With recent temperatures down to -7ªC at night and about the same in positive during the day, thoughts turn to keeping warm, and eating big meals is one very pleasant way to do it.
The tradition of big breakfasts here in Catalunya really started with hunters who, after a cold night stalking (or being stalked) by wild boar, needed something substantial to get them feeling warm and sociable again. So various restaurants in the countryside specialize in foods which one would not normally associate with the western concept of breakfast.
How about starting around 9am with a glass of red wine and some olives and pickled cauliflower, and then moving into the room where an open fire with hot coals on a grill for preparing your own toasted bread is the next step. Once you have the toast made, then of course it’s time to apply garlic, squeezed tomato and olive oil to it as this is the base for the meal. After this you go to the buffet counter to choose the meat you want. The choice varies from sausages, chicken, lamb chops and pig trotters to salted fish and, of course, steak. Everyone prepares their own meat so that they can choose exactly how rare or well done they like it. Once cooked to perfection, the meat is piled on the plate with the toast and a dab of “all-i-oli” (garlic mayonnaise). With a full glass of wine, it is time to begin the feast which is breakfast!
This meal is not everyones idea of a good start to the day, especially since afterwards the last thing you feel like doing is working, but it is a delicious way to spend a few hours out of the cold winter chill and certainly eliminates the need to think about another meal for a good few hours.
Summer is almost over and yet some people have been busier than ever; my 90 year old friend Lluis is one of them. First he was busy sorting and platting the onions and garlic and now he is working on this years hazelnut harvest, by hand of course.
Olives and olive oil is what brought the Greeks and Romans to the Iberian peninsula some 3,500 yrs ago and it has been a crucial commodity ever since. The south of Spain produces the quantity with thousands of hectares cultivated in the poorest soils where nothing else will survive the extreme weather, but around Lleida in the western part of Catalonia there are also extensive plantations.
As part of the wine festival there are also olive oil tastings and cooking demonstrations throughout the weekend. This one was held in the main square of Falset and everyone had the same accessories of either a butane camping gas stove or a small charcoal grill on which to prepare their dishes.
All the important ingredients of the area were being shown off in spectacular and imaginative style from wild herbs, pine nuts and almonds, olives and olive oil, wine, vinegar to season wild boar, hare, rabbit and some juicy pork products.
What cannot be passed on through the pictures is the amazing smells and of course the taste, next year you will have to come to sample for yourselves!
For the first weekend in may Falset becomes the wine capital of Catalonia when it celebrated their 14th wine fair. Priorato and Montasant are the remote and arid areas which became one of the poorest parts of Spain after the lead mining industry closed down in the 1970's and agriculture was always marginal at best.
Until a few brave and visionary souls decided to recover the old vines and plant new ones in the 1980's and 90's there was very little reason to come here other than for the mountain scenery and general tranquility of the villages.
Now it is recognised as producing some of the most exciting wines in Spain, with prices, in some cases, to match. Like most luxury goods, the last ten years has seen some real booms and these fashionable wines were leading the pack. Now comes the reality that from a dozen wineries to 82 registered with the regulatory body there is bound to be a pretty brutal shakeout process.
None of this seemed to worry the crowds who poured into this sleepy farming town for the festival to try the wonderful olive oils, varied local foods and of course the wines.The weather was truly summery and added to the festive spirit. Salud as they say here!
So, to continue the preparation for my Catalan meal with 90 year old couple Sion and Lluis from La Pera which is about 20kms from Girona.
So far we have the onions baking in the fireplace, the sausages are being grilled on the fire and now it is time to toast the bread in the flames. Once this is done we are ready to get the onions out (1.5 hrs in the fire) and peel the burnt outside layers off until we have the soft and moist interiors perfectly cooked. Olive oil an salt are added and we take the broad beans off the cooker too and take everything to the table.
So we start with cutting a whole garlic clove in two and rubbing it on the toasted bread followed by specially grown juicy tomatoes which also get spread on the bread along with olive oil and a little salt and then you can add some of the dry sausage or cheese on top. This is called "pa amb tomàquet" and forms the base (or starter) for many Catalan dishes and is perfectly acceptable as a meal in itself.
The wine I brought as my contribution is served from the bottle although Sion prefers her own from the barrell they keep in the cellar and she drinks from a "porró" which is easier to see and understand in a photo (see photos attached). The cauliflower salad is also on the table being one that Sion had made a few weeks ago with red wine vinegar and consequently looks red and tastes great.
Sausages with a garlic sauce "alioli" and the broad beans follows and by this time we are feeling not only replete but very merry and after dessert of walnuts, hazelnuts and fresh fruit we need a walk around the village to let it all settle.
This meal was not quick at some 3 hours but will certainly be one of the more memorable for the quality of the ingredients and company! Thank you Sion and Lluis.
Image via WikipediaThis tour goes to one of the most beautiful parts of the Empordà region, the Sant Pere de Rodes monastery and surrounding Cap de Creus natural park. When starting from Girona you need to allow at least an hour’s travel time. I always go through the small village of Villajuïga and stop to fill up my water bottle with the mineral water available at the tap next to the entrance to the bottling plant where the well is located. This is a water rich in minerals and one of the few that come out of the ground with a little natural carbonation which is nice and refreshing without producing the aggressive bubbles of gas added mineral waters.
From here we enter the Cap de Creus natural park and wind our way up the hill through the olive trees and then cork oaks and meditterranean pines and heavy gorse and broome (called ginesta in Catalan.) The area suffered a very big fire in 2000 which destroyed most of the pine trees while the cork oaks with their thick protective layer of cork survived even though they are still black and sooty on the outside which shows the hardiness of this local species.
From the top not only do we have spectacular views of the coast, the Bay of Roses and Pyrenees but also the famous 10th century monastery, Sant Pere de Rodes, set in a commanding position where they could survey the terraces where the grapes and olives made them one of the wealthiest landowners in Catalunya for nearly 500 years. By the early part of the 20th century a combination of phylloxera which wiped out the vines and a shortage of labour from migration to tend the very steep terraces meant the whole area went into dramatic decline until the tourists arrived to bring new life and income to the remaining people.
Several of the benefits that the fires produced was to reveal the old terraces on the steep slopes as well as acting as a renovating and revitalizing force for new plant growth throughout the park.
Coming down the other side towards Port de la Selva, making sure to watch out for the many cyclists that use this road for training, especially in the spring when all the wild flowers are out and seeing the sparkling sea get closer is a joy. Time to head into this charming fishing village for lunch sitting outside and tasting some of the fresh fish which the fishermen bring in each day.