It was a beautiful day as we began our ascent up the coastal mountains from the Costa Brava city of Roses near the border with France. We were on a mission. We had eaten our way from Portugal across Spain, sampling endless small plates of tapas, pintxos, and petiscos and a dizzying array of regional specialty soup, stew, rice, and pasta dishes.
We had gorged on seafood of all forms, pigged-out on Jamón Ibérico, and feasted on giant pans of paella. We had terrific experiences in seemingly countless dining spots big and small, some with three Michelin stars and some with only three tables. We were experiencing a culinary nirvana where exciting creativity is the norm.
Now we were looking for the wellspring of world-class cooking – a Mecca of all things gourmet called El Bulli.
Our pilgrimage turned into an adventure of its own. But before we get to the end of our story, let’s go back to the beginning – a month earlier – when our plane landed in Lisbon.
Our goal was a culinary exploration of the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar. We planned to revisit Lisbon and, more specifically, Cascais, the upscale, unpronounceable beach town 20-miles west of the city for a week, then move on to explore the Spanish Mediterranean coast from Gibraltar to the French border. We also would spend time in Spain’s Andalucía region with visits to Seville and Granada.
Because of previous trips to Portugal and Spain, we had an idea of what to expect – exciting regional dishes featuring fresh local products. Both countries offer a traveler – especially those who are avid wine and food enthusiasts – beautiful locales, rich in history, and some of the best and most exciting food scenes in the world. There are definite similarities in both countries’ cuisines, but there also are subtle and sometimes distinctive differences as well. The people of Spain and Portugal are passionate about how, when, and what they eat – and do not look favorably at tourists (or ex-pats) who don’t make an effort to understand their customs.
In both countries, a multitude of eateries serve traditional dishes. Still, there is nearly an equal number of top-notch restaurants that offer a wide range of international cuisines – from Japanese to Mexican. And of course, you’ll find Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and other franchises throughout the Peninsula.
The dining adventures we enjoyed most were the fusion kind, a mix of cuisines and techniques, resulting in wonderfully exciting and tasty dishes.
Pure Portuguese The typical Portuguese meal emphasizes fish, meat, olive oil, bread, rice, tomato, herbs, and spices. They also love soups. The most popular one is Caldo Verde, a hearty green affair from Northern Portugal made with potato puree, slices of chorizo sausage, Portuguese olive oil, and cabbage or kale.
Another favorite is bacalhau or Portuguese dried codfish. It became an obsession during the days when the only way to ship fish was to salt and dry it before the journey and rehydrated it to cook later. There’s a saying there are some 365 ways of preparing bacalhau – one for each day of the year. One of our favorites is Portuguese cod fritters or Bolinhos de Bacalhau. These little fried balls served hot and crisp are a tasty mix of salt cod and mashed potatoes.
The summertime food of choice in Portugal has to be grilled Portuguese sardines. The smell of charred fish wafts through the streets of Lisbon the entire month of June when sardines are in season. On June 12 and 13, when the city celebrates Saint Anthony Day, everyone gorges on these silvery fish, one of Portugal’s national symbols found on all kinds of souvenirs – clothing, coffee mugs, and jewelry. We tried sardines on this trip but weren’t impressed, probably since the season was past, and we were dining on a frozen catch. Our next visit will be in June when we plan to sample them again, hopefully with better results.
Most foodies have experienced tapas, if not in Spain, then in one of the thousands of tapas restaurants around the world. The rough equivalent of tapas in Portugal is petiscos, found in countless bars and eateries throughout the country. Don’t ever call a petiscos a tapa – the Portuguese take that as a gastronomic insult. To them, petiscos are about tradition and culture, intrinsically linked to their cuisine. And unlike tapas, petiscos are a small version of large plates, so you can sample as many tasty dishes as you can eat for a mini-meal, not a snack.
One of our favorite experiences in Lisbon was a tour, Wine Spots, and Petiscos, with our guide, Gonzalo Salgado, the company’s owner. Gonzalo led our group to a handful of delightful eateries in the heart of the historic Chiado neighborhood. It ended at Time Out Market, Lisbon’s most significant food hall, where he shared an insider’s guide to local cuisine and history and culture as well. We highly recommend taking this or a tour like it early in your travels in Portugal so that you can use your new-found knowledge for the duration of your stay.
