Divine inspiration

Photography: alan benson

The vineyard workers sit in a circle in the shade of a tree eating their lunch, drinking their coffee and smoking their cigarettes. Simultaneously. There's a truita, or tortilla, wrapped in cloth, and loaves of crusty bread that the workers break off, then rub with a clove of garlic and a small, thick-skinned tomato. "Pa amb tomàquet," says winemaker Gerard Batllevell Simó in Catalan. "Bread with tomato, this is our national dish."

Batllevell Simó and his family are quickly harvesting their grapes before the autumn rain clouds roll in over the hills from the Mediterranean. Soon they'll drench the stony soils of Priorat, a wine region south-west of Barcelona. Here, the steep ground is covered in little fingernail-like stones and flat broken tiles. In this poor soil, known locally as llicorella, squat vines cling to the steep hills: old-growth garnacha, cariñena and cabernet sauvignon. These vines seem to suck the very essence of stone from the soil and reflect it back in wines that are so texturally rich they have become some of the most sought-after Spanish drops in the world.

A renaissance in the past 20 years has seen a large capital injection, and the likes of French actor Gérard Depardieu investing in the industry. But with narrow, winding roads linking the towns, tourist buses have been relegated to the coastal autopista, making this a relatively remote destination for tourists.

Priorat's legacy began in the 12th century when Carthusian monks constructed a monastery at Escaladei and, building on the wine heritage left by the Romans, started making communion wine for the church. By the late 19th century, Priorat was exporting commercial wine across Europe. Then phylloxera struck. The first vines were affected in 1893 and within about five years the industry was wiped out. The steep vineyards were replanted with nut trees and the area descended into poverty and depopulation. During this period, while the rest of the Western world was moving away from traditional farming, preserving and cooking, the people of Priorat made do with what they grew or could trade, and created a hearty cuisine based on beans, greens, salt cod, eggs, chicken and pastry, where nothing is wasted and any natural bounty is embraced as it ripens.

It's food that is ingeniously parsimonious while being warmly generous. A classic example of this is a recipe for truita from one of Priorat's best chefs, Toni Bru of El Cellerde l'Aspic, in the town of Falset. Although a thoroughly modern chef, Bru stills champions the roots of his cuisine. "This is real poverty food," he says, as he fries off some garlic in oil, then adds some flour to start a basic sauce. "In Catalonia, anything with a sauce instantly becomes a main meal as you need bread to soak up the sauce. Truita amb suc is a traditional way of extending some eggs, beans and greens from a snack to a main meal." He proceeds to make a truita with beans and spinach over which he pours a garlic and paprika-infused sauce. "There are 16 different recorded recipes for this," he adds. "And perhaps 100 more that have been forgotten."

While Priorat's renaissance is being led by top-end wines such as L'Ermita and Clos Mogador, the local cooperatives have been the backbone of the industry, making wines for the masses throughout the 20th century. In the block behind El Celler de l'Aspic rises what appears to be a modernist cathedral. The Falset-Marçà Agrícola, made of brick and concrete, was designed by César Martinell, a friend and student of Antoni Gaudí. (Falset is actually in Montsant, another, larger, wine region that entirely surrounds Priorat.) This is where vi ranci is made. Translated as "rancid wine", it could be called Catalan sherry. Made in great glass demijohns, the wine oxidises in the sun, the colour of the fruit almost entirely dulled by the sun's rays. Older vintages are racked in with younger vintages in a solera-style system. The result is a more robust version of amontillado.

"Traditionally, most houses made vi ranci," says Neus Miró. She's a vivacious woman and a good cook, and she owns a disused olive mill, which she's turned into a produce store called El Moli d'Oli in Escaladei. She sells her husband's vi ranci and vins dolços (Muscat-like wines) as well as oil and handmade pastries such as orelletes, or ears, half the size of an A4 sheet of paper, covered in delicate bubbles where the pastry blistered as it was deep-fried before being dusted with icing sugar. "Traditionally, you always had a bottle of wine near the front door of the home," she says. "You'd pour a glass for the visiting priest or doctor and offer them some nuts or some pastry."

The material of Miró's village is basically stone, often carved in a style far grander than befits such a small collection of houses. Some of the stone fences outside the village are made of plinths and columns from the nearby Carthusian Monastery of Santa Maria d' Escaladei. "Escaladei" means "ladder of God", an apt name considering the worn, stair-like layers of sedimentary rock that characterise the cliffs towering over the monastery. The monastery was the economic hub of the region and had jurisdiction over nearby towns. When the government seized church property in 1835, a surge of anti-clerical sentiment was released, and the building was sacked and burned by locals who used the stone to repair their homes. The remaining archways, which once housed gates to keep the world outside at bay, now frame the striated rocks that first inspired the Carthusians to settle here. The order was self-sufficient, and the monks, cloistered in their cells, shared a small kitchen garden. Small consolation for being poor, celibate and silent.

One of the guardians of Priorat's particular style of Catalan cuisine is Gemma Peyri at Mas Ardèvol. She's a pioneer of rural hospitality and combines her training as a chef with a passion for local food. Peyri finds beauty in the simplicity and honesty of her regional cuisine. Her kitchen is perched on top of a bluff, overlooking a valley filled with hazelnut trees growing above a little stream. Here, she skilfully prepares meals for her guests. When we arrive, she has laid out nuts, autumn fruits, a little meat and fish, sausages, and jars of freshly made grape jellies and preserves on the kitchen table.

