“You have to live life to its full chorizo,” says superstar chef Mario Batali. He’s in La Bola, an old Madrid restaurant, and he has just ordered a bowl of cocido, the Madrileño stew of garbanzo beans plus one of everything from the butcher’s counter. It’s the local hangover cure, and it seems to be working. Mario and Academy Award winner Gwyneth Paltrow, along with food writer Mark Bittman and young Spanish actress Claudia Bassols, have been eating and drinking their way through Spain for a 13-part PBS series airing this month. They’re not following an itinerary, or even anything resembling a straight line; in fact, on a map, the route looks like the scrawl of a child given a lot of sugar and a crayon.
The story of how this seemingly incongruous quartet ended up on a crazy Spanish road trip began at a dinner in Manhattan last summer. Mario was sitting next to Gwyneth, a friend since she began frequenting his restaurant Babbo about 10 years ago. He detailed the trip to Spain that he and Mark were planning; they’d go to as many regions as possible, in constant search of memorable food and exceptional wine. Mario had spent time in Spain as a teenager, during what he calls the “formative gastronomic years”; Gwyneth, it turned out, had also lived in Spain, with an exchange family she’s still in touch with—“mi familia española,” as she’s fond of saying. After Gwyneth reminisced, in flawless Spanish, about her love of the fried food there (“I live for fried food,” she says), Mario amended his boys-only rule and asked her to come along. Claudia, a major jamón (ham) lover, provided a Spanish native’s perspective.
The trip began in Madrid and wound its way through the Ribera del Duero, one of the country’s most respected wine regions. At Valdubón vineyard, Mario spied some local baby lamb ribs in the kitchen and postponed his dinner reservation. He set dried grapevines on fire, then grilled the lamb, squeezing Tempranillo grapes over the meat as it sizzled and adding bits of rosemary and lavender from the vineyard’s garden. Paired with Valdubón’s Tempranillo, the delectable lamb exemplified the localism that became the trip’s theme. In fact, whenever Mario ordered wine, it was always something “from around here.”
Leaving the Ribera del Duero, the group headed northwest to Galicia. Bordered by a rocky coastline on two sides and filled with greener-than-green countryside, Galicia is beautiful in a tomboy sort of way. It’s the region Mario was most looking forward to visiting, particularly for its outstanding seafood. In the coastal city of Cambados, the foursome dug for almejas (clams) with mariscadoras, women who have been doing this for decades. Later, over a pile of amazingly sweet almejas steamed in Albariño, Mario made a toast to the mariscadoras, “ankle-deep in love!” Looking up from her empty plate, Gwyneth exclaimed, “We seriously adiosed those clams!”
Several hundred kilometers later, Mark and Claudia explored the city of Córdoba in southern Andalucía to look for what Mario likes to call “killer” food. (The group often broke up and took side trips, and each person had his or her own Mercedes and optimal driving speed. Mario, the fastest, did 150 mph from Galicia to Rioja; Claudia drove less than half as fast, while Gwyneth would only say, “I’m a very fast driver.”) In Córdoba, Mark and Claudia discovered an old workers’ canteen where they ate salmorejo, an intensely tomatoey gazpacho-like dip. Bitty, as his traveling companions took to calling him, unabashedly used mayonnaise as a dip for flamenquines, delicious fried pork wrapped around cured ham.
Back in New York, Gwyneth praised a bocadillo (sandwich) as one of the trip’s most memorable meals: “The first day, when we set off from Madrid, I ate a wicked tuna sandwich on a really crusty Spanish baguette; I totally messed up the car but was in heaven.” Mario says he was most impressed by “the general brilliance of the fancy places” like Madrid’s La Terraza del Casino, where he drank liquid-nitrogen cocktails with avant-garde chef Ferran Adrià. But he was just as excited to chat with Pilar Sanchez, an elderly home cook in Asturias who stewed chickens raised in her backyard. When REM’s Michael Stipe met his friend Mario in Barcelona, he asked what the chef would take away from Spain. Mario replied, “Everything that isn’t nailed down.” Rumor has it that golf bags can hold four legs of jamón.
Julia Turshen, a freelance writer based in New York City, traveled around Spain with Mario Batali.