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Foodie finds

Although Sort is the capital of Pallars Sobira, a mountainous comarca – like a county – of Catalonia, it is more like a village, with an official population of just over 2000. It is also home to a curious local legend. In Catalan, Sort literally translates to “luck” and one local shop – La Bruixa d’Or, meaning The Gold Witch – that sells lottery tickets has cultivated a bizarre kind of fame, attracting customers from all over the world by claiming it is disproportionately lucky.

Those who come to the region hoping to buy a winning ticket may leave disappointed, but visitors lured by the promise of delicious food and drink are more likely to be satisfied. Sort’s main street swells with sidewalk tapas bars, their tables overflowing with diners late into the summer nights, while the kitchen at the nearby Hotel Pessets is renowned for its traditional Catalan food – distinct from Spanish food. Just ask the locals.

But it is 10 minutes’ drive outside Sort, past the rolling vineyards of local winemakers Batlliu de Sort, in Surp, a tiny village in the Valley of Assua, where real culinary treasures can be found. It is home to Casa Mateu, one of the region’s famous formaggerie – or dairies – where Dimas toils away, producing some of Catalonia’s renowned artisan cheeses – his soft ewes’ milk cheese has won a stack of global awards.

Buried even deeper in Surp’s tightly spaced streets, overrun by cats and lined with 13th-century Romanesque cottages, their facades still intact, is Lo Paller del Coc, a rural retreat and kitchen where Mariano, a former restaurant chef, now shares his expertise at workshops for food-lovers.

Of course, to describe Mariano merely as a chef sells him short. On one wall of his kitchen, sleekly renovated yet still rustic, warm and welcoming, hangs a sketch of a kitchen in complete disorder, chefs running amok and food flying at all angles. But it’s impossible to believe that any such culinary chaos could ever envelop Mariano – to watch this unnervingly tall, pencil-thin man expertly prepare food with long, spindly fingers is to watch a master alchemist, a food ninja, at work.

An afternoon spent sampling Mariano’s tapas is a guaranteed high point in anyone’s gastronomic life – the portions are rich, yet packed with complex flavours and the kind of freshness delivered only by using local produce. Then, as we enjoy some of Mariano’s homemade blackberry liqueur, he brings out dessert.

“Mejor yogur del mundo,” he says flatly, insouciant. The best yoghurt in the world, that is. And after the first spoonful, it’s clear he’s not kidding.


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