Let’s Talk About Food: Costa Brava

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that one of my favorite parts of traveling is the FOOD. Even though eating out can prove to be tricky on a student slash backpacker budget, I always try to find a balance between preparing my own meals in hostels (like sandwiches, for instance), and trying the local cuisine. 

At the end of the day, I would rather spend my money on experiences rather than material things

To me, food is an experience. Some of my favorite experiences in my travels have involved food; eating gyros for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Santorini, Greece; finishing a whole, traditional, thin-crust margharita pizza in Naples, Italy; delighting in fresh ceviche on the Ecuadorean coast; devouring lamb and fig tajines washed down with mint tea in Essaouira and Chefchaouen, Morocco; and living off of fresh baguettes, cheese, chocolate, and wine in Paris and Switzerland

So while I didn’t eat out in Madrid very much because I’d already had the chance to hit up their excellent tapas scene two summers ago, I knew when I came to Costa Brava I just had to try some of their platos típicos.  But let’s start with their gelato. 

One of the first things that attracted me to Costa Brava was, you guessed it, their food

My favorite travel blogger, Adventurous Kate, posted a mouthwatering account of what she tried when she first visited Costa Brava back in 2012. I came upon this post while I was trip planning back in 2013 for my two-month jaunt around Europe, and ever since, I’ve wanted so badly to visit this region of Spain, one I’d previously never explored outside of Barcelona.

So let’s talk about this gelato. Kate raved about it in another one of her Costa Brava posts, so I was determined to find it and experience the supposed wonder that is Rocambolesc gelato.  Opened by all-star Catalan chef Jordi Roca, Rocambolesc offers six flavors that change seasonally, with a wide array of unique toppings that you can order in a standard cup or cone deal. 

For my first Rocambolesc experience, I chose to go with their most original flavor, called Green Sorbet, a blend of green apples, cucumber, basil, and mint flavors. Sounds weird, right? WRONG. It was one of the most refreshing servings of gelato I’ve ever tried.  For my toppings, I went with their recommendations for this particular flavor:  green tea-powdered pistachios, mint sugar, and candied eucalyptus. It was absolutely incredible. 

Since then I’ve tried the following combinations from Rocambolesc: coconut and violet-flavored gelato with fresh grated coconut, candied coconut chunks, and a violet flavored and violet sugar-coated marshmallow; baked apple gelato with caramelized apples, baked apples, and chunks of a flaky pie crust-like cookie; and last but not least, vanilla bean gelato with brownie chunks, caramel flakes, and chocolate sauce.

To say that I’ve become obsessed with this place would be an understatement. I’ve still got two more flavors to try!  Now let’s move onto some of their savory dishes, like patatas bravas and botifarra, for example (pictured above). 

I went to the adorable little medieval hamlet of Besalú last week and decided to go for some late afternoon tapas in one of their main squares. 

I tried these at the Trip Advisor-recommended Curia Reial; I’d tried the potatoes before in Granada, but I thought it was time I tried them in the region that made them famous. It’s a pretty straightforward dish: potatoes (probably fried) with a spicy, aioli-like sauce. So simple, and so delicious. 

The botifarra was a new one for me, which I’d ordered at the waiter’s suggestion: a typical Catalan preparation of sausage stewed with mushrooms and a hearty sauce, not unlike a pot roast. Served with bread, I lapped up every last bit of that sauce. Another dining out experience that was well worth it. 

On my weekend trip to the beautiful beachside town of Tossa de Mar, I couldn’t resist going for patatas bravas again. 

I also tried, once again at the recommendation of my waitress, boquerones de bacalao: essentially deep-fried cod bites. AMAZING. I took one bite and couldn’t stop smiling. What better place to try fish than the beach in Costa Brava? 

The next day, I went for a late lunch of tapas at one of the fancier joints in Tossa, la Taverna de Tossa. Right down the street from our hostel, I went with a Finnish girl who was working reception and we shared a most delectable meal (of which I lament I forgot to take pictures!) that I will do my best to describe to you now:

Prawns grilled in red garlic sauce: easily the BEST shrimp I have ever had in my life. I was embarrassingly amateur at prying apart the meat from those little rascals (which were served whole, antennae, little legs and all), but my oh my were they scrumptious. 

