The Spanish region of Catalonia is emerging as a world-class gastronomic destination. Jonjo Maudsley pays a visit.
Something big is happening in Catalonia, and I have come to find out everything. As soon as I land in Barcelona, I can smell it in the air. No, it has nothing to do with politics and it certainly has nothing to do with football. Rather, it is the emergence of a gastronomic scene that propels Catalonia on the world map of culinary excellence.
If you know the name of Ferran Adrià, you will know what is coming. Otherwise, here’s a story in a jar: in 1987, the prodigious Adria became the chef of Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli on the north shore of the Catalan Costa Brava. His deconstructivist method revolutionized the restaurant by making it climb to two, then three Michelin stars. For years, it has been Restaurant magazine’s number one restaurant in the world.
El Bulli closed in 2011 and Adrià moved on, mainly teaching. His former protégés, however, continued to cook, spreading Adrià’s gospel of experimental flavor design throughout Catalonia. A decade later, the area is populated by restaurants run by its alumni, many of which have earned their own Michelin stars.
It is therefore no coincidence that Catalonia now has 55 Michelin-starred restaurants. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that these are concentrated only in Barcelona. Adrià’s old playground in northeast Catalonia – the Costa Brava and, in particular, the region around the city of Girona – is also full of world-class restaurants, and that’s exactly why I points me in that direction.
My first stop on this food tour is Els Tinars (elstinars.com/en). Housed in an ivy-clad masia-style building half an hour from Girona, the restaurant is run by the third generation of the Gascons-Lloveres family, in the form of brother-sister duo Marc (chef) and Elena (manager) .
Their dishes perpetuate the deconstructivist tradition established by Adrià, but with some novelties: the local mushrooms are very present; the perol, a Catalan meatball, makes a surprise appearance; and sumptuous breads nod to the roots of Marc and Elena, from a family of renowned bakers.
The tasting menu (from € 65 per person) offers all this and more. From the start, my senses are put to the test because the lobster carpaccio and the mushroom confit, drizzled with smoked mushroom juice, go together wonderfully. Barely recovered from the impact, I find myself face to face with a piece of duck so sublime that it must have been sculpted by the gods themselves, served on a bed of liver pâté.
Shortly after, I reach for the fig and olive oil ice cream, which titillates, exhilarates, and then disappears down my throat. The seven-course meal is over before I know it, and I’m taken to my next spot while it digests.
Located on the rugged coast of the Costa Brava, the seaside town of S’Agaró was designed by renowned Catalan architect Rafael Masó, who sought to create a garden city in the style popularized by English visionary Ebenezer Howard. With a monopoly over its own Mediterranean bay, S’Agaró has quickly become a popular place for trendy young Catalans to spend their summers.
Upon entering a local magazine store, I strike up a conversation with shopkeeper Josep.
“There aren’t a lot of British tourists coming here,” he tells me.
I respond with something halfway between a sigh of relief and an excited laugh. Have I found the most hidden of the hidden gems – a part of the Spanish coast untouched by global tourism?
Well, no, not quite. It turns out that S’Agaró has always been synonymous with tourism. The reason I have never heard of it is that it has always been a vacation spot reserved for the highest class of clientele.
From Elizabeth Taylor to Lady Gaga, from Ernest Hemingway to Robert De Niro, the brightest in glitter have taken their vacations to S’Agaró over the years – and they have all, I learn, stayed in the hotel on more historic of the city, the Hostal de la Gavina.
This five-star destination was Masó’s centerpiece for the city. Its eclectic but tasteful design is representative of the golden age of Catalan architecture, from its hacienda-style courtyards to ornate silk walls and herringbone teak floors – though nothing is quite as exemplary of the style than the royal suite, decorated in Louis XV – period furniture – yours for only € 2,200 per night!
Keep an eye out for new additions to the Hostal de la Gavina arriving in time for its 90th anniversary in 2022, which will include a brand new infinity pool, revamped garden and updated patio complex that is sure to be a favorite. among those who enjoy participating in Gavina’s popular sunrise yoga classes.
The gastronomy of the Hostal de la Gavina respects the standards of the region. Its three restaurants all offer sumptuous local cuisine with delicious service, but the most notable performance is undoubtedly Candlelight, the brainchild of two-Michelin-starred chef, Romain Fornell.
With this intimate and elegant company, Fornell not only brought the forgotten art of the candlelight table back to the forefront, he also orchestrated a tasting menu of impeccable quality (88 € / 75 £ per person ).
The first number, a crispy pea cracker, little shrimp with plankton mayonnaise, served with a miraculous “bright olive” forged with an anchovy flavor is an education for my amateur taste buds.
Then come the foie gras tasted like a slice of fudge, the rye bread with orange, served with tomato butters, white wine and rosemary, the celery risotto with parmesan and crispy langoustines, and the highlight of the show for finish with crushed caviar ice cream from the inside of a salted monolithic ice cube. No superlative could do a meal like this justice.
Before you head home, it’s just time to embark on a tapas tour of the beautiful medieval town in the center of the region, Girona. On my first stop, La Reserva (lareserva.eu), I discovered fuet, a fatty local sausage not unlike chorizo, which pairs deliciously with a swash from Penedes, the popular wine variety of the Catalonia (tapas platters start from € 13.50 for one person).
Next, in the shade of Girona’s beautiful baroque cathedral, I grab a slice of Spanish toast, painted with tomato instead of butter and topped with tasty local anchovies, at the Bau Bar (baubargirona.com).
Finally, I cross one of the four rivers of Girona to the modest local cafe El Pessic for Xuixo, a fried pastry filled with cream from the city, which I dip in a cup of hot chocolate (4.70 €) .
As I leave, feeling very full and quite spoiled, I have the overwhelming feeling that I have witnessed a metamorphosis in action. How could such a popular part of Spain hide such an incredible food culture for so long?
Italy has Emilia Romagna. Japan has Osaka. France has… well, France. And now, with Catalonia – and Girona in particular – Spain has its own must-see foodie destination. Get there before the news spreads.