Text by Rebecca Morris. Photos by Andre Roberts.
Spain was always an enigma to me whenever I would think about its food or its culture. I immediately thought about the mastermind chef/scientist Ferran Adrià conjuring up carrot foam, the horrific bombings that happened in Madrid, and of course, bull fighting. On June 12, 2008, you could say that my awakening to Spanish culture began. What I came to find was a vibrant, passionate culture that contained so much more heart than I could have ever imagined. Now I feel like I am in on the secret of this dynamic, up and coming hot spot that is Spain.
It is bizarre to call Spain a trend, since it has been a country for hundreds of years and boasts over forty million residents; yet to the average American, little is known about the food, wine, and culture of Spain. Having been liberated from the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in 1975, one could say that the Spanish decided to have a little fun. A renaissance can be seen in daily life: their relaxed and carefree lifestyle, the edgy nightlife, and their work hard but play harder mentality.
Hot chocolate and churros
While sipping some cava on the eight hour flight, I knew then that this was going to be the trip of a lifetime. When we landed in Madrid, our professor and local Spaniard, Chef Encabo, took us to get the classic breakfast treat: chocolate con churros (fried dough dipped in thick, rich chocolate sauce). The explosions of textures going from crunchy to doughy to the velvety chocolate dipping sauce was the perfect introduction to what would be the most bustling and vibrant city on our trip. Madrid would not have been the same if it weren’t for Carmen Catalá, our tour guide. This petit fire cracker of a woman sure packed a punch, and her knowledge for art and history met and surpassed all of my expectations.
Something that I really appreciated about the Spain trip was that as much as we were able to learn about food and wine, we also had ample exposure to historic museums like the Prado in Madrid, the cathedrals in Leon, and my favorite, the parade in Chef Encabo’s hometown of Irun. All of these things and more added so much more to the food and wine trip, because without appreciating Spanish culture you are only getting half the story. I get chills thinking about standing in front of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia temple, or as I like to call it, ‘the sandcastle church’. With my father being an architect, masters such as Antoni Gaudi and Frank Gehry were always talked about at my house, and to be able to see their works in person was a really cherished experience.
In the Rioja region, we listened to the surprise vocal talents of Chef Encabo and wine entrepreneur Alejandro Fernandez whilst eating suckling lamb and jamón iberico de bellota, and drinking some of the finest tempranillo in Rioja. This was the moment where I tried to pinch myself awake from this surreal reality, because if there was ever a moment in time I could freeze for eternity, it would be my first bite of Jamón Iberico. I also don’t believe we would have had the same trip if it hadn’t been for our chaperone, Chef Encabo. His connections allowed us to dine in Michelin starred restaurants, be welcomed into the homes of some of the most renowned chefs in Spain, and be truly embraced by every city we visited.
Looking back on my trip to Spain, I can understand how overwhelmed we all felt when arriving in a new city. Without any of us being fluent, we went from the Spanish speaking cities of Madrid and Zaragoza to the Catalan dialect of Barcelona. After getting tongue tied in Barcelona, we were relieved to go back to butchering the Spanish language when we stayed in Leon, Valladolid, and Logroño. Then after visiting a bull farm, taking a ‘cava train’ through the over twenty-two miles of underground cellars at Codorniu winery, and seeing (and smelling) how traditional Spanish cheese is produced, we departed for our last city, and quite possibly the most confusing one: Donosti San Sebastian.
The Basque region of Spain was Chef Encabo’s old stomping grounds, as we went to his favorite bocadillo (sandwich) places, relaxed on the beautiful coastal beaches that our hotel was located on, and took day trips to neighboring fishing villages and wineries. Although San Sebastian was the beginning of the end of our trip, I felt that those last four days was when I really understood what it meant to be Spanish, and their gracious hospitality and beautiful landscapes will keep me coming back for years to come.