July 19, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

You didn’t think I was done talking about food in Montseny, did you? Not a chance. Actually, though, in this post we’re going to skip all the chit-chat and instead cut straight to the photos.


Below, feast your eyes on the museum-of-modern-art-worthy plates that I ate (and ate and ate) at Les Magnolies in the Girona region of Montseny. It was imaginative and decadent and, more than anything, a sight to see. So, without further ado, I present you with another calorie-free journey through food.



Anchovies that aren’t exactly anchovies, but instead a crunchy cracker-like outside filled with a fishy interior.

This “cappuccino” is a soup-style mixture of squash and anis, while the muffin is made of anchovies and oats. Honestly, I didn’t even know that until now (when translating the Catalan menu) — as weird as it sounds, it was positively divine.

Oh yes, that’s what it looks like. A baby scallopburger served with a side of fish and seaweed broth. Exactly what you guessed, right?

White asparagus with a farm-fresh egg, and jamón (and other things that I can only assume are laced with addictively delicious substances). This was probably my favorite dish — it was such a perfect mixture of flavors, temperatures and textures.

Vall d’Arbucies peas (code for “awesome,” I think) with stewed mushrooms. Ahhh, Catalonia and its beloved mushrooms! The fungi alone are enough to make me swoon.

Fish with onion, tocino (Spanish for “pig fat that goes straight to your booty”) and laurel. It tasted just as pretty as it looked.

Their award winning “best restaurant dessert 2011,” called gin-tonic. It was intoxicatingly good.

Apricot, verbena gelato, and other things I ate but have no idea what they are.
Honestly, this shouldn’t even be legal.


PS: These represent only half of the dishes served that night. I might still be full.




*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. Don’t believe me? To read reviews about each place we stayed, ate at, and went, please click here.


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July 13, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain, Video

Admittedly, blog trips can be a little perplexing. All of our hosts share their food, hotels and products with such love, that I finish the trip overwhelmed with gratitude, full of food, and with my eyes a bit crossed. In the end, it seems near impossible to pass all the experiences on to my readers, lest my blog posts turn into nothing but one large promotion. Beyond that, it often leaves little room for me to really highlight the places I loved, mention those I liked a little less, or even provide fair critiques.


Perplexed by this, I spent the final night of last trip dando vueltas (tossing and turning) over the issue. But somewhere between 1am and 2am in the morning, I had an epiphany and decided that I would provide a candid review for each hotel, restaurant and activity (!!!). My goal: To not only honor the generosity of my hosts, but also respect my readers, to whom I want to give the most honest input possible. Obviously, I will continue to share the highlights of my trip in more detail via my blog posts. Here goes….


Activities


El Parque de los olors
This is one of those activities I probably would have never thought to do. I mean, an herbal farm? Sounds illegal. But no, it’s not what you’re thinking. Rather, it’s a fresh-smelling paradise of fragrant plants – from lavender, to chocolate mint (no joke – it’s a variation of peppermint), and hunger-inducing curry plant. A visit will open your eyes and nose to the world of fragrant plants.


Castanya de Viladrau ~ Highly recommended
I was unnaturally excited to visit this chestnut farm, and couldn’t have been more impressed. Run by volunteers committed to keeping the chestnut-love alive and strong, the farm not only sells chestnuts but every nutty product you can think of – from chestnut beer, to crushed-chestnut-filled sausage, cookies and honey. The tour cured me of all my chestnut curiosity, and left me looking at the little roasted fellers with a new set of taste buds, err eyes. Read more about my visit here.


Cervesera de Montseny ~ Highly recommended
I don’t really drink beer, but my visit to this beer factory made we want to take it up with great zeal. The collective is owned by all its employees and is a true labor of love. As trailblazers in the Spanish industry, they offer a selection of artisanal beers and, little by little, distribute it as far away as the US. A fan of wine tastings, I found this to be an equally awesome beer equivalent, and very much worth the visit.




Serrat de Montseriu ~ Highly recommended
Josep is passionate about his small little bodega where he produces 10,000-15,000 bottles of wine by hand, per year. Focused on organic farming, he looked for a good place to produce wine, analyzed the soil, and then started growing. Since he doesn’t alter the wine (as many large wineries do), his creations turn out different every year, depending on the weather and other factors. Truly passionate about what he produces, a visit to Serrat de Montseriu will mean not just good wine, but also a unique look at organic wine making. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to return.


