An engineer turned artist;
an artist turned chef
We were driven to an industrial park on the outskirts of Banyoles for dinner. The itinerary told us that we would be attending a ‘pairing dinner’ with the strambotic painter Quim Hereu. In the golden evening sun we were warmly welcomed by Quim and his wife Tania and taken inside the industrial unit where a surreal world had been created. Follow this link to Quim’s website: hereu.net
The Stram Project
The large space was totally dominated by Quim’s latest work in progress – which is the second of a trilogy of works. The entire back wall was a work-in-progress – a MASSIVE painting with vibrant colours and wherever you looked you could spot something surreal or something simply beautiful. The first painting was already boxed up in readiness for its journey to Mexico where a buyer hopefully waits, the huge wooden crate stapled shut, although Quim would dearly love to see the painting exhibited in Girona.
Glassware and cutlery gleamed on a circular table in the centre of the room and the Argentinian chef Gonzalo Martinez who is based in Barcelona had set up a kitchen in one corner of the room and was studiously piping tiny little balls of foie gras onto plates. An old iron bed which had once belonged to Quim’s grandfather and a glasshouse glowing with light from a red chandelier were the only other decorations. Casually propped against one wall was the original drawing from which Quim was replicating his painting.
Quim was passionate about his subject and spoke vivaciously in Catalan whilst Juame Marin the Director of Marketing at the tourist board: Costa Brava Girona was translating just as fast. Forgive me if I am a little inaccurate but there was so much information to absorb. Strambotism is an artistic movement that was created and originated in Catalunya around 1974. At first glance it has similarities to surrealism but it is a totally separate entity. As I have already said, you could gaze forever at Quim’s work and always see something new.
After the introductions we all took our seats, joined by Jordi Xargay i Congost, the President of the Consell Comarcal del Pla de l’Estany and Ferran Vila Pugol who is one of the top sommeliers in the region. Gonzalo the chef had designed and produced each course to represent, compliment and explain a different aspect from some of Quim’s works, while Ferran the sommelier had paired a drink to compliment the food (and therefore also the paintings), even brewing or making some of them himself.
The first of the trilogy represents time, the birth of Venus and the craving to get eternal youth. I hope that Quim will forgive me if I don’t explain this correctly but the snail is key to the factory of time and also appears in the second painting which is about power. Not the power of swords, or strength or males, but it is more subtle. The centre figure of a lady on a horse is the first queen of Catalunya who had power over her subjects and even the Pope of the time. She holds a snail in her hand – and here is another link where the snail mirrors and represents time. Watch a snail and it moves frustratingly slowly. Move away for a short while and when you return it has gone. In the same way as time slips suddenly away from us and you are at the end of your life. Blink and you miss it. The third painting will represent freedom; because without freedom one can’t enjoy the other two concepts of time and power. The works represent six years of Quim’s life, with the majority of his time taken at the design stage with a blank canvas. These works are massive – 6metres by 12 metres, and the problem has been finding a buyer or a space large enough to exhibit them. As I mentioned before, Quim would dearly love Girona to display them, and preferably displayed together. He is so passionate about this that he is actually prepared to donate them for free, despite the amount of time that he has dedicated to painting them.
The food and drink
This pairing dinner formed a part of the ‘Live the History’ trip which Jaume and his team had arranged following the TBEX conference. Three other travel bloggers and myself had the most interesting of evenings. The four of us dined along with Jaume, Vikki who was our tour guide, and the other guests while Gonzalo kept extremely busy in his kitchen. You can see his website here: (www.gonzamartinez.com). We were in the company of true creatives and artists, passionate about their respective mediums and their region. Our first drink was a beer, brewed by Ferran with 3 different types of hops – and – this is the cool thing – the texture in the mouth was more important than the smell or the taste as it complimented the textures of the food and the art. By eating replicates of the snails and the clock we were consuming the representation of the snails/time and internalising it.
The flavours were sublime: Catalan style spinach, pinenuts, raisins Iberian ham, fois gras and a tiny cypress tree, together with a label – continued the theme of internalising the art and strambotism. Our second drink was a sparkling wine – again made by Ferran who had produced only 300 bottles and which balanced the saltiness of the chequerboard of the carpa of tuna and anchovies and raspberry caviar.
