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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.

September 18, 2011

Catalan pride

While in my recent three months of study in Spain I did not have one single day of holiday, I now finally had almost two weeks of free browsing, with H, through Catalan natural, cultural and gastronomic heritage. All while the deepening economic crisis forced Spain to a rushed constitutional reform, in a few days and without any real debate, to appease the European Central Bank and the market: the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had only been amended once before, in 1992 to implement the Maastricht Treaty, and whenever Catalans asked for amendments it was replied that it was too important to be touched without years of deliberations...

Drawing on a pinch of ancient Roman and even ancient Greek legacies, Romanesque art, now so well displayed in the re-opened wing of the MNAC, is the first ground of pride for Cataluña. In the booming first Century Catalunya was arguably the most advanced place in Europe. I like Romanesque even more than Gothic, as it actually combined with classic architectural heritage well before the Renaissance, and it merged Eastern and Western influences: it is less pretentious, but more universal and certainly more spiritually Christian than Gothic. And so is the Romanesque heritage of Catalunya, dispersed from the coast to the green Pyrenees valleys. Catalan tourist promotions tend to say that Catalan medieval villages and towns are like Tuscany, but I’d even say that this is an understatement. Many of them are even better, and while equally well-kept and somehow exclusive, they are not as posh, nor as flooded with tourists as their Tuscan counterparts, whose heyday, by the way, came a little later. The setting is also more spectacular in Catalunya, whether on the coast (the St Pere de Rodes monastery on Cap de Creu) or in the mountains. Besalu

Cataluña was also strong in Gothic times, and the churches of Girona and Barcelona are impressive. But by then the centred of European art had moved north and east. This is particularly evident in the fresco painting by Ferrer Bassa in the St Michael Chapel of the Pedralbes Monastery in Barcelona: fascinating, but a long shot from the Giotto’s ones they wanted to imitate.Sant Pere de Rodes

Then Catalan power declined, with Aragon and Castilla taking over, and Columbus’ discovery of America, together with many other disgraces, brought about the decline of Barcelona, relegated into the backwaters of trade. But I’d say that the dark periods of Catalan history help highlighting the glorious periods. Industrialisation in the XIX Century is the other one, with economic, social and political turmoil, modernist architecture and an orgy of artistic experiments. The rest is too well-known: civil war, Franco’s oppression, revival.

The economic success of Catalunya is very visible along the Costa Brava and inlands, but it becomes clearest when you cross the border into France – or what the Catalans call ‘Catalunya Norte’. While we are used to consider France richer than Spain, the French side of Catalunya (for the French, Roussillon) is actually poorer: while the Spanish side was the driving region of industrialisation, and produced a very rich bourgeoisie, the French one is just a rural peripheral region. Add to this the EU cohesion funds for Spain, but not for France, and possibly a better self-government in Catalunya (Sur) than the centralised French administration of Roussillom, and it becomes clear why as soon as you cross the border northwards the roads are worse, more houses are empty or run down, there is less economic activity and overall you feel going back in time. Take Prats de Melló, a pretty medieval village once linked to Melló on the South Catalan side: there are Catalan flags here too, but there is no press in Catalan language, and despite good wine and local produce, there is little of the pulsating innovation of (South) Catalan cuisine (I will get back to this in another blog). In a way, Prats is more atmospheric, exactly because not as neat and revamped as the (South) Catalan villages. But when you drive back South, admiration strikes you again.Prats de Mello

Maybe the best proof of Catalan civilisation is not even the heritage itself. It is how accessible the heritage is made. All is explained in at least three, often four languages. Even more, nearly all of the many Barcelona’s museums are accessible to disabled, including the blind, and in many cases those with learning disability. Having spent some time, long ago, accompanying learning disabled through Milan’s museums, I remember how great experiences they may be, but how little support there was – now this is starting to be available, for the benefit also of an emerging category of visitors, people with Alzheimer.

Then there’s the language. For me, fighting to get my Spanish to acceptable standards, Catalan is a bit of a turn off: written, it is perfectly intelligible, but the sound is not to my liking, although it makes a good ingredient to chansons, also thanks to its similarity to French. Still, I admire its centenary resilience and its respectable production: Jaume Cabré’s Jo Confesso is the book event of the year in Spain. His previous Les Veus de Panamo got eleven translations and sold millions across the globe, this one should also get an English one and reach the depressingly insular British bookshops.

The Catalan language, right in the days I was there, was however the target of a ruling by the Catalan High Court, deciding that Castellano should also be offered as medium language in Catalan schools. Imagine a Belgian court imposing French in Flemish schools or a Canadian one imposing English in the ones of Québec, and you can guess the uproar. All Catalan parties protested, with only the rightwing Partido Popular welcoming the ruling, which in turns threatens the Catalan ruling coalition between them and the Catalan nationalists (CiU). The Catalan government has appealed the decision and refuses to move an inch, saying that there already three hours of Castellano per week, and that anyway Catalan children already get better exam results in that language than those of many Spanish-only regions. Not only: education in Catalan is indispensible for social cohesion and to avoid the segregation of immigrants in second-class Castellano ghettoes. Castellano defenders reply that it is actually Catalan teaching that marginalises Castellan speakers, whose educational attainment in Catalunya is much lower than for Catalan native speakers. I’d say that social cohesion is more important than attainment, and long live linguistic variety. Even when it means defending the language I don’t speak.

June 13, 2011

After 'yes we camp'

Summer is arriving and the protest camp of the treeless Puerta del Sol, after 4 long weeks, is over. The indignados, in these four weeks, have made the world news but also very fast through all the dilemmas and difficulties of direct democracy. From technicalities –how to run assemblies under the rain – to stall – the near-impossibility to reach decisions by universal consent – to bureaucratisation – dozens ‘commissions and commissions’ commissions – to organisational boundaries – from the initial total openness they moved to the opposite of extreme distrust towards any newcomer, for fear of infiltration – to gradualism – once the original demand of a ‘real democracy now’ started to appear a bit too difficult to achieve within days. Worst of all, at a very fast speed, the sectarianism vicious cycle. When the protest is in a camp, the natural outflow of militancy occurs particularly fast, and the core that remains is particularly ‘tough’; this core, with its radicalism, puts even more people off, and so on. This explains why the camp went on for at least two weeks more than it was necessary.

Yet this is far from the end and far from a defeat. Uniquely for a radical, numerically rather small movement, the indignados are very popular: opinion polls show that a majority considers the protests justified. On Saturday, protesters have been again in the spotlight, contesting the investiture of the new mayors across the country. The protest is now starting to be more focussed, whether on local issues or against the labour market and collective bargaining reforms just passed by the government: a direct effect of the movement has been to add a bit of backbone to the Spanish unions, that have rejected the reform. Moreover, also thanks to an effective use of new technologies, the movement is spreading, also to new countries and especially Portugal. Stéphane Hessel's Indignez-vous! pamphlet that inspired the protests has spread like wildfire across continental Europe, although not the UK that is as usual quite insulated from outside world’s ideas (it is not even published in English, apart from a translation in the magazine Nation).

Indignados in Sant CugatIndignados in SitgesI have become aware of the widespread extension of the movement only now that I have left Madrid’s city centre for Barcelona. You find indignados everywhere, not just in the central Plaça de Catalunya, but in the central squares of all little towns across the region. Even in conservative Catalan Sant Cugat del Vallès. Even in tourist-packed Sitges. Thinking about it, if I were 20-year old and had to choose a place and time to start a revolution, I would choose Sitges beach in the late Spring over St Petersburg in November any time.

May 06, 2011

National questions, 2011

While in Québec two years ago, I watched the documentary movie Questions Nationales, comparing three ‘failed’ independent nations: Québec, Cataluña and Scotland (I confess sympathy for all three – and my wife is half-Scottish). It was clear in the public and among my Quebecer friends that the odd one among the three was Scotland: it was not serious enough. Scotland, unlike Québec and Cataluña, is not distinguished by that most important social divide that is language. It hasn’t been independent, nor fought for it, for centuries (now: Québec has never been independent, but at least it was separate 250 years ago – and it had space for some terrorist independentists in the 1970s; Cataluña was virtually independent at some stage in the violent 1930s). Paradoxically, Scotland was the only one with quite clear a constitutional right to independence – but that just proved that it was not serious: they are allowed to split because everybody knows they would never do it.

Robert The BruceFast forward to 2011. Last month, in an informal referendum on independence, just 21% of Catalans bothered to vote (91% voted yes). A couple of months earlier, in the Cataluña elections, the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya had seen its vote halved, to the advantage of the more moderate CiU and of fringe parties. Last Monday, the separatist Bloc Québécois was all but wiped out in the Canadian Federal elections: down from 47 to 4 seats. By contrast, yesterday, the Scottish National Party, won a surprising absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. This opens the way for them to call a referendum, for 2014 or 2015, on independence. So Scotland is actually proving more serious on the independence route than the other two.

In truth, Scottish independence sounds less dramatic and attracts more smiles than anger, mostly because, economically, they are the poorer bit (the oil is running out and it is even disputed whether it will fall into the Scottish national waters once a border is drawn). It reminds of Slovakia, whose independence was fomented by the Czechs more than by the Slovaks themselves.

What is striking in all these cases is the volatility of separatist vote. OK, vote for separatist parties is not the same as vote in an actual independence referendum (in the last Québec one, in 1995, the Yes reached 49%). But still, only two months ago the SNP was seen as secure loser: after all, its main message for years had been that independence would allow Scotland to achieve the same economic results as Ireland and Iceland – not a clever thing to say right now. Two months later, people voted for them, just in order to protest against all Westminster parties. If on separatism people can change opinion with the weather (particularly changeable in Scotland...), then this is clearly no longer the serious, life or death issue it was for Garibaldi – or for Croats and Slovenians a couple of years ago. In today’s world, and especially in the EU, national independence matters little and it can depend on the mood. People can switch between multiple allegiances. The best example was Barcelona, last 11th of July. In the morning a million people demonstrated for independence. In the evening, a million people (who knows if the same or not) celebrated Spain’s World Cup victory. Which actually could suggest a good compromise: a time-share independence - Catalans during the day, and Spaniards at night.Pick your own

In such a state, the real fomenters of separatism are those who take it too seriously and provoke it, such as the conservative Constitutional Court of Spain rejecting parts of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, otherwise approved by 95% of Catalans in a referendum. Yesterday, the same Court very narrowly (a 5-6 vote split) resisted the temptation of banning from local elections the Basque independentist Bildu, a decision which would have only radicalised independentists there and closed the political channels (it would be similar tooutlawing Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland).

As proof of how unserious independence has become, there is the debate on what name the UK should take if Scotland left (Canada and Spain have the same problem: their current names would make no sense anymore, and there are no easy substitutes). “Disunited Kingdom” and “Little Britain” look like the best options...

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