Is Catalan food the best in the world?
There are many reasons you should visit the Costa Brava. But ultimately there is only one. The best restaurant in the world. It seems that unless you are an internationally recognized food critic, there’s little chance of getting a table this summer. But don’t panic, you won’t go home hungry if you take the family. Catalan food is so integral to Catalan life that it has been elevated to an art form. Perhaps even a religion. Over a week Matthew and I consumed enough for a family of five..
Not sailing but dining
On first appearance it looks like we are off for an afternoon’s sailing. I grab my deck shoes and prepare to tack and jibe. But an hour into our catamaran trip around Cap de Creus, on the Eastern coast of Catalonia, we dock in a sheltered cove. A bottle of chilled white wine appears and a chef pops out from a hatch, with a second chef close behind. I thought that only happened in movies about lottery winners. But as seabirds flock around a trawler further out into the bay, (How very Eric Cantona!) these guys cook up a magnificent paella. Just like that. Because that’s what they do here.
We eat and drink. And eat more, basking in the sunshine. The crew and our guides talk quietly and reverently amongst themselves, casting their eyes up to the rock ahead every few moments. What is it about that rock? It’s as though they are expecting an apparition?
The modern messiah
A few years ago and that might have been the case. Because behind that rock, in the protected bay of Cala Montjoi, a man hailed as the most imaginative chef on the planet once performed miracles with food on a nightly basis. His experiments with molecular gastronomy changed haute cuisine all around the world. Ferran Adrià became to food what Diego Maradona was to football. The hand of god.
This man wasn’t just credited with putting his restaurant el Bulli at the centre of world cuisine. He had a legion of disciples following his techniques and spreading the word. At one point el Bulli had 56 cooks spending their twilight hours freezing, foaming and foot-pumping 28 courses that would be eaten by just 45 customers a night. These talented chefs worked for free then went forth and preached the el Bulli gospel in restaurants across Spain.
Show and tell
Ferran Adrià was a new kind of chef and a breath of fresh air when he broke onto the culinary scene says hotel and campsite owner Miquel Gotanegra. Miquel should know; he was eating in Ferran’s restaurant long before the Catalonian chef became famous, “For the first time this new generation, led by Ferran, showed us everything,” he says. “They did not feel it was a problem to explain the whole experience and creation of food. They did not want to keep it to themselves.” Ferran is now going one step further in the art of show and tell; he is currently preparing to open the el Bulli Foundation; a cross between a cookery school, a Gastronomic Wikipedia and an ideas incubator that will take experimenting and explaining to a new level.
The new rock and roll
But when Ferran hung his apron up for the last time in el Bulli, after taking the best restaurant title a record five times, the people of Costa Brava must have wept. Their famous son was at the top of his game, known the world over for his talent and creativity. And he brought money in too; he may have operated at a loss, but those who flew in from around the world for one night at el Bulli also shelled out for taxis and hotel beds. The ‘best restaurant’ title was swiftly grabbed by Denmark’s Noma. But recently it rebounded like a boomerang, into the hands of Ferran’s gastronomic neighbours, the Roca Brothers, and their restaurant El Celler de Can Roca. The three men who had started small in Girona, with a family restaurant that their mother still runs, had formerly been number two in the list run by Restaurant Magazine. Marketing Director for the Costa Brava Tourist Board Jaume Marin confesses that their jump to the top caught people on the hop a bit, “Last year we thought they might come first but they came second. So we didn’t expect it this year. But it’s good for the city and good for the country and we’re very happy.”
The Roca brothers are equipped for the kind of multi tasking that a kitchen requires. Joan is the chef, Josef is the sommelier, and little brother Jordi works the pastry and pudding department. We visit his spin off gelateria Rocambolesc. This Girona ice cream shop is a frozen version of Willy Wonka’s sweet factory; flavours include sheep’s milk and cotton candy and even the soft furnishings look edible. If I got locked in for the night I’d surely turn into the girl who blows up into a blueberry. Or given the Catalan setting, more likely I’d resemble one of Ferran Adrià’s foot pumped tomatoes. But you don’t need a golden ticket to eat here. This shop brings a taste of haute cuisine to families and tourists at affordable prices. The ice cream is biked over from their main restaurant. There is no queue when we visit and Matt and I could have both gorged on different flavours for a handful of euro’s each.
