The Spanish conquest

Feb 16, 2014, 10:30 IST | Rashmi Uday Singh

Food writer Rashmi Uday Singh sets off on a gastronomic pilgrimage, savouring dishes at some of the best restaurants in three regions of Spain — Catalonia, Basque and Madrid

Type: Leisure
Best from: Madrid
You need: 7 days

If you are a foodie, you owe yourself a once-in-a-life-time gastronomy pilgrimage to Spain. Here, genius spills over with vibrant intensity, be it art, architecture or food. Picasso, Dali, Gaudi and the gods of gastronomy — Ferran Adria, Roca brothers — reign supreme.

Girona in Catalona is a 2,000-year-old city. Pics Courtesy/Rashmi Uday Singh

Spanish foodwriter Josep Pla aptly says “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot.” Snow-capped Pyrennes, sun-drenched beaches, and hosts of invaders and centuries of cooking traditions have moulded Spanish cuisine. Each of the country’s 20 regions has a distinct gourmet identity. I eat my way through three regions — Catalonia (Barcelona is the capital) Basque (San Sebastian) and Madrid.

Chef Sergi Arola, founder of Arola, with Rashmi Uday Singh in Madrid

On an earlier trip, Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola gallantly took me eating in Madrid’s restaurants. I plan my pilgrimage to the world’s best restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, with as much gusto as I plan my visit to local eateries and markets. I also attend Madridfusion, the annual, three-day food congress.

Here, mind-blowing innovations are unveiled for the first time and path-breaking secrets are shared by the worlds most revered superstar chefs. For the past twelve years, every serious chef, foodie, restaurateur has been making it a point to attend this festival. Mark this on the agenda for your next trip : learn cooking, taste the world, learn from global superstars and Spanish wizards. I eat, tweet, instagram and eat some more. Here it is, from the sublime to the simply divine, from the latest to the greatest.

Seabass Ceviche is a melt-in-the-mouth octopus enrobed in purple potato and crowned with olive oil caviar at Pakta

The world’s best restaurant
I begin my teerth yatra in the 2,000-year-old city of Girona and wind my way through its picturesque cobbled streets, popping into the Santa Maria Cathedral to offers hymns of gratitude. When it’s time for dinner, I am warm with anticipation, though it’s freezing outside, as I drive into El Celler de Can Roca, crowned as The World’s Best in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013. Located on the outskirts of Girona, this is where the Roca brothers — Joan, Josep and Jordi — grew up. A country house, a hybrid of modernist and colonial styles, this 50-seater restaurant has a two-year-long waitlist.

Eat the World, the dish, has bite-sized spheres, each resembling a geographical region at restaurant El Celler de Can Roca.

‘Techno-emotion cuisine’ best describes my five-hour, 22-course wine-paired experience. Depth, intensity, technique, science, complexity, flavour, fantasy, and humour infuse the Mediterannean-inspired creations. For sure, the Roca brothers trailblaze at the forefront of global gastronomy. 

The three brothers work in palpable harmony and fun, while I sit at a table. Eat the World, a dish that comes covered in a paper globe, is put before me. It opens to reveal bite-sized spheres, each exploding with flavours of different countries. With a buritto bursting with Molepoblano and Guacamole, I put Mexico into my mouth, while a miso-filled tempura sphere represents Japan.

The olive tree with caramelised olive filled with anchovy cream and caramel at El Celler de Can Roca

The wow never wavers: The famous bonsai Olive Tree is served next. I pluck the  Caramelised Olives filled with Anchovy Cream with a surprising sweet crunch of caramel. Followed by liquid explosions of caviar omelette and bonbons in my mouth!

The first course arrives with ‘perfume cooking’ at its finest. Heady fragrance of sherry wine on the Sous Vide Langoutine is magnified with caramel sherry wine. There’s  sole-cooked sous vide, also known as Roner technique invented by Roca and Caner, with Mediteranean fennel orange olive oil.

Gilda Pintxo, a crunchy snack on sticks,  presented in a modern bar at San Sebastian

I devour this masterpiece. And what an amazing dessert follows — sheep milk  paired with pink guava layered with Dulche Leche and topped with an airy candy floss. Bliss. And then the treat to beat all treats: the  India inspired Mandala dish with it’s kiss of curry.

I end the experience with The Lemon Cloud Dessert with muffin ice-cream and flavours of carefree childhood. Jordi Roca has distilled it into a perfume for me to take back home.

PS: It is impossible to include all the dishes I ate here. Need a book to do that.

