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Saturday, July 12

Spain for a Special Occasion

For a momentous birthday, big 30!, the husband and I booked a trip to Spain for a week. And best yet, the best friend also a traveler at heart and cook/foodie by work agreed to join with her then husband. I had anticipated this trip because visiting mainland Spain was a dream of mine. Ever since I took 7 years of Spanish in high school and college, I’d fantasized living in a Spanish countryside. Although we didn’t go and stay forever, it was one of the best trips we’ve taken in the last 3 years. It is hard to declare any particular trip as the best or most favorite, because like all your children (how do I know this? I don’t because we don’t have kids) each are special in their own right but there’s one that stands out. Our week in Spain was that. Now let me tell you why and how.

The best friend came few days early to spend time in Germany and then the three of us met her husband in Barcelona to start our week long adventure. With her help we planned a precise itinerary for the trip: Barcelona- Catalan- Rioja- Tarragona.

Our flight arrived in the evening so we spent the night in Barcelona. We had a small window of daylight therefore went to Bodega Manolo for dinner and lots of wine. It’s a family restaurant and no one speaks English. The following dishes were notable. Grilled cheese with grilled veggies; creamy and fresh. Potatoes with aioli wasn’t anything we had tried before, potatoes were tossed with aioli and topped with herb oil. Thick toast or water cracker topped with brie and Iberico ham, broiled and cooked perfectly, also creamy and delicious. The salad with fish was overpriced and underwhelming. Shrimp with sweet and acidic mayo was fresh but bland. The mayo might have worked better for dipping bread than with shrimp. They offer free bread & olives to all guests. We ordered a house red wine that paired with the meal. The family serves memorable food and provides warm service.

After checking out the next morning we were greeted by a driver in front of our bed & breakfast. The older gentleman was very sweet and led us to the large van he’d brought. He didn’t say anything about the planned day. Clearly there was a surprise that the husband and the best friend had planned and my anticipation peaked. Jorge said he was from the area and is familiar with all the back roads. We drove couple hours to Abadal Vineyard in Bages. Amazed by the beauty in nature and surroundings I couldn’t believe we were starting this trip with a wine tour and tasting. The tour was 90 minutes and includes and thorough explanation of the local grapes and wine making process; the winery is a family operation since 1200s. We tasted various combination of tempranillo, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Picapoll. The last is a local varietal, tastes aromatic and fresh, ideal white for summer nights, with or without food. Another favorite was Merlot Reserve.

We then drove to Montserrat 20 minutes from the winery for the biggest surprise. We arrived at L'Angle in Sant Fruitos de Bages. We were I was informed this would be a multi-course tasting menu. We could choose wine pairings or by the bottle; we opted for couple bottles. The meal was not 3, 9 or 10 courses, it was a 12 courses! Some of the courses included Mojito, a minty/white foam with liquor, Parmesan Gnocchi with broth was liquid parmesan filled gnocchi with broth, Oysters with sour apple pepper and butter which oyster wrapped in apple slices, cubed apple with a hint of mint and sugar all topped with frozen apple. Foie Gras with pear in wine sauce and cocoa and Sichuan pepper: foie gras ice cream with pear in wine gelee and Sichuan pepper chips/crumbs. False egg white with Iberico ham: mashed potato used to make the egg white cradling a fresh yolk and topped with a cheese cracker and ham; this dish to me tasted like breakfast. One of our petits fours was lipstick of berry ice.

Precision of each course was flawless and words cannot justify the intensity of flavors and the immense knowledge of the chefs creating thought provoking food. I had never tried Molecular gastronomy before this meal and I am a fan. The service is attentive and courteous. The restaurant is spacious with modern design. In my day to day cooking, I wouldn’t cook like this and I wouldn’t serve this food in a (future) food business (though never say never), but I would go back to l’Angle in a heartbeat for the gastronomical treat. After lunch we learned l’Angle is a Michelin star restaurant, fittingly.

