July 29th, 2013
If midway through the 20th century painting and architecture were, and still are, Catalonia’s most important cultural ambassadors, as we head into the 21st century we should acknowledge that Catalonia is known on the five continents today thanks to: an architect, a painter, and a handful of chefs that have made our country a reference point. Let’s make it clear: without Barça (football), Gaudí and the chefs, the world would only know us because of the brands “Barcelona” (the Olympic Games) and “the Costa Brava” (Dalí Museum Pack), destinations for tourists, conference goers, and Japanese and Russian shoppers. Nonetheless, the road to being internationally recognized has not been an easy or smooth one for these chefs. In this country nothing is given for free, and success is not the result of careful planning but quite the contrary—the improvisation and the chance meeting of a valiant few who decide to forge ahead with a project. This is the case of the Catalan chefs.
First, it is important to point out that in the past the intelligentsia and ruling classes of Catalonia considered gastronomy to be frivolous and commonplace. And wine didn’t fare any better, anathema for being a cause of vices and infernal darkness.
At the same time, when it came to cuisine there existed a restricting, hierarchical, almost military code, with a great deal of French influence, which stated that Catalan cuisine (and everything related to it) was fine just as it was, that no changes should be made: the chef at the stove and the “maître d” in the dining room, with doors that acted as a border to differentiate one area from another. The dining room: a showcase; the kitchen: thecalderes of Pere Botero [furnaces of hell].
Some might wonder how —on what appeared to be unfertile ground for any sort of break with tradition or creativity— names started to emerge from some kitchens that are recognized today as the crème de la crème of the res coquinaria? I would say it’s due to three main reasons: youth, no qualms about breaking with tradition, and audacity. Not all who followed this path have been successful, many have taken risks and lost it all, but those who did succeed opened the floodgates and let loose a torrent of innovation, experimentation and beauty. Today, Catalan chefs are on everyone’s lips when there is talk of vanguards or gastronomical trends.
Indeed, we can say that the economic success of these chefs over the past two decades has played a very important role in the development of creativity in the kitchen, but the consolidation of this success is more due to hard work and enthusiasm than to monetary returns. Despite all of this, not long ago I witnessed something quite curious. It turns out that “Documenta,” from the city of Kassel 2007, invited the chef Ferran Adrià to participate, and when the chef said yes the delighted executives of Documenta quickly spread the word. And the most negative remarks came from Adrià’s own country. It was a unique opportunity, but many “puritans” denied that what Adrià did was art; instead they called it craftsmanship.
Luckily, globalization has helped spread the word around the globe of the graces, the virtues and the experiences of Catalan chefs. Their names are etched in gold. Anecdotes aside, the truth is that the “gourmets” and the “not-so-gourmets” around the world come to our restaurants and the majority of them emerge satisfied.
“Wine is the fruit of a mysterious encounter between man and the earth,” just as a recipe is for a chef: the point of contact between the product and the chef’s technique. If one of the two stops loving wine, if man mistreats nature, if the Earth is squeezed without measure, the wine becomes watery, it turns sour, it goes bad. Wine requires serenity; it needs the earth, the sun and the moon to follow their natural rhythms. Dear readers, there couldn’t be a simpler and more gentle formula, am I not right?
Well no, no sir, often what mattered more was to produce a large quantity, to sell in abundance, to fill bottles and jugs. It was more common to exploit the land, to forget about whether it was sunny or what phase the moon was in, to ignore whether it rained or if there was a drought: the objective was to make a profit. The consequence: scant prestige and little exigency. What was needed was some reflection, and the kind of action that accompanied Nature’s cycles and that allowed the earth to express itself. Just as in Catalan cooking, what was needed was a handful of young people who yearned to make good wines to take the helm and begin.
The results: more varied wines, wines connected to a particular terroir (did anyone know about the Priorat before this? Today, who doesn’t?), the recovery of old varieties, the cautious incorporation of new techniques. Allowing the land to speak and the vine, even if it is old, to grow its fruit, to harvest it with care, and all of this with a single purpose: so that people, no matter if they are Australian or South African, can identify the wine, converse with it, ask it questions and listen to its replies, or the other way around. It is a game of reflections between the light of the wine and the senses of the person tasting it.
It is the meeting of the strength of youth and the tradition of the land and the vines. In a word, we are talking about farmers, yes farmers, one of the oldest professions in the world, as is wheat, olive oil and wine itself.
Today, Catalan wines are found the world over.
From It-In Transit