Cava: Barcelona in a Glass

By Sam

My oversized duffel bag cut into my shoulders as I stood in the rain, scanning the boulevard for a taxi. After a 10-hour bus ride and four weeks travelling in France with friends on a tight budget, I had arrived in Barcelona to meet up with my parents. I could not wait to trade in hostel bunk beds and public transportation for hotel rooms and a rental car. But as any college student will tell you, one phrase sums up the perks of travelling with parents: open bar.

No drink symbolized my newfound life of luxury like cava. The sparkling wine is produced almost exclusively in Catalonia, with the same methods as those of champagne production. Unlike any other Spanish DO, the Cava denominación is not restricted to a single delimited area. [i]

Cava quickly became the libation of choice for my family and the two other families with whom we traveled. Whether at a seaside lunch or dinner in the bustling downtown, we celebrated our vacation with bottles of local bubbly. It certainly eased the pain of leaving my beloved wine country, Bordeaux. The Mediterranean sunshine didn’t hurt, either.

Cava served as a fine accompaniment for our tour through Catalonian cuisine at the restaurant Tickets. This chic installment in the Barcelona dining scene draws from tapas culture and traditional Spanish ingredients to create a dining experience that is both regional and innovative. Enthusiastic waiters brought out tray after tray of confections, each partnered with an explanation of the dish and its preparation.

Two dishes stood out. Their famous “liquefied olives” literally melted in the mouth—imagine an olive-flavored bubble bursting on your tongue. Bolas de bacalao, or balls of cod seared on the outside and raw on the inside, combined savory flavor with a molten consistency. The chef transformed classic Spanish ingredients—both olives and cod are fixtures in Iberian cuisine—into novel creations that kept us on our toes.  Of course, throughout the meal we kept Manuel and Alberto occupied with a steady flow of cava.

Bar Lobo and Agua, both from the group Tragaluz, also provided stellar meals. In Barcelona, fresh vegetables abound—[in contrast with the potatoes and overcooked green beans I had grown accustomed to in France and Germany]. Flakey fish provided a great pairing for cava on many occasions. The ubiquitous jamón ibérico is always a treat.  This cured ham comes from black Iberian pigs, which are prized for their marbled meat. Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture further categorizes pigs into those fed acorns (the most desirable) and those fed corn. Most restaurants will keep a full leg at the bar and serve shaved morsels on top of bread, a snack called “bocadillos.”

While much of my time in Barcelona was spent rushing from monuments to museums, what stuck with me was the leisurely, epicurean lifestyle and the balance between history and youth.

Months later, I walked into Andronico’s grocery store in North Berkeley after finishing my last final exam of the fall semester. Perusing the wine section, I came upon a discounted Cava. I could think of no better way to celebrate my newfound freedom than with the elixir of my European holiday. That night, my roommates and I toasted to another successful semester. As I savored the bubbly, I thought back to the summer. True, my Berkeley dining room wasn’t exactly Barcelona, but in that moment, it was the next best thing.

[i] Since Spain joined the EU in 1986, EU authorities have insisted that Cava should be made from grapes grown in prescribed regions. As a result, the use of the eterm Cava is restricted to a sparling wines from a list of municipalities in Catalonia, Aragon, Navarra, Rioja and the Basque Country.  Source: Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition, 2006.