It was my 75th birthday, and I had no idea what to expect. My family insisted it be a surprise. We edged our way through a busy commercial street in Girona, Catalonia, and an open doorway beckoned us into the peaceful, sunlit courtyard of El Celler de Can Roca. “A glass of Cava perhaps?” smiles our server, and so begins five hours of unparalleled feasting. El Celler de Can Roca opened 27 years ago and is run by three brothers: Joan at the kitchen range, Jordì the pastry chef and Josep the sommelier. The three have created a gourmet destination that combines past and future with extraordinary brilliance. This March it was named best restaurant in the world on a website sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
More from Zester Daily:
Within the restaurant, the surroundings are strongly linked to the earth, with trees, pebbles and wood-paneled walls enclosing views on a miniature forest of birch trees, giving a feeling of the outdoors. In any restaurant, what’s on the plate should tell you where you are, and with our drinks arrives a tiny bonsai olive tree, instantly setting the scene. We crunch the hanging olives and our mouths burst with salty sweetness — the anchovy-stuffed fruits have been veiled in a whisp of caramel. What could be more symbolic of the ancient city of Girona in the mountains of northern Catalonia, flanked by olive groves running down to the Mediterranean Sea.
The olives lead into a tour of the world in tiny bites: a tomato and coriander guacamole from Mexico, an explosive ball of ceviche broth representing Peru, and pickled vegetables with plum cream as an echo of China. Visit on a different day and the world tour will be different we are told.
Eager to explore, we opt for the menu of the day, which leads to some 25 eye-catching, palate-teasing tastings, several of them among the most intriguing I’ve encountered anywhere. Just a small spoonful of zarzuela, pungent and concentrated, sums up the essence of the rustic Catalonian fish soup. A single prawn from the nearby port of Palamos provides astonishingly intensive tastes of raw tail, dried feelers, toasted liver meat, and jus from the shell — I would never have thought such a barrage of varied flavors could be extracted from one small beast.
Old and new cuisine combine in the two or three mouthfuls of crisp baby pig belly moistened with a Riesling jus, and the pigeon in a classic salmis blood, and liver sauce spiked with nuggets of candied walnut, a mastery of richness and intensity. Though the tastings are tiny, the ingredients are not treated as playthings (one of the great drawbacks of today’s Modernist cuisine). As the meal progresses, it’s clear that Chef Joan is focusing on regional ingredients — fish such as red mullet and bream, are typical of the Mediterranean, the green and black olives are local, pork comes from Iberian pigs, and game from the foothills of the mountains. Some seasonings hark back to the Arabs — rose water, honey, ras el hanout, saffron and orange.
The cooking at Can Roca has roots, but no way could it have been achieved without an ultra-modern kitchen. On arrival, we had been welcomed backstage to see the banks of buttons, stainless steel and gadgetry. The restaurant has lots of staff, too: 35 cooks in the kitchen and a couple dozen servers for perhaps 50 guests. The staff is as international as the diners, John from Philadelphia had just completed seven months at the stove, and Rocio, our server and guide, was from Valencia in southern Spain.
Among the abundance of dishes, the astonishing truffle soufflé stands out, a 2-inch round of feather-light hot truffle mousse enclosed in discs of fresh black truffle, set on a round of warm bone marrow and served under a glass bell which, when lifted, pervades the air with a hint of BBQ smoke. I like to think of myself as a soufflé expert, but I cannot imagine how this tour de force could be carried from the kitchen to diner after diner with never a hint of collapse.
Are the Roca brothers a successor to their former neighbor, Ferran Adrià at el Bullì? The two restaurants share the same Catalonian spice-perfumed air, the freshest of fish, the olive oil and garlic and warm registers of cardamom, cinnamon and cumin that date back to medieval times, backed up the rust red of paprika brought from the New World.
But Adrià, who creates imaginary images and flavors, the Roca brothers focus on real food on the plate. What distinguishes them from other Modernist chefs is their use of modern techniques against a background of tradition. If this is where the gastronomic future lies, let’s pursue it with gusto!
Guests exclaim in surprise when tasting these salty olives dipped in caramel. They will hold up an hour or two, perfect with a glass of cava sparkling white wine, or a very dry martini.
Makes about 30 to 40 olives
1 cup (about 5 ounces) anchovy-stuffed olives in brine
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1. Drain the olives and dry them very thoroughly on paper towels, squeezing slightly to extract as much brine as possible. This helps the caramel remain crisp. Spear each olive on a toothpick. Set them on a tray lined with paper towels and chill them, uncovered. Prepare a large bowl of hot water, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
2. Mix the sugar and water in a small, deep saucepan. (You will have leftover syrup, but this amount is needed for dipping.) Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring once or twice. Bring the syrup to a boil and boil without stirring to the hard crack, 294 F/146 C on a sugar thermometer. The syrup should be just starting to color. Take at once from the heat and plunge base of the pan into the bowl of hot water to stop cooking.
3. Holding an olive with the toothpick, dip it into the syrup (the syrup sets quicker on cold olives). Lift out, twirl so the olive is lightly coated, let cool a few seconds so the syrup solidifies, and set the olive on the parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining olives. The syrup may start to set, and if so reheat it until liquid and keep going.
4. Transfer the olives to a platter for serving. Serve them at room temperature.
Top photo: Anchovy-stuffed olives wreathed in caramel hang from a bonsai tree. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry