WRITTEN IN NOVEMBER, 2014 IN PRIORAT, SPAIN
I haven’t been to too many restaurants in the past month but I’ve been eating well for the most part. On some days it’s defrosted ragout dumped over still quite crunchy pasta cooked on a stove whose gas source doubles as a hot water heater for the shower. Other days its wild boar roasted over open fire with a savory root veg puree accented with locally foraged herbs. I live in the countryside. Not too much happens during the week. On weekends, however, our masia swells with people from all over and they bring with them countless unique perspectives on the dreamlike place in which we live. Chefs bring the fun. They come from all over and cook using local ingredients sourced from Priorat producers bestowed with nicknames like “Cornudella butcher,” “Escaladei baker” or simply “the goat guy.” They only have a day or two before the event to soak in the venue: an abandoned construction site, a tented precipice atop rows of vines, a 12th century monastery, a barrel room. They must balance ambition with realism in planning to cook here.
A few weeks ago Chef Jocky Petrie flew in to cook lunch. Having reviewed his bio, his was a meal I was anticipating. Perhaps most well known for his former role as Head of Creative Development for The Fat Duck in London (3 Michelin, 9 years on the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list), Jocky has also directed dish and menu development for all of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants, including 2 Michelin starred Dinner in London. He’s contributed to quite a few culinary publications and has been a judge on BBC’s MasterChef, MasterChef Australia and Top Chef Finland. (Apparently Top Chef is big in Finland.) He is currently Head of Development at the 2 Michelin The Ledbury in London. My first interaction with Jocky was while sweating and panting pathetically as I jogged across a terrace of vines on the morning of his arrival. I waved up to him as he and his sous chef scoped out the location. My second was this meal.
It started with blistered padrón peppers sprinkled with bottarga, a fusion of Mediterranean flavors. The peppers were wonderfully plump little pouches of vegetal freshness that turned sweet around caramelized edges. Soft here, crunchy there, with a savory little nub of seeds near the stem. The briny bottarga was a clever replacement for sea salt, bringing a murky, cured funk that added another layer of flavor to the dish. I still haven’t encountered “the hot one” rumored to exist in each pile of these peppers, but some day….some day. Jocky’s gazpacho was a vibrant, colorful thing that turned out to be everyone’s favorite. Tomato-based and creamy, the soup was spotted here and there with leafy green drops of herb oil, fresh mint and glossy smooth slices of ripe peach that hugged the tongue tenderly. Usually I’m not a big fan of adding sweet fruit to something classically savory, and peaches (along with pineapples) are commonly abused by chefs who can’t find the harmony. But in this case it worked nicely, because the peach offered more in terms of floral notes than sticky sweetness to the soup. Lain over the top of the bowl was a brochette of prawns and velvety soft local mushrooms, both grilled to softness with smoky char licking the seafood here and there. A carpaccio of fresh scallop was tastefully paired with thin slices of radish that seemed painted on. Delicate slivers of scallop melted against my tongue, making for a firm bite when folded against itself. The radishes brought an earthy, smart zing while the oil drizzled over provided an infusion of vegetal flavor. The fennel flower was perhaps too generously applied to this dish, an easy error for those not accustomed to the extremely potent herbs that grow in the mountainous desert of the Priorat, where flavors become concentrated for lack of water. Rubbing the smooth surface of the carpaccio with one of these flowers would’ve imparted more than enough flavor. Left whole, it attacked the otherwise completely harmonious marriage of scallop and radish with the oily, sharp flavors of anise. Next up, some pork from a butcher in the nearby town of Alforja, pulled apart into tender ribbons of steaming, soft flesh. A generous portion of it was scooped onto a flaky brioche bun, topped with ripe avocado and bright pink slivers of pickled onion. Then a fluffy, white sesame and caraway seed speckled brioche bun to hold it all in. I unhinged my jaw like some kind of prehistoric predator and wrapped my lips around the soft bread before my fangs could sink into the soft package of meat. The bottom slice had already soaked in the savory jus, which was touched with the warm, autumnal comfort of cinnamon and clove. The slightly soapy, clean taste of the butter-smooth avocado went beautifully with all this and the creamy, smooth consistency did more for the texture of each bite than any dairy product could have done. The zing and crunch of the onion helped wake up the palate from all those delicate ingredients. Next came a shaved fennel salad with chives and some Parmesan sprinkled on. A fresh, healthy crunch dominated this dish and a diluted anise zing lingered on the palate. The zebra striped strands were bound by just a touch of oil, which also glued the fresh chive to the surface. Surely great with anything on a sweltering hot summer day. Grilled beets rubbed in oil and sprinkled with Maldon were served on a bed of charred vine leaves that yours truly had helped forage the day before. When asked what varietal they had preferred (“Grenache leaf, or Merlot perhaps?”) the kitchen didn’t seem to care too much. The beets were perfectly tender; teeth glided smoothly through them and were dyed a deep purple to match wine stained lips. Mineral and sweet like fresh bull’s blood, with the salt bringing the rich root flavors out even more and the oil rehydrating the occasional dried out corner. The aesthetics of this dish extended to fashion, with colors reminiscent of a perfectly coordinated autumn outfit. And then a chilled salad of green beans with slivers of toasted almond and a kind of foie snow achieved with liquid nitrogen. This may have been a clever play on the classic green bean casserole, though foie and almonds are for sure an upgrade from cream of mushroom soup and french fried onions, respectively. Each bite was pleasantly busy in texture. Though buried under a generous amount of toppings, the beans maintained their snap and were a nice bright green in both color and flavor. The almonds complemented the smoky flavors of the goose liver cream, adding great intrigue to the plain vegetal sweetness of the beans. Also on the table were some grilled tentacles of octopus and Jocky’s signature salad of endive with deep fried walnuts and bay leaf honey. A lot, maybe even too much, to choose from. The perfect array of light, summery sides to accompany a very well done version of a classic pulled pork sandwich. It’s a rare treat indeed to remove the chef from the restaurant that claims him and leave him to his own devices in an environment that is not particularly conducive to the type of cooking to which he he might be accustomed. The hot sun beams down hard, melting and loosening and pulling steam from everything. Flies buzz loud and unrepentant, selfishly sampling each dish before it arrives at the table. There’s no Sous Vide Supreme or even an oven most of the time and it’s enough to send some chefs into a fine frenzy. Despite a background heavy in molecular gastro Chef Petrie persevered, produced a meal that was smart, simple and delicious on the top of a hill.