Thursday, September 28, 2006

Visit Bev

Inland from Tarragona you head left for the Priorat and right for the Penedes. The coast is filled with big white hotels and big red Brits, although, to be fair, the Costa Dorada has a much more upmarket feel than some parts of Spain. However, once away from the tourist haunts accommodation becomes a little harder to find. There are apartments and houses to rent that can be found on the internet, but to be honest I found that many of the enquiries I made met with silence, even though I did write in Spanish. I was, therefore, delighted to discover Mike and Bev Powell, who were the first English people in Mora D'Ebre and have acommodation to let. Mora D'Ebre itself is a busy little place with an old part of town near the river. We stayed in Mike and Bev's house there and it was quiet and well set out, with good accommodation for up to four people in two bedrooms, and a sofa bed as well. Mora D'Ebre is in a very good location for the wine regions, for amazing castles and views (see above) and for the coast, as well as the extraordinary delta region of the Ebre river, where the main crop is rice.

If you are planning a trip do contact Bev at

Saturday, September 16, 2006


We drove around vertiginous hairpin bends with sheer drops into deep valleys and found ourselves in a mountain fastness in the north of the Penedes region in Catalonia. Someone had told us that there was a gathering of ‘casteis’ teams. As the dusk fell they arrived, teams of men and women and children from towns and villages all over the region, there to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the local team.

Building a tower several storeys high from human beings is a pastime unique to Catalonia. On Sunday mornings people assemble in the main squares of the towns and construct these intricate columns, clinging on to each other and swaying dangerously. It is a dangerous sport. People fall and hurt themselves.

In the 1920s someone went to Czechoslovakia and came back with a Czech form of gymnastics that seemed to fit in with the tower building, and the Falcons of Catalonia were born.

It starts on a command from the master builder and the team lines up in their white trousers and coloured sashes. Little kids mill around, taking in the audience and the bright lights.

At the base of the structure are the strongest men of the team; on top of this base the layers build up, both men and women, then the young people, and finally, heart stoppingly, the very youngest of all race up the scaffolding of bodies and raise an arm in a triumphal salute. The child at the top of this pyramid is the same one as above – she could not have been more than five or six years old. My jaw dropped.

By this time the mass of bodies may be six or seven layers high, and teetering frighteningly. Sometimes it breaks away, leaving just a tower of people standing on each others shoulders, maybe six of them one on top of the other.

Other towers are built from a mass of bodies and hands and shoulders, with the non-participants leaning in towards the base, steadying the tower like flying buttresses.

There's something throat tightening about a community that quite literally supports itself on the backs of others, with its tiniest members fearless and trusting at its apex.

And then it’s over, the fireworks start, shoot heavenwards and tumble back, and everyone goes home.

Friday, September 15, 2006


I feel as if I’ve just been let into the most wonderful secret. I have spent the last week in the wine producing areas of Priorat and Montsant in Catalonia in Spain.

All I knew about Spanish wine amounted to two words, Rioja and Cava. Then I read that Robert Parker had awarded wines from the Priorat marks in the high nineties and, as I was going that way anyway, it seemed like too good a chance to miss.

I’m not even going to pretend that I know a lot about wine. But it’s always interesting to see what your palate tells you about something you know nothing about.

The Priorat is a small DOQ region, surrounded by the crescent of the larger DO region of Montsant. Both are inland from Tarragona, south of Barcelona. The Priorat, which gets its name from the priory or monastery of the Carthusians at Scala Dei in the north of the region, is a land of harsh and beautiful mountain landscapes, of vines and olive trees, and a slate soil called ‘licorello’. Montsant has a greater soil diversity and its vines are allowed to produce a greater quantity of grapes. In Priorat sometimes only one kilo per vine is permitted, concentrating the flavour into powerful wines. The grapes are the traditional cariñena and garnacha, but now with quantities of syrah and merlot for structure. Anyone interested in learning more will find this article by Gerry Dawes extremely interesting.

The centre of Priorat production is the hilltop village of Gratallops, and, as luck would have it, there is a really good restaurant there, Los Irreductibles.

The kitchen is presided over by Ricardo Signore and the influence of Ferran Adria is evident throughout the menu. What is also great about this restaurant is that, firstly, there is no choice, you get what Ricardo has decided to cook. And secondly you can ask him to let you drink wine by the glass instead of having to order a bottle. So you get a glass of what he thinks will go best with what he has decided to cook. And when that is monkfish with fig confiture, or fillet of beef with foie gras and coffee, it is good to have someone else do the choosing! I think my favourite dish was a rich chocolate dessert with a coconut cream sauce and curry foam. The scent of the curry with the chocolate was wonderful.