Hotels and accommodations

Hotel Masferrer*
This historic villa — with an archway dating back to the 13th century — reminded me a lot of those that I visited during my last trip to Catalonia; it offers the comforts of a home, with the amenities of a hotel (private rooms and bathrooms). The building itself is very well taken care of, the rooms and facilities relatively new, the land carefully manicured, and the hosts super warm and welcoming. If you’re looking for a hidden getaway that is less hotel and more house, this is the spot for you. Additionally, it’s not a far drive from Barcelona, Girona, or the beach.


Les Oliveres *
This accommodation isn’t unlike a bed-and-breakfast, complete with a few bedrooms and a kitchen. In fact, I can mostly accurately equate it to “grandma’s guesthouse,” in that it’s by no means anything luxurious with its unkempt land and old-school decor, but has a country coziness which might just be your thing (it wasn’t mine). To get a feel for it, check out the news report below in which I was interviewed. Never mind how horrendous I look (it was hot, we’d been trekking around the mountain. Forgive me).



La Morera
La Morera is another villa-meets-rural-hotel (apparently Catalonia is covered with them). Guests have their own private rooms and bathrooms, but share the common area. La Morera is especially rustic and, depending on your preferences, this may be both good and bad. The two-story rooms, complete with a very basic bathroom, and beds up stairs and downstairs, are most appropriate for families, or very friendly groups. If you don’t mind the not-so-glamorous room accommodations, then you’ll appreciate the highlight: the host. Preparing generous meals full of local favorites – like butifarra and toasted-on-the-fire bread — he makes guests feel like they’re in a secluded mountain home. It might be far from fancy, but there’s something to be said for the charm.


Can Vila ~ Highly recommended
This place was my ultimate sanctuary — I totally fell in love with every last well-thought detail, so much so that I’m eager to return. The main building has been entirely restored and renovated, so everything is brand spanking new, designed for the most discerning tastes, and comfier than my own house. Combined with the views, the subtle smell of farm, and the perfectly landscaped grounds (with a sweet looking pool!), I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t disappoint.



Rural Montseny
Located in the sweet little pueblo of Gualba, this apartment-like hotel is, well, nothing more than that. The rooms are fairly new and basic (and in some cases a little awkwardly laid out). That said, the beds are surprisingly comfortable. If all that matters to you is a cute pueblo and a good place to sleep, then this will do the trick. The bonus: it has WiFi (as did most places we stayed), a nice kitchen, and a tremendously friendly manager who gives spectacular tours of the city upon request.


Hotel San Marçal
When it comes to character, this is where you’ll find it. Occupying a 9th century monastery, you can easily imagine what the building must have been like in its past life. Not unlike the structure itself, though, the amenities are a little dated (think old sinks and out-of-date showers). If you’re like me and prefer a slightly more modern touch, then you might find it at their sister hotel, Hotel San Bernat, which has been more recently renovated.


L’om ~ Highly recommended
If you’re into eco and you like a good spa, gosh darn it, this is the place for you. It’s a proper, extra-cushy, cabin-style apartment in the middle of a pueblo – a surprisingly inventive concept given the remote location. Masterminded by Finnish designers, the building is constructed in natural wood and is maintained using renewable energy. Absolutely loved it.



La Coromina*


Owned by famous go-cart racer Antoní Zanini, this house reminds me of a home I might find in the American northeast, with it’s ivy-covered brick, and airy-bright interior detailed with crisp white crown molding. The restaurant occupies the downstairs salons, while guestrooms fill the floors above. Decorated like a comfy country home, it truly does feel like your own house in the Montseny countryside.






Restaurants


Hotel Can Barrina
With picnic-table views of the Montseny valley, dinner at this villa was the perfect start to our trip. It offers a rustic setting, imaginative dishes, and friendly service. I didn’t stay the night there, but would definitely recommend dinner if you’re in the area.


La Garrafa
We tried a variety of dishes here that were good. I wouldn’t say they were out of this world, but if I were in La Garriga, I wouldn’t mind stopping by again to try something a la carte.


Les Magnolies ~ Highly recommended
This restaurant delivers when it comes to innovative and modern Mediterranean cuisine – a foaming cappuccino that isn’t really coffee, but instead a sweet-potato soup; a frozen ice-cream-like tomato that bursts in your mouth; an award-winning gin-and-tonic dessert that tastes just as colorful as it looks. All in all, definitely a Michelin-star-worthy foodie spot.


