Susan Gough Henly goes in search of great food and wine in the Catalonia hinterland of northeast Spain.
You might pick frozen olives exploding with flavour from a bonsai tree, devour veal marrow with charcoal-grilled sea urchin and bok choy and, most astounding of all, savour butter cookie puff pastry filled with cream of Darjeeling tea, lemon madeleine ice-cream and – wait for it – ‘essence of old book’. Welcome to El Celler de Can Roca, the three- Michelin-starred establishment that has twice taken out the top spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It may be rarefied, but the extraordinary multi-sensory degustation at this sleek restaurant is far from stuffy.
This labour of love of the Catalan Roca brothers (Joan runs the kitchens, Jordi is the dessert king and sommelier Josep manages the front of house) channels whimsy and humour to create otherworldly culinary masterpieces. Presentations stimulate the mind as much as the palate, honouring sublime local produce to create a multisensory mélange of scents, flavours and colours.
So many Australians visiting Spain linger in buzzy Barcelona; so few venture beyond the city limits into the heart of the Catalonia region. A shame, because 100 kilometres away lies the medieval town of Girona and its stunning Costa Brava, a ‘Wild Coast’ that meanders along the Mediterranean Sea all the way to the French border.
Ferran Adrià’s renowned (now closed) El Bulli restaurant was perched in Costa Brava’s seaside town of Roses, while El Celler de Can Roca is in Girona. Don’t fret if you can’t secure a table here – the surrounding countryside is primed with culinary hotspots. Indeed, the province of Girona has the greatest number of Michelin stars per inhabitants in the world: 16 restaurants hold a combined 20 stars. That doesn’t even take into consideration the seaside cafes and traditional bodegas also serving meals that are nothing short of exceptional. Chefs love to dazzle with food, but their creations are grounded in respect for the region’s stunning ingredients: red prawns from Palamós, anchovies from l’Escala, sea urchins from all along the Costa Brava coastline and rice from Pals.
The scenery is a feast for the eyes as well. Relax in charming seaside villages like Cadaqués and Llafranc, and then take a stroll along the Camins de Ronda coastal path, over rugged cliffs and alongside turquoise coves. Beneath the snow-capped Pyrenees, the hinterland has valleys carpeted with orchards and rice fields, backdropped by hilltop villages and framed with vineyards and olive groves.
Start your explorations in Girona, which is popular among Game of Thrones fans as the setting for much of the HBO drama’s sixth series. Admire reflections of the red-and mustard-coloured buildings along the River Onyar before walking the 14th-century fortification walls to peer down on the spires of the massive Girona Cathedral.
Take a Girona Food Tour to sample cream-filled xuixos pastries, pa amb tomàquet (peasant bread smeared with tomato and olive oil), salted cod, sweet blood sausage, and a tantalising array of sheep and goat cheese. The tour ends with a visit to Jordi Roca’s Rocambolesc ice-cream parlour, which means that even if you don’t manage to book the full degustation at El Celler de Can Roca, you can sample the prodigious creativity that goes into the restaurant’s desserts.
You may come to the Costa Brava for food, but you’ll want to stay for the distinctive wines by following the DO Emporda Wine Route. You’ll discover architect-designed cellars such as Eccoci, owned by Tiffany jewellery maven Elsa Peretti, and the cutting-edge, corten-steel Brugarol cellar, conceptualised by local architecture studio, RCR.
It’s not only the chefs and vintners who’ve been challenging the status quo in these parts – Salvador Dalí is undoubtedly the Costa Brava’s most eccentric son. Do the ‘Dalí Triangle’ to see the artist’s surrealist-stocked seaside home in Portlligat; the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres; and the sumptuous medieval castle he renovated for his wife, Gala Dalí.
After savouring all that, the ‘essence of old book’ won’t seem so obscure after all.
The dining stars
Located in a restored Catalan farmhouse at the foot of the Les Gavarres massif, the family-run one-Michelin-starred Els Tinars restaurant offers a contemporary twist on traditional Catalan cuisine.
Watch the sun set over Roses’ bay at one-Michelin-starred els Brancs restaurant in the luxury Hotel Vistabella. Here, internationally inspired dishes use local produce.
Located in an ivy draped medieval castle, the one-Michelin-starred Castell Peralada Restaurant serves inventive food and wine by El Bulli alumni.
La Cuina de Can Simón
Seafood is the specialty (try the signature fisherman’s stew) at one-Michelin-starred La Cuina de Can Simón, located in a rustic former fisherman’s house in the old town of Tossa de Mar.