Congratulations to my family! Today marks our one year anniversary of moving back to Barcelona. This year has flown by, pardon the cliché.
As city people our whole lives, Israel and I chose to take a chance on a -for us- very different lifestyle, by moving back not to downtown Barcelona, where we had lived together for 15 years, where our kids were born, but to La Floresta, a small village in the mountains just outside of the city. We agreed to give it a full year to get a true sense of place, to see the seasons play out and get a feel for what life is like here throughout each one. Now that we have come full circle, I think it’s safe to say that I love it here and, if I can help it, I may never ever want to move again. This year also marks La Floresta’s 100th anniversary, and I have been reading up on its history. La Floresta was first planned as a “garden city” inspired by American suburban residencial neighborhoods. The results, a century later, are quite different, but it is unique in its quirkiness and, at that, somewhat reminds us of Berkeley.
If one must pick a single climate year-round, the mild, overall sunny Bay Area microclimate is a pretty safe bet. Nevertheless, while we lived there, I was always confused as to what time of year it was, as the seasons were quite similar to one another. You could get the four seasons in one single day, any day of the year. Dressing in layers is something Bay Area residents carry in their blood (or become experts at); it took us a while to master. Although Barcelona’s winters are relatively mild, I have enjoyed witnessing the stark transformations between seasons throughout this past year. I can now state without reservations (though Bruno would certainly disagree) that I love warm summers, and I soooo missed not having real summers throughout the years we lived in the Bay, where summer is, in fact, the coldest and foggiest season of all, unbeknownst to many. Here’s a thought: maybe I should find a way to hibernate in winter.
Making the decision to move back to Spain was not easy, as I wrote about here, when we had recently landed. Moving is exhausting, unsettling, uprooting and overall chaotic for body, mind, and soul. My whole family is still recovering, and it may take us yet another while to finish readjusting and settling in. But, after a not easy year, I think we are finally on track.
Countless times in the past year, people have asked us “Why did you move back?” (Of course, the grass is always greener…. in Berkeley we got the inverse question many times: “Why did you ever leave Barcelona?”). There’s just not a straightforward answer, nor have we found a simple, formulaic reply to appease our enquirers. Even though we are aware of its nuances, the incessant question about our motive for moving back sometimes manages to spark doubts in our own minds. The mind works in funny ways: the good parts of the past are easy to be nostalgic about; the not-so-good ones, more easily forgotten.
There are many things I miss about Berkeley: friends, watching the maple trees change colors on our daily walk up Gilman street to our local grocery store, hiking in Tilden park very early in the morning, the farmers markets, sitting in specific cafés, little things. And though it pains me enormously to have watched Bruno struggle more than all of us over this past year, I still believe we did the right thing.
Throughout the past few weeks, a few magic moments, with friends both old and new, have shown me an important part of the reason we moved back. And, believe it or not, it has to do with sobremesa, the untranslatable concept of conviviality around the table that I’ve been pushing for the past 5 years through this platform and my classes in the US.
The long days and expansive energy of summer have made me more social than I’d been in a long time, and some beautiful human encounters are the outcome. I’d like to tell you about one of them.
Last November I hosted an event at our new home within the Sunday Suppers’ dinner series (ironically, also called Sobremesa, which pissed me off when I first saw it, until I decided it was better to join in rather than brood over the fact that Karen was using my treasured company name). The event (I wrote about it here) sold out and I spent a glorious Sunday afternoon at table with a wonderful, diverse crowd of nice people.
There was a familiar name on the attendee list: David Pallarès. David is the owner of Pallares Solsona, a generations-old knife producer in the town of Solsona, a bit over an hour outside of Barcelona. I had been buying his knives for years for myself and my Sobremesa culinary tour clients. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with the knives, as they have become popular among food bloggers; they photograph incredibly well, thanks to their noble materials, simple lines and vintage-y look. I had never met David in person, though we had emailed lots with my orders, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
David and his lovely wife Anna (an architect with whom I share a passion for hikes in nature, often to the chagrin of our kids) showed up at our door bearing huge smiles, an even bigger bottle of wine made by a friend of theirs, and gifts (knives, of course). We were instantly smitten in each others’ company, though Anna later confessed that when David announced to her that they were leaving the kids with grandma and grandpa to attend a meal in a stranger’s home, she thought he was off his rocker. They stayed after all the other guests had departed (and it was a long sobremesa at that!), but it was still not enough, so we said goodbye with promises of future get-togethers, in La Floresta and Solsona.
Life got in they way, as it tends to, and it took us the better part of 8 months to see each other again. A few weeks ago, as my kids were spending time with their grandma in Madrid (another part of the reason we came back!), our days we filled with more hours and freedom. I reached out to David and said “get ready, we’re coming this Tuesday”. No, he begged, please please please don’t come on a Tuesday; we want to take you to a friend’s restaurant in town, and they don’t open on Tuesdays.
At such a proposal, we made it work and managed to take the afternoon off; thus a regular Thursday turned into a holiday, a party, a feast.
Our first stop was the Pallarès Solsona factory, where I had to elegantly overcome a small anxiety attack, as seeing desired objects in person is not the same as browsing a catalog. A kid in a candy shop, as they say. Suddenly, all these new needs were created; how had I managed to live this long without yet another knife/cast iron pan/shears/etc.?!. Fortunately, I was able to restrain myself (I didn’t know David that well yet and didn’t want to come off as overeager), and made a discreet purchase. I can proudly state that I bought the first of their brand-new leather cases for my small Pallarès knife, the ones we use constantly in the kitchen (my kids learned to cook with them; great for smaller hands). I also got an elegant leather pouch for my beloved Pallarès pocket knife, and a couple more of the handy, all-purpose 12-cm knives, one in the traditional boxwood, one in ebony.