Can Marc ~ Highly recommended
I fell in love with this restaurant, its food and its staff. Family owned, the restaurant is not only run by one of the family’s sons, but he’s one of the chefs too, along with his gorgeous wife who waits tables and serves. While the stone-wall setting recalls traditional fare, the cuisine swings extra modern and will blow both your mind and taste buds. They offer a tasting menu, which cannot wait to try again.

Romani
You wouldn’t know by the outside of the establishment that it would have such fantastically delicious dishes. While nothing fancy, they deliver classic Catalan and Iberian cuisine that tastes phenomenal. If you’re in the area and looking for a humble meal and traditional tastes, this spot is worth the visit. Plus the darling grandpa owner is so cute that I wanted to squeeze his cheeks.


La Vall del Montseny ~ Highly recommended
I’ve kind of fallen in love with this little valley, as all of my favorite spots seem to be clustered in the pueblo of Sant Esteve de Palautordera. This restaurant is no different. In terms of ambiance, it’s nothing particularly special, but the food was exceptional – a fresh pea salad, shrimp perfectly grilled with garlic, and one of the most amazing risotto dishes I’ve ever had. Definitely a restaurant you should try if you pass through the area.


Ripoll*
Located in what looks to be the darling pueblo of Sant Hilari Sacalm (sadly I only saw it by night), is Hotel Ripoll. While the hotel itself isn’t anything to write home about (note that I did not stay there), the cuisine was above average; they served a potato-y confection topped with egg and mushrooms that rocked my world. If you’re wandering around Ripoll and looking for a reliably tasty and inventive meal, this is a good option.




*Hotels marked with an asterisk are those at which I did not stay, but instead only visited.
**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.

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

Seated at a café terraza in one of Barcelona’s octagon-shaped intersections, I savored what we Californian’s call earthquake weather: not cloudy, but not entirely sunny, and rather warm but not crazy hot, all with a sprinkle of mugginess. It was a perfectly odd day, I thought, as I poured a steaming-hot espresso over ice cubes that crackled and swished uncomfortably under the hot liquid.


Not a sip in, and my company arrived: Isabel (travel blogger at Diario de a Bordo) and her husband Xavi. They would be my gracious hosts for the day, showing me a side of Barcelona I had not yet seen before. She jumped right in, explaining to me that it was the Catholic holiday Corpus Christi and that, as a part of the celebration, we were going to walk around the city checking out eggs suspended in the air as they splashed and flopped in spouts of fountain water. I nodded and smiled, thinking surely something had been lost in translation, but eager to see what we might have in store.



Finishing my final sip of espresso, our little trek around town began. The first stop was in Plaça Vila de Madrid – just a regular, unassuming square that was apartment-lined, grandpa-filled, and buzzing with the usual Barcelona hustle and bustle. There weren’t any eggs, but instead graves dashed across the underbelly of the plaza floor, giving the impression that I was observing some sort of archeological x-ray. Dating back to the 1st-3rd centuries AD, the tombs line what used to be a Roman road leading into the old city – now Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic. With the ruins unearthed and preserved, the concealed path appears to carry on under the city like an ancient metro line.



A short walk away, it seemed like my spy-vision into the city’s innards would continue as we snuck inside a secluded patio. “Perhaps I’ll find the eggs here,” I mused, “maybe they’re extra-hidden, like on Easter.” Instead I discovered weather-beaten root-top-high stone columns, doing their own Roman-grave-style disappearing act into building walls.


While constructed in the late first century BC, from about the 15th century on, this site and its peculiar location apparently prompted many predictions as to what it was: an old aqueduct? A monument? Funky patio decor? (OK, I was just speculating on that last one.) In the mid-19th century, however, they finally proved that it was indeed a Roman temple for worship – Barcino Temple, to be exact — which over the years became engulfed by other structures. Temple, shemple — I’m still giving it rad-patio status.



Between the underground Roman road and the secret temple patio, the concept of an egg dancing around in fountain water was starting to seem entirely reasonable. Sure enough, meandering deeper into Barcelona’s gothic quarter, we found one. It bobbed and danced on a foot-high spout of water atop a courtyard fountain swallowed in fresh-cut flowers. Indeed nothing had been lost in translation; the sight was just as odd as it sounded. And the tradition odd too, as it dates back to 1637, with very little known of its origin (creative Easter egg hunt tactic perhaps?).



After my day full of underground ancient roads, rad Roman temple patios, and water-suspended eggs, I finally bid adios to my Catalan friends and my perfectly odd day in Barcelona. I wonder what I’ll uncover the next time I return.


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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.

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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.

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