Dining options in the Priorat are somewhat limited and each town offers only one or two places that are really worth stopping at for more than just beer and good company. Siurana has Els Tallers; Cornudella has Al Toll and Refugi, Poboleda has La Terrasseta and El Cau. And then, of course, there’s La Venta. I was lucky enough to visit some of the better restaurants of Poboleda and Falset and I enjoyed the occasional “local haute” as a supplement to the grilled rabbit and escalivada that became my bread & butter during the months spent living there. Perhaps the two most sought-after meals are still at Celler de l’Aspic in Falset or at Els Brots in Poboleda. The latter is run by Chef Pieter Truyts; Belgian native, Catalan transplant and all around great guy. When asked about his inspiration he describes cooking as his “love, life and destiny.”
Pieter’s culinary style revolves around preparing everything from locally sourced, raw ingredients in house, often recreating local dishes with his own modern twist. And while a majority of his ingredients come from the bountiful terroir that surrounds the Priotari town, his technique results from quite the impressive resume that includes a slew (7) of Michelin rated restaurants, including one-starred Grand Ecuyer in Cordes-sur-Ciel, France, two-starred Het Fornuis in Antwerp and three-starred Comme Chez Soi in Brussels. After eight years as Executive Chef of award-winning, one Michelin Can Bosch in Cambrils he moved to the quiet Priorat town of Poboleda to open his own restaurant. And he named it after the Catalan word for the fresh buds that sprout from grape vines in the spring. Pieter’s wife Silvia Puig, formerly the enolog of Puig Priorat, runs her own project called En Números Vermells, vinifying her grapes in the Priorat town of Torroja nearby. The menu varies seasonally and is carefully paired with a well-curated selection of Priorat wines. The experience is just not complete without a glass of Grenache.
It tends to be the case that by the time the mains arrive to the table everyone is fat and happy, having filled up on Truyt’s crafty hors d’oeuvres. There are pâtés of this and that, sharp chèvre paired with vegetal sweet sauces and mounted on toast, bite-sized delights.
Squares of crunchy curry toast topped with a block of my beloved butifarra negra (blood pudding); pieces of candied pineapple on top to curb the metallic funk of the mineral meat. The sausage is made in house and is the perfect little bite at the start of the meal.
His croquetas are by far the best in town. They’re made with real bread crumbs, flaky and fried to a perfect golden brown. When bitten into they ooze forth creamy béchamel dyed black with squid ink or jamón ibérico or whatever Truyts is into that week.
If there’s one must-order at Els Brots it’s octopus, however it’s done. One way is a simple grilled preparation, paired with fennel and curry cream. Truyts freezes the animal whole for about 2 weeks before cooking it, allowing it to tenderize before slicing in. The octopus turns out heavenly soft with a very thin layer of char on the outside which goes beautifully with the pungent curry and the delicate slices of fennel paired along with it.
One of the most signature pairings for Pieter’s grilled octopus is quinoa with roasted and peeled tomato. Another perfectly tender, juicy, meaty piece of octopus tentacle is lain on a mound of quinoa soaked in a bit of good local olive oil. I had this as an appetizer on a different day. It was light in body and mild in flavor; a perfect start to the meal.
Yet another octopus preparation of Truyts’s is grilled and served on a bed of creamy risotto speckled here and there with peeled tomato and light shavings of cheese over the top. There was some sort of meaty jus on the bottom that added extra flavor and lubricated the already very moist and smooth rice. The tentacles in this one were perfect yet again: some thicker pieces and some thinner ones but all equally tender and sweet, with only a hint of char.
One of my favorites of Chef Truyts’s creations is a dish with mackerel, veal tongue and a delicate carrot puree. The fish is smoked in house, which gives it a fantastic flavor that is enough to stand up to the oiliness of the flesh. The tongue is impeccably tender, glazed with a slightly sweet sauce that makes the caramelized exterior pop. Pools of carrot puree give the dish a very mild vegetal dulzor that calms the powerful flavors of both fish and meat.
