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Catalan cuisine faces the future by returning to its roots

In recent years, Catalonias chefs have become renowned across Spain and around the world for their molecular gastronomy. But many chefs in the north-eastern region are now moving in a more traditional direction.

Nearly two years ago, the Epicurious food and dining website declared that Barcelona had, in its words, jumped the shark. Long known as a culinary leader for its regional chefs efforts at the forefront of the tapas movement and more widely acclaimed for advances in molecular gastronomy, the city and wider region had lost their creative juice, slowing under over-indulgence and over-exposure.

However, as the New Year arrives and the region struggles to figure out a path forward without the aid of its flagship of culinary innovation, Ferran Adris El Bulli, the local menu is showing new signs of life with a return to traditional staples delicious simplicity. Though, this being Catalonia, even the most traditional dishes cannot be served without a bit of a twist.

At the heart of this Catalan new wave is the same renewed emphasis on local and seasonally appropriate ingredients that has spurred locavore movements from Brooklyn to Sydney. This is not to suggest that the local markets that are scattered throughout every town and city in Spain have ever really faded from the gastronomical landscape. Or that Catalans have ever faltered in their appreciation of local, seasonal favourites, from Christmas sopa de galets and early spring calots to later spring snails and coca de San Juan in June. Instead, chefs and storeowners are rediscovering the value of the past in how they create their menus and stock their shelves.

In a product sense, this has meant a fresh spate of small, localized food stores opening across Barcelona, emphasizing locally produced items, from cheeses to preservative-free beer. Sure, many are simply delicatessens in a hipster guise or carniceras made glamorous with the addition of marble countertops. But far more are casting a spotlight on the value of recipes and simple products originating no more than a few miles from where they are sold. Cutting that distance still further are a wave of new delivery agreements with regional farms, offering small and large crates of local vegetables and fruits to city-dwellers and promising a far fresher alternative to the local supermarkets.

Still, the regions emphasis on finding something new in the tried and true can best be found in local eateries, including Albert Adris new pair of locales on Barcelonas Parallel. Having left the world of molecular gastronomy behind after his El Bulli shuttered in favour of creating a culinary think tank, the younger Adri brother has taken a step away from his traditionally progressive approach. Intent on creating what he called a “Bulli de Barrio,” Adri predicted a natural shift away from a scientific approach in favour of tradition.

A million truths

In ten years we’ve done more than in one hundred, he told Eater.coms Gabe Ulla in an interview about the opening of his new tapas, cocktails and tasting menu establishments, Tickets and 41 Degrees last year. We need to return to the essence, which is something I’m keeping in mind as I develop this and new projects. In cooking there are a million truths. There’s the one who does vegetarian food, the other that does seafood, and the one you’ve described is just another. At the end of the day, it comes down to what’s good and what’s bad, which the public decides.

In practice, this has meant more support for the regions local producers and 0km movement, promoting the idea of localized ingredients over non-seasonal items just because they can. Established locales like Origins promote their Catalan roots in full colour magazine menus, complete with maps describing each dish, piece by piece and modernized takes on traditional recipes. Mam i Teca and Allium both boast of working arrangements with regional farms to provide menus full of local products and craft wines and beers.

Taking the regions local focus on the basics back in time, Raimon Olivella has created an approach that lets two near-ancient texts guide the menu choices of his restaurant. Using Libre de Sent Sov 1324 and the Libre del Coch 1520 as foundational texts, Olivella has created Catalan-tasting menus that refer to the distant past while looking firmly ahead to the future.

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