Unbeknowst to many, the north western corner of Catalonia, much like the north western corner of my own country, has its own ‘lake district’. Minus the howling winds and grey skies which can dampen the walking clothes if not the spirits. Also little known is the train line that winds its way from the Catalan central plain at Lleida to the small town of la Pobla de Segur and the foothills of the Pyrenees. I’ve been wanting to discover this region for some time and a stunning, meandering journey and a great little restaurant lay ahead of us. The line, now known as the Tren dels Llacs (Train of the Lakes) serves more as a tourist route than any meaningful rail service and my original intention was to take the vintage train, a decision that due to a week day was taken out of our hands and I’m pleased meant we avoided the Saturday crowds and kitsch costumes for the tourist’s benefit.Instead we took the significantly cheaper and quieter Catalan Railway daily service and benefited from an almost empty carriage and a private journey.
There’s no lie ins to catch this service which leaves Lleida at 9.10am and if you miss it, it’s tomorrow before you get your next opportunity. The high speed train got us from Barcelona to the start in time with enough time to check out the impressive station façade at Lleida before our connection.
As the train pulls out of Lleida for about 20 minutes you cross the Catalan Central Depression and acres of farmland and crops before the real stunning scenery opens up and the aquamarine lakes that give this route its name come into view.
As the train pushes steadily higher and weaves its way through 41 tunnels and over 31 bridges, there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the gushing rivers, sheer rock faces, lush forest and those vivid lakes.
Pobla de Segur is the end of the line, sitting on the edge of the Pantamo de Talam lake. This town is more of a jumping off point for the rest of the Pyrenees rather than worthy of a long visit in its own right. However, the once a day train means at least one overnight stay is required unless you want to hop on the return train half an hour later. The spectacular lakeside position, the lake and the clean air to be inhaled and the finding of La Cuineta meant there was really nowhere better to spend a couple of relaxing days.
La Pobla de Segur is not exactly overflowing with fantastic places to eat, but what they do have is La Cuineta, serving up great food and showing what’s possible with only two pairs of hands. With Montse in the kitchen and Núria out front, for the past 8 years the restaurant has been an addition to the family butchers and delicatessen in the town. After marrying her butcher husband in 1980 the shop followed in 1987 but keen cook Montse always wanted somewhere she could cook for other people and most importantly be able to see them enjoying their food. Today there is only one table in La Cuineta that she can’t see from the kitchen.
So what is she cooking up? We were there for the lunch menu, although we enjoyed this so much we returned for dinner the following evening, where Montse told us the menu is whatever comes to mind that morning and what she has available.
The rice with seasonal vegetables and prawns tempted us both to start. Let’s not label this either a risotto or a paella as it was neither. It was a mound of slightly sticky al dente rice that sang with freshness, countryside and juicy prawns.
Montse’s own plots provide much of the produce, what she can’t procure herself she tries to get as locally as possible and doesn’t understand buying in from outside when the local area can give her so much.
The main courses were light which was welcome following that generous rice dish. My partner’s choice of crispy skinned chicken and brilliantly crunchy potato croquettes were memorable, that chicken skin was salty seduction.
Preparing bacallà, salt cod, is something I’ll never get round to at home, too much soaking and preparing, so I love to take advantage of it on a menu. Here in one of my favourite forms, creamy, crunchy croquetes and a simple leaf salad. I’ve rarely had a main that was lighter than a started but it works and why not?
Desserts were included in the 12€ menu, although drinks were extra but generous 500ml bottles of water and coke. Makes a change from those piddly 200ml rations.
‘Filiberto’ was the name of this lurid pink dessert of yogurt, cubes of vanilla ice cream and a sauce that was almost identical to what used to grace a ’99′ ice cream cone as a child. A slightly odd combination on paper but for flavour and nostalgia it was terrific.
A slightly too runny lemon mousse made up in taste for what it lacked in wobble.
Not everything at La Cuineta was a shining star, the chocolate cake I had for dessert the following night was almost tasteless and almost certainly bought in. Yet this place is so genuine, unpretentious, run with love and care and the only place the chef has ever brought me an extra plate of ‘seconds’ of the main course (without any mention of me blogging I may add) that it’s difficult not to love it.
La Cuineta, Passeig de La Riba s/n, La Pobla de Segur, 25500