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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Proof of My Devotion, and a Truly Lovely Weekend

I made a very stressful journey a few weeks ago. I would have written about it sooner than now, but to be honest, I needed some time off before I could reflect on the craziness of it all. My nerves needed to settle a bit.

My destination was Roses, a little town along the craggy coast of Catalonia, and home to El Bulli. While it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation there (The whole process is insane: Basically, at the beginning of the winter, the website opens up for reservations for the following year. It is instantly inundated with millions (literally) of requests. Only about six-thousand get seats! And there is no such thing as special treatment when it comes to getting a table – unless you’re someone majorly, majorly important, like the leader of a country or someone hugely big in the food world. None of the chefs I know who have worked there for years and years, have ever even eaten there!), I was able to snag an invite to tour the kitchen, which is perhaps even more rare an opportunity than actually eating there (although admittedly, not nearly as tasty). But thanks to Alicia’s links with Ferran Adria, I found myself with this golden ticket, a truly incredible opportunity. And I’ll tell you all about it all in a minute, but first, let me describe the trials and tribulations I withstood to get there.

First of all, there is no easy way to get to Roses. The trains don’t go there, and taking a bus would consume the entire day. So I split the bill for a rental car with my non-driver of a roommate, Ruth. We were splurging on this, to be sure, but we both really wanted to see El Bulli. So I plucked down a decent chunk of Euros, hopped in the little rental car, and spent fifteen minutes getting comfortable with all the lights and mirrors, signals and windshield wipers. I never even noticed until I tried to turn the key that it was a stick shift. A stick shift! Ask my dear husband, Ben. Nothing in life stresses me out more than driving a stick shift. Attempting to drive his car a few years ago, I lasted mere minutes before pulling to the side of the road and flat-out refusing to try any more. I just won’t drive stick shift.

Or wouldn’t, I should say. Because now, faced with the fact that stick shifts were all I could hope to find over here, and highly influenced by the prospect of an El Bulli kitchen tour with my name on it, I threw caution to the wind (something I rarely ever, ever do), revved the engine, and choppily sputtered and stopped my way through the twisty, curvy, hilly town of Manresa, frantically chewing my fingernails all the while.

Our plan was to park the car for the night, down the street from our flat, and leave by six the next morning. We were out the door by 5:59, jauntily strolling down the street to our parking spot. Our EMPTY parking spot! Our car had been towed (we misread the Catalan parking signs). Another chunck of Euros and an hour later, we’d been reunited with our little stick-shift of a rental car, and were on the road. Of course, over here they don’t quite display road-name signs all that clearly, so it took us nearly another hour to find our way out of our twisty little city. And when we did finally maneuver ourselves onto a main highway leading to Roses, we were enveloped in dense gray fog.

The fog lasted throughout the drive, only getting thicker and thicker as we drew closer to the sea. The final half-hour of our trip found us in fog so thick you couldn’t see your fingertips if you stretched your arms in front of you, driving ever so slowly along an extremely curvy, less-than-one-lane road on the sheer side of a steep, rocky cliff stretching along the shore. And do I need to remind you that this was still while driving a stick shift?!

Needles to say, we got there in one piece, and none the worse for wear. And let me tell you, it was worth it. All of it was worth it. We introduced ourselves at the back door and were warmly welcomed by the restaurant manager and introduced all around the kitchen. The Chef de Cuisine himself gave us the behind-the-scenes tour. And the El Bulli kitchen was the definition of fabulous. Each line and angle was stream-lined and gorgeous. At least thirty chefs bustled purposefully about, prepping for service, moving fast and gracefully. The energy in the room was incredible – fervent and focused – you could almost taste the creativity in the air. It all gave me the shivers, just knowing that I was in the midst of a truly special place.


Now that I’ve gone on and on about my harried efforts getting to El Bulli, I’ll give you a quick and breezy account of the rest of our weekend, which in comparison to the first few hours, couldn’t have been more delightful. After exiting the gates of El Bulli, we wound our way back down the seaside cliffs (a little less foggy by now, and consequently offering staggeringly beautiful views) into Roses proper. There we stopped for truly delicious pizza. Now, I didn’t come to Spain to eat pizza, but this place was recommended by one of the El Bulli chefs from Italy, who described it as the best pizza in the world. Now I’d have to say that this guy, being both Italian and a chef at the world’s best restaurant, has pretty good credentials in the pizza-recommending department. So we took his advice, and tried it out. And like I’d said before, I wouldn’t want to waste your time, telling you about pizza that is anything less than earth-shattering. This pizza was perfection in itself. Perfect crust. Perfect Sauce. Perfect cheese. Period. Check out the pic.

And since we were already on the coast, and had the rental car for the weekend, we headed to an adorably picturesque fishing village called Cadaques, which once upon a time was the summer home of Salvador Dali. We spent the night in really funky Dali-themed hostel, which I might even have called creepy, save for the precious dish of perfect strawberries they left on our bedside table while we were out exploring the town.

The next morning we headed back towards home, making two stops along the way. Our first stop was Figures, home to the Dali museum. Also bordering on creepy, the museum was at the same time fascinating and eerily beautiful. Dali was eccentric to say the least, and his body of work is vast and incredible. While a bit outside of my artistic comfort zone, I spent the entire morning at the museum intrigued and amazed.

Our last stop before home was the medieval town of Girona. Fortuitously, an autumn festival was in full swing among the high trees of the sprawling park at the base of the hilltop town. We eagerly partook of the festivities, sampling a huge variety of sweets and treats, and aimlessly wandering among the happy crowd. A perfect end to atruly lovely weekend.

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