"No, no, not Spanish--Catalan!" This rebuke echoes throughout Spain's northeast corner, startling visitors primed for sangria, tapas, and a bit of Death in the Afternoon. But then Catalunya (yes, you really should say it in Catalan) is closer in culture and language to neighboring France than to gaudy Andalusia or haughty Castile. And since the death of Franco, it has blossomed into one of Europe's most spirited nations within a nation.
Catalonians take great pride in their cuisine, which is among the oldest and grandest in the Mediterranean--whether it's dressed in haute couture by star chefs or dished up grandmother-style at coastal fish shacks and wood-beamed mountain havens. Here are some high points of a gastronomic tour that took me far beyond the region's capital--Barcelona--along stretches of the Costa Brava, up through the Pyrenees, and south to the province of Tarragona.
To dine at El Bulli, one of Europe's most talked-about restaurants, you must suspend disbelief. The great French chef Joël Robuchon blessed it before bidding adieu to the food world; the Gault Millau guide gives it 19 out of 20; and Michelin recently granted it a coveted third star. But don't count on truffles, foie gras, and sundry candelabra. Even the approach to El Bulli--a treacherous dirt track from the seaside resort town of Rosas--subverts expectations. True, El Bulli's whitewashed dining room is housed in a villa above a picturesque cove. You sit over alfresco aperitifs, looking down at frolicking swimmers, and inhale the scent of Mediterranean fir trees. But here's where the familiar gives way to the uncanny.
My degustation menu unfolds in a series of edible iconoclastic whimsies, each a little slap in the face of convention. Some of the amuse-gueules--a Parmesan ice cream sandwich, a poached quail egg in a caramel cage--introduce the concept of dessert-as-dinner. Another Daliesque provocation is "smoke foam," a mousse made from water that has been smoked over burning wood.
The rest of the meal?Egg-yolk sabayon with whipped cream and hazelnut vanilla sauce (a savory appetizer!). A garlicky ice cream of ajo blanco (an Andalusian almond gazpacho). Cuttlefish-and-coconut ravioli. Sardine roll-ups with raspberry froth ("El señor chef is in his 'foam' phase," a waiter confides). Eggplant ravioli stuffed with a yogurt mousse and caramelized with... Fisherman's Friend (a licorice cough lozenge). For real. The finale is a Constructivist contraption holding sublime and mysterious petits fours.
After lunch, a patron congratulates Ferran Adrià--the mad maestro of El Bulli's huge, Zen-like kitchen--on his recent third star. "Michelin," he roars in reply, "is the plague of the restaurant business!" Back home, I'm asked if the meal was great. With so much avant-garde brio in every bite, the question is almost embarrassing. (Is Duchamp's work pretty?) But, yes, it was delicious, technically astonishing, and at about $86 for an endless tasting menu, one of Europe's best bargains.
In the Catalonian Pyrenees, you can visit otherworldly Romanesque chapels, drink from springs, commune with wild goats, and check into an Art Nouveau mansion whose modern interiors would impress Ian Schrager groupies. The Torre del Remei hotel, in the tiny hamlet of Bolvir de Cerdanya, is just such a place.
Loles Boix runs the hotel while her husband, José Maria, presides over the sleek, eggshell-blue dining room. He has cooked for various royals but is happiest here, where water flows straight from the mountains and villagers selling berries and game knock at his door. His irresistible appetizer of warm pigeon legs and duck-gizzard confit announces the proximity of France, while Pyrenean cookery inspires the green-fava-bean casserole flavored with bits of cured ham and minuscule chanterelles. The recipe for a rich, bracing "seven-hour oxtail stew" is culled from a 17th-century cookbook. Equally melting is the herb-fed mountain lamb languidly roasted with garlic, tomatoes, and herbs.
Only an hour away, in La Seu d'Urgell, a gem of a mountain town, is the expertly run Hotel El Castell. I arrive during Saturday market, when the arcaded streets around the cathedral overflow with sausages, wild mushrooms, and hand-crafted cheeses. El Castell's restaurant takes advantage of this bounty, serving regional dishes like roasted pigeon with cabbage; pork-cheek stew with apple purée; and tupi, a goat cheese forceful enough to detonate a bomb. To indulge cosmopolitan palates there is lobster vichyssoise and masterly duck with orange and pine nuts.
All well and good, but the hotel's Relais & Châteaux fleur-de-lis logo doesn't exactly guarantee authentic mountain home-cooking. In the drowsy stone village of Estamariu, just north of La Seu, I find the Cal Teixidó restaurant. Decorated with old agricultural tools, this restaurant de muntanya delivers the goods: a splendid assortment of house-made sausages; grilled rabbit with roasted peppers; and a clay cazuela brimming with soupy rice, chicken, snails, peppers, and peas.