As I write this I am sitting in a restaurant called Carnes a la Brasa in the Barcelona airport waiting for my plane to Nice, eating a salad of hearts of palm, avocado and hard cooked egg and tomato bread with a type of sausage I have never heard of. Good food is everywhere you turn.
About four years ago in the dead of the winter, there was one of those special nights that happen a few times a year in The Murray. We had an awesome band from California traveling through on a weekday and there was maybe 15 regulars in the bar. The energy was perfect and it was like the bar was just levitating a few inches off the ground. The greatest nights I have ever experienced in that bar are like this: a handful of locals, an awesome band and perfect energy. I was sitting in the bar completely blissed out, feeling the incredible Murray energy when I heard someone speaking with a super thick Spanish accent. When I was in my early 20’s I took some time off from my university studies and spent about a year and a half traveling through Central America. Between that and growing up in the restaurant industry in Colorado, my Spanish is quite fluent, even without speaking it for years at a time. I struck up a conversation with this mysterious Spaniard, named Tony, who appeared in The Murray and found out that he was a Chef in a little town outside of Barcelona who flew into New York and was spending three months exploring America and he just “happened” to find The Murray in the middle of a February snowstorm. Immediately there was a connection. He was just a good dude, pure and simple. We closed down the bar (you can never break the gravitational pull of a Murray bar stool on these nights) and I offered him a place to crash on my sofa. The next night he came into the restaurant and cooked staff meal of a very simple Spanish egg and potato torta for the lucky staff that happened to be working that night. We parted the next day, exchanging emails and Tony telling me, that if I ever found myself in Barcelona to let him know. Four years later, I found myself with a plane ticket to Barcelona so I shot Tony an email with dates of my trip. A week later I received a reply telling me that he would of course welcome me into Spain and he would see me at the Airport. Yesterday, as I stepped off the plane, there was Tony with a huge grim, wearing a scarf that every man in Spain seems to have in their wardrobe. Moments later we were in a Jeep Grand Cherokee cruising down the autopista, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea to this little town called Vilanova I La Geltru, about 45 minutes south of Barcelona. Immediately I found myself exactly where I needed to be. I had given myself four weeks to discover the authentic and now less than an hour on the ground I had found it. Tony’s flat is in the middle of the old town, completely medieval set up, the roads built for people and carts, not cars. Everything mixed use, everyone lives in these cool little flats above the shops. The building Tony lives in is marked has a brick proclaiming the year it was built: 1694. Across the street is the little vegetable market with two wonderful old Spanish ladies, wearing the ubiquitous two pocket aprons that every old woman who speaks Spanish seems to have on. This little market has less than 200 square feet of floor space, but has everything one needs. There was beautiful, fresh vegetables, bottled water, pasta, olive oil, eggs, toilet paper, legs of cured ham with the hoofs and toenails still on, and, of course ice cream. Just down the street is the local charcuterie shop, then the butcher shop (different from charcuterie), then the bakery, then the clothing store with absolutely stunningly beautiful textiles, then the little tavern with Basque tapas (packed of course), then the little cheese shop, with literally a 100 different types of awesome cheese (Enter Facebook Page), then the town square (packed with communal tables from various
eateries and everyone is smoking) with the gorgeous medieval church. All of this is within 100 yards of Tony’s flat. There is no grid to the streets, they just wander about and this old city just goes and goes. Every couple of blocks there is another Basque tavern (packed of course with old men wearing sweaters reading the sports pages), another bakery, another charcuterie, another amazing clothes shop, another tavern. Everything is small and specialized and nothing but locals. There are no tourists, except me in Vilanova.
By this time, I had been awake for about 30 hours straight, and sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. It was about four in the afternoon and I was completely in awe, with my jaw hanging open almost touching the ground. I stood on the little balcony off of my room in the flat, watching the town do its thing: tiny cars squeaking through the buildings, impeccably dressed people walking everywhere, kids skateboarding, moms pushing strollers, scooters everywhere and this vibe that is so infectious to American seeing this life style. After a half an hour in this town of 65,000 people (seems huge to us in Montana, but I bet its total footprint is not much bigger than Livingston) I did not want to leave. Me encanto a Espana.
