As simple pleasures go, eating heaps of the freshest oysters and mussels takes some beating. Add a few glasses of chilled cava and a view of the Med for a perfect day on Spain’s east-coast Ebro Delta
Along with about two dozen others, I boarded a pleasure cruiser in the harbour of Sant Carles de la Ràpita, a fishing town in the Ebro Delta nature reserve, halfway between Barcelona and Valencia. A wetland area where the River Ebro flows into the Mediterranean, the nature reserve is a popular base for activity holidays – particularly birdwatching, kayaking, kitesurfing and cycling.
We sailed down the coast, past a string of beaches, then turned out to sea towards the Punta de la Banya, a peninsula of saltpans inhabited by flamingoes and linked to the mainland by a spit of golden sand. After an hour or so, the boat turned back towards the shore and approached a line of wooden platforms, which stretched for about a mile in the glistening Mediterranean. Thick ropes dangle down into the depths from the platforms, on which around a million oysters and three million mussels are grown every year.
We got off the boat and climbed up the steps onto one of the platforms, where trays of oysters were laid out on trestle tables. A smiling man was deftly shucking them with a small knife. Handing one to me, he introduced himself as Agustí Bertomeu, chairman of the local union of oyster and mussel producers. 'We don’t think of oysters as a luxury down here at all. We eat them all year round, and sell them for the same price as the mussels,' he said, pouring me a glass of cava, the sparkling wine produced a bit further up the coast.
Oysters may be everyday fare here on the Delta, but their quality is certainly appreciated further afield, and they are exported by the truckload to France. I wondered why they are so coveted. 'It is the mixture of the sea with the fresh water from the Ebro river, which is very rich in nutrients,' Agustí explained. 'This combination gives them a distinctive flavour and silky texture. They don’t even need a drop of lemon juice.'
As the trays emptied, the crew were busy at a stove at the end of the deck, tossing dozens of mussels in olive oil. 'We don’t put any sauce on them here,' said Agustí. ”We don’t want anything to detract from the flavour.' I tried a couple. I had another swig of cava. I had a few more, and had to agree that he was quite right.
The next day I took a trip into the nature reserve, where eight lakes contain one of the greatest varieties of flora and fauna in Spain. I started off at the Ecomuseum in the village of Deltebre to get an idea of what there was to see and do, and learned about how rice is grown and harvested there. Ebro Delta rice is recognised throughout Spain for its quality and is one of the best for making paella.
At Encanyissada lake, I stood on the observation deck and watched the flamingoes flying overhead. Of the 1,000 or so bird species in Europe, at least 325 can be seen at some point in the year in the Ebro Delta. That day, I saw purple herons, coots, cormorants, moorhens, swifts, wagtails and countless other species I couldn’t identify.
From the observation deck, I gazed beyond the lake to the Mediterranean and the Punta de la Banya peninsula, thinking what an amazing weekend it had been so far. It was time to hit the beach.
Booking the cruise
The cruise runs on Saturday mornings and costs €25 (www.rutadelmuscloiostra.com, +34 600 447587). The comfortable, two-star Hotel Llansola in the centre of Sant Carles de la Ràpita offers packages including one night’s accommodation plus breakfast, either lunch or dinner, and the oyster cruise from €72 per person.
Where to stay and eat
The Hotel del Port opened in 2008 and has 16 bright rooms, some with views of the harbour. With free wi-fi and rates starting at €55 for a double room with breakfast, it is excellent value, and they can also arrange sailing, watersports and other activities for you.
The four-star Miami Mar is family-run, has a pool and overlooks the sea, with 30 rooms. Double rooms range from €94 to €196, depending on size and time of year, including breakfast. The hotel’s restaurant is one of the best in the area and specialises in seafood and local produce. Apart from its oysters and mussels, Sant Carles de la Ràpita is renowned for its delicious king prawns, and this is one of the best places in town to try them. Also recommended is the lobster paella, cooked in plenty of tasty stock.
You should also have at least one meal in the harbour. Both Casa Ramón (Pou de les Figueretes 7, +34 977 741458) and Can Vicent (Carmen 28, +34 977 741613) are very popular with the locals, offering fantastic shellfish at reasonable prices – though bear in mind that produce of this quality is never cheap.
For something a bit fancier, Les Algues (Puerto Deportivo, +34 977 744578) is a chic space with a terrace overlooking the harbour where you can see the catch of the day being landed. Contemporary rather than traditional Catalan cuisine is on the menu here, and there are some Japanese dishes too.