Fried squid: essentially calamari, but only very lightly fried in only a small amount of batter so that you could really taste the squid meat. Once again, like the calamari I’d had in Madrid, it was served without your standard North American aioli dipping sauce, but again like Madrid, this calamari didn’t need it. It was a standout dish all on its own. 

Croquetas con espinacas y queso: croquetas with spinach and cheese, round, bite-size, deep-fried morsels of heaven. 

I didn’t think my food ventures in Costa Brava could get any better. And then I went to Tapas el Portal for my last night in Tossa.  I’d passed by this cute little spot every morning on my way to the beach, and after reading rave reviews on Trip Advisor and checking out their menu, I decided to go for it.  I started with the chef’s tapa special for the day, a cool twist on gazpacho, the traditional chilled Spanish soup. 

This one was a purée of beets, strawberries, and herbs, with little chunks of cod, asparagus, and caviar. It was TO DIE for. I thanked the chef, Giuseppe, personally; I couldn’t even believe how flavorful and refreshing it was. I then moved onto their swordfish carpaccio, served with pickled vegetables and a special kind of green and yellow salt. The waitress had described it to me as a typical Mediterranean ceviche, and my goodness it was easily some of the smoothest, tastiest fish I’d ever had.  For my “third course” (that is, third generous tapa portion), I tried their pork cheeks with lemon, and potato and lemon purée. I’ve always been a fan of slow-cooked beef and pork cheeks, but my goodness, you guys, I couldn’t rave about this dish enough. 

Each time the waitress and manager came by to ask how I was doing, I couldn’t stop beaming; I was just so happy; and beyond thrilled with my decision to treat myself my last night in Tossa. 

Would you like to look at our dessert menu? my lovely Peruvian waitress Vero asked me. How could I not, after devouring each of her on point recommendations with more relish and excitement than I’ve experienced with a meal in a long time?  Vero’s recommendation? Portal’s peach tatin with raspberry sorbet and lychee foam. I mean, come on. Once again I was absolutely delighted, and thanked Vero and the manager, chef, and owner profusely for their service and for the stellar culinary experience they’d provided me with. 

Today is my last day in Costa Brava, and my goodness, has it been an unbelievable week. 

With the food, the people I’ve met, the hostels I’ve stayed in, and the beautiful and unique places I’ve been able to visit, I cannot wait to return. 

After my four-month study abroad in Granada, I never thought I could possibly fall in love with another region in Spain as I did with Andalucía. Girona and the rest of beautiful Costa Brava in Catalunya? You just may have proven me wrong.   

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Madre mía, Madrid!

There’s something rather special about being the first person out and about in a city like Madrid on a Saturday morning. 

IMG_5789The sidestreets are virtually empty, other than workers getting ready to open shop, and the occasional madrileño out for a solitary stroll, sometimes in the company of a partner or a perro.

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This was the first part of my walk to the Biblioteca Nacional this morning. What a difference from even just the morning before.

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I couldn’t help myself; I smiled stupidly at a couple shop-owners, the leaf-blower guy just before the plaza that intersects with the tree-lined Paseo del Prado. I can’t even begin to express just how much I enjoy feeling like I have a city to myself, if only for a moment.

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And then of course once I actually hit the Paseo del Prado, that sense of solitude slowly gave way to the increasingly tangible energy of Madrid’s museum hub.

Suffice it to say, I felt much more sophisticated entering the BNE this morning, seeing as I knew how the whole process of entry, desk assignment, and book request went. Technically you aren’t to take pictures inside, but if that didn’t stop me in the Sistine Chapel six years ago, it certainly wouldn’t stop me now.

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IMG_5797Of course, a shot of one Spain’s many literary legends out front is most certainly acceptable.

