The smell of jasmine at the entrance of the garden of El Celler brought me on the small balcony of the apartment of my aunt Angelina in Trapani... The only difference there, in Trapani, located in the north west part of Sicily, was the addition of a bitter smell of a plant called rue ('ruta' in Italian) that was playing its personal green battle with the sweetness of the small and white flower.
Hundreds of miles north-west, in Girona, on the Spanish cost, the same familiar atmosphere never abandoned us during the 5+ hours of our visit at the mansion restaurant of the Roca brothers.
First impression was picture perfect. Joseph is in the covered patio tasting wine with some suppliers, Jordi is at home getting ready for the service (only a few meters away from the restaurant), while Joan welcomes us with a large smile and warm hospitality on behalf of a family who has been running the business in Girona for 50 years.
‘Cooking is a way to communicate love’: love for the Catalan heritage and tradition, love for the ingredients and the small local producers, love and respect for the clients who wait 11 months to sit in the triangular shaped dining room.
‘The menu is the dialogue of this communication’: it tells a story, it tells the past and memories, but also the evolution and the recent travels, source of valuable inspiration.
Just like it’s the case with the first amuse bouche (El Món, ‘The World’), a 5-snack trip around the world where each bite is a story itself, a short but intense journey into the ingredients and roots of different countries: while the exploding taste of miso cream with nyinyonyaki (Japan) and the soya sauce and kimchi (Korea) are still in your mouth, you will be already flying over to Turkey for a lamb, yogurt and cucumber stopover. Then, just after smelling the fresh air of Lima and its farming tradition of onions and potatoes you will be completing the circle with the lightly sweet taste of coconut, curry and coriander (Thailand).
While the first appetizer is a successful culinary venture of different styles and traditions, the second one gave us a more intimate glance into the origins and evolution of the Roca family: a variety of sophisticated presentations stashes the childhood tastes and flavors of meat cannelloni, liver with sherry, grapefruit and Campari, olives and anchovies… up to the more delicate taste of raw escabeche mussels in Amarillo foam and St. Georges mushrooms in both cold and warm edition but equally intense and persistent in taste.
After these kick-starters, the first dishes come in while unveiling the star of the lunch: the wine pairing.
Wine pairing at El Celler is not only a way to accompany the meal, it’s an ingredient and a chameleon jealously stored in the 60.000+ bottles carefully chosen by the nose and taste buds of the middle brother Joseph.
We have never experienced such an intimate relation between food and wine: the Condrieu (Vernillon, 100% viognier by Domain Jamet) becomes the missing element of the white asparagus served with mullet roe, elderflower and hazelnuts; the Palomino (Manzanilla en Rama Barbiana) enhances the woody taste of the walnuts in the onion flower comté cheese soup; the Albarino (Contraaparede 2012) provides a dry and mineral base to a complex oyster tasting – featuring fennel, black garlic, apple, seaweed and mushroom sauces; the Chablis (Regnard Grand Cru Velmur 2006) tries to balance the bitterness of the artemisia and the toasted butter that hide a super fresh langoustine; the Carignan (Cosmic Valentia 2016) delicately follows the last swim of the mackerel with the soy sauce-fermented ganxet beans – a typical Catalan product prepared with a typical Asian technique…
Even though the first gangs were good but not necessarily memorable, the second part of the menu is the full expression of Joan Roca’s talent and his ability to focus on the essence of the ingredients (‘flavor as the key of everything’):
1) Prawn marinated with rice vinegar: a whole prawn to be enjoyed head to tail. All the intensity of the creamy meat combined with an explosive head sauce and the crunchiness of the crispy legs.
2) Cuttlefish with fermented black rice, sake and parmesan: a mild taste balanced by the natural saltiness of the parmesan and the light sweetness of the jellied sake. Also in this case not to forget the magnificent pairing with the Sake Katsuyama Den.
3) Suckling pig: cooked sous-vide – the technique invented by Joan – for 27 hours and then grilled. All the tenderness and juiciness of the meat combined to tamarind sauce and sesame seeds in a recipe that reminds more on the South East Asia than the Catalan coast.
4) Charcoal-grilled lamb consommé: lamb tongue, brain and tripe… three small and less noble parts of the lamb become three giants of taste.
‘Dulcis in fundo’: ‘The sweet part in the end’! Finally the moment of Jordi Roca, the youngest of the Roca brothers and best pastry chef in the world in 2014.
The desserts at El Celler, similarly to the wines, are fully complementary to the savory part of the menu.
And this is probably what is really extraordinary about the Roca brothers: even though each of them represents an excellence in his field, dishes are not the excuse to show off their talent, but to make their talents fully functional for the meal while being committed to the excellence.
The first dessert comes in on tiptoes, light, delicate and fresh. The smell of the rain on the ground is trapped in drops of sand distillate water and fresh anise ice cream that spills over a breathing forest of fire tree, wormwood and fennel. The choice of Riesling respectfully waters the dish with its low percentage of alcohol while adding a tiny bit of sugar.
The second dessert keeps playing with herbal flavors with the addition of flower notes and orange taste, but this time the ‘sensorial’ cage is not liquid, but made in a form of a thin sugar pearl tenderly placed on a carrot base. The wine chosen (a late harvest Malvasia) adds on a bit more in terms of the body and prepares the mouth for the next treat.
While the bitter and slightly acid touches of Panama beans coffee are reaching the nose, chocolate mousse, dried plum and tobacco leaves take their place on the stage for the last scene of the play. Similarly to a Cuban cigar, Jordi’s last dessert softly rubs the palate leaving no room for words.
Bite after bite, the mind starts recollecting the memories of the lunch, the nose is getting ready to welcome back the smell of jasmine and the mouth desperately tries to slow down the pace, but it is time for the last puff…