Barcelona was frustrating to me upon arrival. Of course, it should have been after leaving the tranquil and idyllic surroundings of Bilbao. This assessment goes sharply against what I had expected, from the many tales of wonder that I had been regaled with by everyone who had ever been there before me. In our planning for this trip, only one wine played a major part in making me spend a weekend in Barcelona. I languished over hotel reservations. What part of the city to stay in and what is the most important thing to see? Now how many times have we asked ourselves that question before starting a trip? Plenty and because we all think we can plan the best experience to be at the right place at the right time. Well let me tell you right now it is not likely. The best experiences happen when your plans turn into a quest and veer off the track. The wine in question is from Priorat and it is called Clos Galena.
That is the story but here is where the story begins.
Having tasted a few wines from Priorato in the past, I had not been impressed with the ones I could afford and was not flush to the point where the good ones came my way on a regular basis. One day a box arrives from K&L Wines and Spirits and Pamela announced that these wines were to help her educate herself about Spain’s various regions before she tested through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust for a Spanish Wine educator’s certificate. In that box was a wine I scored higher than anything I had tasted in five years. Despite the fact I had never heard of the wine and did not know a lot about the region, but I know excellence when I taste it. I immediately started to look up what the retail was on this wine and mistakenly thought it was a $60 a bottle, which surprised me. (1) I would have paid that or more for the wine but (2) I will buy a $60 bottle of wine Pamela on the other hand was smart enough to find a wine that tasted like $80 a bottle and paid only $30. Of course, she has been pretty good at that after being trained by one of the best at sniffing out the bargains. The Galena from Domini de la Cartoixa turned out to be the highest rated wine I had ever reviewed on our blog.
Pamela studied and passed the Spanish educators WSET test and I felt obligated to do what I do best and that was to make it possible for us to go to Spain and experience as many growing regions of wine grapes that we possibly could in the time we had while keeping within a budget . Finding a flight for a reasonable price was easy. Reserving four-star accommodations just as easy as arranging the flight.
Setting up visits to the wineries not quite as easy as I had thought it might be. Ribera Del Duero was easy because we could be there during the weekdays and that worked out fine. In between Ribera Del Duero and Rioja where we stayed in Haro and Logrono spending the weekend in Bilbao was as much fun as visiting any of the wine growing regions.
When I contacted the winery Domini de la Cartoixa, Clos Galena we had only one day in our schedule that would work if we were going to get to visit at all. I have this trick I use when people say no to anything I ask for. I offer to cook a meal for them if they happen to be so selfless that such an offer for a sincere and genuine reward does not move them from their negotiating stance, first I am impressed then I move to my next strategy. My next plan is to offer to cook the same meal for someone they care about whether it is their mother, boss or lover and that usually works. After that, there are only two more options. One is to inquire how much it will cost and the other is to intimidate. In my experience, neither is effective. In Spain, there are only two days where cooking skills do not trump family obligations and that is Saturday or Sunday. Sunday was the only day we could make it to El Molar, the tiny town where the winery Domini de la Cartoixa, Clos Galena resides. I was fortunate that my first email landed on the desk of Noelia Piriz. I am quite sure they do not receive many visitors at the winery and absolutely none on a Saturday or Sunday. After reading the review of their wine that I had written they decided they would come and meet the crazy American writers and if my desire to cook a meal for those responsible for making the wine was something I wanted to do, then I would be allowed to cook. They offered to buy the ingredients if I sent a list. A generous and sincerely hospitable offer however any chef I know would never let someone else choose their ingredients.
Noelia was very apologetic for not being able to be there but, the Barcelona Alimentaria (food and wine expo) was taking place so her marketing skills we required somewhere else. She assured me we would have a great time with owner Miguel Pérez Cerrada and she was right.
During my entire trip throughout Spain as we ate one fantastic meal after another, I kept planning what I might cook. It did not help that the lunch and dinner we ate at DOM the day before we headed to El molar to see the winery will probably always rate in the top ten meals I have ever consumed. Chef Marc Fiba deserves more recognition than he receives and if he ever gets to Portland, OR USA, he has a place to stay as long as he will cook me a meal.
It would have helped to know how remote this place was and that the owners lived in Zaragoza just a few minutes from the hotel we stayed in, the night before we went to the winery. That hotel was called Hotel Bel-Air and the restaurant associated with the hotel was called DOM. They are part of the Sercotel Chain and I would recommend any of their properties as confidently as I would a Fairmont or Ritz-Carlton. Hotel Bel-Air is located on the Mediterranean Ocean.
The day we left Castelldefels I had come up with a menu I felt would work as long as they had a couple of stovetop burners and an oven. I might be able to make miracles happen if there happened to be a grill there. I was pretty happy as we arrived at the supermarket in our Renault Clio, confident I would find the food I would need and looked forward to cooking as we drove to the winery.
My menu consisted of starters that were traditional fare—olives, Manchego and some really good chorizo. I planned the second course to be Angel Hair Pasta with Checca (roma tomatoes, garlic slivered and sautéed to golden brown and chopped fresh basil with a good quality extra virgin olive oil). My entrée was going to be a grilled vegetable medley. Well if they had a grill, it would be.
