Steal From the Best: Federica Barbaranelli

A weekend of soulful food and permaculture in Cantabria

Federica loves this picture taken by Alba Montoro and with good reason: it perfectly encapsulates the essence of her home.
Steal From the Best is a post series that explores unique places, people and lifestyles related to food and sustainability. Why all this research? Find the answer in Drawing My Ideal Home. Up next in the series: Massimo Bottura.

Leaving everything behind to pursue an ideal is not brave — it’s madness. Federica Barbaranelli was (still is) a talented interior designer and owner of a well-loved store in Madrid. People from all over knew her and came to buy her carefully curated pieces. Prestigious magazines wrote about her. She was, by any means, the definition of success. Then she decided to close her fourteen-year-old shop and move to a tiny town in Cantabria. Ask anyone: madness.

I first read about her in one of the aforementioned magazines. It was one of those articles in which everything is so perfect they feel more like a commercial than a real, informative telling of someone’s story. Truth be told, I had to read it for one of my then-clients. Otherwise I would have never gotten into the magazine’s website, much less read one of the articles. Still, when I started knowing more about Federica, something about her and her haven in Novales struck me as interesting. Having a similar project in mind, I decided to send her an email. She turned out to be incredibly approachable and sweet — after showing interest in her garden, she even offered to teach me some permaculture basics. That was all I needed. Spending a weekend eating home-grown food, hiking in the mountains and learning how to take care of my own veggie garden? Count me in! Not necessarily in that order, but eating, hiking and learning could be my favorite activities in the world, so from the minute she mentioned the course I was instantly sold.

Novales is best reached after driving on a winding road surrounded by a lush Cantabrian forest, the perfect place to roll down your windows and emulate that BMW commercial. When the road ends, you find yourself in a charming village with an impressive 18th century church and picturesque, beautiful houses. At the other end of Novales — about 1 minute from the entrance — you can find a white house with a considerable garden. From the first moment you lay your eyes on it you can tell it’s a special place. Maybe it’s the lovely, old table casually set near the front gate. Maybe it’s the abundance of orange and apple trees in the back. Maybe it’s all the tiny, little details that populate the property — from the heart-shaped welcome sign to the dry flowers set in the wooden stairs leading to the front door. There’s something about it that makes Federica’s home special and you can sense it right away.

Once you go through the glass door, there’s no denying that this is not a house — it’s a home. A mix of different aromas envelops you and knocks you out in the best possible sense. Mouthwatering food, fresh herbs, natural candles and a burning wood-fire —I am sure if you came during summer the smell mélange would be totally different but still delicious. We arrived late in the evening after having woken up at 5 AM sharp. We were tired, hungry after walking all day and honestly a little bit cranky. But the smell cheered us up immediately and so did the beautiful (if hyper feminine) bedrooms, decorated with flower wallpaper, flower bedspreads and freshly-cut flowers in simple vases. The gold clad bathtub didn’t hurt either.

When the dinner time arrived, the bar was set even higher. The table was full of delicacies — a cheese platter, different kinds of bread, heart-melting butter, marinated olives — and set in a room lit by dozens of candles. Everything in that place made it the paradigm of Danish hygge.

Federica talked about every course she was serving as if she was expecting us to stand up after she finished talking to prepare the dishes according to her recipes. She was that detailed. You could feel her deep respect for food, ingredients and heirloom cooking techniques in every explanation, every detail she gave, every spark her eyes emitted when talking about her favorite local puff pastry (from Torrelavega) or the intricacies of crema pasticcera.

She kept saying that what she prepared was a really basic meal so we kind of believed her until the courses started coming and we could see it was all modesty. After the hors d’oeuvre, there came the entrée: a deceptively simple pumpkin cream, served with a secret mix of spices, parmesan cheese, speck and truffle oil. The main dish was a deer cocotte toped by light puff pastry that combined perfectly with the richness of the meat and its sauce. My favorite dish came at the end though. I’d pick savory over sweet anytime but the dessert was spectacular: an apple pie that looked like one of the roses Federica grows in her garden.

These recipes might not be haute cuisine, true. But their execution and all the subtle details that define Federica — the carefully selected spices, the beautiful setting in dishes that would have made my grandma swoon, the impeccable but convivial service — made the meal exceptional. Yes, I realize this sounds like one of those ad-like articles I was mentioning before and yes, I know how annoying that can be. But believe me, there’s nothing bad I could say about Federica & Co.

The following day after breakfast (I will save you the details but look at this table!), the moment I had been waiting for finally arrived. We headed to the garden with Federica and sat among her plants. She talked about her veggies and herbs and gave us tips on how to grow our own. It was fascinating. I could have spent the whole day listening to her stories, trying to understand the mind behind this hidden paradise made from scratch.

Maybe paradise is not the right word. This place is more like her baby. She has help, for sure, but this is her project and she makes sure that every single detail of her creation is well taken care of until everything is perfect. The flowers around the house are all minutiously arranged. The linens on the tables are crisp white. Not a single object or ingredient enters her sanctuary without an exhaustive quality control. All the responsibility is on her shoulders and she goes out of her way to fulfill it. She might seem hard on everyone she works with but I am sure she is way harder on herself.

You might wonder whether this perennial attention to detail is worth it. But the more you know her, the more you understand her quest for perfection. If you want to know Federica’s story, she is brave enough to explain many of her struggles on her Instagram account, where she writes passionate and sometimes heart-wrecking revelations besides posting exquisite pictures. Once you do, you’ll see she has been reborn from her ashes and has learned a life’s worth from these experiences. And I think there’s a lot of merit to that — more than it catches the eye, for learning is always a conscious decision.

You can’t learn by accident. Nothing can be taught by sheer will or insistence. You must be open to learn and this, in her case, is what makes all the difference. She has lived amazing stories and has let them transform her. She has allowed them to make her stronger and wiser, even if that meant sacrificing the life she was used to. To most people it might be insane to leave everything behind to follow a dream project, but the most brilliant ideas come out of madness.