Tasting the Catalan Countryside with the Girls of HAPA

 

In my experience, food is more fun with a story behind it. Sure, a ham ‘n’ cheese sammie with store-bought cold cuts and pre-sliced Bimbo can hit the spot just fine during a 30-minute lunch break on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. But how vastly more entertaining it is to take a bite of something born into a natural setting, handled with care throughout its life and picked or slaughtered at the time of optimal maturity. And how much more satisfying to hear about the life that thing has lived before arriving on the plate in front of you. An appreciation for raw ingredients and the stories behind them is what I took to be the major thread running through the “A Taste of the Catalan Countryside” dinner, organized through EatWith Barcelona.

The host of the night is team HAPA, formed by chef duo Imogen Wells and Sandy Ho. Through what is to be a series of curated culinary experiences they plan to bring together strangers and friends, and to share their knowledge about a region they’ve been busy exploring, the Catalan countryside. The first dinner of the series was set in a dynamic co-working space in Born with a great little terrace and design elements made from refurbished materials to give it plenty of eco-friendly flair. The night starts off with a toast and welcome, followed by an olive oil tasting in the kitchen. Guests adjourn to a beautifully set table to enjoy a family-style meal paired with wines from the regions of Montsant and Alforja. The shared meal provides a great opportunity for locals and lone travellers to meet new people from all over.

Dishes are exciting, beautiful and delicious. The ingredients recount rich stories of agricultural cooperatives, 1000-year-old olive tree orchards, goat herders named Sergi. The rice served as a side dish is not just rice like the rice from the bag you bought at Condis two weeks ago. It’s Bomba rice. In fact, it’s Bomba rice milled by Rafael Margalef in his 80-year-old, hand-crafted wooden mill out in the Ebro Delta. The tomatoes and white eggplants are from Gilad and Roger of Aurora Farms in El Masnou, north of Barcelona. And you bet your ass they’re local, sustainable, ecological. Pumpkins? Those were picked by the HAPA girls a few days prior. (Their instagram feed tells me so.) And the pork? Organic, which is a big deal in Catalunya. Meat from happy, healthy pigs raised out near the Priotari town of Cornudella de Montsant. And so it goes with absolutely everything on the table. Imogen and Sandra do a great job at offering the footnote version of these stories while serving each dish in order not to bombard guests with info and (worse!) stall us from digging in. But ask them about the figs, the fennel flowers or the goat cheese and they’ll take you on a journey with them to the remote farms and mountains these ingredients hail from.

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The olive oil tasting was conducted by Imogen, who gathered guests around a large table and handed each of us a spoon to sip from. As our host explained Molí de l’oli is a brand of oil produced by husband and wife duo Fernando Miró and Neus Cubells. The Miró-Cubells family has been making olive oil from thousand-year-old trees in the Montsant National Park for over 10 generations. Three lines make up Molí de l’oli: Arrel, Mesae and what is perhaps most popular artisanal olive oil in Priorat, the Cavaloca blend. Our group started by trying separately three distinct olive oils each made of a single varietal of olive, a 100% Arbequina, a 100% Rojal and a 100% Negret. Imogen demonstrated the best way to experience the flavors of each olive oil, by raising the tongue to the roof of one’s mouth and rapidly sucking in air past the oil. This process resulted in quite a few strange hilarious grimaces around the table. The tasting ended with a sip of Cavaloca, Molí de l’oli signature blend of all three distinct types of olive. As the group savored the delightfully grassy and spicy Cavaloca, Imogen pointed out that this was the same oil she used in all of the dishes we’d be enjoying that night.

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As we took a seat around the table I was still sipping my welcome drink, a Thai basil infused gin and tonic made with BCNGin. The latter is produced with botanicals found in the mountains of the Priorat and is also distilled there, but sold mostly in Barcelona. The story behind this gin is cool enough and, in theory, the drink serves as a great intro to the meal. Unfortunately, however, I found it to be watered down and much too mild in flavor. Muddling the basil and tweaking the booze to non-booze ratio might resolve this issue. Then again, I like my G’s and T stronger than most so maybe this opinion hinges on that personal bias.

2The meal started with homemade focaccia seasoned with herbs foraged in the mountains of Priorat. As Imogen explained, the region is characterized by well-draining schist soil and an extremely arid climate with very drastic thermal amplitude (changes from hot to cold). These conditions give rise to the robust wine grapes that the Priorat is known for. Further up these mountains herbs also grow, bushes of rosemary, thyme and sage. The roots of these plants struggle to penetrate the rocky soil and to find the drops of water necessary for their survival. They yield leaves that are concentrated with oils, minerals and flavor. It’s a concept as simple as making tea. Add more water and dilute the flavor of the leaves, take it away for a stronger taste. The evergreen zest of the mountain herbs go beautifully with the vegetal heat of the oil. The crumbly loaf of focaccia is the perfect canvas to splash these flavors over.

Paired with the focaccia was a wonderfully smooth chèvre sprinkled with Priotari anise flowers and doused in Cavaloca oil. The wild tang of the goat cheese was tamed by that love-it-or-hate-it sweet heat of the aniseed flowers. It was a brutally hot and humid summer evening and the little chunks of fragile cheese melted. I would’ve preferred them a bit tighter in texture but they were delicious nonetheless.