We phoned Miguel as soon as we arrived in EL Molar and after a couple of circles around the tiny village of El Molar we ran into him and his family made introductions then promptly headed for the winery. Miguel politely asked if I was comfortable driving my vehicle on unpaved twisting rural roads (they could more aptly be described as paths) I could see why; he was driving a 4-wheel drive Lexus 470 but the Renault Clio was front wheel drive and to an ex-professional motocross racer that’s all I needed.
Domini de la Cartoixa, Clos Galena is a beautiful but remote location that has been producing wine grapes for several centuries. The Priory’s domain and as the name indicates, these lands were once owned by the Carthusian monks of Scala Dei Priory. As well as promoting the cultivation of the vines in the middle ages, these monks drenched the Priorat with a spirituality, which can still be felt as one walks through the old vineyards. I was a little freaked out when I saw what they called a kitchen, it reminded me of every commercial break room I had ever been in. They had a microwave, an instrument I will use only to heat up plates when I do not have a hot oven. They had a two burner electric stovetop and two quart size saucepans; there was also a paella pan. No grill. If this was going to be the feast I had planned, I was going to have to get pretty creative. Miguel’s wife and children decided to head into town to retrieve a roasted chicken as we toured the vineyards. Turns out the girls were not used to meat not being an option. That was a good thing because we really did need that chicken.
As we walked the vineyards, Miguel spoke of his background as a teacher at a local university and his dream to always make wine. Acquiring the vineyard seemed to be a right place right time sort of situation with a lot of family support. The vineyards here are terraced and planted to Garnacha Tinta, Carinena, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are ants everywhere. Miguel’s family has been working this vineyard for only 8 years and has opted for an organic approach to the farming. As we walked to one of the highest elevations of the winery, we could survey the landscape for miles and miles. The steep rocky terrain requires the rows of vines be terraced in parts of the vineyard. In rural areas of Spain, many architectural remains are evident among the landscape. The remnants of one such building was on the property at Clos Galena and when I inquired to Miguel as to the approximate age of the ruins he answered somewhat nonchalantly somewhere between the 12th and 15th century. Something we do not know much about here in this country nor do we contemplate. For me, had I not had a pretty important meal still to prepare, I would have felt compelled to inspect them closer. We talked a lot about his winery often making comparisons to the winery I was working for at that time. Both wineries being organic it was a relief to Miguel that he did not have to explain the cycle of growing or the fermentation process to Pamela or me. As we walked back to the winery, we spoke about the different schedules particularly American wineries being open Saturday and Sunday. I was shocked that he found it hard to imagine a place where people would work on those days.
The girls (Julia, Christina and Maria) arrived back at the winery with their mother and the cooking began. We were lucky a new restaurant had opened recently relatively close to the winery they arrived with a roasted chicken from that chain. Now on to preparing this meal I had promised. As I filled the saucepans with water, I did one Hail Mary and I am not Catholic, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. Due to the size of the pans, I had to cook the pasta in a very small amount of water allowing space to achieve singular density from cooking in two different pans. The roasted red pepper seemed possible if I just created enough heat in the paella pan. This unbelievably worked as I blistered the skin of the pepper by pressing it down against the hot surface of the paella pan by hand. I was able to blacken the skin and sweat it, to where it peeled easily. Of course, the garlic browned perfectly and the pasta miraculously was al dente. The bread was rubbed with fresh tomato juice and garlic before being heated again in the paella pan. We browned some onion then put some serious color on some zucchini and eggplant tossed it in balsamic vinaigrette and fresh rosemary bringing this dish together.
Prep for the dinner went well and the wine flowed. At one point Miguel advised his spouse to watch me carefully so she could replicate the technique and Pamela quickly retorted that she had watched now for two decades plus and replicating my dish might happen buts the odds are against it. It is odd that with Italy being so close to Spain the Tuscan way of cooking seemed foreign to this family.
The pasta course was served and received well—good parmesan had a lot to do with that. I think it was the first time they had tasted that particular flavor combination. Probably not those flavors but rather in that consistency but it was a good example of Capellini, raw tomatoes and garlic sautéed like that with fresh basil white wine and finished off with a knob of butter and some freshly cut flat (Italian) parsley.
Our conversations mostly revolved around wine. The girls were amazed at some of my street stories as they thought that stuff like that only happened in movies, for example people actually being shot with a gun. As we left, I knew the experience was as enlightening for both parties involved; which is in my opinion the best thing that can happen especially in settings like this. When two disparate parties come together for a meal across oceans and continents, having never met or spoken before it was a very rewarding experience and as much as I learned, I was also proud of the experiences and the cuisine we shared.
The main course of roasted vegetable mélange with sherry vinegar and Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil was amazing and of course, the roasted chicken played a leading support role. Miguel’s family provided dessert and it was wonderful. Being the consummate hosts that they were we were also presented gifts of a book about Priorat, Clos Galena wine and the loving affection one always receives after cooking a meal for a family. Priorato and Miguel’s family expresses all that is good about the European lifestyle. As we drove away, I felt I had just experienced something that would change my life.
Our next stop was Hotel Balneario Alhama de Aragón, a five star luxury hotel that we stumbled upon on opening night thanks to booking.com, another Sercotel at a middle ages location with natural hot springs and a great restaurant. What a way to end our trip before going back to Madrid.
Miguel Pérez Cerrada and Clos Galena will always be my Priorat experience that I challenge any other wine region or winery to try and match. We experienced hospitality at its finest thrown at our feet as if we were royalty. How much better can it get? To learn more about their wines check out their site. You will be glad you did.