An evening in Catalunya
Florian Porsche marinated the leg of lamb in olive oil, rubbed some salt and popped it into his spacious oven, basting it generously with limejuice.
That was it.
Indian cooking only rarely tends towards minimalism. But I was in Catalunya in northern Spain, being reminded there is a lot to be said for fresh ingredients and simple food. Less than an hour later, Florian presented the leg of lamb — succulent and quite delicious — as part of a four-course dinner.
I spent two days at a country home called Cal Ruget where Florian, his wife Veronica and beagle brothers Unox and Urox host guests and treat them to food that marries the couple’s 20 years of diverse international hospitality experience with the traditional meats, sausages, cheeses and vegetables of Catalunya, a Spanish region with French influences, open skies and rolling acres of vineyards.
Unsurprisingly, my 15-day trip to Spain involved a lot of wine. From humblest tavern to railway station to park kiosk, a decent bottle is available for less than Rs 200. Since it is so deeply ingrained in Spanish culture, wine is liberally used in food and, of course, with food.
Florian, a genial German, did all the cooking, and Vernonica, a precise, fastidious Catalan, served most meals, apart from keeping a house where guests are encouraged to feel at home, borrow music or books, swim in their pool, ramble through their vegetable patch or walk down the mostly empty country roads.
With the dogs curled up in a corner of the kitchen, Florian explained to me how he sets out every morning to get his meat from local suppliers. My trip to Catalunya taught me how you cannot overestimate the quality of meat and fish.
Let me admit that I prefer the way we make our fish on the Konkan — bursting with spice and obvious flavours. Still, I ate a lot of ultra-fresh fish in Spain (apart from rabbit, oxtail and lamb) and was inspired on my return to attempt their minimalist style.
In the West, they always say top-quality meat reveals its own flavour; you don’t need spices, sauces and curries. Over the years, my spice-addled taste-buds have partially succeeded in adopting this philosophy. One meal of roasted rabbit — spiced with nothing more than salt and olive oil — in Catalunya was particularly memorable. The Spaniards do use a reasonable amount of spices though. Nowhere was this more evident than in the paellas: Seafood pulaos really, with fish, squid, clams cooked together with the rice, spices and saffron.
In Cal Ruget, a 40-minute train-ride from Barcelona to the town of Villafranca and a 20-min taxi ride from there into the country, I enjoyed watching Florian craft his food every day. One crisp evening (day temperatures were around 17 deg C; nights were 5 deg C) he let me help a bit. I chopped onions and made a salad dressing, drops in the ocean of food he turned out.
Back in broiling Delhi, I headed eagerly to the market to buy fresh fish and try in earnest my renewed appreciation of natural flavours. The result is below. How did it turn out? Well, after sweating it out at 45 deg C that day, it was all a sweaty blur. If you try it, let me know.
Fish with cognac and saffron sauce
1 thick fillet of fish, preferably white and flaky with skin intact, 150-200 gm (I used tilapia, but I don’t recommend it; you can try kingfish, or surmai, sole and pomfret)
For the sauce:
3 tbsps cognac (I used Hennessey, to my wife’s horror) or wine
2 tsp olive oil
6-7 saffron threads, soaked in 2 tbsp warm milk
2 large garlic pods with skin, cleaved in half
1 green chilly split
2 tbsp fish stock
Pat dry fillet of fish. Rub salt all over. Poach fish, or fry in a little olive oil, removing just before it is fully done. Reserve liquid, or, if frying, use fish stock (boil some fish heads in water)
Heat olive oil gently in a saucepan. Fry garlic for a minute or two. Add fish stock, stir. Keep heat at minimum. Add cognac, stir for 30 seconds. Add milk with saffron. When sauce starts to bubble, gently add fillet. Spoon sauce over fish. Turn and repeat till done. Remove fish and set on plate. Pour the sauce over.