Many of those who go to Santiago de Compostela, capital of the Spanish region of Galicia, complete there their voyage of El Camino, the pilgrimage trail that stretches from the Pyrenees along Spain's Northern coast. Some do it in order to achieve a sense of accomplishment of the hard mission, some derived of true religious feelings, and some take it very easy and get spiritual elevation while visiting one or more of the culinary peaks which the road is full of.
My wonderful V. and I went to Galicia and Santiago to mark an end to a period of almost a year in which we moved between Rome and Barcelona, and it's still not clear to us what was it: an adventure, a trip, or maybe some kind of a dream and hallucination.
Once the destination was set, started the race to choose the place that will mark the peak of our voyage. Luckily I had the list of Spain's best 50 restaurants of 2018, according to El Confidencial, one of Spain's sharpest magazines. How happy I was to find among the usual suspects of Barcelona and its surroundings, San Sebastian region and Madrid, that Javier Olleros' Culler de Pau is one of the two restaurants who represent Galicia. The menu and photos from its website left no doubt - we would go there in order to wave Spain goodbye.
Olleros was born in Lucern of Switzerland, not too far from Galicia but very far from the defining concepts of Galicia on the Atlantic coast and especially O Grove ("Tip of the Elevated Terrain"), where Olleros' family came from. The land of O Grove is scorched by inlets (Rías, in Galician), bays and islands, land which is more water than land. Its majestic character seemed to let the people reside in, and they in return respect it and its produce.
In 2009 Olleros and his wife Amaranta Rodriguez opened Culler de Pau in a building standing on a winding road at the region's southwest. The squared and bright-white building stands somewhat in contrast to the lively curves of the way to the restaurant, the water channels and the grey stone that appears everywhere in Galicia. Yet being an anomaly in the view, the building - being neutral and "clean" - fits perfectly, doesn't disturb but very-well present. In an interview he gave in 2017 Olleros declared that two of the things he cannot work with are "unfunctionality and senseless". Well then, everything makes sense.
After handing over our trolleys we were seated in the bright and minimalist dining hall. Unlike other restaurants that wish to disconnect the patrons from the outside so they would be able to lead them in the restaurant's desired route, one of Culler de Pau's walls is wholly made of glass, through which you can see the sea and Galicia so the view becomes an equal partner to your experience.
The "Descuberta" menu is the extended tasting menu that counts 13 "official" plates, and as usual in such cases has many more surprises throughout the experience, almost twice as many here. "Descuberta" may be translated as "discovery", but also as "exposure", the exposure of Galicia to whoever made it to the end of the continent in order to discover it. Olleros is one of the chefs of Nove Group ("Nine") which was founded in 2003 by 9 Galician chefs - now there are more than 20 members in the group - who decided to praise the Galician cuisine by combining avant-garde and radicalism, innovation and tradition, go back to the past in order to advance in the future. As you can imagine from the fact that the list mentioned above contains only 2 Galician restaurants, this is a struggle of elite restaurants that happened to be located in an off-center area of Spain and Europe.
Our discovery/exposure journey in Culler de Pau started with a dreidle-like cup containing a seasonal herbaceous infusion with strong ginger scent, while soft kombucha flakes floated on top. Whether the kombucha is said to have a relaxing quality or not, it was utterly refreshing and exactly the drink we had to have in order to calm the throat and stomach to what was supposed to arrive.
From the restaurant greenhouse that stood out of the window arrived tiny tomatoes and even tinier slices of pickled cucumbers, full of honest flavors as if the flavor molecules were concentrated in such small pieces. Around them floated butter-textured kombucha flakes in the juice of Salpicón vegetables, which can be described as "the salad juice", but wow, what a salad!
The prize for "the freshest lettuce of the year" was given to a dish that made us wonder whether it arrived from the garden, or maybe it was a successful experiment that took place at the restaurant lab on the building's first floor and was supposed to check the unnatural frontier of freshness and crunchiness. And if that wasn't fresh enough for you, between the leaves appeared apple-flavor ice flakes, that giggled on the tongue and gave the dish the final push to be perfect.
