Spanish Cheese Tour, Continued

Day 1, Week 4

Have you already knocked off the El Camino de Santiago? What’s next? Here is an option that’ll take you due East (vs North) from Lisbon to the Spanish border, where upon you’ll immediately wander into the D.O.P. region of Badajoz. I call this the El Camino de Cheesus tour.

The choice of this goat cheese came to me via a strolling of my favourite market in Barcelona called Mercat Nord. However, it was shipped to the vender through a distributor of artisan cheeses in town called Llet Crua This company features cheeses from small producers located mostly around Spain, but also places beyond. Their only selection criteria: “A cheese must be as passionately made as their passion for eating it.” It is not a restaurant, but they do host regular cheese tasting events when not during Covid.

The couple who run it have a particular affinity for raw milk cheeses as, in their opinion, those not made with pasteurized milk tend to taste better and retain more properties of milk and animal feed

I have never walked the El Camino. But, if I do I hope it is more memorable than trying this cheese. It smelled seductively goatish and the texture had a pleasing and delicate pastiness. In short, I respect the quality of its production. It’s just that its taste was milder than expected. Instead, it delivered its flavourful punch more as an afterthought.

In summary, eating this cheese is kind of like doing a pilgrimage adventure, where the memory of experiencing it is even better than the actual trod into the Cathedral of James the Creator.

Spanish Cheese Tour 2021 – Week 3

Day 1, Week 3

The oddly named “Sea Otter” Festival is the largest bicycle show in Europe. This year it was hosted by Girona, about a 38-minute travel by fast train north from Barcelona. Clearly, I had to attend, and invited a new friend from my Sun Rise Running/Walking group to join in the fun. This was the by far the best biking relating showcase I’ve ever witnessed. Plus, it was a Covid year so much smaller than usual.

Had this been The Spanish Cheese Show, it might have featured 28 booths, each representing a different DOP of the country. These “Protected Designations of Origin” are a similar classification system as used by wine producers. Actually, throw in two Protected Geographical Locations (IGP) and you’ve got yourself a really tasty day of cheese sampling. Both our flat in Barcelona and the bike show are in Region #6: Queso de L’Alt & La Cerdanya – Catalonia.

As I’ve previously written, Spain produces well over 100 different varieties of cheese, but all can be divided into three main classes:

Fresh Cheese (Queso Fresco): Not cured or aged in any way.
Semi-Cured (Queso Semi Curado): Aged for around two to four months.
Cured (Queso Curado): Cured for 4 months or more.

In general, cheeses from cow milk are found in the north, along the Cantabrian coast, from Galicia to the Basque Country, and along the northern Cantabric Mountain Range and the Pyrenees. Moving inland is where you’ll nibble curd from sheep’s milk. Especially from the north, in Cantabria and the Basque Country, down to the flat lands of Castilla-León, Castilla La Mancha, Aragón and Extremadura.

If you think goat cheese is the GOAT, then look for one produced along the Mediterranean coast, from Catalonia to Andalucia, or on the Canary Islands and Balearic islands.

So, that’s it for today. Later this week, I’ll feature the cheese show of cheese shops here in Barcelona.  I’ll also take a test ride on a somewhat erotically-shaped cheese from Galicia. Hasta manaña!

Day 2, Week 3

I am wondering if I have any chance of getting through this post today without offending someone. Oh well, here goes!

To be on the beach in Barcelona during the warm months, it is near impossible (at least for me) to not notice all the topless sun bathers. Likewise on the deck of my health club around its rooftop pool. Even on the streets. While most women here don’t stroll about footloose and frock free, the majority do dress with unabashed style and coolness. All that brings me back to today’s cheese, which is a celebration of the beauty of the breast.

It is called Queso Tetilla, which in English translates to Nipple Cheese. This product is from the D.O.P. of Galicia (the northwest corner of Spain). Its distinctive conical shape is achieved by the funnels used to curdle the cow milk. Cut through its hard, yellow bark though, and the texture is firm yet soft with a pleasant pastiness. It has a maturity date of around seven days, so is quite mild tasting. Keep chilled ‘til about an hour before eating to avoid too much sag.

This cheese is best served with a young red, rosé or cava. I don’t think it’s appropriate to judge the size of the wine glass you use. And certainly, don’t believe that if you decide to go with a bigger, rounder “coupe,” any more than a mouthful would be a waste. Though, what sayeth Napoleon and Josephine on the matter is anyone’s guess.

Day 3, Week 3

I often smile to myself when I see a couple of locals sipping on a cerveza during my early day strolling. Last week I saw a couple of older men nibbling their croissant and marmalade with a wine chaser. By saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that I think Barcelonans drink too much, because I don’t. I believe that most imbibe in refined moderation, but back to their beverage of choice in the AM. Much socializing and many sporting groups tend to gather early around the sharing of a round of café con leches (with milk) and a side of lemon or cinnamon cake.

Cheese is another popular item to host a party around. Hmm … imagine if you could combine it with the java and the cake. Surely, you’d have a winner!

I present to you Café y Canela. This soft, semi-cured cheese is made from Galician cow milk. But the real story here is not the softish interior flavoured with hints of yoghurt and cream, it’s the dark brown rind, subtly infused with a mixture of coffee and cinnamon (canela). This unique combination won the producer Mouro a gold medal at the World Cheese Awards in 2018.

Curds y coffee! Wow, this sure sounds like hitting two of the major morning food groups to me. Toss in some bacon bits, and you’ve got yourself a real breakfast of cheesy champions.

I’ll have to bring some to my next Sunrise Java y Jog Meetup.

Day 4, Week 3

Yesterday, I made a second attempt to negotiate a cycling route on the other side of the Collserola. This mountainous green space is the largest city park in the world, and is best known for the Tibidabo amusement park and Temple of the Sacred Heart church that crown its peak. The two points of popular interest enjoy a beautiful view over Barcelona.

