Could you say no to an all-expense-paid, week-long gastronomy tour of Spain? I couldn’t! And therein lies a story.
I used to write a weekly column in the Saugerties Times. One in particular, on the Spanish dish, Paella, opened with a steamy paragraph about harvesting the reproductive organs of the autumn crocus for the principal spice. The initial reaction was shocked at the seemingly off-color writing, but I was just having fun and pulled it off without crossing any lines or offending any sensibilities. It was a reminder that eating is a sensuous experience, and my readers (and my editor) enjoyed it when they realized I was talking about plants and not people.
Here – judge for yourself —
“Beneath a diaphanous, azure covering, there, lying naked and inviting before me, was the prettiest beauty I’d ever seen. I gently lifted what was so blue it could have been the reflection of the perfect October sky and deftly slid my caressing hand down onto the now exposed genitals. My mind was in turmoil. One part was shocked by the violation I was about to perform, but the other was so excited that I could barely control my emotions. There has to be a first time for everything, I reasoned. I started to salivate as my trembling fingers circled the swollen p–
Before I go any farther, I’ll share the advice an author once included at about this point in his book’s first chapter. He said that to get a reader’s attention and really hold it, the opening paragraphs should be so hot the pages almost burn your fingers as you turn them. While I certainly want to hold your attention, I am torn about the salacious writing used to accomplish that. It’s just that I was struck by the sexuality of my actions as I – well, never mind. I’ll just back up a little bit and finish the sentence, so you’ll see what I mean.
. . . as my trembling fingers circled the swollen pistil and ripe stamens of the Crocus sativus, the autumn flowering, or saffron, crocus. Then I plucked them.
Yes, a momentous event occurred today. I harvested my first crop of saffron! For those who don’t know, saffron is made up of the tiny little reproductive parts of the diminutive fall crocus. It sells for around $5000 a pound! Most recipes call for a quarter teaspoon, or less, so my efforts this morning are enough for two, possibly three meals of Spain’s national dish, Paella.”
See? That wasn’t so bad, was it? Well, by chance, the Spanish Tourism office got hold of my hometown weekly paper and loved the column. That resulted in an invitation to a Spanish culinary tour. Of course, I accepted!
There were five of us, four New Yorker guys and a lady from Miami, all but myself experienced international travel writers. We had a representative of the Spanish publicity office in New York accompanying us, a bus driver, and a different guide for each event or leg of the trip. We were a small group and quickly became close, so it seemed less like an exhausting tour and more like a few friends with an unlimited expense account having the time of their lives. At least that’s what we told ourselves. It was hard work, but somebody had to do it.
The travel was first class all the way, so the 9-hour plane trip went smoothly, especially in the Iberia Airbus A340 600. Maybe you’ve seen the ads. It has spacious cabins and seats that recline almost flat, so sleeping on the overnight flight was possible. Between the Champagne (or rather the Spanish version of sparkling wine called cava) two full meals, endless wine and cocktails, and an entertainment system that included so many options that none of us saw the same movie or even heard the same music, I managed to squeeze in some shuteye. It was a good thing I did because we arrived in Barcelona in the morning with a full day of events planned after a connecting flight from Madrid.
First stop, Gran Hotel La Florida. It is the newest of the David Stein Group of five-star hotels, perched atop Mount Tibidabo, one of the two mountains overlooking Barcelona. The hotel is spectacular, with six stories of exquisitely appointed rooms, a full spa, an excellent restaurant, and a stainless steel infinity pool that is so big it overflows outside and around the front of the building before it seemingly spills off into the Mediterranean far below.
Early the next morning, when the manager graciously opened the pool, I would swim under the glass barrier and surface in the chilly 45-degree temperature to watch the daybreak through the rising mist. But for today, it was a great place to catch our breath, just barely, before we began the first of six heavily scheduled days of sightseeing and eating.
