Columnist Howard Chua-Eoan talks independence and Castilian nomenclature in Barcelona with legendary chef Ferran Adrià.
I have written about how anxious I become whenever Ferran Adrià comes to New York and there is even the slightest possibility that I may have to take him to dinner—or advise him where to go. I can assure you that Ferran suffers no such nervousness when I visit him in Barcelona.
On a Saturday in Barcelona at the beginning of October, he has me meet him at Tickets—the funhouse tapas bar that he and his brother Albert started in the city’s old theater district. Then, after a quick whirl through that place and Albert’s other venture, 41—the adjoining haute ticket in the foodie universe—we step across the street to Bodega 1900, a marvelous recreation of a turn-of-the-previous-century vermouth bar. Just about a month old, it is another of Albert’s restaurants—and another showcase for the idea that Ferran’s kid brother is the best cook—not just chef—in the world today. This is what passes for bar food at Bodega 1900—anchovies accompanied by spherical olives, tuna that has been cured like Spain’s great hams, jamon from the five-generation old purveyor Joselito that will make you weep unctuous tears. It all seems to have descended from the heaven occupied by elBulli—Ferran’s legendary restaurant that closed in 2011 but which lives on as a potent cultural icon for Catalonia, for Spain and for the world.
Ferran says, “We won’t eat too much here. We’re still going to dinner.”
And so we take another short walk to another of Albert’s restaurants, Pakta, his re-envisioning of Nikkei cuisine from South America. That already exotic hybrid, which emerged from more than a century of Japanese immigration to Peru, becomes transcendent in the hands of Albert and his team. Behold, a delicate, almost mystical broth brewed from the spine of a particular fish; nigiri topped not by seafood but by a paper thin slice of pork chin that somehow manages to retain a film of crisp crust from the grill; there are causas—the blobular Peruvian potato mash-ups—like no causa I have ever had in Peru, light and balanced and alluring but losing none of the joyfulness of the plump originals.
Oh, did I say Albert is planning to open up a Mexican restaurant early next year? It will be walking distance from all his other places. When that happens, you can go to a different Adrià restaurant five days in a row. You will need the two other days of the week to rest from the feasting. It’s not fair in the “where do we eat now” game when you have a brother with lots of restaurants.
Ferran believes he can bend the English language to his will.
Though the food is magnificent, we really don’t talk about the fare when we dine on Saturday and Sunday. (Oh, did I say that Ferran has disciples with restaurants in Barcelona? On Sunday, we eat at Bravo24, which is run by Ferran’s acolyte Carles Abellan.) The discussions center around the next incarnations of elBulli and Ferran’s increasingly clear and ambitious plans for the brand.
We argue in a friendly way over words and the translations of the words he is using for parts of the project. Ferran believes he can bend the English language to his will. One word he has always used in his books and will not budge on is “elaboration” as the translation of “elaboración.” Interpreters (including his wife Isabel who is listening and helping me with understanding her husband through our meals) would rather use “recipe.” Ferran will not have it. Lots of things have recipes, he says, even store-bought bread. An elaboration, as I understand it from Ferran’s soliloquies, is a higher calling: the personal act of creating a dish from several products. Some of the ingredients might already have recipes, other ingredients come straight out of nature. But the creative process transforms them, elaborates on them. It is not simply a recipe. This is the chef speaking from his experience as Creator. There is no fair way to win an argument with God.
I laugh away our differences. He laughs back, saying, “My problem is not with English. It is Spanish.” He admits that even his countrymen have trouble understanding him. I see the evidence from the look that occasionally appears on Isabel’s face every time a lengthy ramble emerges from Ferran at Formula 1 speed. She has always been his amanuensis. But she is now teaching him to use the record function on his iPhone to put down his thoughts as he speaks his mind.
This talk of Spain and language of course brings up the volatile question of Catalan independence. I had stepped into that cold war in Barcelona earlier in my trip when I was dining by myself and asked for a menu the wrong way at Paco Meralgo, a tapas bar at the intersection of Corsega and Muntaner. It was 10 p.m., the height of Spanish supper time, and a Friday night. There were perhaps 20 people waiting. But being alone, I got the odd seat available. As I was ushered in, the waiter asked if I wanted an English menu. Though I can understand Spanish, I took the path of least resistance and said “Yes.”
