If France is the grande dame of haute cuisine, the Catalan region of Spain is her Rive-Gauche-residing, eccentric young upstart of a granddaughter.
Here, in the land of surrealist painter Salvador Dali, a culinary explosion brought the term “amuse-bouche” (mouth amusement) to new heights. Creative presentations were designed to amaze, not just amuse; the chefs’ methods were part tradition, heart, and talent … and also part science.
Call it “molecular gastronomy” or “deconstructivist cuisine,” the term preferred by the region’s most famous chef, Ferran Adria of El Bulli (which was considered the world’s top restaurant until it closed in 2011), this avant-garde form of cooking relies heavily on laboratory-precise conditions to push the limits of form, texture and taste. Even so, local chefs point to the rich variety and preparation of traditional Catalan cuisine as both their inspiration and foundation. On that note, we include both in this guide to the best things to eat on the Costa Brava.
It’s all about the molecules: El Celler de Can Roca
Our trip to the Costa Brava started out with a bang.
The opening night party was held at a castle, and of all the restaurants in Catalonia, it was catered by el Celler de Can Roca. Yes, that one. The one voted #2 in the world by a panel of experts and fellow chefs.
One by one, servers brought around finger foods like smoked tuna (whose fat molecules were smoke-infused), bacon with roast banana, and Campari bonbons (my favorite), a grown-up version of Bubble Yum. Traditional specialties were given their own room, such as the cheese room, where the delicacies were arranged from freshest to most aged (Ben refused to venture more than half way down the bar because of the smell), and the ham room. Yes, a room full of the most succulent, melt-in-your-mouth Jamon Iberico de bellota (the highest quality, acorn-fed cured ham) imaginable.
If you can’t make it to el Celler, you can at least stop by their premium ice cream shop in Girona, Rocambolesc, and have exactly what we did for dessert: baked apple ice cream with butter cookies and pieces of baked and raw apples. The rotating menu cycles through unusual flavors like eucalyptus and sheep’s milk cottage cheese, with inventive condiments to match.
Let your nose lead you to the plat del dia
One day I set out without a care in the world (I’d just rolled out of a huge buffet breakfast at Hotel Terraza followed by a relaxing treatment overlooking the Bay of Roses at their Spacesens Spa), with only the vague idea of visiting some wineries and medieval villages. In the parking lot of a wine store I caught a whiff of something heavenly, and followed my nose to an unassuming building with “plat del dia” scrawled on a chalkboard out front.
For decades, these “daily plates” have been the working man’s subsistence. Restaurants open at midday on weekdays are expected to offer them, so you can always ask if nothing is noted on the menu. They typically include a starter, choice of entrées, and desert for a reduced price, often with the addition of wine and coffee. This is your best opportunity to find true home cooking on the road.
At el Cau that day, I was delighted to find that the meal also included a full “pica” bar (a buffet of before-lunch nibbles such as olives, chips and cheeses) and a dessert bar with quajada, natilla, flan, and crema catalana (all different forms of two basic ingredients: sugar and milk / cream) plus fruit, ice cream and homemade cakes. As a main dish I chose meatballs in a tomato-and-pea sauce served over fried potatoes – a true comfort food dish that I haven’t eaten since I lived in Spain over a decade ago.
The room was packed, and I was the only tourist there (always a good sign). Price tag for this out-of-body goodness? A whopping 10 euros.
Breakfast of champions
Present-day Catalans may be design-savvy entrepreneurs and techie whizz kids, but their traditional breakfasts date back to the time of farmers and mountain folk: big, hearty, with plenty of wine.
Oh, yes. What would breakfast be without a chilled red or sparkling white cava?
Take the morning after our hot air balloon ride, for instance. Whereas a champagne toast has become a popular add-on for balloon rides around the world, Globus Emporda treats you to a full, traditional breakfast, including but not limited to beef ribs, fried fish, croquetas (fried ham or fish dumplings), roast vegetables, omelettes … and wine and cava. We finally had to beg them to stop, because we were headed to … cooking classes! (An alternate title for this post might have been, “How to waddle your way through Catalonia.”)
Interminable varieties of fish
At Espai del Peix, it’s all about the fish. That’s obvious if you speak Catalan, because the name translates to “The Fish Place.”
Located above the auction house and market of one of the region’s largest fishing hubs, Palamos, Espai del Peix is on a mission to promote sustainability and educate visitors about undervalued fish species by way of gastronomy.
There’s more than one way to cook a fish, let’s just put it that way. And the Catalan people seem to have found them all. For a quintessential Catalan dish, try fish fideua (like paella, but made with short, fine pasta) with aioli (literally “garlic and oil,” a pungent condiment often thickened with egg).
For one of life’s great pleasures, order said fideua at a kiosko, a little shack-a-boo on the beach, so you can dine al fresco while overlooking the Mediterranean blue. If you’re lucky, they might even cook it over a fire, though that’s less common in the age of gas grills. You can nibble on olives and vinegary anchovies (boquerones) with a beer as you wait.
Something as simple as water
And now, time for some of the simplest pleasures of Catalan food, in no particular order:
Vichy Catalan – Spain’s most famous mineral water, and one of my favorites (Badoit from France, though completely different, is the other).
Cremat – Not exactly a food, though definitely a delicacy, cremat is a rum and coffee concoction set ablaze and then served warm.
Pa amb tomaquet – You’ll often see toasted bread served with a clove of garlic and small, deeply pigmented tomatoes. These are the components of make-your-own pa amb tomaquet (bread with little tomatoes). Slide the garlic lightly over the bread for just a hint of garlic essence, and then do the same with a tomato that you have cut in half. Follow with a generous pour of green olive oil and a shake of sea salt, and your creation is complete. It’s one of those too-simple-to-taste-this-good miracles that should be easy to recreate at home … but isn’t. The raw ingredients are just different here.
Aioli – mentioned above
Crema catalana – For outsiders, crema catalana might seem strikingly similar to crème brûlée, but Catalans will be happy to tell you about how different the two are.
Sobrassada – Heading to the beach and looking for picnic food? Take along a loaf of bread and some sobrassada to spread on top. It looks like a sausage but is actually shredded pork loin spiced with paprika. The most famous version comes from the Balaeric Islands, but you’ll find it in almost anyplace sausages are sold.
Cheeses – Don’t really know much about Spanish cheeses apart from Manchego? It’s time to branch out. And the best way to do that is to dive right in:
*This trip was made possible by the Costa Brava Tourism Board with help from el Cellar de Can Roca, Hotel Terraza, Spacesens, Globus Emporda, and Espai del Peix. To read about our commitment to balanced and fair reporting, please visit our disclosures page.