Mesmerized by cooking shows since a young age, tv chefs were some of my earliest influences. I learned techniques from Lydia's Italy and Martha Stewart. I learned creativity from Iron Chef competitions. But my biggest idol by far was Anthony Bourdain. I adored the way such a rugged rock-and-roll guy could transport me to another place and time with such poetic musings about meals and the people who made them. So I took his advice: “If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.”
And since then, I have sought the story behind the recipes and ingredients used to make them.
There are many reasons why people travel the world - to explore the planet's natural beauty, to understand history, to expand one's perspectives and learn from new cultures...But for me, food is the lens through which I discover all those things. To share a meal is so much more than just sustenance.
I invite you to take a journey with me to various regions of Spain where I spent two weeks searching for traditional olives and exquisite olive oils you can't find anywhere else in the U.S.
Part One: Catalonia Countryside
I arrived in Barcelona just as the sun was going down. Located in Northeast Spain, Barcelona is the crown jewel of the region known as Catalonia. While Catalonia is still legally considered a part of Spain, the residents there speak their own language, celebrate their own customs, and consider themselves first and foremost from Catalonia, not Spain.
I immediately departed the city toward Tarragona, a mountainous province in the southern part of Catalonia, which is bordered on one side by the Mediterranean Sea. Within Tarragona lies Priorat, a county highly regarded for its wines and olive oil, each marked with their own prestigious Designation of Origin. Wines from Priorat are certified DO Montsant, and the olive oils DOP Siruana.
In Priorat, I stayed in Ulldemolins, a tiny rural village that has existed since medieval times. With only 400 or so residents and nestled in a mountainous setting between the Natural Park of the Serra del Montsant and the Serra de la Llena, it does not see many tourists; however, it is centrally located amidst olive groves and world-class rock climbing.
There, I visited the local cooperative and farm store. The co-op was founded in 1953 by a group of small farmers working together sell their products. In 1996, they became the first cooperative in Catalonia to produce organically, and in 1998 they opened the farm store which carries different olive oils, wines, and vinegars, along with artisan honey, jams, olives, olive pate, dried fruits, and almonds. The slate, flint, or limestone soils, along with the unique microclimate, give the co-op's products unique character.
The area's most famous olive varietal is the arbequina, a small, green fruit.
"Their olives are among the most oil-rich of any variety, with a flesh that can be around 25% oil. Arbequinas make a nice table olive, too, with the curing process imparting a soft smokiness to their buttery taste, but it’s the oil itself which is most highly prized. The small trees are difficult to harvest mechanically, so the Arbequina resists industrialization – thousands of traditional, independent farms continue to ply their own varieties, and Catalonia is home to no less than four PDO olive oil regions" (Olive Oil Times).
The pinnacle, both figuratively and literally, of olive oil in Catalonia is a visit to Siurana, a thousand-year-old stone village perched high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the valley below littered with sheer cliffs world-famous for rock climbing.
The olive farms here are small, family operations and though the trees grow slowly, the prized oil is worth the wait.
With a smooth, nutty flavor the oil of Siurana lacks the peppery bite of other oils. Instead, it has a "delicate herbal complexity – all that clear mountain light and fresh air expressing themselves in the oil" (Olive Oil Times).
In two weeks, ten of us devoured 5 liters of the local extra virgin olive oil. With wild herbs growing abundantly, my favorite way of using the oil was preparing fresh rosemary infusions for dipping with crusty bread or drizzled over gnocchi.
What to Eat
For dinner, we spent several nights at Fonda Toldra, a small restaurant owned by a women Carmen, who only opened if you made reservations in the morning. There we indulged in a three-course meals with house wine for 15 euro. For an appetizer, we had a choice of salad with raw cod and balsamic or pasta with chorizo. Main dishes included prawns, roast chicken, or calamari with meatballs. And for dessert, we had a special Easter cake. We tried a variety of foods in Catalonia, from shopping at the local market and cooking at home to three-course meals at Fonda Toldra, one of Ulldemolins few restaurants. As throughout all of Spain, cured meats, cheese, and seafood were abundant. Our lunch most days consisted of chorizo (2 euro) and manchego (4 euro) on a baguette (1 euro) with a side of ripe, juicy tomatoes(1 euro/kg) and dried figs for dessert.
Pa Amb Tomaquet (Pan Con Tomate): Bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes and drizzled with oil and salt. A true Catalan staple.
Calçots: These baby leeks are specific to Spring
Escalivada: A warm side dish of grilled vegetables (normally eggplant, red peppers, onions and tomatoes) skinned and de-seeded and served with oil.
Patatas Bravas with Alioli - crispy fried potatoes with a garlic olive oil dipping sauce
Croquetas - breadcrumbed and fried roll of ham or cheese, usually bound with bechamel sauce or mashed potatoes.
Crema Catalana: Similar to the French Crème Brulée. It is made with sugar, egg yolks and cinnamon and burnt on the top.
Well, that's all for now. Join us next week for Part 2: Barcelona!