Somewhere between eating our way through Barcelona and reservations at El Bulli, my friend Claudine and I ended up in the kitchen of an early 18th century casa de poble, “or house in the town,” chopping wild asparagus and grilling up rabbit.
Although we had thought El Bulli would be the culinary highlight of our trip to this part of Spain, it was at Las Nenas, a sleepy stone inn in the village of Jafre, that we slowed down enough to appreciate what the Catalan countryside had to offer. A simple dinner that we helped prepare, of grilled paprika-tinged chorizo, fresh rabbit and lamb with romesco sauce, vegetable rice and crema catalana, was a profound introduction to a way of eating and cooking that was so connected to the land.
The owners of Las Nenas, Katy Ross and Martha Kroncke, are transplants from California who previously worked at several Bay Area restaurants and taught at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Now they live in this tiny town of about 350 people with their dogs and cats and a well-stocked kitchen where guests are invited to cook.
Claudine had found the place on Craigslist during some last-minute travel planning, and though we were looking forward to cooking as tourists, we hadn’t expected to learn so much from one simple meal.
Jafre is in the Baix Emporda district, surrounded by green pastures, peach orchards and pine forests. Directions to the inn from the main road were, basically, “turn left at the phone booth (the only one in town) and drive up the hill.” Las Nenas, with its charming courtyard and three guest rooms, is across the street from a church whose bells ring every 15 minutes in a throwback to the time when the farmers didn’t have watches.
“We like the simplicity of Catalan food, and we love the freshness of all the ingredients here,” said Kroncke, who is also a chef at a restaurant in the nearby village of Colomers. Many of the ingredients in their kitchen are local products. Eggs, purchased at a tiny market (part of a family home nearby), are from a town resident’s chickens. Pine honey is from the local beekeeper. Trucks come through with that morning’s haul from the fishing boats. For our dinner, there was chorizo from the butcher a few doors down and rabbits bought from neighbors (Kroncke explained that many locals raise them in hutches in their garages).
ON our way one day from the nearby Greek and Roman ruins of Empuries, Claudine and I followed a yellow sign reading Formatgeria that led us down a dirt road to the yard of cheese maker Salvador Vado of Formatges Artesans de Parlava. There, a millstone from his family’s old olive oil press served as makeshift lawn furniture, and Vado said that in the summer he planned to turn his yard into a restaurant, where he would cook for locals and tourists.
We returned to Las Nenas with more than a few rounds of cheese and I snacked on goat’s cheese with a wine-soaked rind along with local butifarra negra, or blood sausage. Then the four of us crowded into the small kitchen with its arched alcove and courtyard view and set to cutting up leeks and green garlic and grating tomatoes for making the sofregit (Catalan for sofrito) that would serve as the base for the paella-like vegetable rice. Traditionally, a sofregit is made with long-cooked onions and tomatoes, but we were using what was on hand -- leeks and garlic instead of onions. And though the rice dish isn’t particularly Catalan, Kroncke said she likes to make it when the wild asparagus is available, foraged from the nearby forests or from the roadside.
The favas were small and tender, and when I started to peel the beans from their outer shells, Ross told me, “They never peel favas here.”
“Yeah, that’s a Frenchy thing,” Kroncke said.
We made a rich romesco sauce to go with the grilled meat, smoky with ancho chiles and slightly sweet with almonds. “Every woman has her own version of it,” Kroncke said. It’s traditionally made with a small, round chile called a nyora (but anchos work well) and served with grilled meat and especially grilled spring onions called calcots.
Once the lamb and chorizo and rabbit had finished cooking on the outdoor grill, which Kroncke had fired up with cherry wood, we sat down for dinner with a couple of bottles of red wine from the nearby vineyards of Capmany.
For dessert: crema catalana, a light custard spiced with cinnamon and made freshly fragrant with lemon peel, luscious but not too heavy. The light custard is poured into cazuelas, shallow terra-cotta dishes, and like creme brulee, topped with a caramelized sugar crust. It’s Catalonia’s ubiquitous regional dessert. And unlike at El Bulli, no one had to explain how to eat it.