It has been more than a year and still, I can't stop thinking about Spain. I had visited with the unlikeliest group of gourmands for an intensive, eight-day search in Northern Spain for the most memorable meals money can buy. Among the highlights of our trip were our visits to Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri, Mugaritz, Arzak and, for our final act, a momentous meal at El Bulli, chef Ferran Adria's now-closed restaurant on the awe-inspiring Catalonian coast.
The itinerary was ambitious without a doubt, and there would be little time to recover from the excesses of the preceding meals: Two-hundred and fifty dishes, seven Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy, innumerable closely guarded hidden gems, revered regional specialties from the region's top producers, and scarcely a morsel left uneaten by our group on the road between.
My wife, Jennifer, and I were the first to arrive in San Sebastian, one day ahead of schedule. Our multilingual host, Annie Sibonney, who has extensive connections with the top Spanish chefs, met us at our hotel that evening and took us on our first pintxos (Basque tapas) crawl in the old part of the city, a "necessary initiation" according to her, for the days to follow.
It was an unforgettable evening, a complete rupture from my everyday life. I felt exhilarated by the energy of the place, the food and the people. It was my first introduction to Basque cuisine and it seduced every last bit of me, from the fresh bonito and supple blistered guindilla peppers to the impossibly sweet Iberian ham and my first-ever taste of kokotxas (the flesh from the lower part of the jaw of cod or hake fish). We piled in and out of one establishment after the other at a rambunctious pace, leaving just enough time in each to down a short glass of wine and indulge in one or two pintxos, the insuperable quality of the ingredients inspiring. That first evening in San Sebastian initiated a monumental and formative journey.
In the days that followed, our group had the enormous fortune to share in the lives of each chef, spend time in their kitchens and surrender ourselves completely to experience the best that they had to offer. Their cuisines are deeply rooted in tradition, yet all possess a fierce spirit of innovation that drives a high level of collaboration and camaraderie between them: Whether a reflection of the past or an extreme departure from it, the importance of these shared roots seems the common thread that unites these chefs and their distinct culinary and cultural expressions.
The day after we arrived, three-star Michelin chef Martin Berasategui, one of the world's most technically accomplished cooks, met us for a morning trip to the La Bretxa market before leading us back to Gastelubide, the most prestigious members-only gastronomic society in San Sebastian. Here I ate one of my most memorable meals. Martin prepared a traditional menu, each dish focusing on significant and revered local ingredients. His dish of kokotxas with baby clams, slowly poached in a parsley and olive-oil sauce, was as inspiring as Mr. Berasategui's generous spirit and the gracious hospitality he showed us. That evening in Lasarte, outside San Sebastian, we joined Mr. Berasategui as his guests in his eponymous restaurant – one of the greatest in Europe. His cuisine appears subtle on the plate yet it is technically bold and excites with every bite. His signature style of serving tiny dishes comprising a luxurious piece of protein paired with novel dried, liquefied, foamed or creamed components allows for endless creativity and variation.
The next day, we made the trip to Atxondo, a fable-like Basque village to visit and dine with Victor Arguinzoniz, grill master of the region and celebrated innovator who produces indisputably amazing dishes without a trace of liquid nitrogen or hydrocolloids. His restaurant, Asador Etxebarri, has been mythologized in blog posts and articles: It's a romantic story of a lone man cooking his food without regard for international trends, using only exemplary ingredients, homemade grills and charcoal and a grill technique from the next realm. Mr. Arguinzoniz's cuisine is a reflection of the paradigm shift in Spain from scientific gastronomy to ingredient-driven cuisine. In this space, the grill defines the flavour, texture and aroma of the ingredients and his technique transforms them into surprising versions of themselves. We lingered over a five-hour, elaborate tasting menu. Among the most unforgettable was a dish of grilled Beluga caviar, Etxebarri's signature dish and a result, Mr. Arguinzoniz explained, of several years of exhaustive trial and error to find the ideal caviar with a higher natural fat content to survive the grilling process. A special pan was designed with a thin wire mesh as the base where the roe is carefully laid. The pan is placed over seaweed and grilled lightly over apple-wood charcoal. The resulting dish was extraordinary, as was a dish of a single, simple grilled langoustine, absent of a single char mark from the grill.
After a leisurely morning to recuperate, we met Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz restaurant in Renteria, a suburb just outside San Sebastian. His restaurant boasts two Michelin stars. We spent time with Mr. Aduriz in his laboratory, where we toasted friendship with champagne and were served a special edition family reserve Cantabrian anchovy, so large that we needed to eat it with a knife and fork. Eventually, after getting to know each other, we were led into the dining room. Mr. Aduriz is a poet, innovator and perfectionist and his food is striking, albeit with some surprising flavours and textures. Each morsel verges on ethereal. The dishes are stunning, such as a signature salad of fresh herbs and petals from their land with small cubes of roasted baby vegetables in brown butter served with a buttery and nutty Emmental broth that is poured onto the delicate salad, table-side. The dish is only available July through September, and the elaborate combination of up to 70 different herbs allows for only about 10 servings a day when it's in season. For many of us in our group, our time with Mr. Aduriz and the meal at Mugaritz was both spiritually and gastronomically transformative.
My dining experience with Juan Mari and Elena Arzak was an important piece of the puzzle as I sought to further my understanding of nouvelle Basque cuisine. Their restaurant, Arzak, has three Michelin stars. Juan Mari is one of the most important figures in Spanish gastronomy and his imprint has forever changed the face of culinary innovation, not only in Spain but around the globe. Their dishes are modern, whimsical and witty, emphasizing the highest-quality local ingredients. The result is a unique expression of an enriched and reinvigorated Basque cuisine that retains a strong sense of tradition and place with the capacity to surprise, delight and inspire reflection. Especially wonderful was an astonishingly perfect hake with a sauce of white clay.
We parted ways with the Basque country and set off to the gorgeous Catalan Coast, but not before celebrating and sharing a few more meals with old and new friends. One could easily spend day after day in Catalonia contemplating and savouring the delicious and complex cuisine. Our raison d'être, though, was to dine at the coveted three-star Michelin restaurant El Bulli in Roses. The incredibly inspirational food provoked so much thought and reflection. Chef Ferran Adria has deservedly won the adulation and accolades of food critics around the world. Each innovative dish was technically daring either in its complexity or simplicity. Take this offering of rabbit: Two crispy rabbit ears, one cradling its tongue, sweetbreads and delicate snail eggs, then as a canapé, the other crispy ear is topped with the kidney and brain. Another incredible course was a giant, hollow, coconut-and-curry egg.
The frozen shell was made from coconut cream that received a measured dusting of a beautifully fragrant curry powder. We tore into the shells with our hands and aside from the allure and entertainment of the dish, the flavour combination was a real success. It was a magical night, a historic meal, shared with wonderful friends, the end note to a once-in-a-lifetime – and life-changing – trip to Spain.
The Basque Country and Catalonia have been without a doubt my most thrilling destinations for gastronomy. It's not about any individual dish, rather a collective fanatical pride of place, and the exceptional quality of ingredients and skill of preparation.
Regardless of whether you're eating in a three-star Michelin restaurant or in a rustic country house, I can't think of any other place in the Western world where cooking is as revered as an art, and as fiercely embedded in the national consciousness. The Spaniards' dedicated hands have prepared many of my most significant meals, and their warmth and generosity continue to inspire me every day to be better, greater.
Special to The Globe and Mail