Catalunya is known for a few things; their food scene is clean and un-messy, their football is all about being Messi, and that they are a proud, proud region that clutches their culture, culinary or otherwise, close to their chest.
And they have good reason to do so. Ferran Adriá is perhaps the most famous culinary export of a region that is remarkable for the diversity of its geography, and it was all put up on show at 022’s Catalan food festival. Just as no one sees the Spanish inquisition coming, there was little warning that the Catalan circus had rolled into town. But it had, and it cooked up a bit of a storm.
As someone who has been a regular at the Trident range of hotels since 2001, Chef Jordi is well versed with the ways of the Indian diner, including the need to adapt old favourites to suit the tastes of a region a world removed from his. There are similarities in the way that Indian and Spanish palates love their tomato and garlic; other than that, it can be said that east is east and west is west, and it is a bit difficult for the twain to meet.
The pair of paellas that are brought to us first are ample demonstration of that. One of them was served up sans any meats while the other was a paella boasting the more traditional seafood with bits of chicken thrown in for good measure.
The rice was done just al dente and was thoroughly enjoyable in either version, a testament to the fact that Chef Jordi had honed this dish over several visits. The crunch of the prawns was replicated by myriad vegetables in the veg paella, although scooping the mussels out of its comfort zone was a joy only the carniwhores among us got to enjoy. Simple and fragrant thanks to the slightest dose of saffron, yet complex enough to please, the paella was a winner through and through.
Among the simpler joys on the evening were a simple sliver of Parma ham on a bed of crostini and tomato and some prawns slathered in a butter garlic sauce. While the smoky nuttiness of the cold cut meant it could be enjoyed in itself (and I did partake of the pleasure of its company later), the butter garlic prawns would be instantly recognisable to anyone that has gorged on enough seafood. The zesty, humble flavours on offer were lapped up quickly and quietly, a silent vote of confidence for the fare served up to us.
The party piece for the evening came dressed in a little black number and looked ready to shake a leg at short notice. The Fideuà, as it was called, swapped the rice for vermicelli and bathed it in black squid ink for good measure. Mussels broke the starkness of the culinary landscape and it was a dish unlike anything you would get here. The Chef insisted we grab some along with the mayonnaise on offer, and you always listen to the Chef! What I got with each mouthful was the mild brininess that only served to complement the flavours of the sea, although I have to say it was something of an acquired taste, and I have some acquiring yet to do.
More than the Fideuà, where the Catalan Fest really caught me off guard was the love with which it treated poultry. I’m not a big fan of chicken and it’s fairly low down the food pyramid for me when it comes to protein, but the juicy tenderness of it served as a pleasant surprise, be it in the Catalan Chicken or in the Calamari Chicken (which was a Catalonian take on the typical surf ‘n’ turf). Perhaps it was the use of Catalonia’s local spice picada (based on ground almonds and other ingredients, such as garlic, parsley, nuts and breadcrumbs, to suit each dish) that elevated the chicken, but I don’t recall enjoying chicken this much in recent times, hand on heart.
The standout dish for me though were the churros. Each of these crumbly delights were sheathed in powdered sugar, which was a joy in itself, but pairing it with the accompanying chocolate sauce is where the magic really was. Bittersweet, spicy and with a hint of cinnamon, it was good enough to have all by itself and you better believe that we polished every last one of those babies from the buffet. The rush I got from devouring these was akin to the feeling I’d get after driving a sporty car through a twisty set of asphalt roads, and that’s very high praise in case you’re wondering what I’m smoking.
Of the other desserts, the poached pears with creamed rice stood out with its complexity, even if I didn’t fully appreciate its nuances. In particular, the hit of spiciness that came through really made the eyes pop. The Cremacatalana (a Spanish style creme brûlée) was all honeydew and sunshine, but I wish the crackling of caramelised sugar was more prominent. In all, it was fitting that churros ne dil chura diya, with this being a Catalan fest and all that.
Spain might be an ocean and some ways away, but Spanish food fests such as this are the best way to get a slice of the Spanish slice of life. 022 always has something like this cooking, so something tells me I’ll keep an eye out for more such themed culinary carnivals in the days to come. After all, if the horse can’t go to the water, why not enjoy it when it’s brought to you? It seems the sensible thing to do.