Rashmi Uday Singh with Juan Marie Arzak (centre), who is known as the father of Basque cooking, and Elena Arzak

The world’s most vibrant restaurants

Three years ago, the gastronomy world went into mourning when the El Bulli shut down. Thankfully for us, the brothers Ferran and Albert Adria are very much alive and cooking and serving up bite-sized molecular bliss at affordable prices at Tickets, a Tapas bar with a twist in Barcelona. The colourful décor matches the theatre district where the bar is located. I get high on a solid cocktail of green apple infused with tequila and hibiscus. Smoking domes have artichoke hearts plump with quail egg and salmon roe. I pair  the food with the world’s first gourmet beer, created by the Adrias. I bite into spherefied olives and mini airbags stuffed with manchego cheese foam using tweezers. The cupcakes come with edible paper cups. It's a parade of surprises here!
At: Avinguda Parallel, 164  Barcelona

When in Barcelona, don’t miss Pakta, another Adria masterpiece where Japan and Peru get locked in an erotic union. I trip out on the Peruvian and Japanese 35-dish Nikkei menu, which includes Sea bass Ceviche, a poem of coriander oil kumquat and leche de tigre. I love the Peruvian causa, a melt-in-the-mouth octopus enrobed in purple potato and crowned with olive oil caviar. I can’t get enough of Peruvian ají amarillo (yellow chilli), the star which sparkles Nikkei cuisine. I end the meal with Banana bom bom, a frozen mango flower.
PS: Sip on the Peruvian Pisco sour, a traditional Peruvian spirit made of grapes. Mules kick…
At: Carrer de Lleida, 5, Barcelona ARZAK

At Arzak, I begin with a starter served on a tonic water can — its Mango Zuchini in a tonic water Sauce. Restaurant Arzak is  housed in what used to be the Arzak family home since 1897. Juan Marie Arzak, father of modern Basque cooking and his daughter Elena, crowned as the world’s best woman chef by the Worlds 50 best restaurant academy) is the fourth generation of culinary geniuses.

As the 12-course, wine-paired meal unfolds, it becomes quite evident why Arzak was the first Spanish restaurant to earn three Michelin stars in 1989. Science and technique, art and drama merge to coax flavours and textures out of the Superb Basque produce. A dramatic large green dome of seaweed and crispy rice reveals tender-firm monkfish in a traditional green sauce of parsley and garlic. The chocoholic finale is a delight. Called Hardware Shop, it  comes with screws made of intense chocolate, bolts of aubergine and chocolate, chocolate keys of silver. Unlocking this is a sheer delight.
At: 273 Avenida Alcalde Elosegui

At San Sebastian, a beautiful 12th century beach town on the Atlantic, I go Pintxos (pronounced Pinchos) bar hopping. Here, Tapas takes a back seat. Pintxos are snacks on toothpicks served at both traditional Gandarias Pintxos bars and contemporary bars. I sip the local white wine txakoli (pronounce it chakoli) and nibble my way through bites of meats and seafood. I am addicted to Gilda (pronounced Hilda), the most popular traditional Pintxo with tangy guindillas pepper,  fleshy olive and salty anchovy.

I got to eat at an apple cider farm in the Basque country. The Basque cuisine dazzles with its simplicity and the ninth generation grand dame chef Charo of the most famous  Zapiain Apple cider’s cooking, be it the Crystal Peppers or her world famous Cod Omelette, bowls me over.
At: Astigarraga village, San Sebastian

Hot and happening

Bar Brutal
Can Cisa: This bar rocks even on a Monday night. Go here for simple, flavoursome tapas paired with natural wine.
At: Princesa 14 Barcelona

Experience the Sandoval brothers’ Michelin-starred restaurant. Try the Liquid Omlette with a Cheesy Walnutty charge and the Chocolate finale.
At: Calle de Francisco Encinas, 8, 28970 Humanes de Madrid

Ramses Life:
This trendy lounge bar has a club and two restaurants. Go here for a simple flavorsome fare of crunchy vegetables from Valencia enlivened with nuts and dried fruits, seafood and burnt milk with coffee ice-cream.
At: Plaza de la independencia Madrid

El 300 del Born: Michelin-starred Jordi Val celebrates the battle of 1714, which the Catalans lost, and resurrects traditional Catalan dishes in the old Born Market, the very site of the siege. Dishes are named after kings, warriors and saints.
At: Plaça Comercial (dentro del mercado)

Devouring history
Get a taste of history, when in Spain.  Dine in ancient places where the food is cooked using centuries old recipes. For instance, Casa Marieta in Girona was set up in 1892. I will never forget my breakfast in the ninth-century house at Carrer Bellmirall in Girona. Look forward to the remnants of a third-century Roman wall, Gothic vaulting overhead and views of the cathedral. Bodega 1900 in Barcelona pays homage to the past and rekindles family memories of eating with your grandma. Here you will get simples olives, potato chips, anchovies with a glass of vermouth. Lastly, Maria Cristina, the only five-star hotel in San Sebastian, is fit for a queen. Named after the great grandmother of the present king, since it opened in 1912, its lavish Belle époque interior has been magnetising Hollywood, royalty and media mughals.

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