As if someone changed the channel in front of the transparent wall, or maybe it was breaking the fourth wall, the sky got clear exactly in time for us to see at the horizon the Bateas, the huge platforms that stand all around the Galician part of the ocean and perform as mussels' farms.
Christianity break: the story tells about James, son of Zebedee - he is Santiago - one of the apostles who got decapitated by Herod Agrippa, and while his head is still kept in Jerusalem, his remains floated on a seashell all the way to Santiago de Compostela, to be discovered in the 9th century. This is one of the reasons why Santiago is the patron saint of Spain and Galicia, and the symbol of the shell, especially the one that hosts the "Coquilles Saint-Jacques" mollusk, henceforth "Saint James' Shell", appears everywhere: on buildings, around the streets and along El Camino of course.
Back to the table: Our attention was drawn to a piece of rocky beach that laid in front of us, hosting a seashell with pieces of the mentioned above mollusk and the somewhat mysterious Goose Barnacles, which texture is much stiffer and in most cases you have to peel them out.
"Herbs from Adelina's Farm" referred to Adelina Padín who runs one of the two farms that work with the restaurant. The fresh herbs were served in a crunchy puffed rice shaped as well as a seashell, which seemed to connect between the sea and land, between Santiago arriving in Spain and us arriving in the restaurant, and the concentrated Anchovy cream spotted the dish with small surprises here and there. If V. said the Anchovy cream is good - the restaurant managed to really outcome itself.
And then there was bread. Cracking on the outside, and inside layer after layer of airy bread, and the distance between one to the other represents a period of time along its 72 hours levitation, as the light years not represent time but distance.
Although we picked the extended menu I asked to add an unmissable dish from the other one - Ronsel (= "ship wake").
So we were served an egg yolk - how can you miss that? - boiled on a low heat and held all the flavor a fresh egg yolk can have. And even before we got to the egg yolk we couldn't avoid the smell that arrived with it, the smell of smoked San Simon cheese cream, coming from the village by that name deep in the Galician heartland. Sprinkles of breadcrumbs on top balanced the creaminess of the cheese, and going again over the photos from that lunch you could see me enjoying every bit of it. A true joy for a truly unmissable dish.
A whole Galician dish: lightly charred but still viscous Ray "a Galega", which means Galician style, which means with smoked paprika sauce, together with bunches of Padrón pepper seeds. After emigrating from America on the 16th century the pepper got its name from the fact that they grew only the around the Franciscan monastery of Herbón in the Padrón province, about 60 km from the restaurant. Today you can find them all around Spain as a bodega dish - deep-fried with well-defined spicy-bitter-sweet flavor.
The sweet part started with Hibiscus two ways: the whole flower drizzled with honey and served with chlorophyllic clover broth, and another broth of the Hibiscus joining kiwi cubes and grapefruit sorbet. Marvelous.
I found even more marvelous the sweet kefir with red berries and fascinating transparent basil gel.
"Santiago pie" contains only three ingredients: one-third ground almonds, one-third eggs and the rest for sugar and flour. Culler de Pau serves the traditional Galician cake shattered but fits perfectly, almost camouflaging itself, with the plate. The simplest dish of them all, the one which Galicians eat at home with their family, marked the end of our trip and experience in the restaurant.
Together with the coffee we got some more sweets: chocolates, caramel and cured ginger. Enough.
In Culler de Pau we passed through all parts of Galicia, from sea to mainland and back, and like Javier Olleros went out from Galicia in order to come back, so do wonderful V., and I had to get out of Rome and pass through Barcelona, Galicia and Culler de Pau to go back to Rome. To go back home.
These are not all the dishes we were served during our voyage in Culler de Pau, but this was our personal voyage through the dishes that left us with the strongest impression. More of them - and believe me, the editing process was fatiguing - can be found on my Instagram account, but of course I would recommend all of you to go on Culler de Pau's route by yourselves.