That turned out to be not just a mistake but a sociopolitical faux pas.
That turned out to be a mistake. I am familiar with the Spanish names for most dishes and so I was confounded by the translation. I had no idea what was on offer and so I asked for a menu in Spanish—“una carta en español, por favor.” That turned out to be not just a mistake but a sociopolitical faux pas. The waiter looked at me for half a second longer than was polite, turned to a co-worker and told him in Catalan to give me a menu in Castellano—that is, Castilian, the language most Americans recognize as Spanish. In his eyes, Castilian isn’t any more Spanish than Catalan, which is proudly its own language, with its own people—and with its own menu. The daily specials are written out in chalk in Catalan. His implied but invisible sneer: what exactly does being español mean?
It doesn’t help that the Catalan language was suppressed by the Bourbons—the ancestors of the current royal family—in the early 18th century; and that the dictator Francisco Franco did so too during his long reign in the 20th century. But Ferran doesn’t think that the movement is a matter of language, even though I notice more and more signs entirely in Catalan and without Castilian equivalents. He says everyone is bilingual here in Catalan and Castilian. And I hear it in Ferran’s Spanish—that is, his Castilian. As he shoots off a rapid-fire opinion, he substitutes the Catalan “ara” for the Castilian “ahora”—meaning “now.” His conversations with Isabel and others slip in and out of both languages.
On Sep. 11, Catalans formed a 250-mile human chain to press for independence
There is no constitutional way for Catalonia to leave its union with Spain. It would have to do so unilaterally which would rupture not just the half-millennium old idea of Spain but the very modern idea of Europe. Why leave your particular nation-state when the various constituent nation-states of the E.U. are meshing more and more into one Europe, a concept that Catalans embrace? Still, on September 11 of this year—the 299th anniversary of the defeat of the last great effort to wrest Catalonia’s freedom from the central government at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession—pro-independence Catalans formed a 250-mile human chain to press for their cause. Who knows what will happen on the 300th anniversary next year? All across Barcelona, Catalan flags are draped on apartment balconies and windows.
Ferran is very proud of being Catalan but he says he sees and sympathizes with both sides of the debate. His grandparents—just as Isabel’s—came from outside Catalonia. But he and his wife have grown up and prospered here; and I can tell that the history and heartbreak of the province—as well as its remarkable economic successes—resonate with them. He long ago changed his name from the Castilian “Fernando” that he was born with to the Catalan “Ferran” as did Albert from “Alberto.” But I still hear Ferran call his brother Alberto—as well as Albert. It is a strange, sensitive but still tenable situation: when two names can remain one person; and two words can both mean now.
Who says we are against Madrid? Why would we serve this in our restaurant?
Ferran believes a solution to this emotional issue could be a more rapid economic and financial integration of the European Union—perhaps sped by an American decision to deal with the leader of the European Commission rather than with individual heads of government like Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande or David Cameron. That way, there will no longer be nations and countries to speak of but regions within Europe with their own identities and autonomies. I’m not sure it is going to be that simple, even if that scenario occurs. And if it does, it has to happen really fast or else bad feelings will just fester.
For my part, I tell him that as a person born in a former Spanish colony—the Philippines—I find the idea of Spain breaking up to be ridiculous. He says that his friends and acquaintances from Latin America tell him the same thing. He tries to joke, pointing out a delicious offering at Bodega 1900: a calamari and aioli sandwich that is Albert’s take on a favorite snack in the capital of the country. “Who says we are against Madrid? Why would we serve this in our restaurant?” Still the quest for a separate Catalan nation, the intense sense of an explicitly Catalan soul, is at the heart of Catalan identity—though it is, so far, a quixotic quest, if I may use that adjective. But Catalonia too has been inseparable from the identity of Spain, ever since the country was united by the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, whose kingdom was composed, to a large part, of Catalonia. Isabella and Ferdinand. In Castilian, Isabela y Fernando. In Catalan, Isabel i Ferran.
[Top image: Ferran and Isabel after dinner. Photo by: Howard Chua-Eoan]