I just spent a long weekend in Barcelona and it was absolute food heaven. I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Spanish food, on top of which I am vegetarian, so I had been steeling myself to stomach a series of meals consisting of house salads and hurriedly assembled plates of sides and endless pasta primavera. But I came away instead with a totally new sense of what eating is all about, not to mention wine—the Cavas (local sparkling wines) are particularly divine—and how food and wine tango together, like well-practised dancing partners bringing out the best in the other.
Gastronomic: Barcelona is famous for both home-style eating as well as fine dining. AFP
The question burning in my mind is how has Barcelona—and indeed Spain—become such a food dynamo? Why are three of the world’s top five restaurants from Spain? (elBulli naturally No. 1, Mugaritz fourth, El Celler de Can Roca fifth, according to Restaurant magazine; France, the traditional gastronomic heavyweight, has none.) Ferran Adrià of elBulli may be the poster child of culinary alchemy, but how has Spain managed to nurture a whole tribe of master chefs who are cooking up a storm? Importantly, can the Spanish formula be decoded and applied to make India a food hot spot of global repute?
Also Read Radha’s previous Lounge columns
Our meals in Barcelona were varied, building up slowly, one sensory treat layered upon another. Friday night, we are taken to El Passadis del Pep by local friends, just as well as it has a nondescript entrance with no signage whatsoever, but inside is a bustling, charming restaurant serving traditional Catalan fare. The food comes fast and furious—plates of thinly sliced Iberian ham, salted clams, baked sea snails, prawns with garlic and parsley, baby squid, crayfish, and vegetarian dishes too, pimientos de padrón (sautéed green peppers, a bit like Gabbar ki goliyan, mostly benign till you hit on a killer sharp one), white asparagus, wild mushrooms, and an array of grilled vegetables—and these are just the starters. Conversation dips as we go into a gorging stupor—the food is hearty and honest, its magic comes from utterly fresh ingredients of superb quality cooked simply.
Moo, where we lunched the next day, is a sharp contrast—it is an ultra-modern, exquisitely designed Zen-like restaurant in the trendy Omm hotel, and the food is ultra modern too, delicate and scrumptious. Its culinary credentials are impressive—the Roca brothers (of El Celler de Can Roca fame, three Michelin stars—Joan is the chef, Josep the sommelier, and Jordi the pastry chef) oversee Moo, which has earned one Michelin star of its own. It is known for its tasting menus with wines that harmonize—many of the dishes are created with the wines in mind, Josep deconstructs the notes in a wine and Joan constructs a dish to complement it. I go for the vegetarian tasting menu—beetroot and mandarin ravioli, low temperature egg with truffle soup, mushrooms parmentier, asparagus creamy rice, autumn infusion with seasonal fruits—each accompanied by a divine wine, none of which I had ever heard of before (whenever I see a prisoner-requests-last-meal scene in a movie, I always wonder what I’d want—well, now I know).
Dinner was at La Dama, where besides the excellent food and wine (this is also a one Michelin star restaurant) we were enveloped in warmth and love—the service was simply extraordinary (I think the difference between dining in France and Spain is the human factor—people are so hospitable here). While Moo celebrates cutting-edge design, with La Dama you step into old world charm, starting with the grand 1918 Gaudi-influenced building, and a delightful dining room. The food is sumptuous Catalan, but modern and elegant—warm scallop salad, sea urchin gratin au cava, lobster paella, beef tenderloin with truffle sauce—and a matching vegetarian menu for me.
I think there are two factors—deeply embedded in Spanish culture—that have catapulted Barcelona to gastronomic heights. Firstly, this is a city with a deep artistic vein, where people place a lot of value on “sensory pleasure in everyday life”. Just look at ordinary buildings, they are all so beautiful—whether old or new, the aesthetic bar is set high—and just living in this city means being engulfed in beauty at every turn. The people too, they dress up smartly and make an effort to present themselves beautifully. So it extends to food, the same appreciation of tastes, flavours, quality, freshness. Food is enjoyed fully—people take off the afternoon to eat and relax—and the evening meal is late, followed by drinking and partying into the wee hours.
Secondly, the city has a tradition of innovation, best exemplified by Gaudi, who a hundred years ago created such audacious and whimsical buildings. His Casa Batlló hardly has any straight lines. His Sagrada Familia is on such a grand scale it is still being built today. His works are like a trumpet call to break all rules and create utterly fresh stuff. What Gaudi is to architecture, Adrià is to food—audacious and whimsical, going where no man’s palate has been before. He spends half the year in his research workshop in Barcelona, while elBulli is at Roses, a couple of hours away. This R&D-propelled creativity is so important to him that he is closing elBulli in 2012 to reinvent his approach yet again. This innovative streak has spread into a movement with myriad other super-chefs experimenting feverishly, stirring the pot with molecular gastronomy, vacuum cooking, spherification, flavour infusions and what have you, to create a high-tech, high-taste cuisine.
Are the stars aligned for India to have a creative food movement a la Spain? Is there a Ferran Adrià about to happen here? I am optimistic. Traditional Indian food is to die for as it is, unsurpassed for sheer breadth and width, and now one can feel the beginnings of innovation. Chef Hemant Oberoi’s menu at Varq (Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi), for example, has that mixture of audacity and whimsy, nudging traditional Indian food into a decidedly modern direction, experimenting with ingredients, recipes, techniques and presentation with delicious results. In tandem, the Indian palate—notoriously conservative in the past—is loosening up with the influx of so many international cuisines. I am hoping Indian chefs will take a leaf—a gold varq, if you will—from the Spanish book, and innovate their way into the top global restaurants.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury. Write to her at email@example.com