Part 1 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue
by Thor Iverson
12 October 2006 – Boston
How do you say “omakase” in Catalan? Or, for that matter, in Spanish? Never before has such a ridiculous question consumed so much of my thought.
And I really, really wish they’d let people – like, say, me – bring deodorant on the plane.
But will I be able to get myself to the hotel? What if the luggage is mishandled and I can’t speak to anyone? What if…?
No. No time for worry now. I need sleep…
12 October 2006 – somewhere over the Atlantic
Given all the things we’ll do on this trip, my excitement is oddly ordered. I’m most intrigued by the new destinations, both urban and rural. Food is a major focus. But while wine has certainly played a role in the general shape of our itinerary, I’m strangely unmoved by it. Unanticipatory. No more than a day or two over two and a half weeks are promised to the dedicated pursuit of wine knowledge. That’s…unusual, for me.
And certainly, no wine knowledge is being imparted here, on British Airways. This is an airline I quite like, and the food – even in steerage – is usually tasty, in context. Today it’s beef, lasagna, salad, cheese and chocolate cheesecake, plus some trimmings. Oh, and wine. Or rather: “wine.”
Despagne “Château Tour de Mirambeau” 2005 Bordeaux Blanc (Bordeaux) – Tart green grass and underripe green apple with a plastic finish. Yuck.
And there’s another problem, too. Since departure, I’ve known that my seatmates are going to be an issue. The woman next to me is uncomfortable, and keeps stretching, half-standing and wiggling, each time poking me with her elbow or rubbing me with her sweaty, flabby triceps. And, of course, she feels that I’m deeply interested in her medical history. She also seems like a nervous traveler. Further, despite my attempts to show her how to use her armrest media control, she keeps thumping and pushing at her view screen, trying to change the channel or volume; a half-dozen irritated stares from the lady in the seat that she keeps jostling do nothing to stop her. Next to her, however, is someone far worse.
Now look: I try to be understanding of buffoonery. We’ve all been there, in some sense and at one time or another. But my tolerance decreases as the volume increases. And in any case, I definitely have my limits. Which this guy – I think he’s the annoying woman’s husband, but I don’t care enough to ask – reaches and passes within minutes of takeoff. Everything he says is repeated…not once, not twice, but at least three times. Sometimes many more. And at top volume, too.
The absolute nadir comes during dinner service, when he chooses sparkling wine (some kind of sekt, I think) as his apéritif, decides he doesn’t like it as-is, and asks for one of those tiny bottles of Cognac when the beverage carts return. He announces that he’s going to mix it with his sekt (which, of course, he calls Champagne). And here is what the rest of us in the cabin are treated to: “I’m going to mix my Champagne and my Cognac. I’m going to mix Cognac and Champagne. I’m putting Cognac in my Champagne. Cognac in my Champagne. I’m having Champagne and Cognac.” A pause. “This is Champagne and Cognac. I’ve got Cognac in my Champagne.” He sips, and with the apparent tolerance of a gnat, gets rapidly drunk, slurring his words and doubling his volume. “ChampagneandCognac. There’sh Cognac in my Shampagne. Hey, y’should try thish. Cognac in the Shhhhampagne. Hey…hey…get some Champagne. Put thish Cognac in it. It’sh Cognac and Champagne.”
And so it goes, for a good forty-five minutes, until everyone has been individually informed of his mixology, then reminded, and then reminded yet again. I speculatively eye the emergency door release a few feet away, considering how I could get him near the door without trouble from the crew. Would the explosive decompression be worth it? It’d probably be quieter.
A flight attendant, apparently sympathetic to my plight, loads me up with extra wine. It’s a mixed blessing, to be sure, but she’s at least trying.
Sichel “Prieur des Jacobins” 2004 Bordeaux “Les Jalles” (Bordeaux) – Green, ultra-shy canned black cherries. Slightly bitter. This is as boring as a wine can possibly be.
I finally manage a bit of sleep, as the C&C guy slurs his way into alcoholic slumber and the twitchy woman next to me loses feeling in her legs and collapses within the boundaries of her seat. I wake to mediocre breakfast pastries and surprising silence from my seatmates. Have they been gagged or otherwise tranquilized? Because that would be most helpful.
13 October 2006 – Heathrow Airport, London
Pre-dawn Heathrow is a cold, heartless shuttling of multicolored masses from one enclosed metal tube to another. Yellow and black signs with arrows point, and point, and point, until anyone with claustrophobia would be tearing their hair…finally disgorging their human refuse into long queues with no clear direction for continuance on display. A security gate, a passport check…and then more tubes, signs and arrows, this time punctuated with escalators and elevators. And still, absolutely no indication of where I must be to catch my connection. This terminal? Another? Given the long transits involved, it matters, and I’d really like to know.