I usually bike up the 400m of vertical. Catch my breath. Gulp down some water. Acknowledge the view. And get ready to hit the breaks for the long descent home. To mix things up, I decided to explore a loop that took me around the park along the Besós Riverpark Recreation Path before (with luck) bringing me to spot where I could climb up the mountain from the backside. My earlier effort this week ended in navigational failure, so I was extra determined this time.

Mission eventually accomplished! To celebrate my success, I decided to try a cheese from the far side of the coastal range. Well … quite far in fact, as in the foothills of the Pyrenees in an area called Lluçanès. Apparently, this region offers optimal temperature and humidity conditions for the ripening and refining of the most award-winning cheeses in Cataloña.

Today’s cheese is Blanc de Betera. The Betera family was the first in the D.O.P to produce organic cheese. Apparently before them, that designation was reserved for yoghurt and milk.

This product is aged 60 days. When you open the package, the smell of goat is what first butts you in the nostrils. The outer rind is whitish as is the interior (hence the name Blanc). Take a bite and the texture is like an ultra-smooth feta that melts in your mouth. It really needs crackers and a Cava to give it some balance. This is a cheese to be taken seriously!

The producer touts the taste as sweet with a nut finish, which reminds me of my own nutty pursuit that also had a sweet finish.

Day 5, Week 3

One of my minor frustrations with our kitchen in Spain is the refrigerator. It opens and closes. But then it doesn’t allow for a re-open right away. It seals itself shut until the cool interior equalizes with the ambient room air that got mixed in. The problem is usually resolved within 30 to 60 seconds.

That got me thinking about closing the fridge door that houses all the amazing Spanish cheeses for me yet to explore. I will do that with this post about the best cheese shop that I’ve ever been to. Its called Vila Viniteca – Gastronomy. This store in El Born is all about cheese, charcuterie meats, wines and anything else you might want to include on a tapas platter. Two of the cheeses I reviewed came from there, including my favourite – the Sant Ignaci. The flagship store has a sit-down sampling area that was closed during the Covid restrictions. There is a related shop that sells muchos vinos solo across the street.

It’s the only place that displays their cheeses and meats openly. All the others keep their products under glass. Each is well marked with a little flag stating its name and origin. I really appreciated the chance to peruse the curds without the pressure of an enthusiastic “quesero” (a.k.a cheese monger) hovering.

I will review more cheeses when the pressure equalizes with all that I have to do in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I am very excited about opening up the refrigerator again and discovering what shops like Vila Viniteca have to tantalize my taste buds in the future

Hasta luego

Él Cheesus

Spanish Cheese Tour 2021 – Week 2

Day 1

My wife Diana and I have owned this flat for almost five years. It is operated by a local Barcelona company. Last week we parted ways with the manager we had employed for the past four years. Today I met the first of two potential candidates to replace them. I arrived at the meeting with a sheet of carefully prepared questions to ask. However, in very short order, this thirty-something year old woman convinced me that many of my existing assumptions about how flats are best promoted and managed were no longer valid. New technology and ideas were replacing old ways of doing things. The promise was better and easier. While I tend to be an early adopter, the anticipation of significant change in store also made me a little anxious.

That is a long segue into my decision to symbolically fight progress with today’s sampling of the oldest cheese from the Basque country. This soft and smooth cheese wedge is produced from cow milk (and a bit of butter) in the Northwest of Spain. It is called Saroi Unaiak. The Unaiaks were Basque cowboys, while the legendary Saroi was the first among them to make a cheese that could even make a fox salivate for its taste  – versus the temptation of the cow itself. If you like a Manchego, you will like this cheese. It is gentle to cut and delicately flavourful.

Despite this minor backlash, I know you can’t always fight time. But with this cheese, I could for at least a few loving mouthfuls.

Day 2, Week 2

One of the most popular places for sharing a slice in Barcelona is a former underground garage called Parking Pizza. In this large concrete-walled interior space, you sit shoulder to shoulder with other diners at long tables. Every seat has a cushion that can be removed to reveal a hollow, designed to secure your purse or backpack. There was a 35-minute wait for an opening “para dos personas” when I got there at 9:15 pm on a Tuesday.

My companion Moshe is an outdoor adventure guide that I met on a ski trip to Andorra, pre-Covid, last year. He is passionate about “literally” showing people the ropes (note the correct use of the word), especially while on climbing trips in the mountains. That brings me to today’s topic: What are the relative advantages of using milk from sheep, goats or cows in the production of cheese? Please allow me to be your guide through this “curdish” exploration.

The milk from sheep offers farmer’s the chance to create a more buttery, aromatic product. Ya gotta’ love the upside of a higher fat content. On the other hoof, goat’s milk can deliver a touch of spiciness with an acrid flavour profile. The latter is the result of chewing lots of gnarly brambles and thorny grasses.

Cow milk is the best choice for anyone who wants their cracker-topper with a milder flavour, heavier mouthfeel, and more creaminess. Obviously, all these descriptors are scaled based on the diet and digestion of the cheese producing animal.

So, that’s it – no review today! As per the restaurant we dined in, I decided to park the cheese I bought today until tomorrow.

Day 3, Week 2

The coastline off Barcelona faces southeast, so every sunrise is shaped by a view of the Sea and the mountains beyond Badalona to the North. In short, it’s often worth the effort to greet “el sol nuevo” somewhere along the beach. Hence the reason behind the creation of the Sun Runners Meetup group, which gathers every Wednesday and Friday for a chance to run or walk together in the gleam of the dawning day.

What is Meetup? It’s a website that allows people with a common interest to connect with others from the same location. I have previously joined a group of road cyclists and skiers here in Spain. Today I was a Sun Runner (bad knees means walker actually). And, today’s cheese is a mix of many different characteristics, a real medley like the people in a typical Meetup.

Imagine a cheese that combines the tones of fresh yoghurt and cream, with hints of sweet butter and toasted milk, and an aftertaste of cinnamon and nuts. That’s the profile of Garcia Baquero. It is Semi-cured so the texture is moderately soft. Its appearance is a slight shiny beige.

I thought this cheese was very OK and reminds of the sunrise I saw this morning. It was pretty but not as boldly coloured as I had hoped to reward my effort of getting up and down to Barceloneta so early. In another odd parallel, I actually liked the aftertaste best with the cheese, and the post-workout coffees best with the meet up.

