If it’s true, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food,” then it must have been amor that attracted me to an email from Chef Katie Button (owner of Asheville restaurants Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels) and her Catalan husband, Félix Meana, announcing their exclusive trips to Spain.
Unfortunately, I waited a week to propose the adventure to my husband, Joe, and by the time we agreed to it, the trip had sold out. Fast-forward one year, when I receive word of a second trip to Catalunya and Andalucía. This time we don’t hesitate.
Cúrate Trips began as a way to complete the Spanish experience for guests of Button and Meana’s acclaimed Asheville tapas spot. “I bring Spain to Asheville through the restaurant,” Meana says, with his lilting Spanish accent, “but it’s a different story when you allow me to take you to Spain with me. This is the whole picture now; the wine you’re drinking and the food you’re eating in Spain has a relationship with Cúrate.”
Having relished meals at Cúrate, Joe and I are ready to make that first-hand connection. We kick off our culinary adventure and first trip to Spain on the patio of the Gallery Hotel in Barcelona, where we meet the rest of our group of 16, along with Félix (who participates in most of the trips) and Cúrate’s travel partners Fernando Paredes and Valeska Idarraga—who run the gastronomically focused tour company Paladar y Tomar.
From Barcelona, the trip unfolds like a menu of tapas, with each small bite of Spain more tantalizing than the last. We head north to the Costa Brava, or “rugged coast,” that runs along the northeastern edge of Spain to the French border. Our base is a lovely beachside room in the Hotel La Terraza in Roses, an idyllic seaside town whose breathtaking azure bay is ranked among the top ten in the world, and for good reason.
Our first night in Roses, Félix, who grew up here, leads us on a short walk along the seaside promenade—with multiple stops to greet his friends en route—to Rafa. This shoebox of a restaurant, named for the chef/owner, is open only when fresh seafood is available. Tonight we have the tiny place all to ourselves, passing around family-style platters of buttery tallarinas clams, hidden in tiny purple shells that, when opened, resemble butterflies’ wings; large, bright-red gamba roja de palamós, served heads-on; and monkfish, cooked simply but perfectly a la plancha (on a scorching-hot cast-iron griddle).
The next day, we weave our way by bus over the cliffs to the site of elBulli, Chef Ferran Adrià’s three-Michelin-star tour de force, which, before it closed in 2011, was widely considered the best restaurant in the world. Félix, who worked here for five years, has arranged for us to take a hardhat tour of the reincarnation of Adrià’s restaurant, soon to open as a culinary research lab and exhibition space called elBulli 1846.
During the following days, we tour the Dalí Theater-Museum in Figueres, and lunch on seafood paella cooked by a fisherman named Andreu under a fishing shelter by the sea, where the more daring among us—which doesn’t include me—try drinking wine from a porron.
We take in the panorama from the easternmost point of Spain atop the rugged Cap de Creus (Cape of the Cross), and forage for sea fennel and wild asparagus in the hills that rise from the sea. Among the vines at the fourteenth-century Castell de Peralada, we sip Finca Malaveïna—a beautifully balanced Bordeaux blend—as a prelude to a multicourse lunch at the winery’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
As in all trips, there are places that stand out in relief. Cadaqués, a jewel of a fishing village, is one such destination, its white-stucco façades sparkling like diamonds against the sapphire-blue of the Mediterranean. Here, in the town where artist Salvador Dalí spent much of his life, we linger over lunch on the breezy covered terrace of Compartir, founded by three former alumni of elBulli who are friends with Katie and Félix. Paired with local wines, course after course of exquisite food arrives at the table, each plated with the careful attention an artist gives his canvas. A platter of pickled mackerel comes with cornichons, avocado, and liquid “olive” spheres; red tuna “cannelloni” is stuffed with tuna tartare; poached eggs are drizzled with truffle oil and dressed with carbonara foam and truffle confit. And that’s only the beginning.
To the south in Andalucía, even our itinerary is titled by type of food. On “Tuna Day,” we visit the Herpac cannery in Barbate, where burly men butcher the six-foot-long blue-fin tuna caught in the waters off the coast, and hang the mojama (salt-cured tuna loins) to dry. A tuna dégustation menu is de rigueur for lunch at nearby El Campero, where we savor the fish in all its forms: nigiri, carpaccio, toro sashimi, tataki, and grilled tuna loin.
“Jamón Experience Day,” finds us on a farm in the Sierra de Aracene Natural Park and Picos de Aroche, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Jabugo. There, we roam the pastures among the hairless black Iberico pigs, descendants of an ancient breed from North Africa. Known for their high oleic acid content, the acorns from the cork oak and holm oak trees on which the pigs feed imbue their fat-marbled meat with an incomparable rich and buttery flavor.
For lunch—it is time to eat again?—we park off the road just outside the enchanting hamlet of Linares de la Sierra (population 300) and make our way down between the stucco houses that cluster along steep cobbled alleyways until we come to the whimsical tile sign announcing Meson Arrieros. Inside, the restaurant resembles a fairy-tale cottage with its beamed ceilings, tile floors, and wood-burning fireplace. But in no fairy tale I’ve ever read do the characters dine as we do on pork shoulder carpaccio with shavings of foie gras, and apple- and mushroom-stuffed pork loin in a delicate quince sauce.
Our tour comes to an end in Sevilla, a city of stunning architecture whose labyrinth of narrow, twisting streets is as confounding to me as it was to the enemies of the Romans who designed them with that intention. Heading home, Joe and I feel both smitten and sated with the food, wine, and culture of Catalunya and Andalucía—and yet, mystifyingly, still hungry to sink our teeth into more of this delectable country.
For more info, visit curatetrips.com
Gallery Hotel An outdoor pool, garden terrace, and rooftop bar add to the amenities of this boutique hotel in the heart of Barcelona—walking distance to high-end shopping and the city’s major sights.
Hotel La Terraza It’s hard to imagine a lovelier location than a sea-view room with a spacious balcony at this beachfront roost. Save time for relaxation at the holistic on-site spa.
Compartir Dishes in this early eighteenth-century house may be served family-style (compartir means “to share”), but there is nothing casual about the stellar cuisine here.
Meson Arrieros Though this hidden gem isn’t easy to find, the effort is well worth it to sample the terrific dishes that chef/owner Luismi Lopez concocts from the meat of local Iberico pigs.
Rafa Rafa specializes in fresh seafood—pick your favorites from the day’s selection in the display case—seasoned with salt and cooked simply a la plancha.
Dalí Theater-Museum The fortress-like architecture of Salvador Dalí’s museum, built on the remains of the former Municipal Theatre in his hometown of Figueres, is as capricious as the artwork within it.
Real Alcázar With its Moorish horseshoe arches and intricate mosaic tilework, this royal palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the purest examples of the Mudéjar style, an amalgam of Islamic and Christian influences.