Costa Bravo! How Spain’s ‘wild coast’ has transformed itself into a Mecca for foodies and wine lovers
If you’ve never heard of the Empordà you wouldn’t be alone. Few people outside of Spain have. Like a secret Tuscany tucked away in the North-East corner of Catalonia it is known locally as the ‘golden triangle’, a land of gentle, green rolling countryside and thick, frothy woodland that is peppered with honey-coloured stone villages and bordered by the rather more famous pine-fringed cliffs of the Costa Brava. It is hands down one of the most beautiful places in the world, and thanks to the meteoric rise of two of the world’s most highly regarded restaurants – El Bulli, voted Best in the World four times over and El Celler de Can Roca, voted the world’s best restaurant twice – is fast becoming one of the hottest destinations in Europe for food.
When Ferran Adrià took over the reins at El Bulli in 1993 no-one could have guessed he was kick-starting a revolution. But, when his radical rethink of fine-dining provoked a feature in the New York Times that declared Spain the new France, it was clear something extraordinary was happening. By 2004 he was on the cover of Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and the region’s position as one of the world’s most important gastronomic destinations was assured. El Bulli shut in 2011 – it will become a foundation of futuristic food studies in 2015, with 20 days a year functioning as a restaurant – but it had already paved the way for whole new generation of young chefs and wine-makers looking to do something exceptional.
This has never been a fish and chips kind of a place. Long before the Adriàs, the Rocas and the food-obsessed travellers arrived, the region’s housewives habitually served up avant-garde dishes like mar i muntanya – a sophisticated take on surf and turf combining chicken and lobster, or rabbit with prawns in a robust sauce – and rice grown in the paddies of Pals infused with cuttlefish ink, or local pork sausage and artichokes. They embraced the bounty of land and the sea in equal measure, and aficionados were already starting to pay attention back in the 1960s, thanks to Josep Mercader, chef at the Motel Empordà (hotelemporda.com).
Widely regarded as the godfather of Modern Catalan cuisine, his envelope-pushing dishes of deep fried anchovy spines, thyme sorbet and pickled pigs ears, attracted gourmands from near and far, and he paved the way for the Adrià and Roca brothers just as they paved the way for today’s bright young sparks.
El Bulli’s legacy
When El Bulli shut in 2011 it was the ideal time for Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas, who had worked there for the past 14 years, to realise a long held dream and open the sort of place they’d want to hang out in themselves. A dizzying 45-minutes drive north across the mountains and back down to the coast from El Bulli, they chose Cadaques for its authentic fishing village atmosphere and bohemian character – Picasso, Dali and Lorca all hung out here as young aspiring artists and writers. Compartir (compartircadaques.com), meaning ‘to share’ in Spanish opened in 2012 in a pretty, 19th century white-washed townhouse trimmed with blue shutters and a wide, shady terrace.
It had just the kind of laid-back, beach bar vibe they had imagined, ideal for drawn-out gatherings with free flowing wine and conversation, accompanied by dishes intended for sharing with just a sprinkling of show-stopping techniques such as dotting boat-fresh sardines with sphericos (pin-head sized, jelly spheres of intense flavour like lemon, basil or smoke). “It’s the union of tradition and modernity that makes the Empordà so exciting,” says Xatruch. “We want to bring these things together and help evolve the region gastronomically.”
They are not alone. Not far away, at the southern end of the Bay of Roses, in a town best known for its well-preserved Roman ruins and pink-fleshed anchovies, is the Hostal Empuries (hostalempuries.com). Situated right on the shore what doesn’t come from the sea is grown in raised, wicker beds from their own organic allotment. Overseen by Rafa Peña, who sparked the new Catalan bistro phenomenon from his restaurant Gresca in Barcelona in the mid noughties, it has two restaurants that celebrate the natural beauty of the product, while giving traditional recipes a lively update. His monkfish and vegetable pickles, and crispy skate with truffles and inspired, delivering new flavours, but familiar food that is, accessibly priced and reassuringly informal.
And the good stuff keeps coming
So it is that one unseasonably warm, spring lunchtime, I bunk off work mid-week to treat myself to the tasting menu at Casamar (hotelcasamar.net). Situated a couple of blocks back from the beach in pretty Llafranc, which wraps around a small, gold-sand bay not much bigger than a football pitch, it is headed by Quim Casellas whose CV runs from the illustrious Carles Gaig in Barcelona to the Roger Smith Hotel in New York.(The image above is of chefs Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Mateu Casañas)
Like his contemporaries his menu is a celebration of organic food sourced as locally as possible, though his style is more formal. The seasonal seven course tasting menu (€61) is made up of vibrant dishes like leek and crayfish cannelloni, turbot with mushroom stew and wild garlic, and an updated version of Es Niu (the nest) – a legendary Palafrugell dish of cod tripe, quail, sausages and ox tail.
What is striking about all these places is that the food could be from nowhere else, and that’s what makes eating your way around the Empordà so rewarding. I’m contemplating this over a voluptuously silky glass of slightly peppery white Sota Els Àngels (sotaelsangels.com), a new winery located about 15kms inland from Casamar in the hilly municipality of Crüilles-Monells. With sweeping views across the countryside it was set up by another pair of dreamers, Maria Jesús Polanco and Guy Jones, who longed to get back to a state of living as close to nature as possible.
“We saw this amazingly beautiful land that was already recognised for high-level gastronomy and it seemed perfect for the clean, honest, high-quality wines we wanted to make,” says Polanco. Their small production of just one white, one red organic-biodynamic wines are already being served in the country’s top restaurants – El Celler de Can Roca among them – and seem to capture the spirit of the place in a glass.
“As long as we’re doing this we’ll be happy,” she says, which to me is the secret of the place in a nutshell. Put together a load of people who have an unbridled passion for and joy in what they are doing, and magic is sure to happen.
Best of the rest
For serious ‘wow’ factor Paco Perez’ two-starred seafood restaurant in Llança encapsulates the spirit of the pioneers of the new wave with a multi-sensory experience and a menu that features highlights of its culinary inventions since opening in 1939.
Toc al Mar
A casual chiringuito (sea side bar) in Aiguafreda specialising in spanking fresh fish and seafood grilled over open coals, and house specials like smoked sardines, soupy rice with lobster from Begur, and Palamos prawns.
This new-wave, co-operative winery offers a wealth of wine-lovers experiences from simple tastings to breakfast among the vines and night-time bodega visits by candlelight.