And that is exactly what it was. Just on the first day, we had a bus tour of the modern city, a walking tour of the narrower streets in the Gothic section, a stroll down the treed public thoroughfare of the Las Ramblas to the incredible Boqueria market, and then on to more narrow streets of Old Town, accompanied by a guide steeped in the local history of Barcelona who filled our brains with centuries of information. We saw medieval cathedrals, Roman ruins, and modern art cheek-by-jowl as we strolled mile-after-mile through the beautiful city. The sights, the sounds, and the smells were equally overwhelming, and the people-watching was fantastic. Especially on the Ramblas, where I thought the mimes in outlandish garb were “statues” until one, as Don Quixote in a suit of armor, moved his lance, delighting the crowds with a great photo op of a startled American tourist (me). It was all in good fun, and for a small fee, I had my picture taken with him too. Fantastic! Somehow during all this, we managed to keep our luncheon date with the Minister of Tourism at a traditional Spanish restaurant called Citrus.
You are probably familiar with Tapas’s concept, those little dishes of bite-sized nibbles in all flavors and colors that Spain is famous for. Well, once we were seated, the waitstaff defied tradition and brought huge plates of Tapas as part of a tasting menu for this popular eatery. We had cod dumplings, Cantabrian Anchovies, ham croquettes, fried vegetables, eggs with string potatoes, fried artichoke, fried squid “a la Andaluza,” and the most delicious Iberian “acorn” ham (translated as “ham to die for”) I’ve ever eaten. As we finished one plate, a new one quickly replaced it, and they were so good I ate as if there were no other courses to be served. But, of course, there were! We went on to multiple entrees of fish and pork, and, encouraged by nonstop servings of bread and wine, completed the meal with a single dessert – that is, if you call a generous taste of each of the restaurant’s fabled desserts on one plate a single dessert!
Dinner is served very late in Spain — oh, you’re not ready to hear about more food yet? OK. But, if you think about the miles we walked, you’ll realize we were ready to eat again when we got back to the hotel. But first – I showered in a room big enough to accommodate an entourage and dressed in a room that dwarfed it before walking out onto one of the decks of my suite to view the 180-degree panorama of Barcelona blinking below me in the chilly evening light. At ten, I went down to L’Orangerie, chef Daniel Bausa’s domain, and the award-winning restaurant for the incredible Gran Hotel La Florida. In keeping with the “Year of Gastronomy” theme, Chef Bausa created a special menu around the food of the month. April was asparagus, May strawberries, and so on. We had asparagus, both green and white, right through to the last course of asparagus flavored ice cream. Since one of the regions we were scheduled to visit is featuring snails in July, I’m glad we were there in April.
Our small group was seated indoors due to the earliness of the season. Still, the outside terraces around the pool would be inviting on a warm evening, with the twinkling stars and the city lights far below providing a fabulous backdrop. I had to tear my eyes from the view to admire the restaurant’s vaguely oriental decor, very stylish in a minimalist way, with, oddly enough, not an orange tree in site.
Oh, but the food was there — plate after plate of wonderful food! We had spirited presentations, complex flavors, and fantastic wines, all seasoned with the invigorating conversation of my fellow travelers, the hotel public relations representative, and even the hotel owner, who originally hails from Brooklyn. He joined us for a brief toast to the chef and the success of our unbelievable trip. After our aperitifs, I was exhausted but sorry to see the evening come to an end.
It was like that every day, as we toured Catalonia’s Costa Brava, or wild coast, with different hotels, different menus, and different chefs, all vying to present the most memorable vista or meal of the entire trip. And you know something? They all succeeded magnificently! That is what makes Spain, and the friendly Spanish people, so much fun to visit.
Gaudi & Costa Brava
We were two days in Barcelona accomplishing all that and more. The museums are all closed, but the tourism office opened the Mirador restaurant in the Palacio de la Musica to sample their excellent menu. Once again, it was a series of artfully prepared and constructed courses, with tastes and textures varying as much as the colors. I had the best foie gras there, and my first taste of the cod Catalonia that the restaurant is famous for. Just before the trip started, I read the book “Cod, A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” so I knew the historical importance of cod and Catalan’s significant involvement with it. But even if I hadn’t, the fish was superb in a moist and can-it-really-be-cooked flaky honesty, with no sauce to hide the delicate flavor. Those guys could cook!
The meal was a huge success, and the Minister of Tourism was a witty and engaging hostess. I tasted each of the wines served with the courses, but she assured us that it was customary to drink cava throughout the meal. So – thinking “when in Spain” — I imbibed until I had a rosy glow on when the desert was over. What fun!
