Football is an ideal vehicle for selling beer in Europe as in America, but the televised advertisements for the beverage on the two continents take forms as different as the sports. The Spanish beer Estrella Damm is currently running a 90-second spot that perfectly illustrates the country’s attitudes toward food. A fishing boat bobs along the Mediterranean on a sunny day. There’s a shot of Hideki Matsuhisa, a sushi chef at Koy Shunka in the Barcelona, then one of FC Barcelona star Cesc Fabregas, before the fishermen pull in a net full of shrimp. Matsuhisa pulls out a cutting board, rubs it with wasabi, prepares eight pieces of shrimp sushi , and offers them to the crew. The men enthusiastically consume the shrimp with Estrella Damm, then start kicking around a spherical buoy, which one of the seamen heads into the water. Undaunted, the crew cracks open more Estrella Damm and sits arm in arm on the bow of the ship in the sun.
The ad reflects a culinary culture that obsesses over freshness, is open to influences from around the world, and believes food should be playful and fun, tenets so pervasive that a mass-market beer commercial can celebrate them. For the last decade, the high-end standard-bearer for this approach was El Bulli, the shrine to molecular gastronomy in northeast Spain. Ferran Adria closed the restaurant in 2011, and the mantle has been handed over to Celler Can Roca in the town of Girona, about an hour north of Barcelona.
Founded in 1986 by chef Joan Roca I Fontane and sommelier Josep (younger brother Jordi later joined as the pastry chef), Can Roca has become more experimental over time. When I went four years ago, it offered appetizers, entrees and desserts along with longer tasting menus, but now only the latter are available, one comprised of Can Roca classics, the other of Joan’s current creations. I had the latter and enjoyed it thoroughly, from the white asparagus ice cream with dried ground truffle to the grilled whole prawn – perhaps an homage to Extebarri, the Basque temple of grilling – and sea bream and mullet.
I spent much of the meal reading Josep’s wine list, which shows a love of Burgundy and German Riesling as well as Spanish wines, a diversity you’d rarely see in France or Italy. There are even about ten wines from the Jura producer Jean-Francois Ganevat. Josep pairs wines with each course, and he isn’t afraid to break out some of his older bottles. A 1998 Lopez de Heredia reserva blanco was unexpectedly floral on the nose but had the producer’s customary cleansing acidity on the palate, and the 1973 gran reserva blanco was intensely earthy – one of the sommeliers said it smelled of white truffle – but again with perfectly fresh orange peel on the finish. It reminded me of a scene in the great 1973 Spanish movie The Spirit of the Beehive where a father takes his two young daughters out to pick mushrooms, and it was a little like a sherry bottled in 1966 that Josep poured when I asked him about sherries, a number of which he has on his list.
Can Roca takes reservations many months in advance and is priced like the Michelin three-star that it is, though the wines remain a good value. Bargain-hunters averse to planning can head to Falset, two hours south of Barcelona, where Celler de l’Aspic has a wine list that would do any restaurant would be proud at prices that make a cheapskate salivate, especially when paired with a €30 menu that includes an amuse, four courses, and dessert. Chef and owner Toni Bru is generous in all respects. Beyond the portion sizes, ingredient quality, and prices at his restaurant, when I told him I was going to Can Roca a few days later, he said he was headed up for dinner the day before my reservation and would tell Josep Roca I was coming. Sure enough, Josep was waiting for me when I got to his restaurant. “You are famous in Priorat,” he said with a smile.
For all of its openness to foreign influence, Spain has great food traditions of its own, which Oriol Rovira celebrates at Els Casals, a restaurant, hotel, and farm in the mountains north two hours north of Barcelona. He’s cooked at a number of great restaurants, including Taillevent in Paris, but his model, he said, is cucina povera, the food the peasants eat. My meal at Els Casals began with a delicious curlicue of a chitlin seasoned with a touch of pepper and lemon peel and a fresh pate topped with a white bean puree. A small dish of beautifully prepared chicken accompanied by a huge bowl of leek mousse followed, then suckling pig with a potato puree that was really a delivery device for good melted cheese.
The Spanish affinity for Riesling reached even here; the sommelier/waiter/chauffeur David (he picked me up from the bus stop in a nearby town that morning) smiled when I ordered a 2008 Zusslin, a Riesling from Alsace, and he brought small samples of various wines throughout the meal, ending with a rare Catalonian red that like Madeira is deliberately exposed to heat and tasted like balsamic vinegar, unsweetened chocolate, and tobacco. That may not sound good, but the flavor grew on me, and I could see sipping an ounce of the stuff late on a summer night while sitting on the porch at Els Casals with my feet up, looking at the mountains.
I also encountered the local cuisine on the €20 lunch menu at Mon Vinic, a wine bar in Barcelona that pours several dozen wines by the glass and had hundreds for sale by the bottle. Their eggs gently scrambled with green onion and morcilla, or blood sausage, was at once comforting and elegant, the kind of dish you could eat once a week for years on end. It went perfectly with an Amontillado sherry that had the complex nose of a good Scotch and the clean finish typical of sherry, but it would also have been great with an Estrella Damm.