x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Foodies can find heaven in Catalonia

The Catalan region straddling southern France and northern Spain offers diners food that's not only fresh but exquisitely prepared.

Riu Onyar river and buildings, Girona, Catalunya, Spain
Riu Onyar river and buildings, Girona, Catalunya, Spain
Market day in Céret, a medieval town in French Catalonia, and a dizzying array of food has been laid out on stalls and tables around the walls of the old town. Shaded by lofty plane trees and bright red and yellow umbrellas, local producers do brisk trade with plump peaches, creamy goat-milk yoghurt and fresh fish from the nearby Mediterranean. Olives are piled high in wooden buckets alongside pickled garlic and wild mushrooms. An old man sells onions the same colour as his sun-beaten skin, while a woman shucks oysters for passers-by - a mixture of tourists and locals doing their Saturday shopping. Flamenco music from a live band on Place Picasso pirouettes over the rooftops.

At Gaëtan LeBer's honey stall, bees are busy at work inside narrow glass hives. "Try this," the owner says, dipping a spoon into a jar of dark, gelatinous liquid and handing it to me. I've tasted honey from all over the world, from celebrated countries such as Albania, Rwanda and Yemen, but LeBer's miel de bruyère callune might just be the best I've ever tried.

Céret is our first stop on a trip into Catalonia, the rugged, picturesque region of northeast Spain that spills over into southern France. It has many attractions, including a rich artistic heritage, great architecture, beautiful scenery, a glorious climate and world-beating football - but my partner and I have come here primarily to eat. Catalonia is quite simply one of the best places on Earth to be if you love food.

From Céret we headed to the stunning coastal town of Collioure, 25km to the east. With medieval forts rising dramatically from azure waters and whitewashed houses bathed in limpid Mediterranean light, you can appreciate why the impressionist Henri Matisse came here in 1905 to paint. Perhaps he also came, as we did, for the salted anchovies, a specialty of the town. We purchased a jar from Roque, one of the main producers, with a shop on Route d'Argelès, and ate them with crusty baguettes on the seafront - a simple but perfect lunch.

Next, we headed inland and over the border to Figueres, birthplace of Salvador Dalí. Unlike its most famous son, this town is modest and plain-looking - but it has hidden depths. The main draw is the enormous shrine that the surrealist artist built to his work in the 1960s - the Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dalí - but I was just as excited by the bustling Montjoi fish shop on nearby Carrer de Peralada, which we stumbled upon at five in the afternoon as the day's catch was being rushed in. We bought a bag of super-fresh sardines and cooked them that evening, very simply, with potatoes and fennel and a squeeze of lemon. Delicious.

Our next stop, and the culmination of our journey, was Girona. We checked into Bellmirall, a lovely old hotel in the medieval quarter. Getting there involved a high-adrenaline taxi ride through steep and impossibly narrow streets, but once we arrived at Bellmirall everything was tranquil. The only disturbance were the bells ringing from the massive Gothic cathedral at the end of the street.

Girona has seen its fair share of disturbances over the years. The ancient city has been subjected to 25 sieges and captured seven times. The Romans ruled it, as did the Visigoths and the Moors, whose influence can be seen in the elegant Arab Baths on Carrer de Ferrán el Catolic, built in 1194. The most recent siege, lasting seven months, was laid by Napoleon's troops in 1809. Even today, people are dying to get into Girona: in Spain, it is regularly voted the city that people would most like to live in (ahead of its more famous Catalan neighbour, Barcelona).

The battle-scarred walls were demolished at the end of the 19th century, but in recent years sections have been reconstructed. A five-minute night walk from our hotel, through magnificent old university buildings, brought us to the Passeig de la Muralla, as the walk along the walls is known. We wended our way around and climbed onto grand observation towers to survey the city like medieval sentries.

You can eat great food in Girona without breaking the bank. The pintxos at Zanpanzar, the buzzy Basque tapas bar on Calle Cort Reial, were extremely tasty and came in very generous portions. Close by, at the bottom of a dramatic flight of stone steps, an atmospheric art-nouveau hangout called the Bistro served good salads and Catalan pizza at reasonable prices.

One of the joys of Catalan cuisine is its simplicity. The quality of the ingredients is such that even the most uncomplicated dishes here taste extraordinary. In the past 15 years, however, Catalonia has taken a turn towards the experimental, and now the region is revolutionising fine dining with its hi-tech, hyper-inventive cooking.

One of the world's finest restaurants, renowned for pushing Catalan cuisine to new heights, can be found in Girona - if you look hard enough. El Celler de Can Roca is tucked away behind a tall hedge in an unremarkable suburb west of the city centre. Unlike its celebrated Costa Brava neighbour, El Bulli, where there is a one-in-125 chance of securing a place each year, it's much easier to snap up a reservation at El Celler. I called up a mere two months in advance and booked a table for lunch.

Forgetting that Catalans eat late, we arrived at one o'clock and sat alone in the clean-lined modern dining room for nearly an hour before anyone else turned up. But it didn't matter: the table was ours for the afternoon and the upside was that we could experience the drama of each course before anyone else.

The first thing that arrived on our table was a miniature olive tree in a large pot. On closer inspection, we discovered four glazed olives hanging from the branches on tiny hooks, waiting to be plucked. Six more amuses bouches followed, including Bellini bonbons that popped in the mouth and "anchovy bone", a fish-shaped prawn cracker, served on a white net, with the skeleton of an anchovy fossilised into it.

We opted for the seven-course tasting menu, and then it became a blur of wonderful food, each dish more mind-blowing than the last. The oyster with ginger, lemon confit and an "oyster-flavoured leaf", served in a bottle halved down the middle with "solid" cava poured on top, was a highlight. So were the indulgent figs with warm foie gras.

The sole with colour-coded emulsions of five evocative Mediterranean flavours - bergamot, olive, orange, pine nut and fennel - had a Proustian effect, reminding us of some of the tastes and smells we had encountered during our time in Catalonia.

More than just a series of great dishes, the meal was like a holiday in itself, a brilliant voyage of the senses that had been planned and paced to perfection. By the end of the savoury courses, after a particularly intense cod pot-au-feu, I thought I could eat no more. But then a feather-light lemon-distillate sorbet came along and I immediately felt better. Just as well. The second sweet dish, Tahitian vanilla ice cream with caramel, liquorice and caramelised black olives, was the best dessert I've ever eaten.

Four and a half hours after our arrival, we staggered out in a haze of foodie bliss. A taxi driver took us the scenic route home, winding up the Montjuic hill that overlooks the city and pausing at the top to admire Girona in the setting sun. We had crested a great pinnacle of Catalan cuisine - one of the very best restaurants in the world - but already we were looking forward to our next meal. Somewhere down in that labyrinth of cobbled streets, another joyful Catalan dining experience awaited us - less elaborate, yes, but still cause for mouth-watering anticipation. The sun dipped beneath the horizon, the driver released the brakes and we plunged back into the darkening city.


If you go

The flight Return flights to Barcelona, via Brussels, on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) start from Dh3,375 including taxes

The hotel A double room at Bellmirall (www.bellmirrall.cat; 00 34 972 204 009), Girona, costs from ?65 (Dh345), including breakfast and taxes

The meal A seven-course tasting menu at El Celler de Can Roca (www.cellercanroca.com; 00 34 972 222 157), costs ?115 (Dh610) per person