Appropriately, here’s the advertising line for the cheese: “So good that it brings your friends together.” In the same vein, so does the next Meetup I might try next thursday: “Vinos, Quesos and Fun.

Day 4, Week 2

Emi Carles is a butcher shop/delicatessen only a block from our flat selling all manner of foods that would be perfect on any tapas platter. I was there this afternoon eyeing their selection of cured meats, pastes, breads, condiments, olives, jams, pickles, etc. Of course, my prime directive was to sample a new curd. With that in mind, I stared through the glass case displaying the store’s modest selection of fine formatge (that’s Catalan for cheese).

The proprietor was eager to serve me and enthusiastically described his selection of Spanish product, which largely consisted of Manchegos. There are well over 100 different varieties of cheese this in this country, with each region offering up its own specialties from fresh to cured, and fermented to those veined in blue. While many might debate the relative merits of Manchego, no one can deny that it is truly the most popular of them all – the “big cheese” you might say. It is from the province of La Mancha, which sits in the heart of Spain, extending south and east from Madrid.

How good is it? Well, it seems even William Shakespeare was fond of cheese from the land of Don Quixote based on this quote from Henry IV: “I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a windmill.”

I did buy a special Manchego, which I’ll post about tomorrow. But for today, I thought it better to link you to a short video that describes what this cheese is and how it is produced. Hopefully at its conclusion, you’ll have a better understanding as to why this sheep milk product is the most famous of all the Spanish cheeses – Baa none!

Day 5, Week 2

Yesterday I went for a bicycle ride up the mountain that keeps watch over the port of Barcelona. At its top, El Castillo sits 177 meters above the Med. There is a small labyrinth of route options that lead to this fortress. But some choices veer too far the wrong the direction, while others simply dead end at a parking lot. Clearly, my road to success required some persistent exploration!

This got me thinking about my hunt for Spanish Queso Tour, and the increasing challenge it was becoming to find a new cheese to sample. With well over 100 Spanish varieties to discover, they are certainly out there, but I am reaching the limit of my local shops. It seems that I will soon have to travel outside my neighbourhood and eventually outside my city to find something new. In this spirit, I chose a fungus-based flavouring for my post today.

It’s called “Manchego con trufa negra” or Machego with black truffle. When I bought it, I was thinking of the swine that farmers have used for generations to sniff out truffles attached to tree roots. Now I feel like pig hunting for cheese varieties!

In the case of this cheese, Spanish producers inject the truffle along with extra virgin olive oil to create the characteristic black veins. The result is very pleasant all around. I really enjoyed the soft texture and elegant look. It’s definitely a tapas serving dressed to impress, with a designer label and tasteful black style lines.

Back to the truffle hunters. In reality, pigs have long been out of favour. Today, the trained truffle dog has the preferred nose. I guess in the same way that Garmin now helps the lost cyclist and Google the ambitious cheese blogger.

Day 6, Week 2

Today’s cheese is a real cracker. Actually, it would be tough to serve this Catalan specialty on anything biscuit-like. At issue is the creamy goo that oozes out of it when you remove the small wheel from its wooden container and cut into it. Fortunately, I bought a small baguette to do the job. More on my tasting in a moment.

Today is also day two of La Mercé festival. This celebration of mostly Catalan culture honours Mare de Deu de la Mercè (Mother of God of Mercy). Quite often it rains at some time over the three-day event. Por qué? Because prior to La Mercé being ratified as the patron saint of Barcelona, the city already had one: Santa Eulàlia. So, Eulália weeps every year because its citizens have now forgotten about her.

Now back to the cheese.

It is called Sant Ignaci, a cow cheese matured for three weeks in mold and wonderfully flavourful. I found myself licking the wrapper and my fingers at the end of the tasting – hungry for just a little bit more ooze! I had a knife, but this is a cheese best applied with a spoon. It is just shy of being enjoyed with a straw.

I was waiting for two weeks to find a runny cheese and here she is. Her arrival almost brought tears to my taste buds and is well worth creating a festival around.

Spanish Cheese Tour 2021 – Week #1

Day 1 – Tuesday

To celebrate the first day of my Spanish cheese tour. I chose this “Especial de Catalunya” at El Born market today. It is called: Gris de Muntanya, which is Catalan for Grey Mountain. The texture is semi soft and the flavour is moderately sharp.

My preference for this cheese is only so so, which leaves lots of room for better and worse quesos going forward. So, let the fromage fun continue in earnest tomorrow. My wife Diana tells me that if I do a good job with this blog series, I might have readers hanging on my every “curd.” Uggh …! With that bad pun out of the whey, I promise to present you cheeses that somehow speak to the day I am experiencing in my newly adopted country of Spain, and my new home city of Barcelona. Salud.

Day 2 – Wednesday

Today’s cheese adventure is brought to you by El Cot. This gourmet delicatessen was conveniently located on the road back home from my misadventure trying to surf some big “olas” at the beach in Barcelona. Like each wave that tossed me hither and thither, this cheese is streaked with blues and greens. And it had much the same bold impact on my mouth.

It’s called Savel and is from a little town in the extreme Northwest of Spain. Look for Lugo on your maps. Ironically, that Atlantic coast is also home to some of the world’s biggest waves. Ideally, nibbling this cheese is done with a dry rose to balance out it’s mix of bitterness and flattering flavour. It was named the “Best Blue Cheese in Spain 2019,” but is not yet a sponsor of the World Surf Tour.

Day 3 – Thursday

For reasons not worth getting into, I arrived in Spain without a map of Europe loaded onto my Garmin cycling device. The technology solution existed at a store a long way from our flat in an area that was unfamiliar to me. Thus, began my morning of navigating a large swath of Barcelona just following my nose.