Finally, a helpful sign. People crowd around, scanning. It takes a while…Heathrow’s a big airport…and here’s the dismaying news: I have to change terminals. I check the clock. It’s going to be a close thing.
Down stairs. Along endless hallways. Up stairs. Through another gate. Into another queue, waiting for a bus that just seems to sit there with doors closed. Then a long and crushed stand on the bus, through tunnels and featureless grey access roads, turning and turning and turning again. Will it ever get to the new terminal? It does, fifteen minutes later. More halls. Another escalator. Another security queue. And then…finally…civilization. Stores, just opening for the morning. The smell of coffee. But where are the planes? My scheduled departure is in twenty-five minutes, but the overhead signs still provide no gate information for my flight. Yet they say that a trip to the most remote of the gates in this terminal will take twenty minutes? Is this reasonable? What if I were infirm?
Still feeling a back-of-the-head buzz of uncertainty, one now amplified by the stress of intra-airport commuting, I buy a tiny English-Spanish dictionary. It’s gotta be useful, right?
13 October 2006 – somewhere over France
At long last, difference. Of late, our travel has been in a bit of a rut: France, New Zealand, California, France, California, New Zealand, etc. France has long been warmly familiar, New Zealand is like a second home…and California is like a second home on which we cannot afford the taxes or maintenance. But one first notices that difference in the faces. Are they darker? Swarthier? More Mediterranean, but reaching farther around the circumference of that fabled Old World sea? They don’t look Sicilian, though. And they don’t look much like their South and Central American descendants, either. They’re…well, they’re different.
Oddly, this thought helps the stress recede. It’s the truly unknown that terrifies. “Different” is, for me, a sort of synonym for “intriguing.” And anyway, despite the faces, everything else is the same. Businessmen (and women) in suits, clacking away laptops. The morning paper (in three languages). A cheese panini, fresh fruit, fromage frais, and a pot of coffee. I settle back, smiling, though still utterly exhausted, fighting for a few moments’ rest. It’s going to be OK after all.
Below, the frosted peaks of the Pyrenées – their heights already thick with snow – fence the known (France) from the unknown (Spain). And yet, they’ll be “home” soon enough. Just a week away. Excitement builds. Sleep is off the table.
13 October 2006 – Barcelona
I’ll say one thing for Barcelona Airport: you’ll never want for shopping. The whole thing is one high-rent strip mall, and no path from point A to point B fails to pass dozens and dozens of retail outlets. But the customs/baggage experience is relatively painless (an experience that will not be shared by my wife), and soon I’m blinking in the bright Barcelona sun.
Through consultation with my guidebook, I’ve tried to master one simple Catalan phrase that will lead a taxi to my hotel. No such luck. Spanish and some gesturing get the job done, and without too much delay (though €20 lighter) I’m in the midst of the swanky Eixample.
Granados 83 – Highly designed, with an intriguing mélange of materials – metal, glass, brick, wood, light and shadow – and dotted with Asian accents and old Asian art that just sits there, right out in the open. Our room is narrow, leaving little space for suitcases or residents (no surprise in Europe), but cleverly-arranged despite its lack of size, and with a spectacularly modernistic bathroom. There’s also a small balcony overlooking a courtyard in which school children recess and older women carefully tend greenery.
There are slight signs of wear, however, and a quick touch-up might be helpful in certain spots; also, there is a lingering smell of sulfur near the bathroom after each shower, and this is a problem the hotel does not appear to be able to contain. These are relatively minor issues, however. Perhaps the only truly irritating thing is the lack of an iron on the premises; laundry must be sent out, at exorbitant expense. The staff are very helpful, and (of course) fully multi-lingual, which eases everything.
I walk around a bit to get my bearings and a brief sense of the neighborhood, return to the hotel, and nap for an blissful hour or so. Theresa’s phone call breaks my repose – she’s in the airport, trying to figure out how (despite not speaking Catalan) to re-penetrate security to get to her inexplicably misdirected luggage – and I take the opportunity to unpack and shower.
But there is another style that infuses this city, and that is the relentless experimentation of the modernistas. Aside from the old gothic quarter, little of the city escapes the wild flights of fancy practiced by these architect/artists, which simultaneously draw and confound the eye. The first example we encounter is Antoni Gaudí’s second most famous work: Casa Milà.
I’m intrigued. As so many have commented before, the building seems to defy codification or description, virtually mocking both convention and rationality. But I glance at Theresa, and I can tell she’s far less positive. She squints, cocks her head, shades her eyes, and stares. Finally, a conclusion is reached.
Oh dear. This is going to be a long vacation.
The line for the interior tour extends well down the block, and the last bits of fading sunlight are now only a memory, so we don’t go in. (If I have one lingering regret from Barcelona, this may well be it. But at the time, we feel we might stop by early one morning, beating the touristy crowds. How little we understand the rhythms of Barcelona.) Besides, hunger is growing. And it would be close to dinnertime in the States, which here means that it’s time for that great Spanish tradition: pre-dinner tapas.
