September 23, 2011

El Celler de Can Roca and Catalan cuisine

A couple of weeks ago, working-class outskirt of Girona. We are early. It’s half past midday, much too early to speak of lunch in Spain, but it’s already terribly hot. We notice down the road the Restaurante Can Roca, the original, unpretentious family eatery of the Rocas’ father. We find a bar to drink something in the shade while lazily read the newspaper, while listening to locals arguing over which newspaper is least objective, Marca (Madrid, and especially Real) or Mundo Deportivo (Barcelona). In a sea of Catalan, in this neighbourhood of immigrants, we hear more Castellano.

At 1:30 we move to the restaurant: still rather early, but this lunch will last more than three hours. We push the heavy door, leave behind the heat and, temporarily, the working class estate, and we enter the new, beautiful premises of the Celler de Can Roca. Even for one who despises league tables, whether of universities or of restaurants, the idea of second-best restaurant in the world (according to the San Pelligrino’s list) makes some impression.

Fine restaurants fascinate me – even though I dislike luxury. I don’t think there is a contrast there. Really good restaurants celebrate nature, art, skills and labour. Not that fine restaurants are the best places to eat: my best idea of eating is authenticity, either street food in non-western countries, where fresh produce is skilfully assembled under your eyes, or the food I cook myself everyday drawing on memories of my granny or travel experiences. Yet there is a link between the two. Great cuisine is actually a celebration of that food, elevating it to its essence, liberating it from technical and practical constraints. It requires skill and creativity, and it is inspiring. Like art, really.

This summer Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, Catalunya and world’s best restaurant until last year, closed down, causing much comment in the press. Many of those comments could not help criticising that level of cuisine as over the top, that after all it is just food. In Zoe Williams’ trenchant words for the Guardian, ‘art and fashion last, whereas food is evanescent (...) You'll eat it. You'll digest it. You'll expel it. And that will be that’. But leaving apart that Zoe Williams has actually never eaten at El Bulli (neither have I), it is off the point. It is not necessary for art to ‘last’: do the notes of a fantastic live concert ‘last’? the records maybe, but then so do recipes. And the reference to bodily functions is even weirder: cuisine is to feeding what erotic poetry is to sex, or Michelangelo’s David to the shape of a naked man. In fact, I find eating at a really good restaurant the opposite of a transient experience. First, there is a lot of expectation involved. When two years ago in Paris I ate at Ambroisie in Paris, I had been waiting for fourteen years, since my cash-stripped student year in the French capital, and for the Celler, I needed two months advance to find a table for lunch (no idea for dinner). And if it is really as good as it should, the memories will last. Of course, this is valid only if such dining remains a rare experience, and is not trivialised in a snobbish habit – but on academic salaries there is little risk for it.

While in the same region as Bulli, the Celler follows a very different philosophy. The place is not science fiction, but it is well grounded to earth, and each table has three little stones on it – referring to the three ‘Roca’ (rock) brothers, but also to the simplicity of where they come. While El Bulli was extremely conceptual and universal, regardless of where produce or techniques came from, the Rocas are very local, still in the same neighbourhood where they were born, at a short walk from their father’s simple local restaurant. They are firmly and proudly Catalan – although, as Cataluña itself, in a way that is open to the world. This is visible from the wine, which, in a place called Celler, is very important, and is looked after by Josep (the savoury food by Joan, the desserts by Jordi). The ones from Catalunya, both South and North (i.e. French Roussillon) are prominent, but also those from Andalusia, where many of their neighbours immigrants came from (in addition, good classic French can’t be missing, and Josep has a fascination for German Rieslings, which are sufficiently flavoured to match his brother’s dishes). Overall, this is very much nostalgic food, as with many chefs of the recent wave concerned with disappearing environment. It’s a sort of Proustian effort, which of course struggles to get to the same universal level that Proust could reach with literature. How can we tell if the Rocas actually manage to de- and reconstruct the exact flavours of their granny’s cuisine, given that we have never met their granny? I am quite lucky to at least come from a country (and granny) from the same sea, sharing the same ingredients and row flavours, but I did wonder what the nice Irishmen at the next table could guess (they had to ask the waiter what a bergamot was).

We both went for the festival menu, which in a way is excellent value: 155 Euros for something like twenty-one courses (nine starters, nine mains and three desserts). For an extra 75 Euros, a fine wine chosen by Jordi for each of the main dishes (for a total of fourteenglasses – which, unlike the small and light dishes, do leave a bit of a mark when you have to leave the table). Do your maths and it is, by the dish or glass, as cheap as your local pub... In fact, these restaurants generally run at a loss, the income coming from somewhere else (books, commercial endorsements...).

