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Discovering how the Costa Brava has shed its package-holiday image

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Nature blesses the coast of the Costa Brava. Here, the Girona Pyrenees converge with the Mediterranean and nearly 40 miles of corrugated coastline stretch from Blanes, north of Barcelona, all of the solution to France.

Inland, forests of pines, poplars and oaks make this one in all Iberia’s lushest corners. Produce is bounteous; the raw ingredients for fantastic and earthy dishes include the wine and oil from Emporda, the rice from Pals, the anchovies from L’Escala, the red prawns from Palamos, the kidney beans from Santa Pau, and the ocean urchins from ultramarine waters.

The Costa Brava captured the British imagination first as a package holiday destination within the Nineteen Sixties. But after its moment within the sun, resort towns comparable to Lloret de Mar were eclipsed by the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol in the course of the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties.

Lydia reveals that she explored Girona, above, ‘not street by street but morsel by morsel’. She adds: ‘Girona offers a day by day life that is of course gastronomic. Fish stalls glisten with red, raw scorpion fish, and gooey piles of squid. In bars and cafes there may be coffee with chuchos – cream rolled into crisp sweet pastry – croquetas full of leftover stew, pan con tomate draped with Escala anchovies and Emporda wines’

As of late though, the main target is on gourmet culture and nature. The coast is essentially the playground of Barcelona, and lots of locals try of town at weekends and head here to hike, swim, or forage for rovello mushrooms.

Most significantly, the Costa Brava is where the Catalans reinvented Spanish cuisine. 

Most foodies argue that this was the natural results of exquisite produce and the nouvelle cuisine of the French South bleeding down from the border, cross-fertilising with home-grown talent. Ferran Adria and the Roca brothers triggered the avalanche of Michelin stars: now the realm has 16.

I’ve arrived here principally to eat, on my first trip abroad because the Covid pandemic began and, fittingly, stay on the 77-room-and-suite Hostal de la Gavina. Opened in 1932, it nestles with a defiant unchangingness amid all this foodie pedigree on a prized rocky promontory in S’Agaro, an hour north of Barcelona.

Heritage: Lydia checked into the 77-room-and-suite Hostal de la Gavina, which opened in 1932

Heritage: Lydia checked into the 77-room-and-suite Hostal de la Gavina, which opened in 1932

Hostal de la Gavina 'nestles with a defiant unchangingness... on a prized rocky promontory in S'Agaro, an hour north of Barcelona'

Hostal de la Gavina ‘nestles with a defiant unchangingness… on a prized rocky promontory in S’Agaro, an hour north of Barcelona’

Hostal de la Gavina's subterranean Michelin-starred restaurant, Candlelight by Romain Fornell

Hostal de la Gavina’s subterranean Michelin-starred restaurant, Candlelight by Romain Fornell

An example of one of the artfully presented dishes at the Candlelight by Romain Fornell restaurant Hostal de la Gavina's Blue Bar terrace

Pictured left is an example of one in all the artfully presented dishes on the Candlelight by Romain Fornell restaurant. On the appropriate is Hostal de la Gavina’s Blue Bar terrace

The Hostal de la Gavina's Spanish old-world glamour has attracted over the years Hollywood stars, European royalty and even Lady Gaga

The Hostal de la Gavina’s Spanish old-world glamour has attracted through the years Hollywood stars, European royalty and even Lady Gaga

The hotel’s Spanish old-world glamour has attracted through the years Hollywood stars, European royalty and even Lady Gaga. However the core clientele are generations of smart Barcelona families and the odd incomer from the Cote d’Azur. 

Repeat guests often stick religiously to the identical dates, and even in the identical rooms. Inlaid marble and parquet floors, giant sprays of flowers, Hellenic-style pillars and ubiquitous bulbous mahogany smack of old Spain. However the hotel’s raison d’etre is benefiting from its food heritage.

There are three restaurants, one Michelin-starred, and Gavina approaches food in a way that veers pleasingly between unreconstructed Spanishness, and deftly conceptualised fantastic dining.

Seconds after I arrive, a lady appears at my door brandishing a big crested dinner plate piled high with glistening jamon Iberico. ‘Are you sure that is for me?’ I ask. ‘Segura,’ she replies.