Wine business is done in Falset, a busy little town on the main road to Reus. Wine people gather in the restaurants of El Cairat, El Celler de L’Aspic, Hostal de Sport and Mas Trucafort for Catalan specialities and more great wine.

South of Falset is one of the Montsant co-operatives at Els Guiamets, where the young winemaker, Eugenia Guasch, speaks excellent English and will show you round her Celler. The grapes were coming in the door in trailer loads as we talked. Montsant is a very young DO which already shows great promise, although it does not have the grandness, or the punch, of its stately neighbour in Priorat. The winemakers are young and enthusiastic and, typically, Eugenia’s top red wine, Isis, has a label designed by the current architect of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and a strangely shaped bottle with a sloping back.

Most of the wine in both regions is red; the Priorat produces wines with tremendous concentration and power, redolent of wild black fruits, licorice and herbs. And they command high prices. The wines of Alvaro Palacios were on the restaurant menus for over €300, and fetch astronomical prices elsewhere. A big discussion is going on about the use of oak, and most of the good producers are cutting down on it. One of the ways they temper the new oak is by using it for their second wines, and also for the small amount of white wine produced. This gives the ordinary white wines a strong oaky taste, ok with food but a bit much without!

To the north of the region the mountains rise steeply; to the south the river Ebro marks the western edge and over to the east the region of the Penedes starts, with its massive Cava production.

And that’s where the blog went next, not to drink Cava, but to see something quite unique…

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Oxford Symposium

This last weekend saw the twenty-fifth Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery take place in the elegantly functional surroundings of St Catherine’s College Oxford. Designed, down to the door knobs and the fish in the ponds, by Arne Jacobsen in 1963 it is a calm yet surprising environment and it looks as if the Symposium will settle in here for the foreseeable future.

The topic under discussion this year was The Egg; star of the show was undoubtedly Prof Hervé This whose presentation on Molecular Gastronomy, complete with props of potentially explosive egg whites, brought the house down. I have never seen spread sheets excite so much delight. Wild hair, escaping shirt tails, flailing arms, comedy accent, we were entranced.

Papers were presented in parallel sessions so you had to make hard choices. I thought the participants would be an earnest and academic lot, intimidating as an assembly. They are serious, but not earnest, amateurs in the best sense of the word, and there were some fine presentations. Among those I saw I loved ‘Creating with Arctic Eggs’ given by Zona Spray Starks, about the fish eggs of the Arctic where she grew up. It was fascinating and really quite disturbing. I arrived at Michelle Toratani’s presentation on raw eggs just as she got to the word ‘mucilaginous’ and was sorry I missed what went before. Phyllis Thompson Reid gave a clever and sprightly paper - “the Ultimate in Cookery”: The Soufflé’s Rise and Feminism’s Second Wave – to an audience that converted the session into a vibrant discussion on Julia Child.

The food was excellent with menus and recipes by Caroline Conran and Anissa Helou. Egg oriented, but not so you would really notice!

Carolin Young has a wonderful project to bring Salvador Dali’s idea for a giant hard boiled egg to fruition. Participants got into Blue Peter mode and stayed up half the night to make a papier maché model of the mould for this creation, which it is reckoned will take 153,400 eggs to make. The idea is to separate the eggs and whites and make a giant hard boiled egg. I had a really interesting discussion with a scientist about whether it would actually stand up once out of the mould, or whether it would collapse under its own weight. I think this pondering is an extension of the artistic idea. Prof This has however offered to provide a spray-on calcified surface to offer protection. This we have to see!

The people who came to the Symposium were an absolute delight. Please take a look at Jake Tilson’s book 'A Tale of 12 Kitchens' ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson) because you will love it. Not only did he write it, he designed the whole thing too, down to an original typeface. It is colourful and intriguing and begs to be read. I will be reviewing it in a later post.

Jeffery Steingarten was there and although my heart was a-flutter I did go and chat to him. Actually I went down on one knee.

So if you come next year you too will get to prop up the bar with Raymond Sokolov! Please come. All the people that write to me on this blog would love the Symposium. It’s open to all, the place is a gem, so just boogie on down to Oxford in 2007.

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