Ah! That first sip of beer when you’re hot and thirsty after walking through a volcano. Okay, it wasn’t really that strenuous. Oh alright, it was just a really pleasant stroll along shady paths in La Garrotxa volcanic nature reserve in Girona province in Catalunya, but that beer certainly slipped down well. It wasn’t just any old lager though: this was Keks, a unfiltered buckwheat beer brewed locally by Pep Nogue i Puigvert, the man who had handed me a glass as I and my fellow walkers arrived at a restored farmhouse in the nature reserve . A chef and a bit of a tv celebrity too, Pep had set up an al fresco kitchen in the courtyard and was all set to show us what volcanic cuisine is all about.
The beer tasted fresh and fruity. ‘The buckwheat grown in the volcanic soil has a distinctive flavour,’ Pep said. ‘Well, everything that grows here has a particular flavour actually. It’s because the soil absorbs water, making it very fertile, but the excess drains away naturally, creating ideal conditions. Put that together with the unique mineral properties of the soil and you’ve got some pretty tasty produce.’
Pep was busy rubbing tomato on whopping great slabs of rustic bread. ‘One tomato should be enough for six slices, because they’re so juicy.’ He poured – no messing about with drizzling here – some olive oil onto the bread and served it with slices of fuet and llangonissa, two of the local types of cured pork sausage, along with ripe figs – some of the last of the season. ‘I buy the sausage from a guy called Jordi at the market in Olot. He only has his stall once a week, but you should see the queues.’
But that was just the beginning. He was soon bashing up onions and soaking them in water before mixing them with plum tomatoes to create an incredibly tasty salad. The delicate haricot beans grown nearby in Santa Pau were combined with shredded salt cod to make empedrat, another traditional dish. ‘Until relatively recently, it was difficult to get fresh fish here. Before the decent roads were built, the coast was five hours’ away – it’s only an hour now.’
‘The concept of volcanic cuisine is to put the landscape in a pot,’ Pep explained, as he knocked up a creamy rice dish using some just-picked chanterelle mushrooms. ‘The rice is carnaroli, the Italian variety, but it’s grown near the coast in Pals.’
The volcanic cuisine movement began in 1994, when a group of local chefs came together to reclaim their extraordinary produce and traditional recipes. Although family cooking is at its heart, Michelin-starred restaurants in La Garrotxa, such as Les Cols, are leading exponents of the concept.
Now Pep was pouring ratafia, a liqueur made with green walnuts, over bread sprinkled with sugar. ‘It’s typical of what my parents and grandparents used to eat at village festivals.’
Pep himself started working in a restaurant kitchen at the age of 10, and later worked for 13 years at El Celler de Can Roca, which has three Michelin stars and is one of the best restaurants in the world. Now he passionately promotes the cuisine of La Garrotxa, reviving old recipes and endeavouring to prevent local varieties of fruit and vegetables from dying out.
His many fans include Ferran Adria and Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, who was incredulous that the produce of La Garrotxa is not better known. At the rate Pep Nogue is going to bring the delights of his region to the wider world, I can’t see that being the situation for too much longer.
‘Any more of that Keks beer going?’ I asked hopefully.
Have a look at Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona, who organised my volcanic walk and lunch, for more information and ideas about travelling in the region.