Perhaps the pairing was most visual with the third dish. It was matched to a desert scene but one where the turbaned camel riders had porons instead of heads (a poron is a typical Spanish way of serving wine) – and now we had to drink the most exquisite soup from glass porons. The desert theme was continued with home made harissa and fish on skewers and paired with a very special white wine from the region. We kept the same shape wine glasses throughout our meal and Ferran explained that in his sommelier world the shape of the glass has no meaning at all. The drink is appreciated through smell and taste not by the shape of the glass. He also told us that this region of Catalunya is one of the chief producers of cork, and while the artificial bottle stops are fine for a young wine, an older wine should only be stoppered with cork. Our fourth course was a sweet sausage accompanied by a foamy mashed potato. But even the sausages were not simple. They each had a centre of the local herbal drink ratafia and had an outer casing first of a seaweed and then the finest, thinnest spring-roll pastry. The strong flavours of the sausage were balanced with a robust red wine from the south of Catalunya.
This fourth course was paired with the massive painting under which we were all seated and by now I was certainly appreciating the imagery and the connections. The strength of the horse, the meatiness of the sausage and the flavours of the red wine all connected and flowed through each other. The fifth course was about cats and the apple temple, and like the painting and the sparkling Muscat wine it had an altogether lighter feel to it.
Quim talked about his influencers and how with the Catalan spirit and strambotism his creativity and techniques can fly. What makes Quim so amazing is that he initially studied as an engineer but he followed his passion and moved across into the art world.
A Michelin star lunch
The following day we took lunch at a Michelin star restaurant in Banyoles where the chef had moved from the art world into that of food and cooking.
Both Quim the artist and Pere the chef are true masters in their second choice of career and are at the top of the tree – which also proves that it is never too late to follow our dreams and our hearts and we should pursue that which makes us truly happy.
Ca l’Arpa is a Michelin star restaurant in Banyoles where we were privileged to a tasting lunch. The chef Pere Arpa is from the town and his restaurant and small boutique style hotel is in what was once his grandfather’s house. Decorated in muted greys and whites with just a few splashes of colour, one of the nice touches in the dining room were the huge plate glass windows which offered a view to the shiny stainless steel kitchens and the chefs working behind the scenes.
Our wine was carefully chosen to compliment the meal and as was to be expected, everything was sourced and produced locally and from Catalunya. The first wine interestingly was aged in ceramic barrels as opposed to the traditional wood and from the Finca Olvidardots and made by a woman which is apparently also quite unusual in what is a predominately male dominated occupation here. The wine accompanied our starter of a ravioli of apples and black sausage (blood sausage and rice) – and then the food kept coming.
We had numerous, exquisite tastes and bursts of flavours, all presented on little platters or saucers and served to us either by Pere himself or his wife Montserrat, along with a detailed explanation of what we were eating or drinking and how the flavours had been designed and combined. One of the wines was a biodynamic wine and came in a plain bottle with no label – just a simple collar around the cork. This was produced by a Swiss owner at the cellar Bell Lloc near Palamos. Then followed an animated discussion around language and exactly what cut of meat we were eating when Pere presented it to our table before carving it. He said that it was veal – and the ultimate general consensus was the shank, but whatever, it just melted in the mouth and it was divine. Pere had not forgotten that one of our group was a vegetarian and he had devised separate dishes for her with just as much care and thought as those for the rest of us.
Our menu included delights such as a fresh cheese and plums, a sweet and sour terrine of pig’s head with onions, marinaded sardines on a little bed of chickpea puree with sunflower seeds scattered over the top and green, white and purple asparagus. There was a sweet sausage of liver and curry butter (very subtle and delicate), a dessert of passion fruit and marscapone and a whole range of breads during the meal and a selection of little bonbons at the end.
After our lunch Pere showed us around the hotel upstairs and some of the bedrooms which have all been tastefully decorated and which overlook a serene little courtyard and garden at the back of the building. Pere changed the direction of his career at the age of 25 and for 20 years he has dedicated himself to cooking. He moved into his grandfather’s old home 8 years ago and extended and altered the house so that he could accommodate guests whilst cooking. The overall ambience is one of calmness and tranquility. There is a link to his previous life as an artist (with paint as he is still creating masterpieces albeit with food) as one of his paintings is displayed behind the reception desk.
The magic and passion of Catalunya
The unique experience of the pairing dinner hosted by Quim Hereu was a very different experience to our lunch at Cal l’Arpa, but the Catalan region was weaving its magic and encircling and entwining us, drawing us tighter with strands of an opaque smoky substance. Hard to see and not entirely tangible but there and ever present, the region has a culture and an identity, a passion and a pride which is expressed through its people and its food and its drink.
Engineer becomes artist, artist becomes chef. two men. Both creative, talented and passionate. Both proudly Catalan.
Quim produces his works in an industrial space; his initial career as an engineer stemmed from industry and Pere now lives and works in the space of his grandfather. Thanks to everybody involved from the tourist agencies of Pla de l’Estany, Pirineu de Girona, the Costa Brava and Catalunya who made these such amazing experiences. As usual, all opinions are my own and were not influenced in any way.