Image courtesy Les Cols restaurant
Volcanic cuisine (home)
'Strawberries with cream'
Long before Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in 1989—following an earlier campaign that kept McDonald’s from opening at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome—the producers, hotel owners and restaurateurs of La Garrotxa were already keenly aware of the need to protect their gastronomic heritage. The Associació d’Hostalatge de la Garrotxa was founded in 1977, putting them way ahead of the curve.
This not-for-profit organisation stems largely from local pride. Its purpose: to protect the region’s endemic ingredients and the culinary cultures of its towns and villages and, above all, to ensure that mass-production doesn’t topple their small farms and producers.
About 10 years ago a spin-off group appeared, El Grupo Cuina Volcànica, who realised that the region of La Garrotxa had something special: dead volcanoes. Unlike the volcano parks of Lanzarote where you can quite literally dig a hole in the ground and get grilling, there’s nowhere in the Garrotxa where the earth is still so molten that you can cook over it. But the ancient, nutrient-rich soil of these extinct volcanoes does grow products unknown elsewhere, and a tradition of spirited country cooks in the area has spawned generations worth of old recipes such as farinetes with ratafia (buckwheat pancakes flambéed in this sweet, local liqueur made with cherries, almonds or green walnuts), esparrecada (a spicy sausage) and the fresh yet velvety soft amanida de peuada (a sumptuous, boneless pig’s trotter salad).
The taste of these dishes is as old and mysterious as the region itself, with some products considered direct results of the volcanic soil—rare and almost extinct products such as nabos negros (black turnips), Saracen wheat and escarlots (a type of wild mushroom), as well as the delicate fessols de Santa Pau (small white beans with a fine skin and sweet, soft meat), Vall d’en Bas potatoes and corn more closely related to the South American kind than the sweet ears we are used to in Northern Europe. Speak to local cooks and farmers and they’ll also tell you that their cheese and charcuterie, pork and wild boar is the best in Spain.
It’s difficult to argue when La Vall de Bianya is quite simply one of the loveliest places in rural Catalunya, with a prolific number of top-notch country taverns for staving off the hunger pangs. Throwing creativity and daring into the mix has generated what might be called volcànica nova, specifically from the region’s three Michelin-starred kitchens.
Of these, and perhaps more than any other chef, Fina Puigdevall of Les Cols has been instrumental in putting La Garrotxa on the map as a foodie destination. The restaurant is revered not only as a gastronomic mecca, but also for its artful design, which has been described as a Catalan take on a Japanese ryokan: a seamless melding of the honey-coloured brick of a 13th-century Catalan farmhouse with state-of-the-art pavilions that have floors and walls of steel and glass (all the better for admiring the volcanic stone), with views onto a chicken run and a vegetable garden.
Designer and new wave it may be, but Puigdevall’s prevailing vision is about preserving the bounty of her own backyard; she makes traditional bread with alfarfón, for example—the region’s famed Saracen wheat or buckwheat—topped with deeply flavoured farmhouse charcuterie. Local recipes are updated to suit the modern palette; wild boar, hare and partridge, home-reared chicken and duck all come to the plate in the traditional Catalan accompaniments of samfaina, picada and sofreigit, but there’s something more (or rather, less), as tradition is interpreted with a lighter touch. Think green bean juice with cucumber, mint and almonds; escarlots salad with pine-nuts and dandelions; potato stew with eucalyptus oil; rice with cocks’ combs and squid; a ratafia lollipop; and lest we forget where we are, a superb local cheese board—and ‘local’ means from Olot, just down the road.
Ca L’Enric is another influential spot, run by brother and sister team Joan and Isabel Juncá. Their philosophy is to update,without completely diluting, the legacy of their forebears, particularly their mother. On a seasonally changing menu you’ll find monkfish on a bed of light samfaina with basil oil, foie gras dried apple ‘sandwiches’ rare pigeon breasts with morels and a simply roasted becada (woodcock). The ambience, likewise, has the warm and comfortable air of being at a large family home for Sunday lunch. And so while the presentation is distinctly high-end, with its rectangular plates and mini tasting portions, they haven’t forgotten their roots nor the joy of old-fashioned hospitality.
Just down the road is Hostal de Sant Salvador was a perennial favourite run by self-taught chef Joan Borras, though the price-quality ratio seems to have gone downhill since getting its star. Regardless, he’s still a tour de force when it comes to ‘real’ food, gathering wild strawberries from the hedgerows of the ancient Roman Via Augusta nearby and smoking trout from the river in the garden hothouse.
Recipe: Mushroom-stuffed pig’s feet in turnip sauce (serves 4 as a starter).
Add a large knob of butter to a heavy pan and melt down 1 chopped onion, 1 diced carrot, 3 sliced garlic cloves, the peel of 1 lemon and 1 orange, 4-6 whole turnips (black if you can get them), 1 tablespoon of dark chocolate, a sprig each of rosemary and thyme, 5 cloves, two cleaned, whole trotters and salt and pepper. Just cover with water and simmer gently until the trotters are soft and tender. Remove the trotters and set them aside to cool.
Meanwhile mix together two large handfuls of finely chopped wild mushrooms, a handful of minced pork, a handful of minced beef, a tablespoon of minced sage, salt and pepper and bind together with an egg.
Split the trotters down the middle and remove the bones. Fill the cavity with the stuffing mix, wrap in aluminium foil and return to the sauce to simmer for 20-30 minutes. Just before serving remove the trotters and the turnips and cut into thin slices. Strain the sauce, reduce to thicken. Serve immediately garnished with parsley.
Les Cols: Ctra de la Canya; Olot; 972 26 92 09; www.lescols.com
Ca L’Enric: Ctra. Camprodón s/n; La Vall de Bianya; 97229 00 15; www.calenric.net
Hostal de Sant Salvador: Ctra. Camprodón 14; La Vall de Bianya; 972 19 51 54
Best of the rest
Can Mulleras: General Startus s/n; Sant Privat, La Vall d´En Bas; 972 69 32 57
A cheap and cheerful inn in the heart of the valley specialising in simple regional dishes such as classic fesols amb botifarra esparrecada (white beans with spicy sausages).
Cal Sastre: Cases Noves 1; Santa Pau; 902 99 84 79; www.calsastre.com
This charming stone farmhouse is a hotel as well as a restaurant. A good-value tasting menu of seasonal products includes snails in four flavours, pig’s trotters with chestnuts, and scrambled eggs with beans and wild boar confit.
Can Morera: Carrer de Santa Coloma 10; Les Preses; 972 69 48 02; www.can-morera.com
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Restaurant L’Hostalet: Vic 18, Hostalets d’En Bas; 972 69 00 06
A small, stone tavern where rib-sticking dishes
such as duck stuffed with truffles and garnished with wild mushrooms, and an intriguing adaptation of mar i muntanya—pig’s trotters stuffed with fish—are the stars of the show.
Cal Parent: Avda. Lluís Companys 6-8; Besalú; 972 59 01 10; www.grupcalparent.com
The yawning archways and vast dining room of this village eatery give it a stately atmosphere that fits an almost medieval menu of piquillo peppers stuffed with cabbage tronxat, river crab canelones and grilled duck with salsify.
Ca La Nasia: Ctra. Camprodón 5; La Vall de Bianya; 972 29 02 00
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