On the Ruta for Cheese
Hola from Spain! I landed this morning in Barcelona and was then taxied to the town of Vic, an hour northwest of Barcelona for Lactium 2011—a gathering of Spanish cheesemakers and street cheese fare. As one of the fortunate invitees of this event, I get be to part of the “Super Jury,” a group of 34 international judges who will name The Best Catalan Cheese on Saturday. The festival begins tomorrow, May 6, when market stalls on the wide boulevard, Rambla del Carme fill up with cheesemakers and the contest ensues. Eyewitness reports on that to come. . .
Today was a free day and I wandered the local streets for three hours, taking in the neighborhoods of this town. Of course I hit the streets just as everything was closing for the usual siesta between 2 and 5:00. But I was hungry so I made a tour of various cafes and picked a simple one off the Placa Major (i.e. the town square). In this country where cured pork is a kind of religion, the small lunch selection featured 11 variations on ham and cheese and little else. I really wanted something vegetal, so I picked the only option—sweet red peppers stuffed with what appeared to be a soft cheese. The filling looked kind of like a creamy fresh mozz-burrata type thing. I speak virtually no Spanish and the young woman behind the counter serving me spoke no English, so I was left to point, nod, smile, and say “si.” Taking the pepper dish out of the case, she promptly turned around and microwaved it. Ugh. I know what rubbery mutants come from microwaving cheese. But who was I, a speechless tourist, to protest?
As I took a forkful of the hot dish, my palate quickly registered that the filling wasn’t cheese at all but a kind of thick Bechamel-type sauce with a yummy flavor of garlic and fish. It was familiar. I went back to the counter and asked the young woman if she would please write down the name of the dish in my journal. (I need to know the species of dishes like some people need to know their birds.) She obliged, spelling out, “ pimento rojo con brandade de bacaloo.” Of course—it was a classic creamy puree made with salt cod. I’d had brandade before, but never one that was so rich and smooth without any fishy texture. The salt cod seemed to be haunting the dish more than in it.
With my appetite appeased, I hit the streets again, winding my way up a hilly “carrer” to a what I thought was going to be a walled city park. It turned out to be the local cemetery. Inside its grand entrance, I found a great detour paths that wound around tall cyprus trees, stone memorials, and walled tombs centered around a small church filled with lit candles and a centuries-old hearse parked in its antechamber. Not your usual tourist stop but a very cool one that I was glad to stumble upon. Coming back to my hotel room, I couldn’t help thinking that one of the best things about travel is how it can allow us to make fortunate mistakes. Lucky me.