"I started cooking when I was just two years old," she says. "Our food is quite beautiful but it comes from a tradition of subsistence cooking. That is quite normal across Spain but even more so here. I can remember the days when chickens and livestock were kept in the house on the ground floor. Our thick-skinned tomatoes hung from the rafters." She holds a single beautiful tomato to emphasise her point. "The Priorat is not very fertile, not everything grows effusively, but what grows grows well. It has a certain quality that has flavour. The food we really love is from the hunt: rabbit, quail and partridge."

The meal she makes is incredibly simple: a salad of pickled samphire with tiny, semi-dried olives that are both earthy and sweet, followed by a salad of tomatoes and white beans, dressed with finely chopped onions and olives. To prepare the fish, she holds a large sardine in a pair of tongs and cooks it over the blue flame of her range before serving it with a little olive oil on a piece of freshly baked bread. It tastes smoky, rich and wonderfully salty.

It's only a few kilometres drive from Peyri's kitchen to the ember grill at El Racó del Priorat in the village of La Vilella Baixa, but we have to cross two ranges and three rivers to get there. The village is built on the banks of the Montsant River, surrounded by horts, or small family kitchen gardens. In the kitchen, chef Maria Victoria Masip Sans grills lamb over olive embers. "Catalans love cooking with fire," she says. "Fire, wind and smoke - it's elemental. It's how we cook our paella, over fire. It's how we cook our peppers, even our dessert." To prove her point, she pulls a metal disc on the end of an iron rod out of the fire and sears a layer of sugar sitting on egg custard with the glowing steel. "Dessert for table 12," she says, calling for the crema Catalana to be delivered to the dining room before ordering us to sit down for some "good, simple food".

Her "simple" food takes the whole afternoon to get through. She starts with a plate of canellons, thick cannelloni shells stuffed with a farce of chicken, veal, pork loin, pork liver, onion and garlic, flavoured with olive oil and bay and served with a light béchamel - a reflection of both the Italian and French influences on Catalan cuisine. Next, she sends out a local dish of sardines slow-cooked with red beans and onions; some ham and melon; a plate of assorted charcuterie; juicy salt cod with romesco sauce made with roasted red peppers and toasted hazelnuts; a gratin of preserved asparagus; pig's trotters and beans; grilled lamb loin. The "simple" comes at the end; a dessert in the form of a handful of mixed nuts soused with a splash of vins dolços. "This is postres de músic," explains Sans. "Or the musician's dessert. You see, musicians are always so poor this is all they can afford." Then she sits down next to me, sipping a cup of black coffee, talking of all the other rich dishes of the Priorat and ensuring we eat every last almond.


Singapore Airlines flies daily to Barcelona via Singapore from Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. 131 011.

Alternatively, Iberia Airlines operates an extensive domestic network within Spain.

Priorat is a two-hour drive from Barcelona. To rent a car in Spain, find the best price by comparing major brands such as Hertz, Avis, Budget, Alamo, Sixt, Europcar and Thrifty via online booking service Vroom Vroom Vroom. 1300 722 920.

Mas Ardèvol
Converted hilltop Catalan farmhouse serving traditional Catalan food from the kitchen of Gemma Peyri. Doubles $145 to $222. Ctra de Falset a Porrera, Km 5.3, Falset, +34 630 32 45 78.

Cal Compte
Stunning self-contained apartments in a historic mansion. Doubles $136 to $188. Major, 4-43737, Torroja del Priorat, +34 619 02 37 79.

Hotel Cal Lop
Renovated hotel in the old town of Gratallops. The rooms mix traditional architecture with modern amenities. Doubles $162 to $256. Carrer de Dalt, 21, 43737, Gratallops, Tarragona, +34 977 83 95 02

El Celler de l'Aspic
Modern interpretations of Catalan classics by Toni Bru. Miquel Barceló 31, 43730 Falset, Tarragona, +34 977 83 12 46.

Restaurant Mas Trucafort
Catalan, Spanish and Med classics and a great cellar in a casual atmosphere. Ctra Falset-Bellmunt, Km 1.5, Falset, Tarragona, +34 977 83 01 60

El Racó del Priorat
At the heart of the kitchen is a charcoal fire where lamb, kidneys and pork are grilled. Priorat, 9, La Vilella Baixa, +34 977 83 90 65

El Moli d'Oli
Escaladei's old olive mill where Neus Miró sells oil, wines and handmade pastries. Open Monday to Friday 11am to 2pm. Pl Priorat 1, Escaladei, +34 977 82 72 60

Carthusian Monastery of Santa Maria d'Escaladei

Ruins of a 12th-century monastery surrounded by striated cliffs. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 1pm and from 3pm to 5pm. Camí de La Cartoixa, s/n, 43379 Escaladei, La Morera del Montsant-Tarragona, +34 977 82 70 06.

Falset-Marcà Agrícola
Community winery, hailed as the Cathedral of Wine, sited in an early 20th- century building. C/Miquel Barceló, 31-43730, Falset, +34 977 830 363

Don't miss this 12th-century village atop a cliff overlooking the Montsant River and the Montsant mountain range.

Rachel Ritchie, an English expat who speaks Catalan with a Priorat accent, can help non-Spanish speakers negotiate this region where fewer people speak English than in other parts of Spain. $342 per day. +34 977 83 07 84.

Falset-Marçà Agrícola
Offers daily guided tours in Catalan, Spanish, French and English. Meet at its shop in the high street at 12.30pm. Tours cost $17.

Buil & Giné
A family winery offering guided tours Monday to Saturday from 10am to 7pm and Sunday from 10am to 3pm.

Visit turismepriorat.org or spain.info.

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