The food of Catalonia
I recently spent a week traveling with a good friend and fellow New Yorker who happens to be a fervent food enthusiast. With only a short time in Europe, she was intent on sampling the most immaculate tastes to be tried, and I gladly followed suit.
We initially journeyed through Bucharest, Romania, and Athens without much palatal gratification, preferring instead to indulge our minds with the figments of history the cities had to offer.
Samples of Spain
Our real sensory adventure began in the Catalonian region of Spain, in a quaint town called Girona, about an hour by train from Barcelona. Perusing the Placa de la Independencia, we wandered past several supposedly authentic Spanish restaurants, abundant with tapas on toast displayed in clear glass cases, complete with labels translated into English.
What seized our attention, however, was an enormous plate of pinkish paella, mixed with large shrimp and prawns, that we saw a man eating outside of a less flashy, but more relaxed seeming, cafe. Indeed, we could not resist, and pranced straight inside.
The menu was only in Spanish, and, rendered illiterate, we resolutely pointed at the paella on the menu. It exceeded our expectations with the first mouthful; steaming and aromatic, it had a subtle seafood flavor delicately dominated by rich peppery spices.
Inspired by nature
That evening we dined at El Celler de Can Roca, just outside of Girona, ranked the second-best restaurant in the world. The food was not quite "authentically" Spanish, so much as ethereal in its inspiration from nature’s simplicity.
Caramelized olives came to us hanging from hooks on a small tree, truffles were revealed in the center of a rock, and five marble-sized amuse-bouches were impaled on sticks in a faux paper globe; each embodied a different country’s signature culinary essence.
I found a course of prawns and squid to be almost nostalgically beautiful, as a fine white powder made from the shellfish has been generously sprinkled over the whole dish, reminiscent in both smell and texture of sun drenched sand on a breezy beach.
As dish after dish was brought out, I slipped into a sort of tranced awe as each new note of flavor mesmerized me further.
The final meal of our vacation was in Barcelona, in a small tapas restaurant called Tapas 24, near the city’s commercial center. The restaurant is in a cozy, bright space, and even in the late afternoon is packed with people.
My friend and I, starving after a day of trekking up and down hills to see the works of Antonio Gaudi, were ready to order every item on the menu. We certainly came close, as we finished off portions of bread tubbed with tomato, pumpkin soup, eggplant, calamari (head and all), prawns, and, to finish, squid ink soaked black rice paella.
The preparation of each of the dishes we tried was exquisitely simple; most were finished with only olive oil and basic seasoning, but the distinctively titillating zest of freshness could not be mistaken for anything else.
After the meal, we were sure to make room for desert, too. The chocolate mousse doused with olive oil and salt was more than I could bear to miss.