For the Spanish restaurant world, emerging from the lost years of the financial crash, the verdict for the new decade has so far been an unequivocal ‘¡Olé!’. The guidebooks are upbeat, with Michelin 2020 praising the ‘consolidation of haute cuisine and new dynamism in the regions’ and Repsol, Spain’s Michelin equivalent, noting the ‘effervescence of Spanish cooking’. Even better, 2019 saw Google Arts & Culture produce a huge 60-page tribute to Spanish cuisine, its first-ever online ‘exhibition’ devoted to the food culture of a single country. And now the restaurant that first rocketed Spain to world culinary superstardom is re-opening after seven years of reconstruction, not as a restaurant but as a sort of monument to its own genius. El Bulli, chef Ferran Adrià’s former beach café in a little Costa Brava cove that became the world’s most famous restaurant, is about to re-emerge as El Bulli 1846, a research lab, archive and experimental whizz-kid space.
The credit for the global success of Spain’s culinary arts goes to an army of chefs, entrepreneurs, food producers and waiting staff – often brilliant in Spain – but also to more shadowy opinion formers. Chief among them is the dapper, 80-year-old éminence grise who has presided for three decades over the institution he created: the Royal Academy of Gastronomy. Rafael Ansón’s career includes running General Franco’s opinion-polling organisation, working as a director on Spanish TV after the advent of democracy, and nurturing the star chefs of the new era, who were able to throw off the shackles of French-dominated classic cuisine – the ‘big bang’, as Ansón describes it in his book La Cocina de La Libertad.
Talking in the boardroom of his offices among the smart legal firms in Madrid’s Salamanca district, Ansón recalls the days when upmarket urban restaurants all served French cuisine, while watery bread-and-garlic soup was still a staple in the impoverished Spanish countryside.
The journey from there has been marked by Ansón feats, notably entertaining the visiting American journalist Arthur Lubow in 2003, resulting in the New York Times story to which Ferran Adrià ascribes his great breakthrough, and setting up the aforementioned Google tribute to Spanish cuisine in 2019, which would certainly merit three stars in any Michelin Guide to the public relations industry.
Even in 60 Google pages, it’s a challenge to describe the restaurant scene of Spain, a country crammed with traditional fondas and casas de comida, gastro-bars and temples of both traditional alta cocina and post-molecular modernism. A regional approach makes most sense, though as María José Sevilla points out in her recently published Delicioso: A History of Food in Spain, the country is torn between exalting regional identities and affirming the oneness of the nation, in food as in politics.
The two food powerhouses of Spain are its most politically turbulent regions, the Basque Country and Catalonia, both boasting strong, distinctive traditions coupled with star chefs. Legend relates that the meetings of the Basque chefs Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana with French nouvelle cuisine pioneers Paul Bocuse and Michel Guérard in 1970, leading to the creation of New Basque Cuisine, lit the fuse of the big bang. Arzak is now a grand old man, seen at awards ceremonies, accompanied by his daughter Elena, who still receives retinues of international food tourists in the warren-like house on the edge of San Sebastián. Arzak restaurant is now one of a dozen Basque dining destinations.
Arzak has been followed by newer virtuosi such as Eneko Atxa, the creator of treats like roasted lobster toffee, whose spectacular wood and glass Azurmendi complex dominates a hillside by Bilbao Airport. In Bilbao itself, equivalents include Nerua, the top restaurant directed by Josean Alija in the Guggenheim, where the snacks in the bar rival the avant-garde pintxo (Basque tapas) scene of San Sebastián. Hidalgo 56, purveyor of a ‘volcano’ of black pudding with egg yolk and apple, is a good example of the latter.
But the old taverns of Bilbao still turn out excellent traditional pintxos of bacalao or potato tortilla, and the famed gastronomic societies – which require you to have an invitation and, in some cases, to be male – continue to offer old-school copper pans of cod cheeks with pil pil sauce.
The rest of northern Spain doesn’t lag far behind, from the octopus and goose barnacle feasts of Galicia, washed down with Albariño wines of course, to the mountain cocido stews of Asturias and Cantabria. The latter boasts Spain’s newest three-star Michelin restaurant, El Cenador de Amós, which occupies a beautiful 18th-century country palace situated between the green hills and the sea.
Chef and proprietor Jesús Sánchez gets his anchovies from the fishing boats lining the quays of anchovy capital Santoña, his prime local cheeses from a small collective in the next valley, and hints of colour from traditions like the puchero – portable charcoal-powered cauldron – cooking of the old railwaymen.
