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 22, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

After surviving the twists and turns departing Cadaqués, we arrived in Besalú – the next stop on our tour of Catalonia. Without knowing much about my new destination, I could tell it was already trying to lure me in with its arched bridge and the promise of another villa. Could my emotions handle being toyed with yet again? After all, I am a one-pueblo kind of girl.

Upon arrival, the get-to-know-you session was in full swing. Rather than rest, my new pal Marie-Eve and I meandered down the town alleyways with the river as our destination. Stepping out of the confines of the old city wall, the multi-arched bridge revealed itself with the wide riverbed at its feet. A trail of rectangular stepping-stones carefully laid across half the water like the start of an unfinished board game, and I was ready to play.

With the city behind me, and the bridge just ahead, I danced across the stones by myself, water slipping through the cracks and passing all around me. My first fling with the village was exhilarating, but would it last?

After a homemade paella at our villa (said with an ultra-posh accent), we convened in front of the Museum of Miniatures – a destination that, by all accounts, I’d scoff at with a giggle had I traveled to Besalú alone (you know, because these days I hang out at villas and all 😉 ).

miniature ant on a high wire

But what at first seemed like just a series of shoebox-sized dioramas with dolls, turned into laughter and gasping as we stared through magnifying glasses at unexpectedly bizarre images – an umbrella-wielding ant tip-toeing across a high wire, a choo-choo train chugging inside the eye of a needle, an Eiffel Tower smaller than a microscopic insect. Sounds silly, but it was probably the unexpected highlight of the day.

chair in besalu

Besalú still had more quirk up its medieval sleeves, though. Following the museum, we approached a building with peep-hole windows emanating a warm glow, and a peculiar multi-legged chair affixed up high to its side . This was the art gallery and workshop of Kel Domènech – the eccentric furniture creator and self-proclaimed sculptor, cabinet-maker, historian, collector, antique dealer, designer and philosopher (unlike myself – the eater, wanderer, drinker, day-dreamer, generally confused foreigner, and expert on all things chocolate. That’s my official title, actually).

I should mention that there is a bit of a “chair” movement in Besalú. Yeah, a chair movement – or at least that’s what I’m calling it. Allow me to elaborate. Basically, the idea is that in such a beautiful place, one needs time to sit and reflect, thus all these symbolic chairs throughout the city. Between the chairs, Dalí and the Museum of Miniatures, it clear that artistic eccentricity runs in the Catalonian blood.

chair in besalu

Exhausted from the roller coaster of emotions (Girona, Cadaqués, and now Besalú!), we finished our day back at the villa for wine tasting and tortilla, before falling asleep to the sound of the church bells. Sigh, I was in love. But while this was our last pueblo, it wouldn’t be our last villa. The next day, we would head to the countryside for a calçotada – a feast involving onion-like veggies, lots of fire, and wine, of course. Warning: I advise you read my next Catalonia post on a full stomach.

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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March 13, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Before we hit the road and head to Besalú, I want to introduce you to a peculiar little place we stopped by near Girona – Banyoles. It’s got all the pueblo essentials: a Plaza Mayor, sunny terrazas for tapas and café, cute old folks taking paseos. Check, check and check.

I suppose it’s most noteworthy for its lake, which was the rowing location for the ’92 Olympics and also for the World Rowing Championships in 2004. That’s cool.

But there’s one other thing that I think it’s famous for – rather, that I’VE decided it’s famous for: These river thingies (oh my brilliant and vast vocabulary!) lining the streets. They’re like modern-art canals that kiss the city walls and slither around its corners. I became obsessed.

Sure they might just seem like silly water canals running through the city, but they caused my imagination to run wild. Like, how often do kids fall in them? What about the elderly? And do staggering drunks ever take a tumble?

Being the curious question-asker that I am, I fired off an email to my friends (let’s pretend we’re friends) at the tourism office, and sure enough, they satisfied my curiosity.

The “river thingies” are actually called recs, and come from a medieval infrastructure (measuring 33 kilometers in length – oh snap!) originally created to water cultivated land, and eventually to generate factory mills. The artificial versions – that I suppose more or less form the basis for what we see now – were actually created by brilliant Benedictine monks from nearby Monasterio de Sant Esteve sometime after the 9th century. Neato, right?

And as hazardous as they might seem, the recs apparently don’t cause much of a problem. Locals are used to them – in fact, if anything they serve as entertainment for little kiddies who like to splash in them, or simply let their paper boats set sail.

So there you have it. A cute little story about a cute little town and the river (ish) that runs through it.

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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