Dishes infused with the essence of distilled soil and the extracted aroma of old books. A dessert inspired by a Lionel Messi goal.
Joan Roca is known for creativity, innovation and precision and it's reflected in the many accolades for his restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, including twice topping the World's 50 Best Restaurants list (2013 and 2015) and maintaining three Michelin stars every year since 2009.
But the 54-year-old father of two is also an expert, author and lecturer on the cuisine of Catalonia, the semi-autonomous region in Spain's north-east that has been in the headlines recently over independence tensions.
Brothers Jordi, Josep and Joan opened their Girona restaurant in 1986, next door to the restaurant they grew up in, Can Roca, which was owned and run by their parents. They have since moved down the road, but Roca's passion for home remains strong.
"Girona is the most beautiful city in the world. It's got about 2000 years' worth of history and its old town is really well-preserved," he says.
What sets Catalonian cuisine apart?
Catalonia is pretty rich, geographically speaking. It's very close to the Mediterranean, it's known for its proximity to France and also the many civilisations that have over the years left their own cultural footprint, including different ways of cooking.
And how is that represented in the food?
It's very diverse, rich, complex and ultimately baroque. We mix different types of cooking with products from the land but also from the sea. These mix in a saucepan where we also mix salty and sweet products. For example, we cook lots of meat with fruits. Our way of preserving food comes from the Arabs and, also, we have the legacy of Romans and Greeks. In the 14th and 15th century, Catalonia was also witness to the arrival of Italians who brought all these different species and made it a rich region when it came to trade and spices.
The quintessential Catalonian dish?
One dish that would represent that baroque way of cooking would be one including a "picada" sauce that combines a saute of onions and tomatoes with garlic, parsley and saffron. We also mix chicken with shrimps or crayfish, which we call mar i muntanya or "sea and mountains" (the Basque equivalent of surf and turf).
You travel often – what's the dish you come home to eat?
I love eating so it's difficult to choose one. But there's a rice dish (not Valencian paella, which is cooked further in the south) that is more of a soupy broth. You can eat it at my mum's restaurant in Girona, Can Roca, on Thursdays. Her restaurant is very close to mine. Another place you can eat it is Toc Al Mar, a very casual beach bar on the Costa Brava.
What other restaurants do you recommend in Catalonia?
In Barcelona there's a high-end place called Tickets that belongs to Albert Adria. It's a very fun, creative restaurant where they prepare tapas in a very modern style. I also like Disfrutar, which is a creative fine dining restaurant and, near Girona, there's also a place opened by young people who trained at our restaurant and they're doing very well – it's called L'Alianca in the town of Angles. For something less expensive try Gresca, in Barcelona. They cook really well and also have a bar with very well-made tapas and a good, broad selection of natural wines. They cook offal particularly well.
Do you have a favourite tapas?
If I had to just mention one, I like the traditional tapas. Catalonia adapted what the Andalusians brought when they migrated in the 1960s very well. Andalusians were used to frying a lot, so one speciality I would highlight is a tapas consisting of small fried fish. In Catalan it's called peix fregit.
What wine should visitors to Catalonia try?
I'd recommend a wine from the Emporda,a region in Girona that is producing really good wines at the moment. A red wine I particularly like is Finca Garbet 2001, a blend of 85 per cent syrah and 15 per cent cabernet sauvignon. The vineyards are down by the sea, the landscape is stunning and the grapes are a reflection of that stunning landscape and light.
Barcelona is known for its bar scene. Where do you go?
I don't usually have time to go out to bars in Barcelona but in Girona there's a cocktail bar I like called Nykteri's. It's got a different atmosphere to those Barcelona party bars.
What about Catalonian desserts?
There's crema catalana and in Girona there's xuxo, a brioche with filo pastry and a bit of cream inside, which is deep-fried. Also, try Escriba, which is a sweet shop in Barcelona and there's a dessert-only restaurant there, too, called Espai Sucre. You should also visit my brother Jordi's ice-cream shop Rocambolesc in Girona, Barcelona or Madrid – the ice-creams are based on desserts developed at our restaurant.
What about spirits? Is there something Catalonians like to sip after a meal?
Yes, it's called ratafia, a liquor that is made after marinating herbs and it's very typical in Girona. You'll find it everywhere here.
Is there a big coffee culture in Girona?
Most people drink espresso coffees made on an espresso machine. My favourite cafe here is called Blend. It's run by an Italian guy who I think makes the best coffee in Girona.
Finally, where do you take visitors for a really Catalonian experience?
In Girona I would take them to a place called Plaça del vi 7, which has a really great selection of natural wines, or in Llagostera I would take my guests to a particularly Catalonian place called Bell-Lloc, which serves well-made, traditional Catalonian cuisine. The chef here has revived old Catalonian cuisine from the old folks – it's very authentic food.
Joan Roca was in Melbourne as a guest of the Estrella Damm Gastronomy Congress in October 2019.
Can Roca, Ctra. de Taiala, 42, 17007, Girona
Toc al Mar, Girona, tocalmar.cat
Tickets, Barcelona, elbarri.com/en/restaurant/tickets
Disfrutar, Barcelona disfrutarbarcelona.com
Restaurante Gresca, Carrer de Provença, 230, 08036 Barcelona
Nykteri's Cocktail Bar, Girona, nykteriscocktailbar.blogspot.com
Escriba, Barcelona, escriba.es
Espai Sucre, Barcelona, espaisucre.com
Rocambolesc Ice-Cream, Girona, rocambolesc.com
Blend, Plaça de Catalunya, 21, 17002 Girona
Plaça del Vi 7, Plaça del Vi, 7, 17004 Girona
Restaurant Bell-lloc Mas de la Musiqueta, Girona, restaurantbell-lloc.com/ca
L'Aliança d'Angles, Girona, alianca1919.com