Spain’s Catalonia after El Bulli
The “olive tree” snack at El Celler de Can Roca is a brilliant nod to one of the most recognisable ingredients of the region. (Julie Schwietert)
When the world's top-ranked restaurant, El Bulli, served its last meal on 30 July 2011, two collective yet distinctly different-sounding sighs heaved from the mouths of foodies and critics around the world.
First: the sigh of disappointment and anxious anticipation. El Bulli would never turn out another alchemical 35-course meal, and those who had not enjoyed a coveted spot at an El Bulli table now never would. With the former seaside shack-turned-Michelin-starred restaurant (named for a bulldog, no less) shuttered, what would become of chef Ferran Adria, the man credited with pioneering the cooking technique known as molecular gastronomy? And who was Adria's heir apparent?
Second came the sigh of relief. Critics of Adria's style -- and there were plenty -- hoped that the nearly global obsession with Adria's “kitchen chemistry” style of cooking might finally dissipate. (Unlikely, given that Adria disciples have set up their own El Bulli-inspired establishments in places as predictable as restaurant-rich Chicago and New York, and as unexpected as not-so-haute Asheville, North Carolina.)
For locals, though, there was a more pressing question: what would be the next phase in the evolution of Catalan cuisine? Though this northeastern region of Spain had its own rich food traditions before diners worldwide made pilgrimages to the tiny town of Roses for a meal at El Bulli, Adria effectively put the autonomous community of Catalonia, and in particular its coastal Costa Brava region, on the world’s culinary map. Would the region that had experienced such gastronomic fame suddenly disappear from the food world's radar?
They need not have worried.
A year after El Bulli's closing, Catalonia and Costa Brava have continued to maintain their claim as innovative and exciting food destinations. In fact, El Bulli's end seems to have opened up space for other farmers, food producers and chefs to step out of Adria's shadow and show off their culinary diversity.
There are the obvious accomplishments that have affirmed the region’s continued prominence, chief among them the naming of El Celler de Can Roca as the second best restaurant in the world this year by San Pellegrino in its World's 50 Best Restaurants list. And El Celler, headed up by the Roca brothers (Joan, executive chef; Josep, sommelier; Jordi, pastry chef), definitely deserves the accolade. When you the tour the kitchen and the wine bodega -- as you inevitably will if you secure a reservation at El Celler -- you will quickly realise that all three men were born with a culinary gift that they continue to develop. Joan's “olive tree” snack (caramelised anchovies and olives shaped into spheres and attached carefully to a bonsai tree) is a visually brilliant and delicious nod to one of the most recognisable ingredients of the region -- olives. Josep's knowledge of and reverence for wine is conveyed through a nearly monastic, meditative, ritualized presentation as you move with him through the different sections of the cellar, learning about the wines of Catalonia and Spain, as well as the imports he recommends and pairs specially for your meal. And youngest brother Jordi's playful desserts, such as his blown sugar “apricot” with a caramelized vanilla apricot cream suspended inside, is as light and sweet and memorable as the Costa Brava itself.
But El Celler de Can Roca is not the only bright light in the post-El Bulli landscape. The whole area is rife with experimenting chefs and food producers doing amazing things. That is great news for travellers, who could easily spend weeks exploring the region's culinary culture, particularly as some of these other chefs and food producers offer unique, hands-on experiences at much more affordable prices than an El Bulli or El Celler dinner.