This theme of boldly “just going” seems a good segue into a discussion of today’s cheese. It’s from a typical neighbourhood farmer’s market outside of my usual radius. Urgèlia is produced in the cheese district (D.O.) of Urgell-Cerdanya, which sits amid the foothills of the Pyrenees in Northern Catalunya. It is considered a savoury, semi-cured pasta cheese with a creamy(ish) texture and a fruity smell. It goes especially well with a morning of riding around in circles.

Day 4 – Friday

Today was a tough day, so I went to my new heath club for some chill time. The facility features a pool and a large jacuzzi that I much appreciated after my swim. It has rollers that extend above the jets that allow you to lay out while the water pulsates beneath your entire length. The whiteness of the bubbles surrounding my body was very soothing – exactly what el médico ordered. That got me thinking, why not a white cheese to complement the therapy?

Lazo Blanco was my choice from my most local of cheese merchants. This gluten-free cheese from the Castellón region (south of Barcelona just above Valencia) was not the bland goat product I’m used to finding in my Toronto Greek Town. It was amazing. The texture was the first to surprise being a semi-soft paste. I’ve never had such a mouth feel from any other edible. The aroma was slightly mossy stemming from the moldy rind, while the somewhat salty taste was pure creamy deliciousness. No wonder this product earned a World Cheese Award in 2012 and was named the “second best” cheese in Spain. Lazo means “ribbon” in Spanish, although it’s initial appeal through the glass was definitely a harkening back to the laziness of my earlier watery wind down.

Day 5 – Saturday

I almost missed doing this post today as I went for a very long ride with the Barcelona Road Cycling Group, napped and sipped a café all before heading out at 5:20pm in a slight drizzle to finally buy some cheese. After seeing lots of closed shops, and almost giving up, I eventually found un “abierto” sign in front of El Cot.

The owner’s son is always so excited to share his knowledge of all their gourmet delicacies. In honour of my 100km foray into the “big climb” area north and west of Barcelona, I asked him for a cheese that is produced in the mountains of Cataluña. The recommended choice was Romero. This artisanal product is made from sheep’s milk in the same style as Manchego – firm and moist.

Romero means “Rosemary” in Spanish and there is pungent aroma of the thick herb that coats it (and a hint of the Iberian pig lard that keeps it in place). I already know that I will love it just by its look and smell. I almost don’t want to cut into as it looks so pretty. Apparently, it tastes even better with a wine pairing, and I’m prepared with a bottle of sparkling rosé. Now the moment of truth … muy Bueno! I don’t always want a cheese that packs a punch, nor do I always want an uphill on my bike that does the same. Today the cheese and the ride were in perfect balance.

Day 6 – Sunday

This is what a gourmet cheese shop looks like on a Sunday in Barcelona. Esta cerrado. Come back again tomorrow for more cheese adventuring in España. Thank you for your continued patronage.

L’Eroica Cycling Story

Vintage Tuscany

A short tale of Bikes, Riders & Wine

The L’Eroica is a two-day gathering of cycling enthusiasts from around the world to ride together in a gruelling feat of athleticism using only vintage bicycles that must be dated from 1987 or before. I signed up to do the original of these events in Italy, but over the years the movement has spread to Spain, Great Britain, California, South Africa, the Netherlands and Japan. It is not a race, but more of a big day of shopping for vintage cycling parts, attire and art; attached to a second day of Gran Fondo. I had committed my fifty-seven year old legs to ride this event with my friend Jim Everard, also from Toronto, Canada.

My L’ Eroica cycling day started at 3:00 AM with a wake up call and a gathering of all the stuff that I would bring on my adventure through the Tuscan countryside in and around Siena.

This included:

  • filled water bottle;
  • container of pills to ease my expected muscle pain;
  • two energy bars;
  • Spanish phone;
  • Canadian passport;
  • Credit Card;
  • Ontario driver’s licence,
  • car key;
  • book to collect the necessary official stamps to prove completion of the 209 kms;
  • spare pre-glued tubular tire;
  • hand pump;
  • small set of folding allen keys and screw drivers;
    and a,
  • 50€ note.

All but the spare tire, pump and water bottle would be slotted into the front and rear pockets of my new Bianchi Ursa woollen jersey that I’d bought the day before at the marketplace near the start line in Gaiole in Chianti. We tried to make our exit relatively quietly so as not to disturb our long-suffering and patient wives trying to sleep through our obscenely early departure.

Our two-bedroom unit was tucked inside the thick walls of a thousand year old fortified village nestled in the aerie of Castello di Starda that stood over 1800 meters above the village of Gaiole. Put thoughts aside of enjoying any reliable WIFI and get used to only one restaurant option. I would have loved to have seen the view of the sun rising over this fantastic Tuscan perch that had once been a thriving middle point for people seeking safer passage on route to Florence from the south. But alas, that was not be be. At least not at this early morn to the extreme.

But I digress. So, let’s try this again.

My L’Eroica day started at 3:00 AM with the sound of pouring rain. This was not unexpected according to the many forecasts that I had been charting during the week prior. While it wasn’t a surprise, though, it was still disappointing as the gravel roads that lay ahead wouldn’t be easier with a big soaking.

Once the car was packed up, Jim and I began the long and extremely hairpin pathway down, down, down through the forest to the event start deep in the valley somewhere in the dense fog below us.

After parking in a designated field a short ways out of town, we rolled into the pack of vintage ciclotourist passionistas who were chanting in mostly Italian with eagerness to hit the road. After the commensurate photo of ourselves (quite grainy due to the dim lighting), we got our first official stamp on our L’Eroica passports just before the horn sounded and we all headed forth into the rain and blackness. It was very eerie pedalling into the misty forest-lined road.

The initial long downhill soon became a long steep uphill that led toward Brolio Castle, the former home of the powerful Ricasoli family. As we neared the remains, two stretched rows of candles burning on either side of the road heralded success in completing our first major ascent. The flaming carpet of gravel lit with a mix of blue, red and green was trulymagical. I couldn’t see the other riders well, but almost everyone was dressed in period costume. Most of the men (and they were mostly men) had facial hair of various shapes and sizes. I was sporting a handlebar moustache, at least I had been, until the wax keeping it in place dissolved with rain and sweat.

