintains a rather distinctly strong Catalán accent. Just a few little nuggets of odd goodness hinting at Cadaqués’s charming peculiarity.

An egg and a view from Dali's house

And peculiarity is an understatement, because nearby Portlligat claims bragging rights as Salvador Dalí’s home from 1930 until he passed away in 1989. Only made available to the public in 1997, his house serves as the ultimate peek into the artist’s imagination. A Mr. T-style taxidermied polar bear, a slew of mannequins, and eggs, lots of eggs. I decided that I really liked this fellow Dalí. He was quirky, but measured, goofy, but pulled-together…and dude, he had a pretty sweet pad.

bear in dali's house

Manquins in Dali's house

With our minds caught somewhere between reality and surreality, we took a little drive up to the cliffs of Cap de Creus. Perched above the Mediterranean Sea, we sat at a cafe to sip on cappuccinos and nosh on the region’s champagne-cork-shaped pastry, called taps dolços, before heading back for a tour of the city.

Taps dolços

Tour guide in tow, we traversed the alleys of Cadaqués, oohing over the white buildings with blue doors, and ahhing over the zigs and zags of the slate-cobbled streets. Another fun Cadaqués fact: nearly an estimated third of its population emigrated to Cuba in the early 20th century. The successful ones that returned then erected dazzling homes, which to this day still stand out among the rest (pause and imagine a fancy house, as I don’t happen to have a decent picture – oops!)

cadaques street

The next morning, I rose early for a run, to somehow mentally justify the feast the night before (yes, there was another feast, and you’ll still have to wait to hear about it!). After weaving through olive orchards, around a cemetery and over the hill into Cadaqués, I finally realized my captivation with the rising sun was impeding any effort to actually burn calories (plus, let’s be honest, running kind of sucks).

So I returned to the pebbly shoreline of Portlligat, where I plopped down on the cement embankment, dangling my sneakers just above the calm shallow water. With Dalí’s house just feet behind me, I turned off my music and listened to the sound of the sunrise. Water lapping, a breeze rustling through Dalí’s olive trees, my thoughts fading off somewhere in the distance. Sigh…my heart skipped a beat….I totally had a crush on Cadaqués.

Dali house at sunrise

Too bad one more rendezvous awaited. The next day, it was off to Besalú.

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

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