Jorge then drove us to his farmhome in the Spanish countryside. The home is tucked away in the hills and windy roads it offers basic amenities and is comfortable for 2-3 couples in a group. We napped for the afternoon and I awoke to another surprise; a cooking class with a local restaurant’s chef in the kitchen of the farmhome. It was convenient to stay put for the evening with a home cooked meal. We learned to make Romesco (tomatoes, red peppers and nuts) sauce to eat with Calçots. Calçots are from the onion family, look like a large green onions and are eaten in March in Spain. The chef grilled and fried them. They taste like a cross between onion and leek and are sweet when grilled, ideal accompaniment for Romesco sauce. To eat them, peel the outer (burnt) layers, and dip in the romesco sauce. We all enjoyed grilled Calçots with Romesco sauce better than fried. We also learned to make Trinxat de la Cerdanya, mashed potatoes with cabbage and ham, served with Pork belly. It tasted of grandma’s cooking; comforting and filling. Also two types of tortillas: one traditional and one with eggplant and cheese; both were tasty. There is a technique to making Tortilla and it was nice to learn from the chef; the key is to whip the eggs separately in a bowl, keeping aside while frying the potatoes and onions in a pan with lots of olive oil (important!!), then combining the veggies with the whipped eggs before cooking in a skillet for the final dish. We made Crema Catalunya, a crème brulee type dessert but simpler to make and highly preferred.

The next morning we had a simple breakfast of juice, cheese and Iberico before brief sightseeing around the small towns. Stone houses dot the landscape of the countryside; prior to 1800s there were vineyards throughout but due to a plague that wiped out the grapes now it’s bare. Rosemary grows wild everywhere in this region. We hurried back to cook another meal with the chef and learned poti-poti, paella and candied almonds. Poti-Poti is a salad made with olives, baccala (salted cod), onions and boiled potatoes. It was unusual and pleasant. Paella is meatier in this region as opposed to the seafood available in Valencia. This particular was made with pork, sausages, and mushrooms, deeply flavored with a tomato/onion sofrito and satisfying. The key to Paella is Bomba rice, no exceptions.

We proceeded with our journey the next day to Rioja from Barcelona. We rented a car from Centaur at Barcelona Airport to which we say don’t bother! Their shuttle operates every 30 minutes and is annoyingly difficult to find at the airport so we wasted time. Once we got our rented car, we stopped in at Zaragosa for lunch at Casa Emilio. There we each had 3 course menu del dia, which included lentil soup, pork cutlets with potatoes and a flan. The soup was made with Puy (French) lentils, bacon, carrots and garlic for flavorings. The whole garlic cloves melted in the soup when pierced, amazing! Pork and roasted potatoes were okay because the pork was bland and overcooked. Flan was covered in whipped cream which surprised me, why cover a homemade dessert in cream? It was good. The service is friendly and the price for the meal was reasonable. For freshly made food this is a good on-the-go stop.

La Rioja from Barcelona is a 5- 6 hour journey with many tolls between Barcelona and Rioja, approximately 50 Euros. Even with the tolls to see the region and visit multiple wineries, having a car is necessary. The landscape is covered in newly planted grape trees. The region has hundreds of wineries in the area. All the towns along the wine route are small with tourism as their major industry. We stayed in the town of Abalos at Villa de Abalos. The population is 300 people and is quaint. The villa is spacious with each room gracefully decorated and well connected for wifi; both impossible to find in Europe. Owner is friendly and helpful and recommended dinner at Terete (in the town of Haro). As a group we ordered roasted leg of lamb, tortilla with chorizo and kidney & livers. The kidneys and livers were cooked in a rich red wine sauce with rosemary and remarkable. We also had beans with Chorizo which was slightly under salted; the best friend, however, liked the dish. Tortilla with Chorizo was a little undone yielding a mouthwateringly good dish. Finally the lamb was supposed to be showstopper, and it was underwhelming. Salt shaker was placed at each table to season accordingly, making it difficult to judge how much each person likes. Price of dinner was reasonable however lamb was pricey. If in the area, Terete is acceptable for a meal.

We visited wineries based on location and proximity to the Villa. We learned many large and small wineries grow their own grapes but also purchase grapes from other wine producers. Tempranillo & granache blend are the most common, full bodied and dry. We found the wine here to be too strong; we thought we’ enjoy Rioja wine and sadly that wasn’t the case.

In between wine tastings we stopped in at Asador Arina. I can’t find the address or the town on internet so here’s a brief summary. We had menu del dia: artichokes dipped in batter and fried, fried fish or filled red piquillo peppers in tomato sauce. Everything tasted great; this is for the blue collar working man’s lunch, hence not being able to find online. Hopefully it will be searchable online in future.