Everyone here is passionate about their food
They’re more than passionate about food here. They’re obsessed. You won’t get far without stumbling into a restaurant. We count more than twenty of them in a medieval village alleged to have barely more than 100 residents.
Quality filters down from the Michelin starred (Costa Brava has 20 stars in 16 restaurants) to the simple family business offering other families fresh, unpretentious fare. And eating out is a family experience. At midnight, as we sit outside Restaurant L Esculapi with the spectacular setting of the Bay of Roses, there are still kids playing in the square.
Food is for kids as well you see. Admittedly I only scratch the surface of Catalan culture and cuisine, but in a whole week in the region I don’t sniff out any food snobbery, early bedtimes or chicken nuggets. And families are included when it comes to sharing knowledge. At La Vinyeta, a family friendly farm and vineyard, Chef Jordi Castello regularly teaches small groups of children and families to put together a meal with his company I Cook It. “I think it’s important they know where their food comes from; which ground is it grown in and which river is it fished from,” he says as he helps Matthew whip up a traditional Catalan custard dish followed by tortilla. He tells me that if they come in the right season, families can take part in the harvest at La Vinyeta, picking grapes and crushing them with their feet. His enthusiasm isn’t entirely altruistic, “We like to explain to the world who we are, because Catalonia is very little,” he smiles.
This ethos of passing on the message is also followed by the Roca Brothers. Every three months Joan Roca takes a group of people around Girona market to shop, and helps them prepare the food in a classroom above the market.
Food as art
In the UK, on the whole, food is food. You’re not going to get anything really special in a Newcastle greasy spoon or on a market in Shepherd’s Bush. Here even the simple stuff can be tiny masterpieces. Perhaps it’s made all the more delicious by the sea air and the sun; on market day in the fishing village of Cadaques, caskets of fruit line the seafront like dried jewels, and the constituent parts of a pig’s stomach are being handed out prettily like sweets.
Of course the top chefs go beyond street food. They are the grand masters who paint edible portraits with a pastry brush. They are the head conductors who orchestrate the feast with a knife instead of a baton. They are the chief architects, who construct sky scrapers from pencil drawings. They create their masterpieces in vegetable and animal. And sometimes even mineral. They burnish food, they blast it, they freeze it, they put in on a spoon, in a box or in a spray. They keep it complicated. And yet, so simple.
And it all began with soft clocks
They’ve spent a lifetime getting it right. But then, art and food have skipped hand in hand into the sunset here for centuries. The artist Salvador Dali was more than a little in love with both; one of the most common symbols in his paintings, the soft clock, was inspired by camembert cheese that had been left out of the fridge. His museum in Figueres is covered in loaves. And I mean covered. You could climb the whole building and never take your foot off a baguette. And you’ll eventually come to an egg. Hard boiled by the sun.
A week long lunch hour
And as food is not food but art, I give myself permission to tour the whole gallery. Yes reader, I eat until I’m stuffed. Paella, mussels, sea bass, clams, cockles, beef, cheese, bread,ham, eggs. Yet weirdly I don’t put on weight. Forget the ‘fasting’ diet, the new food fad should be Mediterranean. Even the wine is deemed healthy; I take a bath in it at Hotel Peralada Wine Spa. After a brief moment of panic when a litre of red is tipped into my jacuzzi, I relax into the bubbles, soaking up those anti-oxidants while Matthew has a non alcoholic swim next door.
There are some great mother-son bonding moments, like when I convert Matthew from junk food to sea food, (well, fish without heads) when I burn my pudding and scoff his perfect one, and when we share a huge bag of cherries from Cadaques market. And of course delivering a child to the best ice cream in the world is a vote winner. I’m hoping the brownie points will last into his teenage years.
A visit to Costa Brava is basically one long lunch in the sun. If you’re a family of foodies, then you’ll find yourself in heaven. But tragically, you won’t find God alongside you. I looked and looked in the rock at Cap de Creus but he wasn’t there. He was in another bay, busy transforming himself, his disciples and his kitchen into yet another work of art.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to the Costa Brava tourist board for hosting me to enable me to bring you this story. All the experience, views and opinions are, as ever, entirely my own.