We could be in Poland, the German Black Forest, or even in Georgia, a country that loves the product we will shortly be tasting. But instead we are at a rural hotel near Arbúcies, Girona province, in the heart of the Montseny Park biosphere reserve. This reserve can boast of a range of ecosystems. Away from the sea is a continental rainforest similar to the countries mentioned above, and lower down is a drier zone of evergreens and chestnuts whose leaves crackle underfoot on the paths. The two, with all their nuances and seasonal varieties, make a merry dance on the palate when paired with wine.
This is the unusual gastronomic and cultural experience proposed by Naturalwalks, a company run by Evarist March, a 46-year-old Barcelona native who organizes tastings of wines with, believe it or not, flowers and herbs. This unique service is not about filling your stomach as you refresh your throat with a good wine. It is much more about teaching the culture of the place through raw and wild ingredients. This natural treasure trove is something that we are more accustomed to trampling underfoot: the leaves of beeches, fruit trees and bushes as well as wildflower petals. It is not the kind of thing we expect to find on our plates.
Yet this is just what is proposed by March, whose botanical and culinary interests have been sparking off each other since he founded the business in 2011. “I wanted to connect nature to culture, and both with food and drink. Because we eat what we know and we know what is around us,” explains March, who also works in an advisory capacity at the haute cuisine restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, run by the three Roca brothers. March’s friendship with Carles Aymerich, the sommelier at this three-Michelin-star restaurant, led him to rethink the tradition of tasting: sniff the wine, looking at it against the light and let it roll over your taste buds. Now this ritual is taken for a walk through a Catalan forest.
So how does it work? The activity lasts around four hours, in a place chosen by the service’s customers themselves. It starts with a walk in the woods, where the herbs of the moment are identified and picked. This also involves an explanation of their properties, uses and origins. Then, the leaves are put onto plates and paired with different wines. This is extreme tasting. “It is not just about having a good time. It is also about learning and going away with new knowledge about the place. The plants we eat are the ones around us. Here, in New York, in the Amazon or in Asia,” laughs March. “We live in a globalized world and that means that plants also migrate. We are a mixture of mixtures. This has made us richer,” he muses while he puts handfuls of fennel, calamint, rosemary and lantana into a basket.
His co-worker Aymerich waits at a table with empty glasses and bottles uncorked. This professional sommelier has long been involved in the world of wine and has acted as a judge at many competitions. “The basis of cuisine is complementarity; it is putting individual flavours together to make something new,” he says as he serves a glass of local wine to try with each of the herbs. “There are five aromas, five colours, and a changing set of textures. The connection between what you eat and what you drink is very important,” he says, underlining how the quantities change the result and how nuances can appear or disappear in a matter of minutes.
For example: today the mixture of this third wine, an organic one, with a bunch of sorrel results in a “thinning of the wine’s structure, giving it acidity, giving it life,” says the sommelier. We nibble on some cress and at the same time sip at another wine. “This brings the acidity down. The most oxidative part is reduced,” says Aymerich, for whom, “although a perfect match can be made” it always depends on personal taste. “Matches occur due to an affinity of tastes, because they are complimentary or because of a contrast,” states the expert. “It is a dance of molecules in the mouth. Sometimes they dance together, at other times they stand on each other’s feet.” This evocative metaphor is one much used by the two main figures at Naturalwalks, a company which has four other staff members.
“We work with organic, changing material, and that means the experience is different each time,” explains March. The naturalist, who also gives university courses, spends his holidays investigating species on other continents. Recently arrived from Chile, he maintains that his work with Naturalwalks is all about introducing a seed of curiosity about the environment. “We hope that this experience will sprout into an interest in continuing to learn. Our landscape tells us how we have lived. Our work is to translate this. To tell history through the taste buds.”