It wasn’t too long afterward that my bike started to act up. Most significantly, my right gear lever on the down tube would not keep its grip. That meant the chain kept slipping into the lowest gear. The steeper the pitch the more pronounced this problem became. This scenario forced me to constantly tighten it with my screwdriver or hold it down with my finger. Neither were ideal scenarios, while in the midst of a nearly continuous pattern of long ups and downs.

Then … my chain started to jam.

Then … my seat got loose and rocked with my every leg movement.

Then … I got stung by a wasp on the upper thigh, which almost evened out the extreme irritation of the wound on my chest from a surprise encounter with a jellyfish, two days prior while swimming in the south of France.

Then … I got a flat on my rear wheel.

Then … I learned how to change a flat tubular tire on the road, including painfully plying the rubber off its glue moorings on the wheel and stretching the tire to finally fit it over the rim. This process was extremely frustrating. Other riders passing by laughed at seeing me in the “rowers” position holding one end of the tire with my feet and pulling on the other with my arms. Only now, did I fully appreciate the sage advice of pre-stretching the tire before trying to put it on the wheel.

Then … I limped up and into the first checkpoint through the archway of an old castle to get my L’Eroica passport stamped for the second time. But first a quick picture with my phone of the hosts dressed in medieval garb … but where are my phone and 50€ bill that were in the back pocket of my shirt? And where is my Eroica passport that was in the same bag as my Canadian passport, my driver’s license and credit card?

All were gone. Undoubtedly, they fell out during one of my many sessions that saw me bending over to remove a back wheel and release a stuck chain.

  1. So there I was with no money, no phone, and no spare tire. I was also without my friend Jim who had pushed on more quickly thinking that I was in front of him. Plus, it was a long way back to the town of Gaiole where our car was parked. The ordeal was made even worse as no L’Eroica official could speak much (read any) English.

So, now what? Finishing the course seemed out of the question. All the futzing around with bike repairs and now dealing with lost items had greatly eaten into the time that I had budgeted to complete the ride before darkness. I really didn’t want to crawl into Gaiole past the time cut of 9:30 PM.

The thought of just rolling up into a ball of self pity certainly occurred to me. More than once in fact.

The easy way forward was to hitch a ride back to the start line relying on my “Fritalian” and hand gestures to communicate passage as best I could. Then it struck me. Here I am in Tuscany. It’s now a beautiful day and I’m on a bike. I’m not hurt, nor in any obvious danger. I have no money or ID or a spare tire, but isn’t all that just insurance IN CASE something happens. Now seemed like the perfect time to assume nothing else bad would occur. And if it did, I’d just have to deal with it as best I could.

So I just rode on. And on. And on.

The sun came out and it got hot (25º), but the dramatic undulating countryside was exactly as advertised. The rolling shades of brown, yellow, red and green fields pierced by tall Cypress stands proved a strong distraction from the weariness of the many long and steep hills, and the often rutted riding surface of the famous white gravel roads (for which this event actually served as fundraiser to preserve). In some sections the washboard was so intense that I felt my brains rattling. In other parts, the majesty of the next fortified village far ahead was enough to pull me up the inevitable hill necessary to reach it.

Eventually, I got to understand the personality of my old Bianchi Rekord 848-12V from 1982. I had bought it off Kijiji earlier in the year from a guy who’d had it hanging in his garage for thirty years. I was immediately drawn to it because of  its classic Celeste green colouring. This enhanced relationship with the steel steed allowed me to better adaptmy timing of when it would be necessary to pre-tighten the gear and alleviate slipping issues before they became climbing problems. I also give some credit to my exhausted impatience that had finally morphed into resigned patience.

And like the hills surrounding me, time rolled on. And on.

At one point I took ten minutes to bask under the Tuscan sun. Then I took another ten to bask in the Tuscan shade. Both were necessary stops to re-energize. Slowly the kilometres clicked off. At every rest point I ate and drank loads of water. It was only at 150 kms that I accepted my first sip of Chianti wine. A few red drops spilled onto my new blue and white sweater, which seemed only appropriate to mark my tour of this famous wine region.

That rest stop led right into the big mountain climb of the trek. I slogged it all the way to the top and was one of the very few I saw that didn’t get off their bike and push a spell. I had been reluctant to swap out the iconic Campagnola gear set that had come with bike. It had a 23 tooth maximum ring on the rear cassette. Clearly, the less sexy Suntour cassette with the 28 rear ring had done its job (more teeth makes it easier to climb steep hills).  Amid the gruelling grind of many ascents, including one at a 15% incline, I recall gasping out many thanks to Michael Barry Jr at Mariposa Cycles back in Toronto for encouraging me to make the switch.

It was amazing how many photographers were on route to catch the display of determined and dusty grimaces. I finally arrived at the crest of the climb and guess who was there catching his breath? Jim.

The last 40 km we completed together and side by side we pedalled into Gaiole almost 15 hours later at 7:46pm. It was near dark, but there was a glimmer of daylight remaining. Then came the medal ceremony and the gift of a commemorative bottle of wine to honour our heroic feat.

It seemed funnily appropriate that the gallery photo of us at the finish shows me totally almost obscured by a lovely Italian woman in front of me. Jim is seen here to the right of “Francesca” chatting with the invisible me.

Now I’m smiling and in recovery mode. But, that’s not where the really good news of this L’Eroica adventure ends. First, I was given notice by the Polizia in Gaiole that someone had found all of my identification. Here is the email that I received.

Your passport has been found. It is in Carabinieri’s station in Gaiole in Chianti (open today 11:00-14:00).
Best regards
Police officer
Federica Azzuppardi
POLIZIA MUNICIPALE
COMUNE DI GAIOLE IN CHIANTI

Then another message arrived that someone had turned in my phone and 50€ note!

Side Note:
My wife and I own a flat in Barcelona. To our delight, the Eroica organization recently partnered with a local Spaniard to open up the first Eroica café outside of Gaiole in Chianti. This new location is in Barcelona just a few blocks from our address in the Eixample neighbourhood of downtown. Its grand opening celebration was scheduled for the Saturday after our return to Barcelona from Tuscany.

