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TV Review: Spain… On the Road Again – “Gawking at Gaudí and Asturian Adventures”

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This series, Spain… On The Road Again is a lighthearted but "sometimes food, wine, and scenery intensive" show that brings you the best Spain has to offer in all three categories. And when you’ve got hosts such as famed actress Gwyneth Paltrow; the Iron Chef, Mario Batali; Spanish actress and linguist Claudia Bassols; and New York Times writer Mark Bittman, combined with the sometimes breathtaking beauty, the wonderful food and the robust wines of Spain (not to mention the famed Spanish sun), you’ve got a can’t-miss show that bathes you in gustatory opulence.

While the first few episodes of this series seemed a little stilted, the cast are now settling into their roles and getting looser, more relaxed. Of course, the Iron Chef is always relaxed, so the preceding meant the remaining three. It appears that while the food and, by necessity, the locations, are scripted, everything else seems very loose and unscripted which may have contributed. Now that Mark Bittman and Claudia Bassols are feeling more comfortable with their impromptu dialogue, they seem much more personable. The atmosphere feels like you're with three friends on a vacation road trip rather than any sort of agenda. Gwyneth Paltrow is absent for this episode.

This week we’re back in Barcelona and Basque country, as in previous episodes, but at different locations and with different menus. We start in the Catalonian capital city, Barcelona, with a short but unique tour of some of Antoni Gaudí’s most famous architectural masterpieces. The first stop in this private tour guided by Gaudí expert Daniel Giralt-Miracle is Casa Batlló, where the theme, other than Gaudí’s fantastical exteriors, is striking functionality in the form of a multitude of arches inside. Also striking are the sashless windows and skylights which epitomize Gaudí’s fixation with light. The garden is designed as a whole, with all its elements contributing.

The next stop on our Gaudí tour is his stonewalled Park Gue, classified as a “city garden” rather than a park. It was originally designed to house 60 families with common services such as reception, concierge, etc., but is now a tourist spot. The “green” fountain, designed and built a century before “green” ever became en vogue, recycles rainwater from a collection area, channels it through the columns of the building, and it ends its trip coming out of the mouth of a dragon in the central plaza.

The final Gaudí stop is La Padrera by night, Gaudí’s last and most modernistic building. The building consists of four basic areas, each with its own staircase to the roof, which is a fantastical Disney World-looking area. All the structures on the roof are not only artistic, they’re fully functional as well. The building got its name, which means “quarry,” from the townspeople, due to the massive amounts of stone used in building it.

Now we begin the scrumptious food portion of this week’s adventure. Restaurante Can Pineda serves up Barcelona’s version of soul food, many of the dishes having the same ingredients as those found in the ‘down home’ restaurants in the US, but the Catalonian version, of course: chitlins, pig’s feet and chickpeas, but also langoustine. And for the same reason as they were made in the US by mostly slave, but also poor white families: economy. Also like soul food in the US, the original cooks who made these dishes before the better times came along are dying off, making the remaining ones in higher demand. And of course it wouldn’t be a European restaurant without wine and dessert.

Can Pineda is another of Barcelona’s externally “grey,” nondescript, easily overlooked places, where the interior, and especially the food, is breathtaking in comparison.

From here, the two guys head for the Basque country, specifically Ovieda, Asturias, and Covadonga, leaving Claudia behind in her hometown. This area, says the Iron Chef, is famous for its cidrerias, its cider producers. Cider was always considered the poor people’s drink, while now it’s everybody’s favorite. And speaking of favorites, Camilo de Blas is considered by many to be the best pastry shop in beautiful and beautifully maintained 8th-century Ovieda, which is also the third most-important Christian pilgrimage destination in Europe after Fatima and Lourdes.

After loading up with plenty of pastry provisions for their coming mountain trek, the guys take a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour, and then get on their way to their next stop, La Basílica de Covadonga, backdropped by the most famous mountain in Spain. A nearly 90-degree vertical climb is required to surmount it, and it was the scene of the opening battle in the Spanish version of “Custer’s Last Stand,” when the Spaniards were in the process of taking back their country from the Moors. In addition to the mountain, there’s the church and La Santa Cueva, the Sacred Cave, where a vision was supposed to have occurred. These goings-on at Covadonga in the former kingdom of Asturias are also the underpinnings of the Don Quixote story.

The final food stop in this episode is Sirviella, the home of Pépin, a retired shepherd turned cidreria, and his mother, Pilar Sanchez, who’s been cooking old school style in her built-to-scale kitchen for over seven decades, and still prefers to use a wood-burning stove

Pilar is dwarfed by both of the guys, who are two heads taller than she is. Her usual grocery store is the field that surrounds her house, and in which we see today’s planned dinner, a sort of “shepherd’s chicken,” still pecking grains of corn from the ground. After Pilar gets the food going on the stove, they all withdraw to a tiny cabaña de pastore, a shepherd’s hut, where they imbibe Pépin’s cider (which has a “nice kick”), and subdue their hunger with an “exquisite” homemade shepherd’s blue cheese called queso Gamonedo, and slabs from a loaf of bread from a wood-burning oven. For five months of the year, the pastores, the shepherds, tend their sheep and goats every day during the daylight hours. As dusk settles they return to their huts and begin the process of making cheese from the milk they’ve just drawn from their animals. By then the stewed chicken is ready, and they pronounce it perfect.

Vive Asturias!

Check your local PBS listings for air dates and times.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • Victor

    I’m afraid you’re a bit confused about the Basque Country. It’s not the hole region on the northern coast of Spain. It’s just the eastern part of it. Asturias is another region (another “comunidad autonoma”) and Cantabria is another one settled between Asturias and The Basque Country.

  • Lou

    I stand corrected! Thanks for the relearning experience – really. I used to know that at one time. Memory’s the second thing to go!

  • http://www.eurocriticsmagazine.com Christopher Rose

    There’s also Galicia, which is the west end of the north coast. Oh, and it is Oviedo, not Ovieda.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asturias ASTURIAN GUY

    Just a clarification………….

    PRINCIPALITY OF ASTURIAS IS NOT BASQUE COUNTRY, IT’S JUST ASTURIAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    P.D: Called AsturiEs in Asturian…….