Ben Holbrook tasted his way through the cava capital of the world, where he discovered that luxury of cava is still an affordable and essential ingredient of everyday life. Cava is sparkling wine and is part of the pride of the wine industry in Spain.
By Ben Holbrook
“In Cataluña this is a delicacy, but before it was food for the farmers,” Marijose told us. “We only had bread to eat, so when it was hard (she knocked her knuckles on the table whilst shaking her head) we put on the garlic and tomato, and the oil of the olive to make it soft.”
She had short, matte-black hair with talcum powder hues flowing through her fringe, and her wrinkles became deeper and more profound as she talked about the food she had prepared for us. I’d eaten pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato, oil and garlic) before but this was exceptional. Encouraged by our smiley faces, Marijose moved on to the semi curat pur d’ovella (sheep’s cheese). It was cut into bite-sized rectangles and intricately spread out over the plate like a sun-bleached Gaudi mosaic.
“The cheese, this cheese, it is from here, from Sant Sadurní d’Anoia – it is cheese of the sheep.” We demolished every last crumb and paid the bill of €6.60. Marijose gave us another warm smile before darting off to serve a queue of bow-legged punters who were waiting at the bar like thirsty cowboys.
We ran down to the foyer where we met the rest of the group. Our guide approached. His back hunched and eyes glowing against dark olive skin. “Good morning everyone, my name is Carlos. Welcome to Freixenet!” He spoke clearly and sounded a little like Jon Travolta back in the days of Boogie Nights. “OK, guys! Who wants to see the cellar?” We were in the quiet Penedès region of Catalonia, an hour’s train ride from Barcelona. The region is world-famous for its outstanding cava and produces ninety five percent of Spain’s quota.
The walls were the colour of rich red soil and covered in a hundred years’ worth of cotton candy cobwebs. My knees jarred and ached as we descended deeper underground to a place with cathedral-arched ceilings and a climate that reminded me of home. Dusty bottles rested like nuclear missiles in aircraft hangers. Chunks of bricks were missing where a few bottles had exploded at some point during the fermentation process.
“There are 12,000 people in the town of Sant Sadurni and 97% of them are involved in the production of cava. We say that if you buy cava and it is not from the town of Sant Sadurni, well, it’s not really cava.” We learnt that cava is made in the exact same way as champagne. The only reason that champagne costs a fortune, and cava is dirt cheap, is down to the fact that it’s so much easier to produce in Catalonia’s generous climate.
“You know, we are not normally allowed to take guests through these parts of the cellars, but I’m so happy, because you know, two weeks ago I got married and to celebrate I’m going to show you something very special.” He took the cork out of a baby elephant-sized barrel and encouraged us to stick our noses in and have a good whiff. It smelt like burnt cherries and Christmas trees. “At Freixenet, we squeeze the grapes very softly so we don’t break the seeds. This gives the really smooth flavour that you get with good cava”, Carlos boasted.
Re-entering the tasting room through a considerably less impressive doorway than before, we were back where we’d started. “Hola!” called Marijose, as a mother would welcome her children. Sylvie and I sat with the rest of the group and got to work on some Cordon Negro Reserve Brut, which refreshed my mouth like explosions of cinnamon apple.
This was followed by a number of tastings based on Carlos’ personal recommendations. I had asked him what he would drink on a regular basis, as well as where he would go on the weekends with his friends. I was hoping we’d have a few recommendations to try out after the tour. “All of my friends work for different cava producers, so we get together in our houses and try different cavas.” A particular favourite of mine was the gluggable Trepat, which Carlos explained was ideal for drinking in volume – I would most certainly have to agree.
The rest of the group excused themselves and exited quietly through the gift shop – no doubt picking up a few bottles of vintage cava for the road (at less than €10 a bottle, it’d be a crime not to). Marijose opened a bottle of pink Brut Rose and, as so often happens after a few drinks, the conversation turned to politics. I asked Carlos if they’d experienced any downturn in their production as a result of the nose-diving economy. He scrunched up his face, instantly looking ten years older, and shook his head whilst tutting. “No, we still have our jobs and the company is growing. It is true that Spain as a country is in a lot of trouble, but here in Catalonia, we are safe. We say that in Catalonia we are supporting the rest of the country, and this is why we fight for our independence. With this, Catalonia would be very, very rich.”
Finally, we sipped a Malvasia dessert cava. It was soulfully sweet and sent shivers down my spine. I noticed Carlos staring silently at the floor for a moment, with his arms crossed tightly. I wondered if I’d said too much, if I’d darkened the mood. Then he stood up with the grin back on his face and grabbed my hand whilst looking into my eyes: “You know, never mind about ‘the crisis’, Catalonia is not a bad place to propose to your girlfriend, you know?” It took all of my will power not to give him a big hug. “You’re right, Carlos. And it’s not a bad place to live, either.”
Info on Freixenet Tours – about 45 minutes from Barcelona.
Ben Holbrook writes at Driftwood Journals.