L. P. – USA – Gourmet Catalonia Tour – July 2009

SUNFLOWERS OF CATALONIA
I can still see the fields of bright yellow sunflowers that cover the rolling hills of the Spanish countryside. My culinary adventure in Costa Brava exceeded all of my expectations. Everything was like a fantasy–from the charming village of Madremanya where we stayed for six nights and our fantastic 14th century converted farmhouse hotel, La Placa, to our handsome Catalan guide, Yvan, and our star chef instructor, Chef Vincenc–the whole experience could not have been more perfect.

Our personal guide, Yvan, met us at the airport in Barcelona. We were presented with our itinerary and then we were off on the 90 minute or so drive to our hotel, located in Madremanya, which is north of Barcelona, in the hills between Girona and Emporda. To say the area is stunning does not really begin to describe it. Beautiful old medieval villages dotted the hills, with golden stone streets and buildings surrounded by fertile farmland and what seemed like miles and miles of blooming, bright yellow, smiling sunflowers! It was like I was looking at a postcard.

We arrived at La Placa and settled in a bit. A few hours later, Yvan returned to take us on our first adventure–dinner in the historic medieval town of Girona. We were so lucky to have Yvan, He is Catalan and consequently very knowledgeable about the area and it’s history and, most importantly, it’s food! There is so much to share about the food, the wine, the restaurants, the villages . . . Yvan took us on a tour of a different quaint village or historic town every afternoon. Each evening was topped off with a fabulous dinner at a different restaurant each night with traditional Catalan cuisine. The tours even included a visit to a family-owned bakery still baking bread and other goodies the way they did over a hundred years ago and in the same wood burning oven in the wall of the building. We also went to a small Catalonia winery and visited with the winemaker and tasted some of the wine. One of the most fun and interesting tours was our visit to a local chocolate maker, who gave us some samples of some really delicious and original “bon bons” (my favorite was the chocolate with the lemon crème filling). After the visit in the tiny chocolate “factory” in the medieval stone building, he generously and proudly opened up his entire home to us and gave us a tour! The chocolate maker gentleman is a collector of fine art and antiques and he took us room by room throughout his home and shared his beautiful pieces with us. We were truly in awe of this generous man. And his home is actually built into part of the old medieval fortress wall that once surrounded the city. Words cannot describe how humbled, thankful and happy I felt at the end of that day.

Oh–I haven’t even told you much about our hotel, it was the most gorgeous place! The owner, Jaume Vidal (who is also a chef), has restored the medieval farmhouse to pristine beauty, inside and out. There is a pool–which looks like it’s been there hundreds of years (very well don’t to fit the charm of the hotel and it’s surroundings!) and a fabulous garden. Roses, herbs, vegetables, fruit trees . . . Just gorgeous! As an aside, while we were in the kitchen one day with Chef Vincenc, Jaume burst in with the latest copy of a magazine called “Cuina” (which means “kitchen” in Catalan). He was so excited that his hotel and kitchen were featured in the magazine and there was a full 2-page beautiful picture of him in his lovely garden. I bought a copy at a newstand in Barcelona so I could bring it home . . .even though I can’t read it! LOL! The photo spread is truly fantastic (okay–I know I’m overusing the words beautiful, gorgeous, fabulous, fantastic . . . .but those really are the only words to describe all of this!)!

And the cooking! Our daily cooking classes were taught by Chef Vincenc, who runs the kitchen at La Placa. His English was great (which was good since our Spanish was not so good), and he was very at ease showing us the ways of traditional Catalan cuisine. Each class ended with us sharing our Catalan creations and a bottle of wine (or two) with Chef Vincenc. He always gave us his full attention, even with dinner service looming each night and prep for service for a 300 guest wedding party for the coming weekend! On Thursday, deliveries kept arriving in the kitchen as we worked and Chef Vincenc was so enthusiastic about all of it–he showed us the gorgeous fresh fish that came in and described everything and made us feel so welcome and comfortable in his hard-working kitchen. Oh–and we discovered that he and his wife, Monica are big U2 fans, as well! They saw U2 in Barcelona for the opening night of the 360 degree tour! Anyway, as for cooking, check out the pics.