CHRISTINA KO heads to Girona, Spain for a preview of The Macallan’s latest collaboration, a series of charity dinners with El Celler de Can Roca
UNTIL JUST A MONTH ago, El Celler de Can Roca was enjoying its year-long reign as the world’s top restaurant, as anointed by the now gold-standard S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna World’s 50 Best Restaurants board. It had been a good year for the Roca brothers, who’d relished the fruits that come with the accolade – not simply bragging rights, or increased bookings, or fame and fortune, but the countless opportunities and partnerships that have come their way since.
The awards may have begun as a marketing tool for British food publication Restaurant, and a crude attempt to get international foodies to validate the first completely global restaurant ranking system, but in the ensuing years the 50 Best has become a beast of untold might, if only for the networking. Restaurateurs who attend the official event cosy up to foreign chefs in hopes of getting them in for a noise-making guest gig; journalists vie for opportunities to meet and quote top kitchen talent; brand representatives lurk with business cards at the ready and collaborative ideas on the tips of their tongues.
As eldest brother Joan Roca noted upon the restaurant’s rise from the second spot to the top: “The world sees us different, but we’re the same. But it’s a fantastic opportunity to promote our country, our culture and our products.”
The folks from The Macallan weren’t among those crowds at the awards, but the Scottish whisky brand’s global marketing manager, Jaume Ferras, did meet the Roca brothers through an introduction. He then spearheaded a campaign to bring two powerhouse names together, culminating in an announcement made to some 60 journalists in early April at El Celler de Can Roca.
Before that moment, none of the writers present – some of whom had flown thousands of miles to northern Spain for the occasion – had been told anything. The press junket had been cryptically dubbed “Project Zeus”, as if it were a military operation, and we’d been advised not to breathe a word of the impending trip to a soul. Non-disclosure? But alas, we had no idea what it was we weren’t allowed to share.
The brothers – Joan, Josep and Jordi – along with Ferras, Director Ken Grier and whisky maker Bob Dalgarno from The Macallan, took high chairs inside the restaurant, announcing that El Celler de Can Roca would close to the public for a series of six special whisky-pairing dinners in late June and early July. Fourteen whiskies will escort some 10 snacks, 10 courses and two desserts. The price? Ten thousand US dollars a head. The beneficiary? A to-be-determined charity chosen jointly by the restaurant and whisky brand, which will also receive an additional cash donation from The Macallan.
The evening prior to this unveiling, we’d been treated to a full menu of classic delights from the El Celler repertoire: among other dishes, an apple and foie gras timbale with vanilla oil; suckling-pig confit with orange and clove; and a “lemon cloud” prefaced by a paper cone of lemon-scented air that, besides whetting the appetite, we all agreed would make a pretty tasty personal fragrance (youngest brother and pastry chef Jordi is way ahead of us, having launched the Núvol de Llimona scent based on his dessert a couple of years ago).
While fancy techniques and technology feature in many courses, the thread that ties the whole experience together is much simpler than the use of a sous-vide machine (though Joan happens to have co-authored a book on the topic, Sous-Vide Cuisine): a whiff of vanilla; the wafting spicy warmth of clove; the literal presentation of the lemony cone; aromas that speak as loudly as the tastes that come after them, setting the tone for the table, offering a prelude of what’s to come, signifying symphonic tastes or jarring combinations.
Aromas aren’t just a nifty afterthought for the Roca brothers, who use their noses to guide them from start to finish in conceptualising dishes. “Well, we have that nose that’s very developed,” jokes sommelier and middle sibling Josep, gesturing towards his roomy nostrils, a family feature. For the man in charge of executing pairings, and particularly the star of this show more here with The Macallan, scents and smells are
but a natural kick-off point, and not just when working with wines or alcohol. “It’s a very important part of the kitchen. All our dishes are very much to do with emotions, so we try to look all the time for smells, because it works with the dishes well,” he says.
Whisky, he divulges, is no easy spirit with which to partner, but The Macallan does hold a special place in his heart (turns out the first gift he was given by the woman who’s now his wife was a bottle of the single malt). The difficulties are mainly to do with “textures and intensity of flavours,” he says. “Everything we use needs to have that intensity of flavours because whisky is very intense.”
As whisky maker for The Macallan, Dalgarno further distilled the flavour-selection process. “I think sweet vanilla came through, lots of citrus fruits came through, crispy bacon as well. They also looked for some of the root notes – some of the slightly earthy notes and the unusual notes you wouldn’t usually see. We think [we tasted] about 300 [whiskies], but it could be upwards of a thousand casks that were looked at.”
We don’t have hundreds of casks at our fingertips, but we do have a few samples of the various drams to pair with the dishes. Take the goose à la royale with hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamia and vanilla, sandalwood, air of earth, clove, vanilla, aji and gentian. It’s a mouthful to say, and a complex combination whose chief flavours are derived from an intensely flavoured bird and a sauce that packs punch. But paired with the crown jewel in The Macallan stable, the elusive “M”, the dish evolves: spices are slowly drawn out, the salt level is tempered, the individual characteristics of each ingredient rear their heads.
We taste a total of six of the courses, plus two desserts, and within this condensed oeuvre already the breadth and culinary scope are impressive: a corn and vanilla ravioli brings out the sweetness in a cask-strength 2007 aged in sherry oak. A Macallan-steamed langoustine comes with a soup made from langoustine head, with candied wood fibre that brings out a freshness and woodiness in a sherry-cask-aged 1986, a favourite of Josep’s. And the unusual juxtaposition of fish and whisky – a sturdy turbot with a 1998 – works surprisingly well, the dish an altered version of one we’ve had the evening before, with some of the more acidic sauce streaks removed. A sheep’s-milk toffee dessert that’s heavier in alcohol content de-emphasises the strength of a 2007, bringing out the spices and smooth toffee finish of the whisky.
“I think what the guys have done,” enthuses Grier after the lunch, “which is very rare and difficult – many cocktail barmen find it difficult to mix with whisky because it’s quite complex and quite strong – but I think what Josep has done is really stretch our thinking about the combinations that are possible. I think he’s done something quite remarkable, which is to deconstruct the whisky and to choose the elements that are really crucial, and to create dishes that are inspired by that. And that’s why it’s a totally holistic tasting experience. I think that, to me, is different to anything anyone has ever done with liquor and food.”
To make a reservation for one of the six El Celler de Can Roca/The Macallan dinners, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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