This Italian themed café and pasta restaurant is quite large and features many vintage cycles – but no Bianchi’s! That gave me the idea to offer my bike to adorn one of their walls. I wasn’t planning on bringing it back to Canada anyway, and it would likely be safer hanging there versus stowed away in our apartment, which we rent out as an Airbnb. We had already experienced guests breaking open our locked cabinets and stealing from us.

So, I made the suggestion and the two owners jumped at the thought. In fact, they had received some criticism from L’Eroica for not having some Bianchi representation in their café. This large Italian manufacturer has a long history in the sport of cycling and is a big event sponsor.

Now my bike, which I affectionately refer to as: “Celeste,” graces a prominent display area in the bar. It makes me happy thinking that “she” will be there for others to enjoy as I did. My L’Eroica wooden number plate of #3443 hangs proudly on the crossbar.

Final note:
There are many distance options to challenge any rider who wants to experience L’Eroica (i.e 32 kms, 46 kms, 78 kms and 130 kms). If you want to enjoy the best of the whole experience, I suggest tackling a shorter distance than the 209 kms that we took on. A lesser trek makes the day less about the athleticism, but better enables you to embrace the vintage celebration that is at the event’s core. In fact, the shorter the loop the more likely people will be riding rare or unusual pedal contraptions from a much earlier generation than the 1980s-era bicycles that dominated my long course. They are also more apt to be in full vintage dress. On top of that, you could start in daylight, finish long before happy hour commences, and toast the marvel of just being there in Tuscany with a glass of Chianti at every food stop. Just writing this paragraph makes me thirsty to do it again – just differently. In the meantime, here’s to you L’Eroica. Salud …!

Chianti tasting note:
This is the authentic taste of Tuscany and the ultimate expression of Italian hospitality, whether shared between cycling friends or paired with a special L’Eroica gathering.

And, on that note:
The End

 

Post Script
Soon after my bike was hung, the Eroica café in Barcelona was visited by a special guest, famed Italian cyclist Felice Gimondi. Nicknamed “The Phoenix”, he is one of only six riders to have won the big three multi-stage classics: Le Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta. He is also the President of Bianchi’s mountain bike team. Given his association with this manufacturer, it was no surprise that he was overjoyed to sign the wooden number plate attached to Celeste.

Best Eats and Drinks

Best Eats and Drinks

There are hundreds of restaurants in Barcelona, and there are a number of websites that will help you pick which ones are the best. Here are some these websites to check out:

• Trip Advisor

Barcelona.com

Best Cafés

Best Tea Rooms

Best Croissants

Best Brunch

Best Lunches

Best Trendy

Best Hip

Best Tapas Bars

Best Pintxos

Best Wine Bars

Best Beer Bars

Best Craft Beers

Best Cocktail Bars

• Best Gin & Tonics

• Elite Traveler

Hardest to get into. This restaurant called Tickets must be booked three months before you hope to go. Alternatively, try their sister restaurant across the street called Bodega 1900, which features the same chef.

Best of the Neighborhood

Our list is more focussed on the neighbourhood surrounding the flat. We have been to all of the eateries listed. Here is what we found memorable about our experience at each of them:

Betlem – Girona, 70
This is a popular place for tapas and late night noshing. It is small, lively and filled with locals. There is a creepy puppet in the upper bookshelves with eyes that seem to stare only at you. It doesn’t take reservations, so go early or be patient.

Gorria – Diputaciòn, 421
It couldn’t be closer and the food is good. The atmosphere is very old world and the waiters are all men wearing black suit jackets. The restaurant has been a fixture in Barcelona for a long time, and you’ll note a number of celebrities have their pictures framed on the wall. The cuisine features the best in authentic Basque fare. Reservations are recommended, and the prices are moderate to high.

Il Birino – Ali bei, 123
Stroll past Gran Via on Sicilia and make a left in front of the bus station to find our new favourite place in Barcelona for pasta. You’ve got to order the spaghetti made in house and boiled in a big wheel of parmesan cheese. Wow!!! We also strongly recommend the lasagna. Both dishes go down even better with one of their local craft beers.

La Pepita – Còrsega, 343
Hip and casual is the ambiance of this well-reviewed place just above of Av. Diagonal toward the Gracia neighbourhood. It’s very popular with locals and stays open late for drinks and tapas. Just a couple of doors away is it’s sister bar called Vermut, which is especially popular for vermouth cocktails.

El Nacional – Passeig de Gràcia, 24 bis
This new palace of Catalan dining has taken Barcelona by storm. It was formerly an underground parking garage and has been transformed into a scene from the 1920’s Great Gatsby era. It’s extremely popular with locals and tourists, and should be experienced as part of your visit. It doesn’t take reservations, but when you get there you will have to pick a food type and get your name on a wait list. There is a section for fish, steak, tapas and lighter fare including dessert. You can wait for your table at the bar where they serve meat and cheese, or at one that offers oysters. Alternatively, they will phone you when your table is available. Just walk or taxi along Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes all the way to Passeig de Gràcia and it’s just to the right of the corner. Dress stylish and check out the washroom before you leave.

Cotton House – Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 670
This it the place to blow the budget! The restaurant is part of a hotel that recently refurbished a building that once housed the cotton industry in Spain. The surroundings are a gorgeous mix of old world elegance and modern style. The service is very attentive and the food beautifully prepared and plated. The paté bon bons were particularly memorable. There is an indoor restaurant open for lunch, tapas and dinner. On a beautiful day though, you should head out to the terrace and savour the tropical flowers. Be sure to stop into the library during the day and grab free, homemade marshmallows.  At night, they also stock cookies by the reception desk.

Granja Petitbo – Passeig Sant Joan, 82
Follow Arago to Passeig Sant Joan and you’ll find our favourite place for breakfast and lunch. It’s also many other people’s first choice, so get there early or be patient. All you Canadians, check out the old Toronto CFRB radio station map on the wall that shows where all the major allied bombing occurred during WWII.

CHICHALimona – Passeig Sant Joan, 80
This is like two restaurants in one. If you get tired of waiting to eat at Granje Petibo next door, Limona is a solid option for pastries and café con leche. The Chicha side is an excellent choice for lunch and dinner, with a fun menu and great drinks. We especially liked the well designed tinned seafood that is available to purchase and enjoy at home.

Vic Braseria
Only a block down Sicilia is this wonderful spot, popular with locals, with a delicious Menu del dia for under 10 euros. The daily lunch feature consists of an appetizer, entrée and dessert. Be sure to try the black rice with seafood – a tasty Catalan favorite and usually the most popular dish on the menu. The menu completely changes for dinner, and the Catalan Grill sharing plate is a must.

Yubari – Av. Diagonal, 339 bis
It’s very hip to eat Japanese at this extremely cool and well-reviewed spot. They offer old and new style sashimi, and other tasty delicacies. On the first floor is a large CGI rendered scene of graceful underwater sea life swimming past your table.

La Rita – Aragó, 279
This is a very popular choice for a Catalan-style lunch. Get there early or join the line.

La Taqueria – Passatge de Font, 5
Need a break from Spanish food? Try this Mexican place for “Auténtica gastromia callejara mexicana.” This very casual eatery is also very popular, so make reservations or get there early. If you get tired of waiting in line, walk back to the corner of Passatge de Font and Valencia and go into Cantina la Mexicana. The food is good and they have a number of delicious margarita options.

 

Our recent favourites:

Bellavista del Jardin del Norte

It’s new and fabulous. You will find it in the upscale neighbourhood of Eixample Esquerra, just down from the Diagonal and just south of Passeig de Gracia. The atmosphere is very eclectic (we especially loved the free vintage video games, including Ms PacMan) and the food is modern, Spanish and delicious (you must order the empanadas). Rumour has that there is even a Messi connection to it’s ownership.

Dry Martini

Around the corner from Bellavista is a Bar that also tops the list of Best places for Gin & Tonic in our list above. Inside it, you feel like you’ve walked onto the set of Mad Men (in fact above our chairs the framed faces of Jon Hamm and John Slattery looked over us). The waiters are older men all wearing white jacket and bow ties. But, what was really special were the drinks. There are a number of wacky concoctions, including one that was served in a cat glass with a long tail that doubled as a straw. Our favourite, however, was a simple Gin & Tonic topped with shaved lime sorbet. We had to go back again a few days later because these were so good.

58

On the other side of town, closer to our flat in Poble Nou, is a fabulous tapas restaurant right on the neighbourhood ramblas. Unlike more traditional looking Spanish eateries, this one is very arty in a Keith Haring kind of way. Most importantly, the tapas are creative and taste fantastic.
This place only reinforces our opinion of Poble Nou as the new coolest barrio in town. Sant Antoni is a close second.

Guest Reviews

Guest Reviews

Great apartment, spacious and very well located. The service was impeccable.
Ricardo, December 2018

The apartment is really comfortable and can accommodate up to 7 people with two bathrooms available. Excellent cleaning. We appreciated the WIFI, the supply of sheets, towels, soaps; the presence of household appliances, cutlery, glasses, sugar and more in the kitchen. The small table on the balcony allowed us to end the day by relaxing and drinking a glass of wine. The information and advice in the folder available in the living room was very useful. We also appreciated the presence of several markets and places to eat nearby. Thank you!
Paolo, May 2018

“We stayed at Jeffrey and Diana’s place in April 2018. First of all we were met at the apartment by one of the co-hosts and she showed us round the whole apartment and how everything works. Very informative. 7 of us in total, 6 adults and our baby boy. The flat was the perfect size, with 4 bedrooms. 2 doubles, a single and a twin. Also there was a baby crib for Henri to sleep in. easily erected and folded away. The living space was perfect for our group, as it also had a balcony accessible from the living room and the main en-suite bedroom. The kitchen, was really good with everything we needed. Also a full instruction manual with all the relevant info was available. A nice big dining table in the main area to allow family meals. Plenty clean towels and bedding were available also. Nearby there was a good supermarket with everything you could need. Also a few nice little patisseries in a short walking distance away for your morning bread. Plaza Catalunya was about a 30 minute stroll away. and there are two metro stations about 10 minutes walk in either direction. Sagrada Familia is about 2 minutes walk up a shallow hill. Overall, this apartment is recommended 110% for a large family to stay in. Really good and top marks to the host and co-hosts”
Alan, April 2018

“Our family of 5 had a great time in Barcelona. The apartment was exactly as pictured. Great location in Eixample, close to the metro, grocery stores and fantastic local restaurants. Jeffrey was a great host and all the suggestions were terrific. The location really can’t be beat, the city is really walkable and easy to navigate on the metro–highly recommend. We loved exploring the local restaurants and neighborhood. Apartment had plenty of space for all of us. Hope to be back in the future!”
Marianne, November 2017
“This place is exactly like its pictures! Lovely, clean, beautiful decor, amenities galore, fabulous suggestions for things to do and places to eat, easy check-in, an overall FABULOUS experience. My friends and I told each other all week how lucky we were to be staying in this well-situated flat. If we are ever lucky enough to return to Barcelona, a city that now lives in our hearts, we will definitely book this place! Thanks, Jeff & Diana. We are beyond grateful.”
Sue, November 2017
This place has it all: it’s a great location; clean, bright and modern; the hosts where friendly and happy to help; all the rooms are large; the kitchen is to die for it has everything you need. I had a great stay with my friends from Barcelona and my guest who are staying with me here in the UK also said it was a great home.
John, April 2017
The place was at a great location and the process of checking in and out was very fluid. The apartment was close to many restaurants, a supermarket, and cured meat stores. We enjoyed our stay and would definitely recommend the place.
Calvin, March 2017
We could not have asked for a lovelier space or location. It was comfortable, walkable, near metro. All the desired amenities were there. Jeff and Diana were responsive and so helpful. We actually relied on their guest book to get some awesome hints about restaurants and coffee shops. We stayed here with our three teenage children over the Christmas holiday and we were delighted by the poinsettias and the Tío de Nadal. The neighbors and the lady at the lobby desk were so attentive and gave us some great tips to neighborhood highlights.
Wayne, December 2016

We had the most amazing stay at this apartment. It was very clean with everything necessary provided to make a comfortable holiday. The location of the apartment is close to both metro and busses. We ended up walking mostly as its fairly close to all the hot spots downtown. If you like a little walk that is! It was only me and my dad, but this apartment is big! All rooms looks super comfy and I would definitely recommend this flat for a family or group of friends looking to share an amazing experience in Barcelona. Thank you Jeff and Diana!!