Hands down the best dish I’ve had at Els Brots is a slippery smooth fillet of eel cooked to perfection and served in a rich, creamy sauce with local mushrooms sauteed until caramel brown. The fish is like velvet on the tongue, melting helplessly against its surface. The thin layer of skin is glossy and smooth, but not excessively giggly or fatty as I was expecting. And the flesh falls apart into tender flakes that are fantastically savory and satisfying. They are delicate yet firm enough to stand up to the luxurious sauce. A marine taste is present but curbed by the woodsy funk of the mushrooms also cooked to the perfect texture. There’s no crunchy contrast in this dish but one doesn’t miss it. Each bite is a welcome gift to the senses.
Another cool dish is the tripa de bacalao or salted cod tripe cooked in a creamy sauce and topped with fresh herbs and chives. I remember this one being far less chewy or innardsy than I expected, though the sauce was a bit heavy for my taste.
My first time at Els Brots I ordered the house made blood sausage, which uses plenty of Priorat red wine to flavor it and give it its ominous color. It’s a simple dish but the filling is perfectly moist and juicy. The casing snaps pleasantly when bitten into. The sausage is lain on a bed of potato and onion hash cooked crunchy and caramelized, with the occasional burnt bit adding the perfect hint of bitterness.
For having such a small kitchen, Chef Truyts conducts quite a few experiments when it comes to his cuisine. A few weeks ago he mentioned having a few chickens marinated in brandy and wrapped in pigs bladders in his storage and curing area in the basement. En vessie refers to cooking something in a pig’s bladder, a method invented by the French centuries ago and considered one of the forerunners to sous vide cooking. Perhaps the most well known dish prepared this way is Poularde de Bresse en Vessie, in which a chicken is stuffed with foie gras and truffles before being wrapped into a bladder and poached in chicken stock. The chicken cooks indirectly. Since it doesn’t come in contact with the stock, the meat doesn’t lose any of its own juices. In fact, when the dish is served cold, those juices solidify into a gelatinous aspic that adds an interesting layer of texture. At Els Bros, the chicken doesn’t get the full foie & truffle treatment, only a bit of brandy to add a round flavor. It’s more about the texture – incredibly smooth and soft, almost but not quite to the point where I can enjoy it as meat (I don’t eat chicken). It’s served with a thick, creamy sauce of local mushrooms poured over the top as well as some zucchini and crushed potatoes to soak the cream up. The dish is great from the perspective of a food history geek, though not one of the best dishes I’ve had there. Then again, it’s tough to wow me with chicken.
Creativity certainly extends to the sweet selection, which never ceases to surprise. A big fan of local Priorat olive oil, Truyts incorporates this ingredient in nearly all of his dessert dishes, finishing sweet with a the vegetal twist of the oil. One of his more popular signatures is a parmesan ice cream with chocolate crumbles drizzled with olive oil.
My personal favorite is his confit candied tomato, which is filled with a tangy, cool raspberry sorbet and sat in a pool of natural goat yoghurt and olive oil. A strange dish by the looks of it but one in which sweet, savory and vegetal harmonize perfectly. Not to mention the presentation – just a tomato on its vine – that makes the dish hard to forget.
Baked apple, paper thin flakes of white chocolate, toasted hazelnut. Sprinkled with pepper and a tiny bit of oil drizzled on. Deceptively simple but very well thought out. A light and relatively healthy dessert I would just as soon have for breakfast. Daily.
Truyt’s coffee-side petit fours include bite-sized chocolate brownie corks and a crunchy cookie made with Speculoos, that addictive cookie butter flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper. There are also these neat packages of edible paper filled with a kind of sweet paste made with Priorat wine. A clever way to echo back to the original focus of the menu, one which highlights many of the local ingredients of Priorat and its neighboring Cambrils.