Catalan Contemporary Cooking
Credit: Galilea NinI'm having lunch with friends at the restaurant in northeastern Spain, a little south of the French border, that may fairly claim to have been the birthplace of contemporary Catalan cuisine and thus, by extension, one of the principal influences these days on modern food in general in Spain and beyond. It's probably not the restaurant you think it is, however.
On a precipitous hillside in Cala Montjoi, just outside the seaside resort town of Roses, at the three-star El Bulli, the now world-famous chef Ferran Adrià and his team regularly astonish—and frequently delight—diners with food turned inside out and upside down, deconstructed and rebuilt—with cauliflower turned into couscous, pasta made out of consommé, foie gras in the form of candy, cocktails you eat with a spoon….
What my friends and I are devouring right now, though, at a very different establishment, in Figueres, about a dozen miles inland from Roses, is a combination of superbly made traditional Catalan dishes and innovative specialties that are far more obviously connected to the region and its old-style cookery than Adrià's creations—more organic in conception, if you will—but just as dazzling in their way.
The restaurant in question is the Hotel Empordà. Opened in 1961 by a locally born chef named Josep Mercader, the place is today run by Jaume Subirós, the now deceased Mercader's son-in-law, who is both the chef and a quietly elegant presence in the big, warm, open dining room. In his very good hands today, we've been eating things like silky zucchini soup drizzled with sherry vinegar and hazelnut oil; a buttery compote of cèpes; a brandada—in fact a very fine mousse—of fresh tuna (a fish for which the coast near here was once famous); a "paella" of lentils, with plenty of perfectly fresh scampi-like saltwater crayfish; exquisite squid, whole small ones, meaty, sweet, and tender, sautéed in typical Catalan style in olive oil with garlic and parsley; tiny tords (thrushes) roasted with garlic cloves, herbs, and black olives; and an intensely flavorful "tatin" of salty-sweet slow-cooked oxtail that seems firmly rooted in the local terroir (what little beef and veal is raised in Catalonia comes mostly from this region) even while it nods to France.
Mercader did two daring things when he opened his restaurant. The first was simply to give traditional Catalan dishes pride of place on his menu. With few exceptions, "fancy" restaurants like his in Catalonia served mostly French food; savory local specialties like sausage with white beans and seared salt cod with garlic and paprika were found mostly at modest fondes (inns). The second thing Mercader did—perhaps influenced by the beginnings of the new French cuisine across the border and certainly encouraged by his food-loving friends, among them Figueres-born artist Salvador Dalí and the Catalan writer Josep Pla (who, says Subirós, "always liked things out of the ordinary")—was to begin reinventing the staples of Catalan cooking. In Mercader's kitchen, the traditional vegetable dish called escalivada—vegetables like eggplant, sweet peppers, and onions grilled or cooked in hot ashes, then sliced and dressed with olive oil and minced garlic—became a rich, flavorful mousse. From samfaina, a ratatouille-like vegetable mélange, he made a delicate sauce for roast veal. He converted faves a la catalana, a rich dish of fava beans with blood sausage and bacon, into a refreshing salad flavored with mint. He fed a classic crema catalana, or crème brûlée, into an ice cream maker to produce a frozen dessert of uncommon creamy richness and multilayered caramel flavor. In short, he reinterpreted Catalan cooking in ways that, at the time—and in those times, still dim with the political and cultural repression of the Franco era—must have seemed nearly as revolutionary as Adrià's alchemy does today.