What I loved most about the factory was the balance between artisanal and modern means; David has managed to combine tradition and technology, so that they can be efficient in time and resources, and yet still give each and every knife that comes out of the factory the individual, hand-held attention it deserves. The factory was smaller than I imagined; only 18 people cranking out an average of 1000 knives per day. And here’s the best part: their summer hours are 6am to 2pm. One of the advantages of living in a place with hot summers is that you’re not expected to produce as much, because you just can’t. David shuts the place down at 2pm every day throughout the summer months, so everyone’s free to go have siesta or be with their families. Now that’s work-life balance. I also love how he is so clear on not growing too much, too fast. Just enough. Balance.
We left the factory together promptly at 2pm (and I still need that cast iron pan and olive wood cutting board). Next stop: we swung by for Ana and drove a few minutes to the restaurant, which turned out to be something very special indeed. The restaurant -which shall remain nameless- is in a natural setting by a stream on the outskirts of town, and built into a rock. Roger himself, the chef and childhood friend of my friends, is something to witness. His parents used to run the place as an informal stream-side kiosk, but he renovated and turned it into a proper restaurant, which I would not call formal or fancy, but definitely high-end in terms of the quality of its food. In summer, they offer a prix-fixe menu (very decently priced for the quality you are getting, especially compared to Barcelona prices) and take reservations; the rest of the year you just have to wait.
One of the highlights of the whole experience was listening to Roger recite the menu. He has become well-known for this, and it was a true performance, in which he described to us in detail and from memory every single dish, not just their names but also how they are prepared and where the main ingredients -all local- come from. I later learned that Roger is prepared to do this whole spiel in four different languages. You are never given a written menu, it’s all “sung” by this Catalan bard of the appetite. As Roger gave us the run-down, each dish sounded more appealing than the previous one. My mouth was watering and I wanted to taste every single one, even though the menu was pretty meat-heavy and I don’t eat meat.
Roger has taken traditional Catalan dishes and given them a modern, refined spin. Colman Andrews, the food writer who “discovered” Catalan cuisine for Americans a few decades ago, once stated that traditional Catalan cuisine is mostly brown food. Since then, Catalonia has become a leader of the revolution of world cuisine. I wouldn’t call Roger’s cuisine revolutionary (and, purist that I am, that’s a compliment in my book), but it’s certainly not brown. Roger was more than happy to accommodate my many food intolerances and issues; in fact, he seemed to relish the challenge of cooking up something special for me.
The menu consists of a first course of multiple small tastes (which on the day we went included things like local summer tomatoes with house cured sardines and black olives; a tiny cone with salmon and avocado gelato, topped with black sesame seed crunch; rich mountain rice; and a long etc.) , followed by a generous main course, which you choose from the many options. Mine was a bonito tataki, seared to perfection, served in tender slices alternating with braised baby vegetables and topped with a generous amount of local peppery olive oil and something resembling saffron strands, which were actually some kind of mildly spicy sprout). Desserts are also a highlight of the house, pictured here are truffles with Baileys cream. And Roger also studied to be a sommelier, so his wine descriptions were almost as literary as the oral food menu depiction.
Strung along by Roger’s amazing food (and wine), we sat for hours on end at the table, tasting, drinking, chatting, laughing until tears were rolling down our cheeks. I think I speak for the four of us when I say that we all felt the same strong connection of eight months prior. Our table was the last one to clear out of the restaurant. Still reluctant to bring our time together to a close, David and Anna led us on a guided tour through their town under the still-blazing heat of 6pm. Solsona is a charming town and well worth a visit; I’m not sure why it took us 20 years to get there. I especially loved seeing David and Anna greet almost everyone who crossed paths with us. Small-town life. Funny, I now find the idea appealing, and no longer suffocating like the city girl I used to be would have.
David is a nomad at heart, and is always trying to convince Anna to pick up and move somewhere or other. But she is adamant on her choice to remain in their hometown (in fact, their place is smack in the heart of the oid town), because what she loves most are the small town privileges of being able to leave your kids with friends and neighbors, socializing without plans, easing the day away hanging out on a terrace sipping wine and nibbling tapas while the kids run around in the square; relying on grandparents who live a stone’s throw away so that they can go to the gym with friends in the evening. I think having been born in a city of 14 million people made me somewhat of an urban snob. Until very recently, I had never understood why someone would prefer a suburb or a small town to the unlimited options and vibrant cultural life of a big city. That’s changed; I’ve changed. Everyone in Solsona looked so healthy to us! Is it all in the eyes of the beholder? Am I just getting old?
Although we were too full to sit down for more, we checked out a spot for a vermouth on our next visit to Solsona, as if adding to our wish list for more encounters. We bought some local olive oil at a very cute gourmet goods shop; it’s nice to spend some money to show appreciation for a place you are visiting. Before saying goodbye, yet more promises were made of upcoming family hikes, a knife-sharpening session in my kitchen, and a visit to our local produce purveyor with vermouth and aperitivo on a Saturday morning. Let’s hope not another eight months go by this time until we make it happen. Life’s too short; time too precious.
Here’s to friends, to human connection, and to the sheer, giddy joy of playing hooky on a weekday to sit down to lunch for 4 hours with delicious company and lovingly prepared food. With a beginning, but no end time in sight.
This is why we came back to Spain.