At 1 pm last Sunday, 9 October, when most of his fellow countrymen were getting ready to sit down to lunch, the very French Michel Bettane got up from his seat in the front row of the Third Annual Wine and Culinary Conference organised by Torres wines, and addressed the audience of 250 sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine writers.
Dressed in a suit, but with his impish smile, Bettane began by saying how proud he felt that at last the rest of the world was finally paying attention to a phenomenon that had long preoccupied him and that had at the time been considered quintessentially French: the matching of food with the most suitable wine. He described the nine years when, as editor of La Revue du Vin de France, he had worked alongside chef Alain Senderens before a year working with chef Guy Martin, and how he had honed his skills in this field.
Then, as though to prove that you can take the Frenchman out of France but not vice versa, there followed an explanation of the very French principles he follows in matching the two elements: texture of both food and wine is a very important factor, and the temperature of both needs to be considered, as does the garnish. He went on to say that, in his opinion, it is a complete travesty to serve the best and, invariably, the most venerable red wine with the cheese. A white wine is almost always a more fascinating accompaniment.
But it was not just because I was getting hungry that I felt slightly impatient with this presentation. The programme's title 'Wine and Cooking from around the World' had been enough to entice me to Barcelona along with the list of speakers: Sarah Jane Evans and Tim Atkin, MWs from England; Josep Roca, one of the three brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca in Girona who spoke about the pleasures of Riesling and ended with a heartfelt goodbye to Annegret Reh-Gartner; Frenchman Pascal Chatonnet on terroir; Canadian François Chartier on wine and chocolate; and German champion sommelier Markus Del Monego MW.
But despite these high-profile speakers the morning came alive only when the audience actually got to taste some food and wine. This happened twice, on the first occasion when the French sommelier Julie Dupouy paired three wines with three very different dishes cooked by Korean chef Jungsik Yim, whose sous chef is seen running on to the stage above right with Michel Bettane in the foreground. Unfortunately, however, we got to taste only one pairing: a Torres Chilean Muscat of Alexandria with his version of an octopus dish. On the second occasion, and with a much better sense of timing, was a demonstration by chef Fina Piugdevall, alongside her sommelier, of the cooking at her lovely-looking, highly modern restaurant, Les Cols, high in the Catalan countryside. Piugdevall also introduced her suppliers of meat, cheese and bread as well as photos of Carmen, who is responsible for the buckwheat flowers that adorn the restaurant as well as for the buckwheat flour from which Piugdevall generates the inspiration for so many of her dishes.
Piugdevall's fortune lay in the fact that her performance ended just before 2 pm when a 'cocktail lunch' was offered in the gardens around the conference centre where everyone could enjoy food and wine.
As is typical of a country that has perfected in tapas the ultimate finger food, there was an abundance of excellent items to try: from glistening ham on bread to bowls of Les Cols' corn soup; an array of vegetarian options; and, at the end, a dish that seemed to make the whole trip worthwhile.
In the meantime, in the centre of the tented area was a vast table groaning with wines controlled by the Torres family, wines that bore such labels as Jean León, Marimar Torres in California, Miguel Torres wines from Chile, and the brandy and other spirits that were once the bedrock of this company. So much has changed, and so quickly has this company adapted, that in his opening speech, Miguel Torres had said that all the wines that they release today are aimed at being listed on restaurant wine lists rather than at a slot on the increasingly crowded supermarket shelves.
It was here, thanks partly to the plethora of food and wine on offer, that the event really took off as people mingled and took plenty of photos. And it was here that Rubén Pol, the gifted sommelier at Barcelona's Disfrutar, explained one of the event's functions: 'this is an opportunity not just to learn but also to meet people and exchange views'. This opinion came after he had introduced me to Antonio Lopo, a former sommelier who is now preoccupied with finding wines among the small parcels of Catalan vignerons that will meet his particular restaurant customers' needs.
This introduction was only part of the reason Torres put such backing into the event, which works not just on a local level but also on an international one. Certainly, that was the viewpoint of the company's communications director Christoph Kammuller, who, when not fielding calls on his mobile from the man he calls 'The Boss', found time to explain how the invitations to so many representatives of the world's wine press, including journalists from Brazil and India, paid dividends. 'An event like this works on the local level but also it helps to promote Barcelona, Catalunya and Spain as well, and keeps Spanish food and wine in the limelight when the competition from France and Italy is so fierce', he added.
Such competition could just as easily have been seen off by the combination of one very local dish with a glass of Chilean Pinot Noir, the Santa Digna 2013. The dish in question was a plate of arroz caldoso, the typical Catalan creation shown above that roughly translates as 'sloppy rice', rice cooked in a prawn broth and here served with pieces of squid. This proved, to me at least, to be a very happy marriage of Catalan food and Chilean wine.