Andrew Purvis, The Daily Telegraph, July, 03, 2013
An exhibition with a difference is opening on Friday (July 5) at Somerset House in London. El Bulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food will be the first to be dedicated to a chef and his restaurant. But it is some chef and some restaurant. Between 2002 and 2009, Adrià’s three-Michelin-starred shrine to high gastronomy was voted the best in the world five times, and it delighted diners and inspired a new generation of chefs with its avant-garde creations based around foams, freeze-drying and “deconstructed” dishes.
El Bulli, which closed in 2011 (it will reopen as an academy and test kitchen dedicated to culinary ideas), was set in the Catalan coastal town of Roses. Many of those who came in homage would journey up from Barcelona, past the bigger resorts of Lloret and Tossa de Mar to where the lesser-known stretches of the Costa Brava begin. Here the coast is wilder and more beautiful, dramatic yet tranquil, peppered with exotic place names – La Pola I Giverola, Salionç, Sant Feliu de Guíxols. Hairpin bends hug the clifftops, pink striated rock plunges to fjord-blue ocean and every turn reveals another hidden cove.
The coastline around Tossa de Mar
The most famous of these, north of Palamós, is Tamariù – a paring of golden sand squeezed between temptingly clear water and forested mountain, with a hundred fishing boats bobbing at anchor in the bay. In summer, bronzed Catalans bask on the rocks nearby, retreating to the shade of pine trees or to a waterfront restaurant where the X-rated words on the menu – anxoves (anchovies), esqueixada (a salad of peppers, tomatoes, onions and shredded salt cod), xai rostit amb 12 cabeçes d’all (lamb roasted with 12 heads of garlic) – remind you that this is not Spain in the traditional sense but a region with a distinct cultural identity. And those ingredients, those dishes, are central to the cuisine that inspired Adrià.
The harvest from the sea, the olive groves, the fruit, the tradition of tapas – they were the simple raw materials on which he founded a far from simple way of cooking, a surreal artistry which, like that of Salvador Dalí, who lived around the coast at Figueres, provoked, unsettled and amazed as much as it delighted and nourished.
As he prepared for the exhibition, Adrià talked to Telegraph Travel about his inspiration and offered tips on how and where to find the tastes and traditions that make Catalonia one of Europe’s richest culinary destinations. If you are heading for the Costa Brava, don’t leave without his recommendations.
A “soup” dish from El Bulli
What makes Catalan food special?
The region’s complex history is expressed through its cuisine, which makes it especially fascinating for the visitor. In Roses, we had first the Greeks and Romans; then the Arabs were here for 1,000 years. Few places have lived through that kind of experience and, over the centuries, that has brought a unique cultural richness. Spain also discovered America – important, because that’s where the tomato originates. It’s a key ingredient in Catalan cooking. We have a unique fishing culture, too, drawing on Mediterranean species but with an Atlantic influence, thanks to transport links with Galicia and Cantabria on the north coast.
There’s a wealth of seafood – gambes [shrimp], llagosta [lobster], llagostins [langoustines], calamars [squid]… I’m using the Catalan words. In Roses, we have five or six restaurants where the fish is brought in alive while you’re eating; it’s that fresh. Every coastal village has a place like that and in Catalonia we have maybe 300. Grilled fish, very natural, with a little olive oil, is a very Catalan way of cooking and a speciality in itself.
Catalan style lobster dish
Which dish sums it all up?
Pa amb tomàquet – tomatoes on bread with olive oil – in which all the diverse influences come together: tomato from the Americas; flour from Mesopotamia, originally; olive oil from the Romans.
What else should we look for?
The nexus of most hot meals in Catalonia is sofregit [sofritto] – tomato, garlic, onion and peppers, fried in olive oil. You cook the produce in the sofregit and add very little water, and there are hundreds of variations on that theme. Many stews and casseroles are made that way. We also have a very curious approach called mar i muntanya [sea and mountain], combining meat and seafood: lobster with chicken; meatballs with cuttlefish; crab with snails, for example. The only other country that does this to the same extent is China. There’s a very typical cold starter, escalivida, which is chargrilled aubergine, tomato, red pepper and onion, cut into strips and seasoned with olive oil and salt.
One of the best sauces in the world is romesco, which is Roman but has evolved over time because it now contains tomatoes. Other ingredients are pine nuts, almonds, garlic, olive oil and red peppers – either hot, sweet bitxo chillies or the small, round bell pepper nyora – blended to an amber purée.
Pa amb tomàquet
We also have a tradition of making cold meats: botifarres [pork sausages made with spices, egg, rice or even truffles, though some resemble black pudding and white pudding], xoriço [chorizo] and fuet [a thin, cured dry pork sausage]. There are some unique Catalonian products too. One is calçots, which looks like a leek but is actually an onion. You will find those nowhere else on the planet because somebody here had the idea of crossbreeding the two vegetables. They’re now thinking about growing it in the United States, so it will be everywhere in 10 years’ time. To eat it now, you have to go to Catalonia. There’s also a unique seafood product, espardenya, a type of “king” sea cucumber, which is prized and very expensive.
