Feasting and tasting in Catalunya

If you’re planning a gastronomic foray any time soon, consider Catalunya (or Catalonia as we Anglos persist in calling it). It’s one of Spain’s foodiest regions, right up there with the Basque Country. It also has wine (unlike the Basque Country, which has Txakoli), ranging from over-hyped, over-priced Priorat  to decently made drops from indigenous and international varieties, both red and white, at affordable prices.

My most recent article in Decanter, January issue, is about wine travel in Catalunya and gives an overview of the region’s multiple charms, with thumbnail sketches of selected wineries, plus where to stay and where to eat. As with any article, I always seem to have loads of great surplus material that I have to steel myself to excise, for lack of space. Top of my list of surplus stuff in this instance were two places I’d love to have given more air time to: Restaurant U in Les Gunyoles d’Avinyonet in the heart of the Penedès wine-growing district (home of cava), and winery Mas Candí (website in Catalan only) in the same village.

I admit I approached Restaurant U with some trepidation. Local folks, including wine growers and our hosts at the delightful B&B Cal Mestre in Les Gunyoles, had vaguely mentioned ‘medieval cuisine’. I had visions of troubadors blowing trumpets and oxen on spits. A visit to the resto’s website (dark and brooding and inscrutable) didn’t increase my confidence. Thank goodness I listened to Nico James (www.nicojames.es), a wine expert in the Penedès region, who organised and booked a lunch for us.

We were met out in the road by beaming chef-patron Raimón Olivella  – just as well, for the restaurant is cunningly concealed in a narrow residential street just across from the village recycling bins and doesn’t really look like a restaurant at all (in fact it’s his home). Raimón ushered us in (we were the only guests, this being Monday when he’s usually closed), we unfurled napkins and waited expectantly, even a tad nervously.

To my relief, of medieval there was little trace – certainly no minstrels or meats on the spit – just a scorching litany of dishes that made this one of the best meals we had in the entire two week trip – actually, make that one of the best of 2011. Between each plate – a tiny smoked sardine with quince paste and honey reduction, a rustic-chic triangle of yeasty pastry with goat’s cheese on a rocket salad, lollipops of two fat prawns curled up together yin-yang style and impaled on sticks with a drizzle of soja and rocket oil, an escabeche of partridge en salade with toasted pine nuts, a perfectly cooked piece of firm hake set on a stack of wok-fried veggies, a mercifully small piece of boned baby lamb cooked 5 hours in a cool oven with a castle of pumpkin and baby onions and red wine sauce – Raimón appeared from the kitchen to explain and introduce his creations. The only dish with any kind of medieval pretensions was the pudding, a gooey cake that felt like it was made of chocolate but was actually from [pre-Colombian] carob.

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Raimón also introduced us to the wines of Mas Candí, a young winery just down the road founded in 2006 by four likeminded mates: Ramón Jané, Ramón Galimany, Toni Carbo and Mercè Cuscó. All four own vines in the vicinity, all have day jobs, and they share vine-growing and winemaking tasks and facilities – like a mini-cooperative. Two of them studied winemaking in Burgundy, which doesn’t mean they’ve gone overboard for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; in fact their focus is on resurrecting indigenous Catalan varieties and vinifying them in unaccustomed ways – e.g. making still wines from Xarel-lò, Penedés’s visiting card, and one of the chief components of cava; or blending little-known local varieties (Sumoll, Mandó, Cannonau, Roigenc, Mónica) with Cabernet Sauvignon to give a powerful, sunbaked, terroir-driven wine which they’ve called Sol [sun] y Sòl [soil].

To preface our lunch, Raimón served their gently flowery, fine-bubbled cava, while their Desig (pure, un-oaked Xarel-lò, pure flowers and lemon) was great with the smoked sardine combo. Les Forques – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and some of those Catalan specialities – made a great match with the fork-tender lamb in red wine sauce. (There were others, tasted after our lunch at the winery, but my notes – and my memory – are a little blurry…)

Banish the winter blues, get yourself down to Barcelona and drive or get the train to the Penedès (it’s close enough to the city to nip down for the day) for a tasting at Mas Candí and a meal at Restaurant U. And if you really, really can’t do that, Vinissimus, online retailer based in the UK, sells Mas Candí wines. But then you’d be missing out on Restaurant U. Which would be a great shame.

STOP PRESS: in May I received the following mail from Raimón:

Lastimosamente, debo comunicarle que (espero que temporalmente) el restaurante esta cerrado al público en el servicio “a la carte”. El motivo es que hemos sido padres de DOS niñas maravillosas, Berta y Fiona, además de la “maldita” crisis, que está afectando directamente a los restaurantes de nuestro nivel.

Unfortunately, I have to inform you that – hopefully temporarily only – the restaurant will closed to the public for a la carte service. the reason is that we are now parents to TWO marvellous little girls, Berta and Fiona, not to mention this ‘wretched’ crisis, which is having a direct effect on all restaurants of our level.

Lo que si continuamos haciendo son servicios para grupos (grupitos de 10 personas mínimo), ofreciendo además de nuestra grastronomia, un plus de exclusividad, ya que el restaurante esta cerrado para el grupo. Es bastante más rentable que el servicio de carta. Además, los clientes ya tienen el menú cerrado y no hay sorpresas en el precio.

What we will continue to offer are services to private groups (minimum 10 people), so that in addition to the gastronomic experience, we can offer a plus in the way of exclusivity, since the restaurant will be open only for the group. It works out a lot more economical than offering an a la carte menu. In addition, guests will have a pre-arranged menu and no nasty surprises as to price.

Wishing you well, Raimón, and saludos to you and your three girls!

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