writer & photographer
Published in The Boston Globe, May 21, 2006
EL MASROIG, Spain -- ''It's been a revelation. I think Americans know about Italian and Mexican food, but not Spanish food. I've never prepared food like this. Cod tripe, cuttlefish, mol≥ sauce. But it's all very doable," said Marilyn Revesz of Chicago, sitting in the backyard of Catacurian, a Catalan cooking school in the Priorat region inland from Tarragona on the Mediterranean coast. ''It's very hands on. We come to the kitchen in the afternoon, we cook, the table is set, and we eat what we cooked."
Catacurian is just one of the new Spanish culinary vacation destinations that have been gaining popularity among US travelers. Karen Herbst, owner of The International Kitchen, which has been offering cooking school vacations in Spain, Italy, and France since 1994, says her sales for Spain have risen 40 percent for 2006. These gastronomical getaways are attracting all kinds, Herbst said: parents with children, couples, and groups of professional women, either single or leaving the husband and kids back home.
At 5 p.m., Alicia Juanpere, Catacurian's chef and co-owner, calls out from the kitchen, ''Chicas!" A former dancer with a long black ponytail, Juanpere gathers onions, shallots, a glass flask of white truffles in cognac, a package of veal, jars of nuts for ''la picada" (a pre-meal or hors d'oeuvres), and a traditional thickener, and places them on the counter next to a pile of yellow rossinyol mushrooms. Six cutting boards, knives, and glasses of sparkling cava wine are set up for Revesz and the other member of the class, Juanpere's ''las chicas." They converge in the kitchen equipped with pens, Catacurian recipe books, reading glasses, and aprons, eager to start the evening's meal.
Juanpere explains the preparations for ''fricand—," a Catalan veal saut≥ with mushrooms. She lectures passionately about using only the freshest ingredients of the highest quality. The next night, the group prepares four types of paella. The women are kept on their toes with participatory demonstrations and impromptu quizzes. ''Chicas, what's the most important thing in paella?" Juanpere asks. After a few wrong guesses, the chef answers herself sternly, ''Red pepper." Abashed, one of the chicas mumble, ''Oh, she said that in the beginning, but that was pre-Porr—n." Porr—n is a Catalan wine traditionally poured into one's mouth from a tiny spouted carafe held high above the head.
Knotted wood beams and stone walls are all that remain of Catacurian's original structure, built by Juanpere's great-grandfather. The entire building has been renovated. Even the stall for her grandparents' donkey has been converted to an open bar for guests. Juanpere's partner, Jonathan Perret, maintains the wine cellar, which holds 700 bottles. The sun-filled reading room offers 24-hour Internet access while three double bedrooms upstairs have the feel of a four-star boutique hotel.
Mornings are busy visiting local points of interest: the Costers del Siurana winery, famous for its Clos de l'Obac; the 1194 Cartoixa d'Escaladei monastery; Falset, a tiny boomtown where shops sell local wine. Also in Falset, there are the lunch offerings at the chic Cellar de l'Aspic, with courses including a shot of zucchini soup with trout eggs, fresh sardines, and white chocolate soup with fresh berries for dessert.
In Barcelona, Bego Sanchis owns Cook & Taste where she teaches traditional Catalan cuisine. Her pristine kitchen, opened in 2004, overlooks La Rambla, a central street lined with trees, tourists, bird sellers, street performers, and cafes.
Each lesson starts with a trip to La Boqueria market only blocks away. Sanchis, slight with closely cropped hair and red framed glasses, calmly meanders through the buzzing stalls, inspecting fresh eggs, seasonal mushrooms, razor clams, pomegranates, hanging hams, olives, and chunks of Manchego cheese. Although La Boqueria has become a tourist destination, Sanchis said that in the early morning, the market is still used by all the chefs in Barcelona.
''All our clients want five-star VIP everything," says Genevieve McCarthy co-owner of Madrid-based Cellar Tours. Her company offers luxury tours that include helicopter rides to the Abad’a Retuerta winery in Valladolid, cooking classes followed by dinner in the home of a chef, or a San Sebastiŗn Gastronomic Societies cooking class. ''Spain is still kind of unknown and exotic. It's being discovered like Italy and France were years ago," McCarthy says.
One of Cellar Tours' star chefs is Pilar Latorre, who also spent 25 years practicing law. On the shaded patio of her Costa Brava villa, she gazes at the meal she prepared and says, ''Everyone is always surprised at the presentation." There are bowls of tomato soup with miniature piles of cubed Iberico ham on floating basil leaves, toasted almonds with Halen M™n salts, numerous quarter-size pastry shells filled with fig paste, an almond, and topped with foie gras. Dessert is a tray of lime queso fresco, fresh raspberries, and figs, with a smattering of mint leaves, rose petals, and nasturtiums.
A Taste of Spain is a touring company also based in Madrid that caters to English speakers. They offer culinary vacation packages that might include a spice tour, or the Castilian classes of chef Gabriela Llamas. ''Spanish cuisine is very regional," says Llamas, a native of Madrid. Her professional kitchen is located near Palacio Real and a few doors down from her family's kitchenware shop, Alambique. She continues: ''I try to focus on food from Madrid, for example, ''pollo en pepitoria," a Mediterranean chicken stew with almonds, saffron, and egg. It's from Castilla-La Mancha. This dish is in 'Don Quixote.' "
Mallorca Cooking Holidays is located on the island of Mallorca, and operates out of C'an Torna, a renovated ''finca" (rustic estate) with 10 bedroom suites. It sits on a 700-acre farm that harvests grapes, olives, and almonds, originally designed by its Moorish owners in the 12th century. C'an Torna is managed and partly owned by Mallorcan native Jesus Gonzales Moro, who doles out local lore like an eccentrically regal uncle.
Jay Ciccarelli, an American and the company's chef and co-owner, along with his wife, Annette, specializes in ''Med food," the fusion of Italian, French, and Spanish cuisines. ''What they all have in common," says Ciccarelli, ''is the coastline and hot summers. There is a lot of olive oil, seafood, wine, capers, olives, zucchini, but used to their own liking."
Morning tours are optional, as some guests may have participated in Mallorca's night life too aggressively, and are welcome to sit by the saltwater pool where the scents of wild lavender and sage waft by. For the willing guests, visits may include the monastery where French novelist George Sand spent a season with Frederick Chopin, described in the scathing ''A Winter in Mallorca"; lunch at Can Tomas, overlooking the dramatic coast; or MaciŲ Batle, a winery offering snacks and a tasting. Nearby is Sa Granja, a magnificent private estate with animals, gardens, numerous period rooms, and a basement torture chamber equipped with cast iron cages, a spiked chair, and a low-tech speaker emitting muffled screams.
''I'm not going to change anyone into a brilliant chef in seven days, but they will have a great time," Ciccarelli says. That becomes obvious during the afternoon class: Music plays on the stereo, wine flows, onions saute, and Ciccarelli circles the central table, making jokes, and answering questions.
Ciccarelli cites a previous group of boisterous American women and a wary single British woman as his idea of success. ''I could tell by the look on her face, she thought, 'Oh, no, I've got to spend the next week with these women,' " he recalls. ''But after the first 24 hours, she was totally into it. She later said it was the best seven days she had ever spent on a vacation. That's the idea."