Catalonia in five courses
Where Adrià would stop for...
La Boqueria, Barcelona’s food market – but avoid it on a Saturday because it’s crazy. Go mid-morning to Quiosc del Quim [“Quim’s kiosk”, a stall with stools, officially El Quim de la Boqueria] or to Pinotxo Bar. Both serve small dishes which are very traditional. I’d order pernil [ham] or anxoves [anchovies]. You’ll see that sauces are light, vegetables not so well done – it’s market cooking, using seasonal ingredients. In summer, choose seafood: calamars and cuttlefish; in autumn, bolets [wild mushrooms]. Nobody has a mushroom-eating culture like Catalonia’s, not even Italy. These places do wonderful tripe, black pudding, cap-i-pota [calf’s head and foot] and xipirons amb mongetes [baby squid with beans], Pinotxo’s speciality. Ask what’s in season.
La Boqueria market in Barcelona
El Quim de la Boqueria Small plates/tapas from €4/£3.50, mains from €10/£8.50 (La Boqueria Market, Ramblas 91, Barcelona; no reservations; elquimdelaboqueria.com/en ).
Pinotxo Bar Individual tapa (croqueta) from €1.10/£0.95, small plates – garbanzos (chickpeas) – from €3.50/£3, mains from €12.50/£10.60 (La Boqueria Market; no reservations; pinotxobar.com ).
A fish stall in La Boqueria
In summer, I’d go to the terrace of Bravo – the restaurant of the W Hotel in Barcelona, which is right on the beach. You can smell the iodine in the air – and that iodine, the taste of the sea itself, is a characteristic of food in Catalonia. I’d choose paella, or one of the Catalan arrós [rice] dishes made with marisc [seafood]. A number of places do this kind of food well. I’d also recommend Xiringuito Escriba, again right on the waterfront, for its paella.
In Roses, my favourite place for lunch is Rafa’s, a couple of streets back from the sea and just up the road from elBulli. There, I’d have simple grilled espardenya – the sea cucumber – giant prawns, lobster or rogers [red mullet], grilled with sea salt and olive oil and served with no side dishes or accompaniments – just bread and a glass of wine. Cal Campaner, too, does the freshest seafood straight off the grill.
Bravo (Plaça de la Rosa del Vents 1, Barcelona; 93 295 2636; w-barcelona.com/en/bravo-signature-restaurant ). Starters from €8/£7, mains from €21/£18.
Xiringuito Escriba (Avinguda Litoral 42, Platja de Bogatell, Barcelona; 93 221 0729; xiringuitoescriba.com ) Individual tapa from €1.70/£1.45, small plates from €13/£11, mains from €19/£16.
Rafa’s (Carrer de Sant Sebastià 56, Roses; 972 254003) Individual tapa from €2/£1.70, tapas starter from €20/£17, mains from €15/£12.75.
Cal Campaner (Mossèn Carles Feliu 23, Roses; 972 256954) Starters from €9/£8, mains €22/£19.
In Roses, I’d recommend La Sirena. Again, it’s a very simple place where I’d order calamars a la romana [squid fried in batter] with a cold Estrella beer, then ensaladilla Rusa [Russian salad], of which there are several versions. Potato and tuna with mayonnaise is really typical and done very well here.
La Sirena (Plaça Sant Pere 7, Roses; 972 257294; restaurantlasirena.cat ) Small plates/starters from €8/£7, mains from €17/£14.50.
The seaside town of Roses
I’d recommend Cal l’Isidre, like Barcelona’s equivalent of St John [Ferguson Henderson’s acclaimed restaurant in Smithfield, London] but a lot less formal and expensive. They do Catalan specialities such as scallops with romesco sauce and a suquet [stew] of monkfish with potatoes and clams.
Another great place in Barcelona is Restaurant Rías de Galicia, again for its seafood. You can order delicate sashimi, gambes in sea salt, navalles [razor clams] and cannelloni of txangurro [spider crab], elegantly presented like sculptures.
Cal l’Isidre (Carrer de les Flors 12, Barcelona; 93 441 1139; calisidre.com ) Starters from €16/£14, mains from €18/£15, three-course set lunch €40/£34.
Restaurant Rías de Galicia (Carrer de Lleida 7, Barcelona; 93 424 8152; riasdegalicia.com ) Individual tapas from €4/£3.40, mains from €25/£21, eight-course tasting menu €48/£41.
In Girona, El Celler de Can Roca [voted the world’s best restaurant in the 2013 S Pellegrino awards] has three Michelin stars and is superb. In Barcelona, my brother Albert opened Pakta, which does Nikkei cuisine – Japanese/Peruvian fusion. It’s one of the best in the world. If you’re in Catalonia, it’s fantastic to eat at a place like that once.
El Celler de Can Roca (Carrer Can Sunyer 48, Girona; 972 222157; cellercanroca.com ) Six-course tasting menu €135/£115, 14-course tasting menu €165/£140.
Pakta (Carrer de Lleida 5, Barcelona; pakta.es ; online reservations only) Tasting menus €90/£77 and €120/£102.
- Next week: Jose Pizarro’s Andalusia