Farms, Markets and Foods of Northern Spain

October 12, 2007

Spain CUESA’s Executive Director, Dave Stockdale, wrote this week’s feature.

In September, I was fortunate to lead a group of sixteen travelers on an educational fundraising tour to farms, wineries, artisan food operations, public markets, and cultural sites in and around Barcelona and San Sebastian, Spain. We also took Catalan and Basque cooking classes and enjoyed many great meals. Here are some of the highlights:

The Gallecs Rural Area (GRA) lies just north of Barcelona. These 526 hectares of agricultural and forested land, historically part of a larger region, have so far avoided the industrial fate of adjacent properties. Unfortunately, the future of the area and its remaining farmers is uncertain. We visited with the GRA Consortium and local Slow Food leaders who are working together to conduct farmer trainings, maintain wildlife habitat, and create branding for the unique crops produced there, all in hopes of generating enough public support to ensure preservation of this land. We walked the trails and toured bean and onion fields before enjoying a homemade meal prepared by one of the region’s directors, Marina Duñach.  

Outside of San Sebastian, in the beautiful and rugged Basque countryside, we visited with Pello Urdapilleta, a former engineer who, in researching his ancestry, discovered a long family history of pig farming. When he also learned that the only remaining Basque pig breed was endangered, Pello rededicated his life to saving and developing a market for the heritage breed. Euskal Txerria pigs have short legs, long floppy ears, and black spots. They forage for acorns, chestnuts, hazelnuts, and grass most of their lives, until Pello switches them to a diet of corn, fava beans, and bran just before slaughter. Pello uses traditional methods to cure the meat, which we had the opportunity to sample alongside wonderful local cheeses and txakoli wine.  To learn more about Euskal Txerria pigs, a Slow Food Presidium project, click here. To view a short video of the pigs foraging during our visit, click here.

Also south of San Sebastian, we visited Aroa farm, a 3.5-hectare organic operation owned by Jaime Burgaña. In the fields, we sampled intensely flavored herbs, salad greens, and wonderfully sweet strawberries–just a few of the many fruit and vegetable varieties Jaime grows. Aroa sells directly to many leading Basque chefs, who try out new recipes in the farm’s test kitchen. Jaime and his wife Rosa, who have learned a great deal in the kitchen observing these chefs, prepared us a delicious meal featuring their produce and fresh, local tuna.

The city of Barcelona operates over 40 public markets, the largest and most famous of which is La Boqueria. Recently acknowledged by the US-based Project for Public Spaces as the best public market in the world, this large, indoor marketplace features high quality, beautifully displayed fresh produce and meats and prepared foods from around the world.  There is also a small local producers’ area adjacent to the main building. In San Sebastian, we toured La Brecha market, where a local producer’s market flanks the outside of the building, which contains a variety of specialty stores, butcher shops and fishmongers in a format similar to the Ferry Building. To learn more about the Barcelona market system, click here (website is in Catalan).

In addition to cooking lessons and on-farm meals, we had many opportunities to eat our way through Northern Spain. Catalan cuisine is known for its signature sauces such as alioli, romesco and sofrito. We enjoyed no less than three different delicious types of paella, a variety of dishes featuring salt cod, a stuffed tortilla (omelet), and many other regional specialties. 

Basque cuisine is deceptively simple. It does not rely as much on the varied sauces, but rather on using fresh products and celebrating their quality and flavor.  Highlights included freshly harvested and sautéed wild mushrooms, roasted peppers, and grilled fresh local fish.  Pintxos (tapas) reached their zenith in San Sebastian, where we spent several late nights tasting our way through the city.

Of the many great farms, markets, wineries, restaurants and other places we visited, perhaps the greatest memory of all is of the interesting people we met along the way. They shared their passions, talents, homes, and stories, while always encouraging and reminding us to slow down and enjoy life fully. Thanks to all of you!

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