Barcelona is all about the senses. On my first trips to Europe over twenty years ago, the streets smelled of exhaust fumes. One whiff told me I was in Europe. No more. The air is cleaner. I walk down the Passaig de Gracia in Barcelona and inhale the freshness of bread baking, meat grilling, and the overwhelming aroma of perfume from the air conditioned confines of department stores. My senses come alive. My eyes rejoice at the sight of La Pedrada, one of Gaudí’s masterpieces, but I pause only to take a photo of a French woman who wants a memento of her visit to this remarkable building. I am on my way to a very special coffee shop, Café Onna, owned by a friend from Costa Rica. I cross the Diagonal and turn right, then left down a tiny street called Carrer de Santa Teresa, and on my right I see a man standing at a high table sipping coffee. I have found Café Onna.
I introduce myself, and as I wait for my friend who owns the shop to arrive, I savor the warmth of my café con leche along with a tuna sandwich that is nothing like your mom’s tuna salad, and begin one of the best days of the trip, maybe of my life.
My friend Anahí is a vibrant, passionate young woman . Her dark eyes sparkle with enthusiasm for her work, her coffee, and her family. She is focused, but has time for friends. She invites me to go with her to a restaurant near the port area of Barcelona to deliver bags of her freshly roasted coffee. I help her carry the fragrant cargo up the street to the corner where we hail a taxi. The driver helps us to stow the coffee in the trunk and we are off across the city. Anahí never stops talking about her plans, her excitement about what she does, her two teenage sons. She tells me how she does not supply her Costa Rican coffee to just any restaurant. Oh no! It has to be one that appreciates the attention and love she gives to the beans she imports from the farms in the Central American mountains. She nurtures the process beginning with visits to the farmers who grow the beans, all the way to her custom roasting and brewing. We arrive at Box Social, a trendy new restaurant in a boutique hotel near Barcelona’s port. After greetings with kisses on both cheeks, the Spanish way, we settle down to order lunch. It begins with a tomato salad, made with succulent tomatoes called “cor de bou,” Catalan for “heart of ox.” The tomatoes grow large but not entirely red, and exude a juicy tomato essence I have rarely tasted. For the main course, Anahí chooses fish with a green pea sauce, and I order chicken with grilled vegetables. Time passes quickly as we linger over our lunch. Why hurry? Our conversation is mostly about what we are eating, the flavors and how they are blended and contrasted to tempt the palate. Anahí is intrigued by the tiny green leaves that garnish her fish. Some kind of herb, but what is it? I have grown herbs in pots on my deck for years, and am familiar with most of the common ones used in the kitchen, but I don’t know this one, nor does anyone in the restaurant seem to know. The chef, apparently, is not available. I take a photo and post it on Facebook. Soon a friend with a Costa Rican connection identifies it. It is rue, or “ruda” in Spanish. I have never seen it used in cooking, and it has a taste reminiscent of coconut. Delicious!
cor de bou tomato
After dessert, fresh melon for me, and a “cortado,” (similar to a caffé macchiato, where a small amount of warm milk is added to an espresso) we go up to the roof to explore the garden, which is lovingly tended by another young woman from Costa Rica. Vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow happily in pots, shaded from the hot Spanish sun. We are surrounded by apartment buildings, where clothes hang drying on lines in the sun. (Why is this considered unacceptable in many U.S. neighborhoods?) The hotel was designed to fit in with the working class neighborhood it occupies, and it seems to be comfortable in its place.
On our walk to the Metro stop (no coffee to carry now, so no taxi splurge), Anahí points out sights along the way. We pass El Molino, the Barcelona counterpart to Paris’s Moulin Rouge. And we talk about our senses, about awareness. She tells me that she has always been sensitive to smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. That is what makes her an exceptional coffee roaster and brewer. But more than that, it is her passion.
A few days later, after my husband arrives, we make plans to meet her at her coffee roaster to watch the process. We arrive shortly before 10 a.m., early in the morning by Spanish standards. Raw beans, shipped from Costa Rica, are loaded into the hopper of the machine. Soon the fragrant beans spill out into a circular bin where a long metal arm stirs them to cool. She talks about how different beans behave differently in the roaster, and how the weather can affect the roasting. It has been a particularly hot summer in Barcelona, and this is a factor. She will not sell or serve an inferior coffee. Anahí and her assistant check the color and sniff the beans, and from the smiles on their faces, I can see that it is a joyful process. A few beans that emerge the wrong color are discarded. The process is constantly evaluated. The beans must not roast too quickly or too slowly.
Finally we leave, with plans to meet for dinner, and bags of coffee beans to take home. I feel energized by my coffee friend. I sense her ability to be “in the moment” with her coffee.
We return to Café Onna again the day before we are due to fly home. It is another sweltering day, and after our walk from the Metro stop, we are ready for a cold coffee beverage. “I’ll make you something special,” she says with a smile. We watch the process. Tonic water and a slice of lemon over ice in a small glass. Then we are each handed two small bottles of cold brew coffee concentrate. “You can use one, but I recommend both,” she adds. We pour in both and watch the coffee sink into the tonic water. Unbelievably refreshing! My husband has another, but concerned about the caffeine and an early flight the next morning, I make do with one. As we say goodbye, she presses a small package into our hands, rosemary polenta cake, her mother’s recipe, for our breakfast before we leave for the airport.
Somehow this experience of the senses has made me more aware, not just of my own five senses, but of something inside myself. It is through the senses that I reach the person I am. I am more than a writer sitting at a keyboard. My words come not just from my brain, from the years of reading, writing, listening to advice, revising. Through my senses, my best writing comes from my heart.
I did not spend my entire Spain trip in the city of Barcelona. The real purpose of the trip was to attend a writing retreat at L’Avenç, a retreat center up in the Pyrenees about two hours from Barcelona. Although I have tied the two experiences together with the five senses, I cannot combine them into one post.
Please watch for my next blog post, “Writing at L’Avenç.”