Then, with the rest of the afternoon and evening “free,” we walked several miles to Guell Park (pronounced “way” Park – I’m not kidding!) to see Antoni Gaudi’s home. The park itself was conceived as a residential community, but when no one purchased the lots to build upon, he stayed on in the only house and lived there, increasingly as a recluse, until his death. David Stein told us over dinner that Gaudi had “let himself go” to the extent that when he was hit by a bus and killed, the police thought him indigent and were ready to bury him in a pauper’s grave when someone finally recognized the body of Barcelona’s most important architect. He was buried in the crypt of the incredible cathedral he designed, the one whose construction was just completed, and his home is a park open to the public for all to enjoy.
It is built up the lower slope of Mount Tibidabo, with mosaic pillars supporting the walkways, and creating a huge subterranean room under the “village square.” It is below this that his famous frog sculpture sits, the throne for countless children to ride while their parents immortalize them on film. It was fun to watch for a while, then we strolled the maze of paths upward, admiring the plantings and the view. I identified my first cork tree here, where a thin piece of the telltale bark was stripped away, exposing the deep cork layer underneath. The rest of the vegetation was an odd mix of tropical and temperate, with many trees that grow at home. We exited the park higher up the mountain slope and continued exploring the neighborhoods above it.
I “discovered” a lovely pastry shop on the walk up to the hotel. My dinner that night was the most sensible of the entire trip. I had a white Catalan wine from the fridge in my room, with the complimentary bowl of fruit and those fantastic pastries. I was so hungry that it was as good as any gourmet meal.
On the third morning, I had my usual swim by now and then walked around the mountain top. Next to the nearby cathedral was an amusement park, quiet on an early weekday morning, with the entrance at the foot of the church’s front steps. I wonder if people go from one to the other on a Sunday, passing back and forth, seeking the excitement of the service when the roller-coaster pales, and vice versa? Maybe the cathedral is included in the one-price-for-all admittance fee the playland advertises. There was little time to ponder odd things like that because breakfast beckoned.
The typical Catalan breakfast is toasted bread, rubbed with a clove of garlic, and smeared with crushed tomato juice. Some of their great “acorn” ham (more about that later) and cheese can be added, and the whole meal is washed down with strong black coffee. That is – if one is a purist – and one traveling companions don’t mind the smell of garlic-breath permeating throughout the bus. (They did! Thank goodness for Altoids!) Good thing there was more than enough other food spread out in a smorgasbord of calories and cholesterol, running the gamut from fresh fruit and yogurt, to platters of cheese and processed meats, with a steam table of sausage, bacon, eggs, and home-fries for the Americans. Pastries and jams complemented an array of juice and coffee on the beverage table in a grand finale. We were advised to eat a big breakfast because lunch is always served late. I didn’t have to be told twice.
Gerona & Begur
The AiguaClara Hotel and restaurant in Begur was a delight! The impressive food and simple rooms, which command views over the town, made me think of visiting family – maybe in Key West – with all the warmth and comfort it offered. I look forward to my return.
Inland a bit further is Gerona, on the Gerona River, with an ancient Jewish quarter, medieval cathedral, the longest shop-lined Ramblas, and – when we were there – a judas tree-lined boulevard in full bloom. That is one pretty city. Lance Armstrong had a house here for when he’s training for the Tour d France. The surrounding countryside is perfect for getting in shape – apparently – or he wouldn’t have won so many times!
From there, we went back to the sea – where the Costa Brava has been tamed somewhat – with beautifully constructed walkways for miles along the coast. It felt like Carmel, California, only nicer. Here and there steps would lead either up to the street level, or down to tiny beaches at the water’s edge, with palatial homes lining the public thoroughfare. The water was as blue as the sky and crystal clear, and the late April air was warm as Summer. This section of Spain is gorgeous!
It was a long bus ride back to Barcelona. Along the way, we stopped at the Parxet winery for a formal cava tasting and some informal fun with the engaging owner. You haven’t lived until a sword-bearing – seemingly crazy – man slices the top of the champagne (excuse me – cava) bottle and pours us all a farewell toast – What Fun!
Then it was out for a night on the town, hitting Tapas bars, and soaking in the sights and smells of beautiful Barcelona. In the morning, after a week of being treated like visiting royalty in five-star hotels, with chefs of international renown preparing an endless succession of nouvelle cuisine using all native Catalan ingredients, we flew back to New York exhausted and stuffed to the gills, and with a cholesterol count in the stratosphere.