Taverna Mediterránea – On the same block as our hotel, and given its location probably serving mostly tourists, this small bar serves the small-plate basics with casual indifference, although it can get smoky as business accelerates. We manage to point and stutter our way through an order of octopus on potatoes (an interesting contrast of textures), chocos (wow, are these good), and standalone albóndigas (soft and rich, perhaps even a bit mushy). Intense olive oil – usually with salt and pepper, sometimes with smoked paprika – is the dominant sauce, dressing, and condiment, and as with so many Mediterranean cuisines, it has a surprising lightening effect versus dairy-infused culinary traditions.
Parato 2005 Penedès Blanco (Cataluña) – Simple, clean and fresh, showing citrus and grass. Finishes pure and direct, with a little bit of bound carbon dioxide prickle on the back of the tongue. Refreshing, and before we know it a bottle’s gone. There’s no complexity here, but that doesn’t appear to be the point.
What would be flights of culinary adventure back home are the norm here, and Barcelona is one of the more exciting culinary cities on the planet, but this is not “molecular gastronomy” as it is commonly understood. Rather, it is adventurous modern food with a close regional focus, utilizing a number of the techniques of the avant-garde, but making few of those techniques overt on the plate. What results is a more comforting approach, wherein the interested may deconstruct and enthuse at their leisure, but those who are simply out for a good meal may nosh in unchallenged comfort. While the techniques may not appear cutting edge, however, the same cannot necessarily be said for the flavor combinations, which are creative enough to regularly skirt the edge of disaster. It’s high-wire gastronomy, and it doesn’t always work. (Though it should be pointed out that Cinc Sentits does not push the boundaries as aggressively as some of its brethren.) But when it does, it feels like a revelation on the palate.
Two more generalizations must be made before diving into the specifics of this restaurant. First, the level of service is very, very high. Efficiency is perhaps prized more than it is in, say, France or the American temples of gastronomy, and without pushback meals will proceed at a fairly rapid pace. But all of our meals – casual to fancy – are not only error-free, but a pleasure to conduct, with service appropriate to their level. That’s saying something.
Second, meal costs seem to be a regular percentage below what one would pay for an equivalent meal in the United States, or France. Perhaps 20-25% lower, at all price points. This may be a measure of how much they value dining in Cataluña (this would be but one sign among many), or it may be a matter of tradition, or it may just be inertia. But whatever the reason, it’s a most welcome thing, for it helps dissipate the dollar/euro disparity, and makes dining out less oppressively expensive than it is elsewhere.
As for our meal, it’s a delicious procession of surprises that suffer a bit from their newness; we spend a little more time deconstructing than we should, and not quite enough time sitting back and enjoying. Despite this analysis, I fail to note any of the meal in my journal, other than a shockingly good slice of pork fat with pumpkin seed “salt” that, yet again, reveals how much I love lardo and all its cousins. And there are two dishes (one savory) that employ maple syrup, which we’ve found is an ingredient that seems to fascinate European chefs. We should remember to bring some next time. Who knows what doors it might open?
Oriol Rossell Cava Brut Nature (Cataluña) – Rich and deep; it tastes like red grapes, though it isn’t made from any. It finishes dry and structurally austere, though the length is unquestioned. I know this isn’t a tiny artisanal producer, and I have no idea of how it’s viewed by Spanish wine gurus, but it wipes the floor with all the bland industrial cava we get in the States. I could drink a lot of this. (And, it turns out, I will.)
Pujanza 2002 Rioja “Norte” (Center-North) – Bright, fruity cherries with untamed, wilder berries lurking in the background. Whatever they’ve done to their French oak, they’ve made it taste profoundly American: coconut, rather than vanilla. Though there’s no dill, which is a good thing. It’s big, boisterous, spicy-hot, and coconut-infused…in other words, it’s zinfandel. That’s not necessarily a criticism, because I do get a good measure of goofy enjoyment from the wine, but it’s a little dismaying nonetheless.
Vichy Catalan (Cataluña) – This is water, not wine, and – alongside the horrid French Chateldon – one of the worst waters I’ve ever had the displeasure of putting in my mouth. Note to self: avoid this at all costs.
We conduct our dinner in four languages – mangled Catalan, pidgin Spanish, French and English – depending on which waiter is tableside. This is something that will happen over and over again in Cataluña, and we’re grateful, because otherwise we’d have to resort to a lot of pointing. But in the end, the most satisfying translation is the one we won’t have to make. For here, right in the middle of the menu, is the word I’ve been so desperately searching for. The word that’s caused me such fits of anxiety. And I have Cinc Sentits to thank for it.
The name of the seasonal, surprise menu? “Omakase.”
Copyright © Thor Iverson.