Here in the Priorat, the answer to the question “Where do you want to go for dinner?” is often the name of a town instead of a restaurant. Each town has a handful of restaurants that serve almost exclusively Catalan food. Some specialize in certain stuff, depending on the suppliers they work with.
The small town of Escaladei, a short drive from Poboleda or La Morera de Monstant, is best known for the namesake Scala Dei winery and Carthusian Monastery (cartoixa) nearby. The name Escala Dei translated to “the ladder of God” and refers to the dream of a 12th century shepherd in which a staircase appeared before him, one that lead up to God. Angels descended and ascended to and fro Heaven on this latter. The shepherd’s dream inspired King Alfonso the Chaste to establish the monastery and name it after the vision. Apparently, the Carthusian monks turned out to be total winos and they levied an absurd amount of wine as tax from surrounding towns [for sacrament, I’m sure…] It’s a good thing they did that, otherwise Priorat as a wine region might not exist today. Escaladei has a population of like 20 people [if that…] and is also home to three restaurants, two of which are located on either side of the small bridge that leads into the town [pictured below]. The third flanks the main square, known as La Plaça Priorat.
This last place is called Llesqueria La Plaça and has a rather large outdoor seating area in the plaza by the entrance. There’s also a small bar with a TV inside, as well as what looks like a family’s personal dining room. Indoor seating is the option preferred by locals in the mood to chat with the owners and servers who they seem to be visiting and entertaining more so than paying for a service. Foreigners sit outside and battle gangs of mosquitos that flock, loudly buzzing, to the candlelight.
I went twice to this place. My first experience wasn’t impressive. I ordered boquerones that were fine but nothing special, and lamb chops that were scrawny and tough to chew. The bread didn’t feel fresh and everything seemed hastily thrown together. One of my dining companions ordered some queso fundido looking dish with eggplant and way too much cheese melted on. It seemed oily and heavy and too dense to be able to sleep after. I did remember seeing someone order a slice of toast with a crumbly ring of snow-white goat cheese. I remember that the latter looked wonderful and that I had regretted not getting the same. I wouldn’t know until later that these, rather than mains of steak and seafood, are what Llesqueria La Plaça specializes in.
A dish I see super often on tapas/pinxtos menus all around the Iberian is pulpo a la gallega [a.k.a. polbo á feira]. Galician in origin, this is a snack of thinly sliced octopus layered onto thinly sliced, boiled potatoes and topped with coarse salt, olive oil and a heavy dusting of smoky paprika. The key to perfect polbo is to use fresh, never frozen octopus, freeze it yourself in a controlled environment to denature the proteins and to boil it for the right amount of time. Llesqueria does an okay job, though I suspect the octopus might actually have been defrosted. It’s sliced thin enough though so that the little rings of meat aren’t rubbery in the least, only slightly chewy. And, well, we’re in the mountains after all. The textures are nice. The slippery smooth slices of potato are coated in fragrant local olive oil and they form a good, firm base for the tender pieces of tentacle. As I learned quite quickly, the two should always be combined, in every forkful, and the octopus should never be picked off the potato, especially when one is sharing the dish with others.
The word llesqueria comes from llesques, which means rebanadas in Spanish and “slices” in English. Llesques are large slices of toasted bread usually rubbed with tomato and topped with all types of hot or cold stuff, including cold cuts, cheeses, grilled veggies, eggs. They’re basically open-faced sandwiches that are served for dinner as well as for lunch, and are eaten with a knife and fork rather than by hand [I still eat it by hand…] Normally I would shy away from carbs at 11 p.m., but as soon as I saw “de botifarra negra” it was clear what my dinner would be. This little sandwich, served by a restaurant I actually don’t like too much at all, happens to be one of my favorite things in the Priorat. The blood-sausage is moist in the center but crispy at the edges, with the perfect balance of metallic funk and the warm autumnal spice of cloves and cardamom. Melted on is an oozing, bubbly layer of melted cheese that caramelizes here and there into crunchy, golden brown patches. The bread is also nice and crunchy, but the thin layer of tomato rub hydrates it so that no mouthful is too dry. Granted, I’m generally easy to please when it comes to viscera smeared on toast or morcilla in pretty much any way, but this dish was pretty damn special and delicious with an ice cold Estrella Damm.