After convincing Tony that I had no intention of taking a nap, I put on my boots and nicest pearl snap shirt, and we hit the town. The Spanish know how to eat, pure and simple, pica pica. We went to a little Basque tavern with a simple wood bar lined with little tapas: egg tortas, tins of anchovies, olives and a mindboggling amount of cheese. Tony ordered a bottle of Saizar, which he referred to as an apple liqueur. Having been awake for more than 30 hours straight the concept of “liqueur” sent a bolt of fear through my soul. Visions of passing out and smashing my face into the tile floor flooded my thoughts. Upon closer examination, I realized that it was not a liqueur at all, but rather a very simple apple wine, with a ritual all of its own. The barkeep popped the cap and fitted the bottle with this special plug. Tony grabbed the bottle and a highball glass and began the ritual pouring that I would witness over and over again all night. The bottle held high above your head and the glass at your knee, a steady stream of apple wine is aerated into the glass, with much of it
splattering onto the floor. The flavor is raw and unrefined and a delight to drink. I speak as a Sommelier: raw and unrefined are not detriments, but rather descriptors. It pricks your tongue and feels like it is still fermenting in the bottle. The nose and palate are nothing but apples and it sits at 6% alcohol. I tried to understand how after 16 years of buying wine professionally I had never heard of Saizar. It is never exported and is super cheap and I bet if you drank a bottle anywhere except in a Basque tavern in Spain, it would not taste as good. But here, with anchovies soaking in olive oil and balsamic, cheese and bread rubbed with a light concasse of tomatoes, it was perfect.
We left the tavern and returned to the flat to walk a dog that Tony is watching for a friend. This was no European apartment dwelling dog, but
rather one of the most gorgeous golden Labrador Retrievers I have seen in a long time. This dog was so impeccably trained it was mind boggling and he understood Spanish as well. So many years dealing with my townsfolk’s untrained Labs, had soured me on the breed, but this dog was amazing. I watched this dog respond to a multitude of voice and whistle commands and thought how juxtaposed it was that this amazing animal was living in this medieval town and would never get the chance to jump out of a boat to retrieve a duck on the Yellowstone.
By now it was about 9 o’clock at night. By this time in Livingston, it is almost all over for the night, but here in Spain is when it just gets rolling. The streets which had been bustling before now became packed. Families and babies were everywhere, filling the square and roaming the streets. The sense of community was amazing. It was a Tuesday night and it was like no one had ever heard of a TV and everyone was out. We met up with a friend of Tony’s, named Sebastian who makes his living as a tattoo artist (his studio is also within 100 yards of Tony’s flat) and we set off for the town’s best bar, called La Puput (Poo Poot). I had thought that the little ubiquitous Basque taverns were busy, but this was in a different realm. It was a bigger spot, maybe 1500 square feet and totally packed with old men in sweaters playing dominos, families with babies munching on tapas, old couples sipping on wine in tiny glasses, young thugs with low hanging pants drinking beer and more pretty girls than I have seen in years, all in one place. The owner was exactly as I suspected, half-crazy with wild eyes jumping in and out of the kitchen with plates of food. The only waiter looked exactly like he was ER’s long lost little brother and was once again just as I suspected. He does not approach your table until you raise your hand and snap your fingers. When you order food, he returns with plates and slings them across the table like he is dealing cards as he shouts with another table. Wine glasses are stout and the wine is a simple Rioja. We order a half kilo of shaved dry ham, amazing white anchovies, olives and dry sheep’s milk cheese broiled on a baguette. After pica pica, we ventured outside to smoke. Even though Spain finally outlawed smoking in public buildings, it has done nothing to curb smoking in general. Half of
the bar was outside And it was still packed inside. We met some fabulously beautiful girls who are friends of theirs and spent the next few hours discussing the relative merits of different brines on sheep milk cheeses. One of the girls, named Siluia is a some type of a CPA and I was just in awe listening to this very beautiful woman, with a sharp analytic mind waxing poetically about different regional cheeses. Food is part of their culture in a way that is so hard foran American to understand. We then switched over to shots of this liqueur that reminded me of Chartreuse, then there was beer and more shots and then the Spanish started to be spoken quite rapidly with lots of slang and so much body language that they all just seemed to be dancing and yelling at each other. I leaned against the wall to help hold the building up and was filled with so much happiness, knowing that one little chance encounter in The Murray Bar in Livingston, Montana opened this entire world to me. At some point in time we stumbled home as I woke up in a fabulously comfy bed. Sure fire cure for jet lag, stay up for 40 hours straight, eat like a king and drink like Bukowski, get a good night’s sleep and all will be fine. And have this for breakfast.