In the cava hills
Ambling leisurely down the main drag of the Catalonian village nestled in the foothills of the Montserrat mountain range that we call home for the next week, we realized we were warm. Actually warm. This being our first day in Spain after a few months holed up in Berlin, enduring its notoriously gray winter months, this sensation was something of a revelation. Paul and I had walked out the door of our residence down the hill in the late morning, naturally preparing for the elements as we were accustomed to doing each day: by piling on as many sweaters as would fit under a long green wool jacket (in my case) or a short black polar fleece with Gore-tex overcoat (in his). The wrapping of scarves, pulling on of two pairs of gloves and final addition of sensible hats made us models of outdoor-preparedness in Germany. And in the late morning in this particular valley of a mountainous region, I can’t say I was unhappy with our sartorial decisions. We had, however neglected to take into account a key factor that exists in Spain that does not in Berlin: sunshine. More specifically, the strength of the sun. The strength of the sun when one is situated directly below it and on a mountainside. Elated at the sensation of heat via actual rays of sun, we simultaneously, without speaking, peeled off our hats and gloves, unbuttoned our coats and wished that, without daring to utter the words, we had sunglasses.
The village itself is small. Not many people appear on the streets on a weekday morning, though I imagine this changes in high season or on weekends when hikers and tourists en route to the Montserrat monastery seep into the area. Only a handful of stores, mostly practical, dot the calle principal. A tiny grocery store, a pharmacy, bookshop, simple restaurant and two or three convenience stores could barely provide a half hour of ‘shopping’. But we, happy to be in a new surrounding, browsed the tiny shelves of every convenience store with care, mostly in search of ‘jamón serrano’, but also for anything novel that we might be able to feast on, literally or visually.
About halfway through the walk downhill we peered into an empty, cave-like storefront. There were no doors to speak of, just a darkened interior, seemingly cut into the stone, the left side of which was lined with large stainless steel drums, each with spigots on the bottom. More enticing than the visuals of the space was the smell emanating from somewhere even deeper within the cavern: something dank and musty, sweet and bacterial, one that can be deemed neither a stench nor an aroma. These are the most enticing of all olfactory sensations that humans experience: those by which we are simultaneously repulsed and attracted. Like with a good, ripe camembert, we are a little horrified at how it smells, but unable to turn away, in fact, just the opposite: we want it in the ultimate way the nose’s desires can be satisfied. We want to ingest it. By the smell of this particular cave, it was obvious wine production was in process, but probably of a rather low quality, of dubious sanitary standards, or both.
As we tentatively entered the storefront chamber, unsure whether or not it was even open to the public, a petite woman emerged from another small room on the right side. Her jaw was slack (frozen?) and didn’t move as she spoke, making her already jumbled mixture of catalán and castellano even more difficult to understand. I asked if they had any cava available and she pointed us to two of the large vats – one labeled as 15 degrees and 2.10 per liter and the other as 13 degrees and 1.80 per liter. She asked if we wanted to try- why not? It’s almost noon. I responded sí, and she grabbed the first tiny glass she could find handy with her surprisingly large paw, and went to the back to rinse it out (to my relief). She poured us a small beaker of the first cava. Tiny sip. Not good, but drinkable. When it was apparent we weren’t quaffing it with delight, she took the beaker and filled it full with the next one, claiming it was softer and lighter. Read: even worse. As we choked nearer to the bottom of the glass, Paul noticed two small fruit flies inside. I laughed and showed the woman and she responded, grabbing the glass and throwing its fly-ridden backwash over her shoulder onto the floor: “No es nada- están en el grifo.”
Truly, I didn’t want to buy any of the subpar cava, but I felt obliged to do so, given that this wistful, lonely woman had gone out of her way for what may be her only two customers all morning. As I paused and pondered, she gave me a taste from yet another vat, this one a smaller barrel. “Vermouth,” she explained, “para martini.” Yes, it was deep brown and intriguing, a great deal better than the cava, but, still, I didn’t exactly have an itching desire for the liter and a half minimum quantity of vermouth. But, my rusty Spanish failing me, I acquiesced: vale, ok, I’ll take it. The woman happily filled up a 1.5-liter water bottle (after kindly emptying it of its previous contents- whatever they might have been) with the sweet vermouth and took my seven euros twenty-five. Upon leaving, she pitched me an array of colorful necklaces and pins displayed behind her cash register, explaining she had made them herself and if I wanted to come back and purchase a little something for myself, they would be there, waiting. At once charmed and guilty, I couldn’t possibly feel swindled for the unwanted vermouth after this pitiful offer. Blinking in the momentarily-forgotten sunlight, I emerged from the cave to Paul, who had long-since made a discreet exit from the shop, with a knowing look on his face: “so she got you, did she.”