Only one slice before dinner cannot hurt, I tell myself, then devour it in a single go. Soon after, I head with my group to Hostal de la Gavina’s subterranean Michelin-starred restaurant, Candlelight by Romain Fornell. It’s tiny, low-key, and exquisite. The food is served on pastel plates painted with leaves and flowers.

A junior suite at the Hostal de la Gavina. Touching on the hotel's interiors, Lydia says: 'Inlaid marble and parquet floors, giant sprays of flowers, Hellenic-style pillars and ubiquitous bulbous mahogany smack of old Spain'

A junior suite on the Hostal de la Gavina. Touching on the hotel’s interiors, Lydia says: ‘Inlaid marble and parquet floors, giant sprays of flowers, Hellenic-style pillars and ubiquitous bulbous mahogany smack of old Spain’

Jamon Iberico is popular in the Costa Brava region. Lydia devours a whole plateful of it at her hotel

Jamon Iberico is popular within the Costa Brava region. Lydia devours an entire plateful of it at her hotel

The degustation (tasting) menu is peppered with pretty, intensely flavoured things: foie bonbons, liquid olives, and the tiniest of baby shrimps decorated with a soupcon of plankton mayonnaise. 

There are three butters: rosemary, white wine and tomato. A fennel vichyssoise is served on an enormous slab of ice decorated with rose petals like a shimmering culinary watercolour. 

Later we retire to El Barco, the bar they call The Boat for its panelling and its studied air of being on a Titanic-era ship. 

It looks as if it hasn’t modified since 1932. Staff stay at La Gavina so long that as recently as last yr, the now-retired bartender was available to regale visitors a few row he once witnessed between Ava Gardner and her partner Frank Sinatra within the bar in 1951. 

A view of the 11th Century castle Salvador Dali bought for his lover, Gala, in Pubol, which he also used as a studio until 1984. Lydia dropped by, but said: 'We don't linger: sunshine and Michelin stars are calling'

A view of the eleventh Century castle Salvador Dali bought for his lover, Gala, in Pubol, which he also used as a studio until 1984. Lydia dropped by, but said: ‘We do not linger: sunshine and Michelin stars are calling’

The Costa Brava coast's most famous son, Salvador Dali

The Costa Brava coast’s most famous son, Salvador Dali

Discovering that his woman was in a suspected dalliance with bullfighter-turned-actor Mario Cabre on the set of Pandora And The Flying Dutchman, Sinatra flew in to investigate cross-check her. 

After just a few dry martinis, she slapped him around the face, but ultimately she forgave him his machismo they usually still got married later that yr.

Having eaten our way through the hotel, we branch out to nearby Girona, exploring it not street by street but morsel by morsel. Considered one of the longest-established towns in Spain, Girona built its wealth on paper mills, red wine, cork production and furniture. 

As its residents fiercely advocate for self-determination, the crimson and gold flags of independence hang from many windows. Stolidly middle-class and uniformly prosperous when contrasted with Barcelona’s extremes of wealth and poverty, Girona offers a day by day life that is of course gastronomic.

Fish stalls glisten with red, raw scorpion fish, and gooey piles of squid. In bars and cafes there may be coffee with chuchos – cream rolled into crisp sweet pastry – croquetas full of leftover stew, pan con tomate draped with Escala anchovies and Emporda wines.

The coast’s most famous son is Salvador Dali, so we take time to go to the eleventh Century castle he bought for his lover, Gala, in Pubol, used as a studio until 1984.

Shocking-pink bougainvillea shrouds its outline against a cornflower sky. Dali was only allowed to go to at Gala’s invitation, or so the guide claims. There are gold fish for taps, and sculptural heads adorn the swimming pool. Gala is buried within the basement, in a lonely and melancholy mausoleum. We do not linger: sunshine and Michelin stars are calling.

Els Tinars restaurant, which has a bustling, country-house feel and white-on-white decor, is just off a four-lane highway, but a thicket of pine trees shields us from all of it. 

The delicious lunchtime degustation includes many perfections, however it is the blue lobster with Iberian bacon, and figs with olive oil ice cream and caramelised pain perdu, that linger in my mouth.

On a budget flight home later that afternoon, I peruse the in-flight menu. It is a cruel come-down after a wonderful last supper, and I remind myself to ease out more gently the following time I come to the Costa Brava to eat myself silly.

TRAVEL FACTS 

B&B at Hostal de la Gavina costs from £240 per room per night (lagavina.com/en).

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