I’ve said it a million times and I’ll probably keep repeating it until I die, but food is arguably the most important aspect of the travel experience. We all have to eat, so it’s immediately relatable to everyone and the sense memories created tend to be the strongest. Who hasn’t tried to replicate a recipe they first enjoyed on vacation? I know I have, even though they’ve almost always been miserable failures. In 2012 I ate a lot of great food and created a ton of new memories, but out of all of them one region stood out not only for the flavors I enjoyed there but for what it meant to me as a traveler: Costa Brava and the Girona Pyrenees in Spain.
In May I visited the Costa Brava to participate in what was billed as a culinary tour of the region. I’m not a fancy eater and I’m fairly picky in my food choices, so to say I was nervous about the experience is an understatement. But I soon learned that in Spain it’s not just about what you eat, but it’s how you eat it.
One day we traveled down to a coastal town as the invited guests at a fisherman’s hut. Don’t let the name fool you, the modern hut is a popular way to relax in this region of Spain. Most of the time these small houses are purchased by groups of friends and family as a place to meet for a nice meal and sit outside next to the gentle roar of the sea. Instead of a BBQ like I’m used to though, the food at these events is uniquely Spanish and always delicious. More than great food though the afternoon was about camaraderie and hospitality. That was one of my favorite meals of the year not because it was five-star dining (which it wasn’t) but because it defines what a great culinary event should be, fun and heartwarming.
That’s not to say that the Costa Brava and the Pyrenees don’t enjoy some amazing foods independent of where you enjoy them, they most certainly do. Amongst my favorite are:
Ham – I think I always knew that Spain was famous for its fine hams, that’s a fairly well known fact. Serrano and Iberico hams in particular just aren’t nicely cured, every producer has their own unique recipe and method of creating the perfect meat. In response, the Spanish people have adopted ham as their national food of choice, at least that’s what it seems like based on the sheer quantities of it available at every restaurant in the country. Every time I sat down to a meal, even before the appetizers came out plates of ham and bread with tomato were brought out, so commonplace that they soon seemed like a required condiment more than the meal it really is. Presentation was usually in the form of nicely sliced pieces, but in the more rural areas of the Pyrenees great trees of ham were presented, the meats hanging from branches like a carnivore’s dream Christmas Tree. I like ham, don’t get me wrong, but towards the end of the blog trip with the Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona Tourism Board I had reached my physical limit of ham consumption. I started thinking about my next hit of ham and more than once the happy meat product infiltrated my deepest of dreams. That’s when I knew I’d had enough ham and ever since I’ve been in a self-enforced ham time out. But once my porcine hiatus is over, I know there’s no better place to enjoy this meaty treat than Spain.
Pa Amb Tomaquet – When I first saw this at breakfast I thought someone had made a mistake. I’m used to a variation of this bread and tomato small dish with or before dinner and lunch, but a morning equivalent was new to me. The perfect tomaquet should include: olive oil, fresh bread, ripe tomatoes and salt. Then you cut the tomato in half and rub the cut side into the bread until it is well moistened with pulp. Drizzle with some olive oil, sprinkle some salt and your perfect Pa Amb Tomaquet has been created. At first it’s a little strange to enjoy the tomaquet with your breakfast, but by the end of your stay you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
Cheese – What goes naturally well with ham? Why cheese of course. I thought that the French had the monopoly on fine cheeses, but after spending a week in the Pyrenees I realized that the Spanish are just as obsessed as their neighbors to the north. Just like the French, the Spanish take their cheeses very seriously as I learned during a cheese tasting in the village of Puigcerdà. Prior to the event in the trendy wine bar I envisioned a few cubes of cheese on a stick with a cracker or two. Of course the Spanish would have scoffed at this idea and instead presented me with a banquet of cheeses. A combination of cheese styles were paired with homemade jams and served with meat, bread and even vegetables. My hosts warned me beforehand that the experience would only be a ‘light snack’, which translated means huge meal. It wasn’t just at the tasting where cheese was showcased in a place of honor, like ham it was everywhere; at every meal for every occasion.
The Porrón – You can’t visit Girona without trying some of the delicious wines found in this part of Spain. Wine is enjoyed at almost every meal, throughout the day and for no particular reason. Wine consumption is just a part of normal life, and indeed has been turned into an art form. One of the more unique ways of enjoying and sharing wine is through the porrón. A porrón is a traditional Catalan glass wine pitcher and resembles a cross between a wine bottle and watering can. This unusual vessel originated in the middle ages and was used when there weren’t enough glasses for the guests. Because, you see, this strange little glass tankard is meant to enjoy wine without your lips touching the bottle in any way. I wasn’t sure what to make of the odd serving vessel when I first saw it, and was completely taken aback when someone lifted it up and poured the red liquid into their gullets. The trick, it seemed, was to hold the porrón far enough away so that wine doesn’t cover one’s chest but close enough so that, you know, you can drink it. You may not become a porrón drinking expert during your time in Girona, but it’s a lot of fun trying.
What was your favorite food experience of 2013?