My, November 2016

“It was my first time using Airbnb and I can definitively say I will continue to use the site. Jeff and Diana were great! The place was clean and quite spacious, the fourth room was slightly small but we didn’t spend too much time there during the day so I didn’t mind. The location was perfect, within walking distant from the Sagrada Familia. The Camp Nou (where Barca plays) was also easy to get to on the metro (about 30-35mins). Also, you must visit the restaurants recommended by them… the Granja Petitbo was particularly amazing, the best breakfast I had all trip. I definitely recommend staying here! ”

Amalyn, October 2016

“Excellent experience in the flat of Diana and Jeff. The place met our expectations, and was very comfortable. It was also very close to a subway, Sagrada Familia, Casas Batllo and La Pedrera. Good location and nice and quiet for a family with children. Diana and Jeff were able to tell us all the necessary information to reach the apartment, and were accommodating with our departure times, which was very appreciated. Again thank you to them. I recommend this apartment.”

Sylvie, October 2016

Diana and Jeff have a great apartment setup! The bedrooms were good. The living room area was easily big enough for the seven of us, while the flat featured a nicely renovated, modern kitchen. They arranged for us to have a crib waiting there for our infant son. Only downside is that the rooms at the end of the hall share a small shower and don’t get the full benefit of the AC. This is a minor concern overall and the hosts left fans for us to use. Location is great. You can walk to almost anywhere in the city, including excellent restaurants within minutes in all directions.

Matt, September 2016

“Our stay in Diana and Jeff’s apartment was fantastic. I’d sincerely recommend their flat, we’ve been perfectly accommodated.”

Benjamin, August 2016

“Terrific apartment, and communicative host. Their representative met us at the apartment, and was very helpful and polite, despite us running late with no way to call ahead. We couldn’t find a store on Sunday to buy a SIM card at airport. (BTW, there’s a Vodaphone store maybe four blocks from the apartment, and they sell a very tourist-friendly SIM card package.) The apartment is very much as described; the kitchen is well equipped in terms of dishes, pots, utensils, glasses, etc. Some basic supplies on hand, and there’s a small supermarket literally next door (opens at 9:00 AM). Location is very good, just a few minutes walk to subway. The street is fairly quiet, although at each end of the block are busy streets. Keeping the bedroom window open allowed in quite a lot of traffic noise … not a huge problem, but noticeable. Amenities all worked great … WiFi, TV, appliances, etc. The apartment is very clean and nicely furnished, albeit simply. Elevators were a welcome feature, since we returned very tired each day. Barcelona is very hot in late July, and quite muggy … the salon cooled off nicely with the AC, but the bedrooms got quite warm. Unavoidable, of course, and doubtless much the same in any other apartment. Nice bakery a couple of blocks away called Joan’s which is open early enough to get fresh bread each morning. And if you’re a beer fan, highly recommend La Bona Pinta, a craft beer mecca also a couple of blocks away (closed Mondays). We’d gladly rent from Diana and Jeff again … we had a lovely vacation, and are very glad we rented this apartment.”

Andy, July 2016

What a lovely area. Six years ago I stayed in a hotel nearby and this time around in this apartment. Its away from the crowd and loud noise, but is still close to the city centre. The two elevators are very convenient. We were a group of five, so it was perfect and spacious for all of us. The hosts were very helpful, quick responding, and provided all infos we needed. A+++

Ron, July 2016

“The apartment is perfectly located in the Eixample district, within walking distance from the Sagrada Familia, the Ciutadella Park, etc. The metro is also a few minutes away, so it’s a very easy commute into the city. The balcony is also very enjoyable. In terms of amenities, we found everything we needed. The host was very accommodating and friendly, allowing us to check-in earlier as the apartment was ready by then. We were a group of six and we all definitely enjoyed our stay!”

Roxana, June 2016

“This apartment was exactly what we needed. We are a large family and wanted to be close to the main city attractions. The apartment was very nicely set up just as in the photos. The host, Diana and Jeff took all measures to ensure our stay as expected. Muchas gracias.”

Hernan, June 2016

Great location and perfect apartment for a long weekend in Barcelona with a few friends. Plenty of bars, restaurants and metro stations nearby for easy access to the rest of the city. Rooms were comfortable and facilities great if you fancy a night in.

Sam, May 2016

“We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Barcelona.  The flat is amazing and photos are very representative. It’s in  a lovely part of town – quiet area but very easy access to everything.  Close proximity to the Metro but since the weather was great, we put on our comfy shoes and walked the town. We tried a number of the restaurants recommended by Diana and Jeff and were pleased with all of them. There is so much to do in Barcelona, we can’t wait until we return!”

 Joyce, April 2016

“A wonderful apartment close to the Metro (Monumental station is 5 min. walk) and a number of sights (10-15 min walk to Sagrada Familia). Perfect for families with children, lots of space; 2 bathrooms were suitable for 3 adults and a kid. We were satisfied with the quality of the linens, towels etc. You can find whatever you need in the kitchen. The supermarket situated in the ground floor offers a variety of different supplies. The host provides you with all the necessary information. We got immediate answers to our questions. During our next trip to Barcelona we’d gladly stay here! ”

Anastasiya, March 2016

“Good pre-arrival briefing and planning. Nice friendly host. Great location for a stay in Barcelona – Metro nearby, short taxi ride to all key places in the city, supermarkets and breakfast cafes (see the map on the wall in the kitchen!).

Alexander, February 2016 (more…)