On weekends we used to go town-hopping; poking around the Priorat, lookin’ for trouble. Sometimes we’d climb the rock walls of mountains near the medieval town Siurana. Other times we’d walk through Poboleda, Cornudella, Prades, looking for cultural events with which to breathe life into our barren social calendar. When there was a dance, a festival, a bar opening we’d be there with our broken Catalan, trying hard to fit in. Last week I was especially delighted to learn of a wine festival in Porrera, which happens to be my favorite of all the Priorat towns. It’s beautiful, charming and has slightly more life about it than either Poboleda or Cornudella, yet it’s not as far as Falset or Cambrils and thus possible to drive back from tipsy.
We parked the mom van, crossed the stone footbridge and entered the main square of the town, which was already packed and bustling with molta gente. Between the three of us we shared two tickets for wine tasting. I insisted on a ticket each for food and ended up choosing all three dishes we tried wine-side. I think the concession stand folks were a bit surprised at the amount of time I spent with them, considering the event was wine-focused, not culinary. As it turns out both of my companions work in wine so I let them figure that part out while I hunted.
The first dish I came across was a gigantic pot of cargols dolços i coents, sweet and spicy snails cooked into a stew with small chunks of pork peeking out here and there. Each portion came with a slice of fluffy bread to soak up the savory broth left at the bottom of the bowl. I carried the snails over to my companions, who took turns trying to pull the curly little bits flesh out of the shell with a single prong of the plastic fork they gave me to eat this dish with. When it came time for me to dig in, I opted to sit and pull the little buggers out with my fingers. Each slimy, curlicued body leaves its shell home reluctantly. I popped each in my mouth and chewed until it was soft enough to swallow. The snails had a slightly earthy taste, while the pork added a wonderfully smoky, salty flavor to each mouthful. The sauce was sweet from almonds, hazelnuts and what I believe was chocolate mixed in. Chopped peppers brought a mild heat.
As with any food you need to work for each bite of, there’s something addictive about these snails. Think, for example, of the guy snacking on sunflower seeds at a ballgame. His eyes go blank as he cracks seed after seed with rhythmic precision that seems to become a sort of obsessive, involuntary movement. Or edamame. It’s kind of like that. I’m The Rocking-Horse Winner and a trance comes over me as I pop snail after snail in my mouth. My glass of wine goes neglected until I finish them off, all; my companions never see me raise face from the bowl until the latter is empty. The best part is soaking that bread in that sweet and spicy broth, a last substantial bite to conclude the meal.
Slightly less work to eat was the estofat de senglar, a stew of veggies and locally hunted, braised jabali (wild boar). As I approached the massive pot I asked the guy whether he’d heard of goulash and he shook his head “no”. I asked because the deeply comforting aromas of the stew were reminding me of the Hungarian soul food staple. A perfect bowl of meat, thick meat juice and hearty root veggies to warm your bones on a chilly November afternoon. The flavors of simple things came together: onions, carrots, turnips, garlic and herbs such as thyme and bay leaf that recall the forest floor. There’s also some red wine, an ingredient that was definitely not in short supply. Some flour and starch sliding off chunks of potato thickened the broth into a hearty base. The boar itself was very nicely cooked, tender to the point of falling into shreds and juicy moist when bitten into.
My companions and I ended up sharing a bottle of wine with the chef after the festival and he explained to us the process of taking the hunted boar body to something like a vet to approve it before it can be served and eaten. Apparently that savage thang the boar has and domestic pig has not comes at a price, but one totally worth paying. The estofat was a nice cold weather soup which made the thought of living in the mountains during winter a bit less grim.