Why a Spanish sojourn is simply irresistible
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Why a Spanish sojourn is simply irresistible

If you are in Madrid, give the legacies of Ferran Adria and Santi Santamaria a miss and eat simply

brunch Updated: Oct 22, 2016 19:22 IST
Madrid,Ferran Adria,Santi Santamaria
A busy street in Madrid (AFP)

At the start of this century, the world decided that Spain was the New France. Whereas France was boring, snobbish and stuffy, Spain was vibrant, artistic and full of innovation. So, French wine was dull, Spanish wine was under-rated. And French food was pretentious while Spanish food was cutting-edge.

I never quite bought the ‘New France’ staff but it received a powerful boost during the invasion of Iraq when much of America turned against the French (“cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to quote The Simpsons!). Spain was now not just the New France but the New Europe – the new home of culture, design etc.

Two figures were at the centre of the so-called Spanish Renaissance. The first was Ferran Adria whose El Bulli revolutionised restaurant cuisine. And the second was Santi Santamaria, Spain’s greatest chef of that era. Of the two, Santi received recognition first (three stars from Michelin, praise from the world’s great chefs, etc) but Adria was easily the more influential.

I interviewed Santi over a decade ago and he only needed a little prodding to start fulminating about Adria. Good food, he said, came from the earth, the soil and the terroir. It was nature’s gift to man. He was not against technology, he added. In fact, he was a scientist by training. But it was wrong to use science to pervert what nature had created and to pass it off as great cuisine.

Santi was a great bear of a man, volatile and excitable (even through an interpreter) and his passion carried the argument through; though it may have helped that there was wine being served at the lunch where I interviewed him.

Ferran Adria told me it suited the French to portray him as the mad scientist in the kitchen (AFP)

Ferran Adria, whom I interviewed some years later, was more circumspect in his views. He had the air of a man who was used to being attacked. He bristled at the use of the term “molecular cuisine” and said that it suited the French (who had very little respect for him – at least, initially) to portray him as the mad scientist in the kitchen because they could then dismiss his food. As for Santi’s criticism, that, he suggested, was just politics.

Santi is now dead. And Adria has closed El Bulli. But their essential battle about the nature of cuisine continues. My sense is that Adria won the battle – if you have ever been served a foam, a freeze-dried fruit or a sphere, then your meal has been influenced by El Bulli. But Santi may have won the war. There is a backlash against science-in-food and the current fashion in food (say Noma) owes more to Santi’s veneration of the earth than to Adria’s science.

What is clear, however, is that Spain is not the New France. It is just Spain. And that should be good enough. Even as memories of Santi and El Bulli fade, Spain still remains one of the world’s great destinations and the gastronomic centre has spread to other regions of the country: San Sebastian, for example.

Last fortnight, in Madrid, I was reminded of the fading legacies of the two greatest Spanish chefs of the early part of the century.

Paco Roncero is one of Spain’s best-known chefs and his Terraza del Casino has two Michelin stars. Roncero worked closely with Adria (who was a consultant to Terraza) and his food is sometimes regarded as a logical continuation of the El Bulli menu.

I had an incredibly disappointing meal at Terraza. Some of this was because of the surroundings. Ferran Adria’s brother runs Tickets in Barcelona, a wonderful restaurant which understands that the only way to make molecular cuisine work today is to focus on the fun aspects: surprise, innovation and the joy of discovery.

Sadly Terraza takes itself too seriously. It is a strange room – more like a gray corridor – on top of a private members club with a strict jackets-for-men policy and a solemn 23-course menu. Some of the old El Bulli classics are dusted over (the spherified olive, for instance) but the rest of the menu is gimmick after gimmick: a cold gazpacho ‘sandwich’ that hurts the teeth; butter made with caviar which destroys the tastes of both butter and caviar; a ‘garden’ of not very flavourful vegetables on a scientific ‘soil’; almond and lobster served cold enough to freeze the palate of an Inuit, etc etc.