4Next came a lightly dressed salad of shaved cucumbers dotted here and there with organic okra and more fennel flowers. Clean, green flavors and a much needed crunch to complete the array of fantastic textures on my plate. It was also nice to see this slimy little vegetable outside of a gumbo for once…

5A comforting and cozy salad of vegetables came next, with heritage cherry tomatoes, white eggplant and beans sourced directly from Aurora Farms in the El Masnou region of Catalunya. Seasonal, ripe veggies packed with flavor were sprinkled with good oil and roasted to a fantastic fork-tender, set in a pretty porcelain bowl and garnished with fresh mint. What rang most clear with this dish was our hosts’s enthusiasm for the products they used to assemble it and the appreciation for the environment the veggies were sourced from.

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Next came a plate of little green packages tied with twine. Our hosts procured sustainable, hand-milled Bomba rice from Molí de Rafelet, a hand-crafted wooden rice mill located in the Ebro Delta Natural Park. The mill was constructed by Don Rafael Margalef Bertomeu in 1935-1940 as a way to continue the legacy of his father, Don Rafael Margalef Torta. Nowadays, it’s run by the third generation of Don Rafael’s, brother and sister duo Rafael y Teresa Margalef. Bomba is a highly appreciated variety of Spanish rice, known for its ability to absorb tons of moisture (and flavor along with it). In this case the rice was packed into wild fig leaves and steamed in bamboo. I appreciated the creativity behind the recipe, though it wasn’t my favorite dish of the bunch. The rice ended up a tad too dry and had little flavor, making me reach accross the table for the pork jus to smother the grains with. Nevertheless, the dish showcased an ingredient with a very interesting story behind it and I’m sure it’ll be improved upon in the dinners to come.

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There were also some whole roasted squashes set out for us to tear into. These were wonderfully moist, with a natural sweetness that carried the flavor far despite the lack of seasoning. I would’ve preferred a spoonful of butter to melt over the steaming orange flesh and maybe some coarse ground pepper to sprinkle over the top to bring the flavor back into a savory realm. But it was nice too in the simple way it was presented.

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7The mouthwatering main was a heap of pork from Cisco, a butcher from the Priorari town of Cornudella de Montsant who decided to take a bold step and start a sustainable, organic pig farm with his brother, a pig farmer. The brothers cultivate their own grains and garbanzo beans to provide healthy feed for their pigs on what is currently one of only four organic pig farms in Catalunya. To help explain the gravity of this fact, Imogen shared some eyeopening statistics on the factory farming and mass production of pork products in Catalunya. The information really put in perspective Cisco and his brother’s project. In a region as steeped in tradition as Priorat, it is often risky for producers to operate outside of the expected norm, and the organic approach is currently far from standard practice. It’s also a time-consuming project to set up. It’s nice to see HAPA supporting the cause by making this product their centerpiece. 

Beautifully moist and supple pork collar was combined with firm slices of loin, mixed up with devastatingly ripe and delicious late summer figs from Aurora Farm, Priorat hazelnuts and wild thyme from the forest. The meat had a wonderful mild sweetness and the perfect amount of fat running through it to make each mouthful a joy to chew. Hazelnuts provided a perfect crunch while the figs added a gooey, smooth texture and sticky-sweet flavor to the dish. I tried to be as delicate as I could lifting the steamy meat onto my plate with the big-boy tongs provided. The extra pork gravy served on the side was largely unnecessary when it came to the meat, which was already plenty juicy and moist.

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13Dessert was a lovely pastry of homemade phyllo dough with honey drizzled over the top and a layer of goat cheese sourced from a goatherd named Sergi in Capafonts, in the province of Tarragona. Sergi’s is an interesting story as well. After working as an electrician for several years, he decided one day to spend a year with an older, more experienced goatherd in order to fully master the trade. Although he still considers himself a novice, Sergi now has over two hundred goats of his own that he leads to pasture in the Prades Mountains. Sergi also has his own following of goatherd “apprentices,” whom he trains in the profession that dates back centuries. Sergi’s Capafonts goats and their cheeses have become popular among chefs and restauranteurs in the region and they’re known for excellent quality.

I enjoyed HAPA’s sweet spanakopita, though the layered pastry was perhaps not as crisp and buttery as it should have been to contrast the elastic nature of the cheese, and turned chewy here and there. But considering that this was their first attempt at phyllo, as Imogen mentioned later that evening, the dish showed plenty of promise.

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And finally a beautiful stone serving slab painted with vibrant colors and flavors, inspired by Sergi’s roaming goats. A ramekin of raw Priorat almonds, more of those wonderfully ripe late summer figs, some peaches and plums roasted and bleeding a trail of sweet syrup across the plate, scattered dates roasted and bursting with juice. There were also two small wedges of hard cheese, which I was unfortunately too stuffed to try but which I’m sure went magically with the sticky sweet fruit. The board was garnished with the same pungent, yellow anise flowers ubiquitous to the mountains of the Priorat.

As a former EatWith virgin, I can safely say I chose the right event with which to pop that proverbial cherry. In Barcelona I’ve seen several notifications for dinners prepared by foreign expats (in which they showcase their own cuisine or a fusion of it) and by locals (in which they tend to prepare either tapas or paella, paired with Spanish wine). I’ve had these things before. Most people have. What I’m willing to bet many have not had is a curated tasting of local products from the Catalan countryside surrounding Barcelona. For a delightful experience in a unique setting and an opportunity to share a delicious and interesting meal with likeminded foodies I highly recommend an evening with the HAPA gals.

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