The first to arrive at the table is a small olive tree – a real one. It also has four olives, and these are less real. It was Adrià who made olives famous as a chef speciality: his are liquid, and the object of spherification. Joan Roca replies with the opposite, all-texture caramelised olives with anchovy, visually and physically attached to their roots. Of the other starters, the one that follows best is the joint serving of mushrooms bombons (you can’t avoid spheres in these restaurants) and of anchovy bones: an interpretation of mar i muntanya, see and mountains, the combination of food from the two contrasting landscapes of Catalunya. This is so typically Catalan in matter and in spirit, and so contrasting from the Mediterranean food I am used to: the hyper-analytical, nearly chauvinistic in its separatism, Italian cuisine, where sea and mountains are forbidden to meet in the same plate. Fortunately, over the previous months I had the possibility to acquire the catalan taste for these combinations, such as, a few evenings earlier in the Pyrenees, a dish of cockles where the valves without mollusc held small pieces of butifarra negra (catalan black pudding).

Each following dish was a new conceptual adventure and feast for the senses. The salted cod brandade referred to old times of scarcity. Where Roca seemed to stray a bit off Catalunya was the cherry soup, which sent my mind off to Hungary instead: there is no trace of cherry soups at all in Catalan traditions, but then, this one also had smoked eel, and almonds, and ginger ice cream - and the masterpiece was managing to combine all these catalan ingredients without ending up into something sweet. The steak tartare with mustard ice cream was an adventure in itself, with an escalation of four very different flavours in one little stripe of raw meat. But the most memorable dish was for me the whole king prawn. In line with the traditional frugality of Spanish cooking, which I admire so much, all of the prawn is used, included the head and the ink, and the caramelised legs achieve a rare intensity of flavour and crunchiness.

The puddings by the youngest brother Jordi are much more abstract and less earthy – if there is a reference to Catalunya, is rather to Miró's art. The postre lattico (milk dessert – a cloud of sheep milk) is the most ambitious, but maybe because it is so famous, it was a bit lost, so to speak, in its own milk cloud – or maybe because the previous, deliciously but complexly refreshing lemon cloud had already spoilt the wow effect of Jordi’s clouds.

Going through the above took three hours, and the service was a perfect symphony, dishes arriving always at the right time with the wines, and waiters answering all questions we could think of. But it was not the end of it. After leaving the table we had a long chat, in French as a good compromise between his poor English and our poor Spanish or inexistent Catalan. This as such was not so surprising – I have seen other great chefs suspiciously spending more time with the customers than in the kitchen. But Josep Roca also invited us to a tour of the kitchen, with what he called the pianos where they play their gastronomic symphonies, and to the cellar, explaining his six preferred kinds of wines and the associations to their dishes. He finished summarising their experience: the whole team still eat traditional meals together every day at the family restaurant up the road, because that is life, where they come from – their restaurant is not life, it is a dream. Indeed, what a dream having a kitchen, or a cellar, like that.

So cheers for catalan cuisine. Were it for the wealth of the region or for the fortunate position at the intersection of Iberian and French gastronomic traditions (as very visible in the wide range of breads), it is spectacular, equally in the forms of fine restaurants or local traditional spots. In fact, we had equally enjoyed ourselves a few days earlier not far from Girona, at the Can Berris, an off the road popular restaurant that specialises in snails: you just say how many you want, in multiples of 50 (we went for just 100) and you receive a large tin of the little things, baked in the most exquisite sauce... the opposite of a twenty-one course tasting menu, but equally Catalan.

The night after the Celler, in Barcelona, we paid tribute to Ferran Adriá, the one who made Catalunya the centre of the culinary world. After closing El Bulli, which had to turn down something like 99% of booking requests, to democratise his foodhe opened two attached places on the Paral-lel, the tapa bar Tickets and the cocktail bar 41º (referring to Barcelona's latitude and the alcohol content of most cocktail ingredients). We could get a table, oops, bar seats with just a few weeks advance, and now we could try the famous spherical liquid olives and a few other creations. All, indeed, very good, and in the bar you can see the food being prepared in front of you, and the prices are extremely democratic (most food items cost just a couple of Euros each, and the cocktails 12-15 Euros, the same as the horrible ones served on the Ramblas). The cocktails also have a degree of deconstruction: in the Margarita, the salt rim is replaced by salt foam. The bar is in a cool science-fiction setting, but I personally prefer staying down to earth – on the rocks.

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