Afterwards I wondered if the food was really that mediocre/bad or whether we had just got tired of molecular gastronomy. Is this how we would have reacted to El Bulli if Adria had kept going? Terraza now seems tiresome and trapped in a molecular time warp. I doubt if it deserves one star, let alone the two Michelin gives it.

Santi founded Santceloni (named after the town where his flagship restaurant used to be) but it has been run by Oscar Velasco since its opening. It got its two stars early, while Santi was still alive and still sticks to the food-of-the-soil philosophy that Santi used as a counterpoint to Adria’s science.

I thought the food was fine – tuna with fresh tomato, roast goat, etc – but it was by no means exceptional or even memorable. Perhaps Santi and his successors are stuck in their own time warp too. I doubt if even sentimental Michelin (which reveres the memory of Santi) will keep giving it two stars for much longer.

So where should you eat in Madrid? Well, there are some good fancy places. I enjoyed Club Allard (also two stars) but on the whole, I did not think that it was a city for haute cuisine. If, on the other hand, you want simple Spanish food, it is possible to eat very well for much less money.

I loved Albora, which has a buzzing tapas bar downstairs and a more ambitious restaurant (one star) upstairs. We had delicious steak tartare, crayfish with fresh green beans and to finish, caramelised bread pudding with cinnamon ice-cream.

The great meals came at the cheapest places. At a deceptively-simple looking restaurant called Asturianos in a downmarket part of Madrid, I ate and ate: chorizo cooked in cider, prawns with garlic, veal cheek slowly braised, fava bean stew with pork, fresh trompette mushrooms, morcilla sausage with scrambled egg and then a cheese-filled crème caramel.

Small restaurants – and the stalls at the tourist hub of Mercado de San Miguel – did not just provide the best value, they also served the best food. So, if you are going to Madrid, give the legacies of Adria and Santi – culinary Gods though they may once have been – a miss and eat simply.

Or, you can do what I finally did, I forgot about the food and soaked in the sheer elegance of Madrid. My hotel, the Villa Magna, in the centre of town, looks modern on the outside. But inside, there is an air of old-world refinement and class.

I don’t know how they worked out it was my wife’s birthday. I had not told them, so perhaps they noticed the date in her passport when I handed it to reception while checking in. But they went out of their way to make her day special, though I’m hardly a regular visitor and I doubt if they care very much about getting good press in India.

For me, the best part of all this was that it came relatively cheap. The Villa Magna is half the price of a comparable hotel in Paris (actually, less than half) and yet, service levels were higher and the luxury quotient was fabulous. That’s one of the advantages of Spain: it is incredibly good value.

I took an entire afternoon to appreciate the power of Picasso’s La Guernica (Getty Images)

And anyway, far from the disappointing Michelin star restaurants, the things I really enjoyed doing cost very little. I spent two days at the Prado museum staring in wonderment at paintings by Goya, Velázquez and others. I took a whole afternoon to fully appreciate the power of Picasso’s La Guernica.

And on Sunday afternoon, I wondered off to El Retiro, the garden that – for me – defines Madrid. To get some sense of its scale, it is four times the sizes of New York’s Central Park and about ten times of the size of Delhi’s Lodhi Garden. Because it is a public park, it is packed out with all kinds of locals: happy families; lovers, both gay and straight; cheerful old ladies; pensive elderly men and gambolling children. There are clowns, mimes, singers, bands and dancers. At one end is a lake over which stands one of the most beautiful monuments I have seen.

The deeper you go into the garden, the more amazing it gets. At one isolated part, I found groups of musicians practicing. One man, in particular, stands out in my memory.

He stood alone in the shade of a leafy tree coaxing notes out of a saxophone. He was not playing loudly; just exceptionally well. And no matter how far I went from him, I could still hear his plaintive sax.

For two hours on one magical afternoon, I listened to the saxophone as the sun lit up El Retiro.

And I knew I would come back to Madrid.

From HT Brunch, October 23, 2016

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First Published: Oct 22, 2016 18:51 IST