A genuine puchero meal at a specialist such as Pintxo i Blanco in the small Basque town of Balmaseda is a huge treat – incidentally, a bit like a deconstructed steroid-boosted cassoulet, requiring a gargantuan appetite and a devil-may-care attitude to cholesterol.
Spain’s second restaurant mega-region, Catalonia, shares the same deeply food-loving background and the same influences from across the border in France. Its resurgence is still spearheaded by two fine institutions in the Alt Empordà region’s capital town, Figueres: Hotel Duran, and, on an old highway, El Motel Restaurant, founded in 1961 by the legendary Josep Mercader. Here, in the elegant old-fashioned dining room of Hotel Empordà, waiters in white jackets with gold epaulettes serve refined versions of traditional Catalan dishes, including irresistible but simple gems like deep-fried anchovy skeletons.
If El Bulli hogged the Catalan limelight from the late ’90s onwards, attention turned after its closure to Girona, where El Celler de Can Roca – the creation of the three sons of the proprietors of suburban café Can Roca – was dubbed No1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015. The Rocas’ mother, Montserrat, who still runs the excellent original café, has now become an ancillary celebrity. But there are still dozens of great unlauded places to eat throughout the region, from Can Barris, a crowded family diner specialising in tin trays of stuffed roasted snails, to the cuinas gastronomic clubs of hundreds of Catalan cooks and restaurateurs dedicated to the preservation and development of traditional cooking. As for Barcelona, the city is packed with excellent eateries, including a crop of new vermuterias in the last half-dozen years, still hugely retro-fashionable to the point that Ferran Adrià’s brother Albert added one, called Bodega 1900, to his portfolio of trend-setting establishments.
Further down the coast, the Valencia region, which includes the rice-growing marshes of the Albufera and the old British tourist resorts around Benidorm and Alicante, is another hive of modernised tradition. Paella Valenciana, a precisely defined dish involving specific ingredients – chicken, rabbit, beans and artichokes – and a range of other delicious variants of arroces, or rice dishes, are found in hundreds of local restaurants. These dishes are championed by the region’s own leading chef, Quique Dacosta, whose three-star flagship in the charming prawn-fishing port of Dénia turns out intricate and expensive artistic versions, backed up by a very smart but more down-to-earth establishment in Valencia, Llisa Negra.
Which brings us down to Andalucía: Seville and its renowned tapas trails, the wonderful fried fish and seafood of the Cádiz coast, the excellent simple tabanco bars of Jerez. In El Puerto de Santa María, a busy and untouristy working port dominated by the great Osborne brandy bodega, superb eating places range from the cavernous old family Sherry bodega of González Obregón to the splendid Romerijo quayside fish restaurant. Also notable is the alta cocina revival of the old Islamic gastronomy of al-Andalus. Spain doesn’t have France’s post-colonial North African couscous legacy, but in his much-praised Córdoba restaurant Noor Paco Morales creates modern dishes such as his celebrated creamy karim of pine nuts or pistachio based on medieval Arab-Spanish tradition.
So tempting are the coastal regions of Spain, it’s easy to underestimate the vast central plateau of Castile and La Mancha, with its riches of peasant-rooted cuisine provided by restaurateurs such as the Araque family. These fifth-generation sheep farmers and producers of award-winning Manchego cheese have a sophisticated little restaurant near Ciudad Real, La Casota, which serves succulent legs of their own lamb roasted with artichokes, along with versions of the ancestral shepherds’ garlicky porridge called gachas.
You can, of course, find a lot of these regional cocinas without leaving Madrid. The capital contains everything, from classics like Horcher to the flashy ‘dream world’ modernism of neo-punk Dabiz Muñoz at DiverXO A walk down the Calle Ponzano, the current hotspot for new openings, provides a good cross-section of the latest trends.
Madrid is also a centre for food from Spain’s old dominions in the Latin world, including the very fashionable cuisines of Mexico and Peru, as well as those of Brazil, Colombia, Cuba and, the latest wave, Venezuela. There is a slew of new Venezualan market stalls and casual eateries such as Dina serving stuffed arepa corn buns and more.
Finally, at the risk of sounding like a tourist ad: foodies mustn’t overlook flamenco. You can find excellent croquetas at the tabancos of Jerez, and the classic old Madrid tablao the Corral de la Morería – the haunt of 1950s movie goddess Ava Gardner and her matador lover Dominguin – has recently earned itself stars from both Michelin and Repsol for its new gourmet space and cellar of 500 rare Sherries. Here, you can watch an impassioned bulerías performance while relishing grilled hake, sea fennel and eel consommé with a glass of Viña de Morla’s Corta y Raspa Palomino 2016. To which one can only reiterate with feeling: ¡Olé!