The Spanish region of Catalonia is emerging as a world-class food destination, says Jonjo Maudsley
Something big is happening in Catalonia, and I’ve come to find all about it.
As soon as I touch down in Barcelona, I can feel it in the air. No, it has nothing to do with politics and it certainly has nothing to do with football. Instead, it is the emergence of a gastronomy scene that is thrusting Catalonia on to the world map of culinary excellence.
If you know the name Ferran Adrià, you will know what’s coming. If not, here’s a potted history: in 1987, the prodigious Adria became head chef of Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli on the northern shores of Catalonia’s Costa Brava. His deconstructivist method revolutionised the restaurant, bumping it up to two, then three Michelin stars. For years, it was Restaurant magazine’s number one restaurant in the world.
El Bulli closed its doors in 2011 and Adrià went on to other things, mainly teaching. His former protégés, however, continued to cook, spreading Adrià’s gospel of experimental flavour design throughout Catalonia. A decade on, the region is populated with restaurants run by his former students, many of whom have gone on to earn their own Michelin stars.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Catalonia now boasts 55 Michelin-starred restaurants. Do not, however, be fooled into thinking that these are concentrated solely in Barcelona. Adrià’s old stomping ground in the north-east of Catalonia – the Costa Brava and, in particular, the region around the city of Girona – is equally well stocked with world-class restaurants, and that’s exactly why I’m heading in that direction.
My first stop on this gastronomical tour is Els Tinars (elstinars.com/en). Set in an ivy-clad, masia-style building half an hour from Girona, the restaurant is headed by the third generation of the Gascons-Lloveres family, in the form of brother-sister duo Marc (chef) and Elena (manager).
Their dishes continue the deconstructivist tradition established by Adrià, but with some new-fangled twists: local mushrooms feature heavily; perol, a Catalan meatball, makes a surprise appearance; and sumptuous breads nod to Marc and Elena’s roots, coming from a family of renowned bakers.
The degustation menu (from €65 per person) offers all this and more. From the off, my senses are challenged as lobster carpaccio and mushroom comfit, washed down with smoked mushroom juice, combine to great effect. No sooner have I recovered from the impact than I find myself face-to-face with a piece of duck so sublime it must have been carved by the gods themselves, served on a bed of foie pâté.
Soon after, I reach the fig and olive oil ice cream, which tantalises, exhilarates, then disappears down my throat. The seven-course meal is over before I know it, and I am whisked to my next location while it digests.
Situated on the craggy coast of the Costa Brava, the seaside town of S’Agaró was designed by famed Catalan architect Rafael Masó, who sought to create a garden city in the style popularised by English visionary Ebenezer Howard. With a monopoly over its own Mediterranean bay, S’Agaró fast became a popular place for trendy young Catalans to spend their summers.
Popping into a local magazine store, I strike up a conversation with shopkeeper Josep.
“Not many British tourists come here,” he tells me.
I respond with something halfway between a sigh of relief and an excited giggle. Have I found the most hidden of hidden gems – a part of the Spanish coast untouched by global tourism?
Well, no, not quite. As it turns out, S’Agaró has always been synonymous with tourism. The reason I have never heard of it, however, is that it has historically been a holiday spot reserved for the highest class of clientele.
From Elizabeth Taylor to Lady Gaga, Ernest Hemingway to Robert De Niro, the glitteriest of the glitterati have taken their holidays in S’Agaró over the years – and they have all, I learn, stayed at the town’s most historic hotel, Hostal de la Gavina (lagavina.com/en).
This five-star destination was Masó’s centrepiece for the town. Its eclectic yet tasteful design is representative of Catalonia’s golden age of architecture, from its hacienda-style courtyards to its ornate silk walls and herringbone teak floors – although nothing is quite as exemplary of the style as the Royal Suite, decked out in Louis XV-era furnishings – yours for just €2,200 per night!
Keep an eye out for new additions to Hostal de la Gavina arriving in time for its 90th anniversary in 2022, which will include a brand-new infinity pool, a re-landscaped garden realm and an updated terrace complex that will surely be a favourite among those who like to take part in Gavina’s popular sunrise yoga classes.
The gastronomy at Hostal de la Gavina keeps up the standards of the local area. Its three restaurants all offer sumptuous local fare with delightful service, but the stand-out performance is undoubtedly Candlelight, brainchild of two-times Michelin Starred chef Romain Fornell.
With this intimate and elegant enterprise, Fornell has not only brought the forgotten art of dining by candlelight back to the fore, he has also orchestrated a tasting menu of impeccable quality (€88 per person).
The opening number, a crispy, pea-topped cracker of baby shrimp with plankton mayonnaise, served alongside a miraculous ‘bursting olive’ wrought with anchovy flavour is an education for my amateur tastebuds.
Next comes foie gras eaten like a wedge of fudge, orange-flavoured rye bread, served with tomato, white wine and rosemary butters, celery risotto with parmesan and crispy scampi, and the show-stopper to finish, caviar ice cream scooped from the inside of a monolithic salted ice cube. No superlatives could do a meal like this justice.
Before jetting home, there’s just time to embark on a tapas tour of the gorgeous medieval city at the centre of the region, Girona. At my first stop, La Reserva (lareserva.eu), I discover fuet, a fatty local sausage not unlike chorizo, which pairs delightfully with a lunchtime swash of Penedes, Catalonia’s prized variety of wine (tapas platters start from €13.50 for one person).
Then, in the shadows of Girona’s beautiful baroque cathedral, I pick up a slice of Spanish toast, painted with tomato instead of butter and topped with flavoursome local anchovies, at Bau Bar (baubargirona.com).
Finally, I cross one of Girona’s four rivers to the unassuming local café El Pessic for Xuixo, a deep-fried, cream-filled pastry originating from the city, which I dip into a mug of warm chocolate (€4.70).
As I depart, feeling very full and quite spoiled, I am left with the resounding sense that I have witnessed a metamorphosis in action. How could such a popular part of Spain have hidden such an incredible culinary culture for so long?
Italy has Emilia Romagna. Japan has Osaka. France has… well, France. And now, with Catalonia – and Girona especially – Spain has its own must-visit destination for foodies. Get there before word gets out.
You can find the latest Covid-related travel criteria for Spain (and your return to Ireland) on gov.ie, dfa.ie/travel and reopen.europa.eu.
Visitors travelling by air must also fill out an electronic Health Control Form before arrival at spth.gob.es. You will get a QR code that you then need to present both at the time of boarding and upon your arrival in Spain at health control points.