Because petiscos are small servings of Portuguese entrees and soups, there are many items on these menus. Some of the most popular are salt codfish cakes, octopus salad, smoked ham, sausages, cheeses, clams in garlic butter, and our favorite, tender steak sandwiches.
Spain’s culinary traditions are also rooted in its rich history, geography, and religion to a certain extent. Like the magnificent architectural artifacts and ruins they left behind, we also find the marks of conquering Romans and Moors on Spain’s gastronomy. Over the years, all have relied on Span’s abundance of locally grown produce and meats. Jamón serrano and chorizo are popular throughout the country, and of course, seafood is a mainstay in coastal areas. Manchego and other cheeses, eggs, beans, rice, nuts, olive oil, and garlic are prime ingredients Spain’s dishes.
Every region in Spain boasts of its unique dishes. The area of Andalucia claims gazpacho and freidurías or battered and fried fish as some of its specialties. Cataluña (Catalonia), in northeastern Spain, is known for inventive dishes combining seafood, meat, poultry, and local fruits. In the northern Basque country (país Vasco), fish is essential, with cod, eel, and squid featured prominently. The signature dish of Asturias, in northwestern Spain, is fabada, a bean stew while in interior regions, such as Castilla, meats play a starring role. Tortilla española, a potato omelet, is served throughout the country as a quick and hearty dinner, often followed by Spain’s best-known dessert, creamy custard or flan.
Most of us are familiar with these Spanish omelets and gazpacho, the sweet, tangy chilled tomato-based soup, but the country’s two culinary top dogs are paella and tapas. I love both, but paella is my hands-down favorite.
Paella is also the best-known Spanish dish originating in beautiful Valencia, which happens to be surrounded by rice fields and orange groves. There are lots of variations, but Valencians are religiously passionate about the dish and consider it a sacrilege to use any ingredients other than those in their recipe.
Many years ago, when my Navy ship docked in Barcelona, I accidentally ordered paella with no idea what it was. Even for my young palate, it was a revelation. I never had another as good until my wedding party some 20 years later, where a gigantic pan of seafood paella was the main dish. And that was the best until this trip when Mary and I whipped up a stunning batch in paella school in Valencia. More about that later.
Tapas was also another old culinary friend, although the tapas restaurants I dined at in America were hit and miss. The name tapas comes from Spanish verb tapar or to cover – which doesn’t make much sense unless you’re familiar with the legendary origin of tapas. Centuries ago, to keep bugs and dust out of wine or beer, the Spanish used a slice of bread to cover (tapar) their glass. A long-forgotten Spaniard thought that the bread might be tastier if it had a slice of ham or cheese on it. That once simple slice a bread evolved into a distinctive cuisine now inseparable from the country’s culinary identity and renown.
Which brings us back to the beginning of our story. By the time we decided to make a pilgrimage to the most famous former restaurant in the world, El Bulli, we had experienced the wizardry of Iberian food for nearly a month. El Bulli held the No. 1 spot on the world’s 50 Best Restaurants list a record five times. It was arguably the most innovative kitchen on the planet. Since El Bulli closed in 2011, chef Ferran Adrià created the El Bulli Foundation and is collaborating with many of the world’s top chefs to explore and create magical new dining experiences. A journey to the once hottest dining ticket in the world would be a fitting cap to our Spanish culinary adventures.
We survived the dangerous narrow mountain roads to the remote coastal shore. The incredible views of Roses and the rugged Spanish coast from the top of the bluff made the trip a little less stressful. Once we got to Girona cove, our feelings were mixed. It felt like a ghost town – no one was stirring other than an operator digging a trench near the driveway.
.The restaurant now is being remodeled, although most of its previous structure remained. We could only imagine all the diners who had plunked down a small fortune to go through the massive stacked-stone arched entrance. Across the road, a grand looking new structure was under construction. We assumed it was part of the long-awaited El Bulli 1846, named for the 1,846 dishes that were created by Adria and his team and destined to be a research lab and museum open to gastronomic pilgrims like us.
In a recent interview, Adria summed up his feelings: “I have to confess I kind of missed the frantic activity I had when El Bulli was open, but now it is all coming back to us, and it makes me excited.” Dining at El Bulli was not in the cards, but that innovative spirit lived on the many excellent dining experiences we savored in Portugal and Spain. It would be difficult to describe them all, but the following pages highlight our most unforgettable meals.