Wandering the pavilions of Barcelona's Alimentaria, one of the world's largest food and beverage expos, was like walking into my past. I sampled many dishes I had discovered over decades spent exploring Spain: mojama (dry-cured and salted tuna loin), pimientos de gernika (small tender green peppers from the town of Guernica in Basque country), and lovely sidra (hard cider) from near Oviedo in the northwest. Not to mention the more than 250 cheeses on parade.
I had come to this biannual event last month not only for the tasting stations, but also because some of the planet's most innovative chefs were there. El Bulli, the world-famous restaurant north of Barcelona, was closed at the time (it opened for six months on April 1), and I would have had a tough time securing a table regardless (most diners must reserve at least a year in advance). But at Alimentaria, I could catch up with what its superstar chef, Ferran Adria (pictured above), was up to. And dine wonderfully in and around Barcelona to boot.
In 2003, New York Times Magazine food critic Arthur Lubow lauded Spain as "the new France," crowning the country as the world leader in creative cuisine. And if the chef lineup at the second-ever BCN Vanguardia (part of Alimentaria's 30th edition) was any indication, the country has only cemented its culinary status in the interim.
Spanish attendees included Adria; Martin Berasategui of San Sebastian, another three-Michelin-star chef; and Dani Garcia, voted "most promising chef in Europe" for 2006 by France's Academie Internationale de la Gastronomie. American Charlie Trotter and Frenchman Jean Louis Nomicos were among the international contingent.
Covering an area the size of several football fields, Alimentaria included an olive-oil pavilion offering tutored tastings, and a mammoth wine sector where I renewed acquaintances with Pares Balta. This Barcelona-area winery is exemplary of Spain's new breed: Not only are the two winemakers women, they are also committed to ecological principles, relying, for instance, on sheep for fertilization.
Chefs were paired up for presentations, preparing different dishes with the same ingredients. Nomicos cooked veal alongside Berasategui, the former revamping his Restaurant Lasserre classic of veal sweetbreads and scampi with lightly sautéed ingredients in little purses of wafer-thin gingered carrots marinated in an oven with Chardonnay vinegar. Berasategui, meanwhile, made a millefeuille with thin layers of veal tongue, foie gras and truffles, garnished with bits of apple-ginger jelly and a foam of green tea and mint-scented sheep's milk.
Chicago-based Trotter, one of the most significant chefs of the last two decades, has been travelling to Spain for 15 years, and is as excited by the Spanish culinary vanguard as any North American chef. "I like it when people are willing to push the envelope, and some are doing it in a very profound way," he said to me when I asked him what he appreciates about Spanish gastronomy.
Trotter said he visits with Adria four times a year, and though he doesn't necessarily adopt his techniques, he's "influenced by [Spanish chefs']sincerity, their passion. I just love Ferran's exuberance and intensity. It's just a joy to be around him."
In Adria's opening-day talk, he summarized his 8,000-page account of El Bulli, covering its history, concepts, techniques and philosophy. "There was nouvelle cuisine and now we have contemporary Spanish cuisine," he told me moments before his presentation. "I've been in America, France. . . . All the young chefs are watching what we're doing. We're the reference."
Beyond El Bulli
Do the math: El Bulli (Cala Montjoi, Girona; elbulli.com) has room for 3,000 diners a year, but more than 250,000 inquire about reservations. But fear not -- there are many other superb eateries in and around Barcelona that won't take years to try:
Comerc24 (C. Comer 24; 34 933 192 102; carlesabellan.com) in Barcelona's hip Born area highlights Carles Abellan's tapas-bar art. A former chef at El Bulli, he then helped open the restaurant at the opulent Hacienda Benazuza Hotel (run by El Bulli) in Seville. The flavours at Comerc24 scintillate, with tomato gelatin and Escala anchovies on coca (Catalan flatbread) mimicing tomato-rubbed rustic bread.
One of the hottest foodie destinations in Cataluna is about 100 kilometres north of Barcelona in the town of Girona, where Joan Roca skews tradition at the two-Michelin-star el celler de Can Roca (C. Taiala 40; 34 972 22 21 57; cellercanroca.com). For instance, he sandwiches an orange and clove-perfumed meringue between delicate wafers of flat crisped crackling of suckling pig to accompany its tender meat.
An easy train ride north from Barcelona, Restaurante Sant Pau (C. Nou 10; ruscalleda.com), in the village of Sant Pau, is an essential stop for foodies. Named Spain's Chef of The Year in 2004 (when she opened a restaurant in Tokyo), Carme Ruscalleda was awarded a third Michelin star in 2005. Her minimalist rockfish was presented with a potato purée puffball and a green-leaf parsley gelatin.