IMG_5798I had originally planned to go back to the Museo del Prado that afternoon, but by the time I got there after the BNE closed, it was looking mighty busy. I chose instead to go for a paseo in el Parque de Retiro, one of my favorite public parks in the world.
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It’s such a great escape from the noise and sensory overload of the city. I just love how green it is.

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On this particular visit to the Retiro I decided to make my way to the Palacio de Cristal, inspired by a recent post by one of my favorite travel bloggers.

There was a free, seasonal exhibition going on inside as well, so I’m glad I was able to check it out.

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Much like yesterday afternoon, I continued in a haphazard loop through the busy centro of Madrid, this time making my way down Gran Vía, whose architecture after multiple visits I just can’t get enough of.

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To round out another full day in Spain’s capital, I’m going out to watch the Champions League final (viva Barça!).

And tomorrow, I’m setting off to Alcalá de Henares for the day, which will be a major nerding-out moment…after all, it is the author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s birthplace.

As I’m here first and foremost to work on my thesis (which is on his magnum opus, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha), I’m considering this a most-worthy field trip. 

And So We Meet Again, Madrid

Just over two years ago, I visited Madrid for the first time and was quick to declare it one of my favorite cities in Europe.

Not only did I thereafter see myself one day living in Spain’s lively capital city, I also came to find I liked it even better than Barcelona, much to my surprise. To be fair, I can’t say I spent enough time in either city to the point where I could navigate on my own and feel consistently safe and confident (like I managed to do in Granada and Sevilla, for example). But needless to say, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to stay in Madrid for a longer period of time.

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Meet la Biblioteca Nacional de España (the National Library of Spain, or BNE), my home for the next week. It is here, in these hallowed halls, that I’ll be undertaking the preliminary stages of research for my Master’s thesis in Hispanic Studies through the University of British Columbia.

I’ll admit, I was fairly anxious approaching these majestic steps this morning. Although my thesis supervisor had given me all the instructions I needed to get into the building, get myself a temporary ID, and access the various wings I’d need, I still found myself a little apprehensive. After all, this is what I based my entire trip on: getting a leg up on my thesis research, and doing it in the city where there would be so many resources available to me under one roof.

After all, as I’ve told myself again and again, if I couldn’t find the motivation to research in Madrid, how could I possibly hope to do so back in BC?

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Thankfully, everything went as smoothly as it possibly could have. After checking my passport, driver’s license, and the letter my thesis supervisor had written me back in Vancouver requesting that the BNE grant me access to all wings of the library (especially the Sala Cervantina, or the Cervantes wing, home to a huge archive of resources on the author of Spain’s first modern novel, which coincidentally is the focus of my thesis), they issued me a rather official-looking ID, which will provide me access to the BNE and its resources for the entirety of my time here in Madrid.

And maybe it’s just me, but there was something so motivating about studying silently in a GIANT hall with dozens of other students and researchers of all ages, with names like Garcilaso and Lope and Fernando de Rojas plastered in gold on the high walls; it was as if the greats of Spanish literature were cheering me on, just like I’d so naïvely hoped they might 😉

FullSizeRenderAfter a decent number of hours in the BNE, getting myself oriented with the help of a colleague of my thesis supervisor, and starting up a list of all the sources I hope to consult in the upcoming days, it seemed only fair to appease my growling stomach with one of Spain’s most iconic plates: churros con chocolate.

It was just as good (if not better) than I remembered, even on a sweltering 32 C/90 F afternoon in Madrid’s bustling centro.

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A stroll through Puerta del SolPlaza Mayor, and probably one of my top favorite spots in Madrid, the Mercado de San Miguel, rounded out my first full day here in Spain. It’s crazy how much you can do in just one day in a city like this; a great deal of the major sites are within walking distance (the Museo del Prado and the Parque del Retiro for example, are only fifteen minutes away from the room I’m renting through Airbnb).

And I’m stoked to report that I feel just as comfortable here in Madrid as I felt last time, if not more so, and full of unbridled excitement for what this next week has in store!