With belly full of wine and brief nap we agreed to dine at Villa de Abalos with a multi course menu. My 1st course was grilled Artichokes, 2nd course lamb chops and 3rd course chocolate, molten lava, cake. The lamb was cooked to perfection and everything I had was spectacular. The husband ordered tomato & avocado terrine with caramelized goat cheese, piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp and hake and the same dessert. He said he was impressed with the food also and friendly service. Dinner reservations are only available for guests of Villa de Abalos (that could change in the future). Wine and bread are served on the house.

From Rioja we visited Tarragona to visit ruins and spend time at the beach. The town draws tourists for the Roman ruins and Amphitheater. Due to the cool weather we opted to tour the ruins, World UNESCO site, before heading north. We found a restaurant on one of the side streets that looked promising for lunch. We had mussels, cod with romesco sauce, and shrimp risotto for him; everything was adequate but not outstanding. Even with our lackluster lunch, we believe the goal in tourist towns is to find a restaurant on a side street for possibility of great food.

The aim in Barcelona was to see some sights and eat our way through the city. We wandered the streets of the city few hours after arriving from Tarragona. We found few bars nearby and stopped in for wine and tapas. Around 10pm, the husband and I walked to Bar Celta to consume more food. Celta is known for Octopus, pulpo, and we highly recommend going there for just that. Don’t bother ordering anything else because many tapas are premade and heated before serving. The bar is loud with locals, drinking beer and enjoying greasy food.

On my actual birthday we went to La Cova Fumada for lunch. There is a menu with all the items and we ordered few different things: artichokes, garbanzo with butifarra, sardines, pan con aglio (bread with garlic), Pulpo, Bomba and sangria. Cova Fumada is known for everything they prepare and Bomba is especially on that list. It’s mashed potatoes and ham mixture dipped in batter and breadcrumbs and fried. Butifarra is sausage made with pork and spices. With the creamy garbanzo beans, it was incredible. Artichokes were grilled and served with butter sauce; they were so good we ordered another plate. Sardines were served whole with garlic & chive sauce. Pulpo was the only thing that was overcooked and not a favorite. Everything we had that day was exquisite. This restaurant has mainted its reputation for the food from locals and tourists, making it very busy (and loud). It is small therefore sharing tables and sitting with strangers is expected. It was crowded during our time and the servers were constantly yelling “pardon” to move around the room. When the server recommends something, get it; that’s how we ended up with artichokes. They don’t take reservations so get there early and put your name on the waitlist. We had a 45 minute wait. They are only open for lunch and close the door at 3pm, no special requests. The food and attentive service are the only reason it’s always busy.

That night’s dinner was at Bodega Manolo because we knew it’d be good. In addition to some of the same items, we tried new ones. Everything was impressive, again.

On our final full day we visited the Picasso museum. If art is of an interest, Picasso museum is a must. Then us ladies headed to Chocolate museum for a tasty tour. Hoping to see most of the sights that day we walked to Parc Guell and Gaudi’s creation. Both are unique and an artistic expression of an architect. We walked to La Sagrada Familia and upon seeing the lines we photographed the church from the outside and left. After the visits, we headed to dinner hoping to find a restaurant on my list. One was closed but in one of the street squares we saw smoke and smelled grilling. We stumbled into a neighborhood Calçots festival, by sight and smell. They were serving grilled Calçots, romesco sauce, baguette, sausages, and wine for 12 Euros. The festival had high top bar tables for people to eat while standing; some brought their own lawn chairs. It was fun to enjoy this open festival in the middle of the city. For “dessert” everyone got an orange.

The best friend and I made time to visit two markets in the city. Boqueria is the famous one with many tourists photographing the food. Although touristy, it is nice to wander and see Spanish products on display. The other market was relaxed and full of locals buying food for the evening. We bought olive oil, garbanzos and chorizo at the second market. For an authentic experience, visit one of the lesser known (to tourists) markets; I hear the prices are lower than at Boqueria.

This entire trip proved that Spanish people are warm and accommodating; and the culture lends itself to good natured and likeable people. That week we fulfilled our goal to eat well. I am grateful for a husband and best friend that helped plan one of the best birthdays, ever; I couldn’t have planned a better way to enter a new decade.


  1. Thanks for sharing -- I am SO hungry right now and ready to book my flight to Spain! What a way to spend your 30th birthday!

    1. you must Jen! This trip was one of the most amazing trips, I may be biased because of my obsession with Spain but even otherwise.

  2. Happy birthday!!!! Perfect trip! Love the pics! Sorry, you have like 9 unread posts in my feeder and I intend to comment on all of them.

    1. thank you! I got emails for your comments. :)