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In the Can

Part 17 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue

by Thor Iverson

27 October 2006 – Girona, Spain

The principal difficulty in Girona seems to be finding a place to park. After that, the city couldn’t be more welcoming. Or, in many cases, attractive; the colorful riverside houses are what guide books and amateur photographers focus on, but the older parts of the city are where the true beauty lies. The cathedral, in particular, is rather majestic, with a spiritually-lit interior (and a tightly-enforced ban on photography).

Having parked and touristed, we try to find our lunch destination. We’ve an address but neither a map nor a GPS, and are forced to navigate by hope as much as cartographic assuredness, yet the drive’s a pretty easy one. And yet…

[cathedral tomb]

The light at the end
[girona river]

Autumn river

Roll out the barrel
[street circles]

Circles & circles & circles again

El Celler de Can Roca – …and yet we’re confused. This is it? This? With a trio of smoking chefs on the bench out front, and a workaday clientele tucking into piled-high plates and carafes of wine?

Well, no. We’re looking for the next door to the right, a somewhat secretive but highly recommended restaurant that shares a name with its down-market neighbor. (NB: the restaurant has since moved, rendering some of what follows obsolete.) Even inside, we’re greeted by a vestibule rather than the expanse of a restaurant. This is most certainly a place that doesn’t embrace accidental dining.

We’re led to a table in the front, where they seem to have grouped most of the non-locals, and pretty soon they’re wheeling a pair of large wooden carts – they looked like sawed-off lecterns –in our direction. These are the wine lists…and yes, that word is plural by design, rather than finger-slip. Novel length tomes, with all the depth one would expect, but with a breadth one most definitely does not expect. In the mood for German riesling, for example? The list is expansive and very fairly-priced. In fact, while the Spanish selection is good (as one would expect), there might be even more excitement available elsewhere. And the prices are shockingly reasonable for a restaurant of this repute. That such a list is available anywhere in wine-producing Europe is beyond a surprise, it’s actually a bit of a shock; many starred restaurants play at this sort of pan-regionalism, but apart from the big names every list must have (Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc.), they mostly do no more than dabble. Can Roca is serious, and lists that must have the support of four wheels and elaborate carpentry are the result.

Gaillard 1999 Côte-Rôtie “Rose Pourpre” (Rhône) – Very aromatic, but it’s not all the violet-infused terroir…it’s the wood, as well, which is still hovering and expansive, though signs of its eventual integration are apparent. Beef-tinged earth does not detract from an overall elegance, but there’s reticence as well, and many veils yet to be penetrated. This has many, many years to go. It’s a modern-inflected wine, for sure, but it’s not wholly New World. Rather, it attempts to straddle the line, and whether or not one responds to it depends, I suppose, on one’s tolerance for wood with syrah.

Understated, even minimalist décor is in direct contrast to the cuisine, which is spectacularly inventive, yet rendered with a classicist’s eye. Where there’s modernism and molecularity, it’s integrated into the dish rather than a featured element, and it would be entirely possible to enjoy a meal here without conceiving of the culinary adventurousness at work in the kitchen. Service is flawless, though – as has been true elsewhere in Cataluña – it moves at a fairly rapid pace. My dining companion calls it a Porsche rather than a Rolls, and it’s an apt analogy, though the pace is somewhat quelled at the end of the meal.

Over glasses of cava (refilled as we muse), we study the culinary options. But there’s really no choice, after all…the tasting menu it is. We’re here to experience, not to demand. And so the dishes, exquisite in both taste and construction, roll by. Sweet wine arrives, unasked-for, with the foie gras course (seemingly de rigueur in these parts) decorated with figs. Some plates are focused bursts of complexity and cohesion, others are like palate cleansers in their bright simplicity.

Toro Albalá 2003 Pedro Ximénez (Montilla-Moriles) – Caramel, brown sugar, and motor oil. Very sticky and ungodly sweet, even beyond the wine’s usual clutch and pander, and almost impossible to clear from one’s palate. I mean, it’s incredibly impressive, and I guess accomplished in the sense that it is unquestionably achieving what it sets out to achieve, but…

Perhaps my favorite dish is called “chromotherapy,” not because its flavors are surpassing – though they’re pretty spectacular – but because the monochromatic notion is put to such clever use in a series of desserts, non-desserts, and accompaniments that manage to cohere into a fabulously different conception of what dessert can be. It’s edible genius.

After a brief consultation, brandy appears alongside truly excellent coffee…rich, strong but not biting, and complex, like some hybrid of espresso and press coffee, with the power of the former but the balance of the latter.

Lepanto Pedro Ximénez Brandy de Jerez “Solera Gran Reserva” (Jerez) – Like a hotter, drier version of the (in)famous wine, a mix of caramels and sugars with a spiced finish churned over stones. Interesting, though I think I prefer my brandies a little less overtly sweet.

A lengthy lunch makes a walk highly desirable, and Girona has more than enough attractions for an afternoon of same. There are sites, and there are lively streets full of pedestrian energy, and we spend time with both.


Don’t stair

OK, stair

Get the point?

Cobbled together

Collioure, France

After all that, dinner is out of the question. A little late-night wine isn’t…though in retrospect maybe it should have been.

Carreras “Masia Pairal Can Carreras” Garnatxa de l’Empordà Costa Brava Vi Dolç Natural (Cataluña) – Thin and watery. Burnt brown sugar. Wan as hell.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson.