Why Barcelona is a Magnet for Creative Pastry Professionals

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Restaurant Cocina Hermanos Torres
Rafa Delgado, pastry chef at Cocina Hermanos Torres

(This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)  

Barcelona, the vibrant capital of Catalonia that is known for its non-conformist spirit in art and politics, has also blossomed in the 21st century as a center of culinary innovation, with pastry provocateurs playing a leading role. From Albert Adria’s whimsical dessert wonderland at his enduringly popular tapas bar Tickets, to the analytical exploration of flavor at Espaisucre’s intimate 12-seat Essence, to the avant garde chefs of the Collective 21 Brix – who fan out to patisserias, culinary schools and restaurants – the pace of pastry in the city is, as one commentator put it, “furioso.” During a recent visit to Barcelona my pace was also furioso, scurrying around town to take in at least some of its boundless sweet temptations.

Barcelona’s evolution as a creative confectionery hub, with a beguiling chocolate museum, excellent educational facilities, and a bevy of talented local chefs, reflects the heritage of its famous idiosyncratic artists – Gaudi, Miro, Dali, Picasso – and its contemporary cultural vitality. Jaume Cot of the Barcelona based gastronomic publisher Vilbo also points out that during the Franco dictatorship in Spain from 1939 to 1975, Catalonia “was the gate out to escape and feel more freedom and modernity for many people.” That outlook still prevails, in a thriving interactive pastry community on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Plats Cocina Hermanos Torres
Delgado’s conceptual apple ravioli

Most of its superstars – the elBulli Adria brothers, Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Oriol Balaguer and Christian Escriba among them – have Catalonian roots, learned their craft at local culinary schools or at family bakeries, then worked abroad before returning to home base.

One of the city’s highly regarded learning centers, the Escuela de Pasteleria del Gremio de Barcelona(EGPB), founded by the influential Pastry Guild of Barcelona in 1975, offers a rigorous four-year curriculum and graduate courses for some 400 students annually, and has recently forged ties with counterparts like the Culinary Institute of America. You can catch a glimpse of the students at work in full view of the public in a glass enclosed kitchen on a winding street in the ancient El Born section of the city.

Facade of the venerable Escriba pastry shop on the Rambla
Facade of the venerable Escriba pastry shop on the Rambla

Next door to the school, the Guild operates the sprawling, family-friendly Museu de la Xocolata, featuring interactive historical exhibits, oversize chocolate sculptures, and a hall of fame paying homage to iconic confectioners. High on that list is Antoni Escriba (1930-2004), larger than life third generation scion of a prominent pastry dynasty, who Ferran Adria considers “the first avant garde of Spanish gastronomy.” He dreamed of being a sculptor, but found his artistic outlet in chocolate, developing new techniques to sculpt edible architectural masterpieces like a replica of the Vatican. Proselytizing for the use of quality ingredients, he declared, “I am the Che Guevara of chocolate.” Antoni Escriba was a mentor to World’s Best Pastry Chef Albert Adria, and to his own sons, Christian and his two brothers, who have expanded the family enterprise and currently employ over 100 people at high volume shops on the Rambla and Gran Via, as well as a custom design studio and a teaching academy. As famous for his showmanship as his pastries and chocolates, Escriba has built on his father’s legacy, creating edible landscapes, candy rings, and dazzling wedding and current event themed cakes made with his sugar artist wife, Patricia Schmidt. In Singapore the couple produced a surreal confectionary theater extravaganza complete with cotton candy clouds, life size chocolate animals, a 28-foot tall Callebaut chocolate fountain, and a full scale replica of his historic art deco shop.

Pastry chef Christian Escriba’s chocolate fantasia
Pastry chef Christian Escriba’s chocolate fantasia

Escriba, 57, and Albert Adria, 50, are at the top of their game as visionary culinary pioneers, along with celebrated compatriots like Oriol Balaguer, 47, and Jordi Butron, 52. Balaguer, also the son of a patissier, opened his own confectionery studio in 2002 after seven years in the el Bulli research workshop, and has collected over two dozen “Best Of” awards, from Best Pastry Chef in Spain at age 21 to Grand Prix du Patissier presented by the International Academy of Gastronomy in 2018. Balaguer’s Barcelona boutique, Classic Line, is a jewel-like setting for his elegant, minimalist seasonal collections of chocolates, pastries, bread, and architecturally inspired curved, layered, cakes handsomely displayed in glass cases.

Miguel Guarro’s Lemon Basil Tartlet
Miguel Guarro’s Lemon Basil Tartlet

Also acclaimed a Best Pastry Chef in Spain in three different years, Jordi Butron opened the world’s first dessert restaurant and the Espaisucre school in 2000 with his partner Xano Saguer.  Butron, whose resume includes time with Christophe Felder and Michel Bras in France, and  Escriba and elBulli in Spain, developed a curriculum to “train creators, not executors,” to develop plated desserts centered on building a library of flavors. His concept is graphically outlined in a video on the Espaisucre website that charts various textures, aromas, and tastes. In Butron’s three to eleven month courses for a maximum of ten students, classes are hands-on at night, putting theory to practice. At the school’s restaurant, Essence, a dozen diners gather around a long table in the library for an educational/intellectual “Sweet Experience” that students help prepare, explain, and serve. During a degustation of three savory tapas, five desserts and three sweet tapas, Butron analyzes every dish, ingredient by ingredient, as guests follow along watching on a large screen or on individual tablets, supplied in Spanish, French or English. Butron says the current ‘experience’, called Chocoaddict Valrhona, transforms chocolate from an overpowering “bad guy” to “a more civilized ingredient.” The five complex desserts progress from “light” to “strong”: Green, Harissa, Goat + Caramel, Pork, and Smoked. As to the tapas, the participants are challenged to guess their contents.

“Harrisa,” at Essence dessert tasting
“Harrisa,” at Essence dessert tasting

Butron was among the first to blur boundaries between sweet and savory, and early on declared, “The monopoly of the sugar has come to an end,” a continuing goal for many of today’s rising pastry provocateurs. I met three of them, members of the Collective 21 Brix, founded by a handful of young colleagues who decided a decade ago that “instead of competing, why don’t we unite, try to learn from each other, share ideas and experiences, and maybe we can do something better.” A small but catalytic coterie of chocolatiers and pastry chefs, the fifteen to twenty members consult, collaborate, and convene occasionally for thematic day-long events. An outing last October began with a visit to coffee specialist Salvador Sans, and continued at the brand new facilities of the Culinary Institute of Barcelona (CIB). The theme, Red is the Path, centered on Callebaut’s new ruby couverture, and featured the pink toned chocolate paired not only with the obvious complementary flavors, but beets and figs, sweet paprika from Mallorca, and Ethiopian coffee. In June the group selected a green motif, saluting respect for the environment with ingredients like spinach, cucumber, basil, celery, and avocado in their desserts.

Christian Escriba
Christian Escriba

Collective stalwart Rafa Delgado, Pastry Chef at two-Michelin-star Hermanos Torres, had already incorporated celery in a green apple and celery ravioli on the restaurant’s 18 course eclectic modernist tasting menu. Opened a year ago by high profile Barcelona twin chefs, Javier and Sergio Torres, Delgado joined the brothers to showcase a contemporary cuisine inspired by their mutual traditions and taste memories. In a large, glass enclosed, state of the art pastry kitchen visible to diners, Delgado and his staff prepare five plated desserts and two petits fours for both lunch and dinner service, all freshly made, “nothing frozen ahead or made in molds,” he says, “ except the chocolate bonbons.” His light-on-sugar-and-lactose focus, often with a combination of sweet and savory ingredients, reflect his years of study and training. After culinary school, Delgado worked in Michelin-starred establishments on the savory side, “and then, little by little, I integrated myself into the pastry section,” he recalls, interning with Albert Adria, and winning a Best Restaurant Dessert competition with the prize a year training at Espaisucre. “Now, in pastry, with the degustation menu, I’m always thinking how to plan so people leave the restaurant satisfied but not stuffed,” he says, “because even if we cut down on sugar, the dessert needs to bring some sort of richness and luxury.”

Jordi Butron teaching at Espaisucre
Jordi Butron teaching at Espaisucre

Looking for solutions with ingredients that retain their flavor, Delgado favors fruits like ripe plum, or peach. One of his widely praised hits was a peach “gnocchi” with peach velouté, peach sorbet and tamarind syrup. He has macerated mango with ginger and vinegar and paired blackberries and pesto for a sweet/savory “salad.” During my five-hour lunch at Hermanos Torres, the dessert parade included strawberries with black olive and Basque espellette peppers, and a refreshing Vermouth sorbet with aromatic herbs. “I’ve been working a lot with water these days,” Delgado notes, “because lactose is heavy to digest.” He also enjoys the challenge of using an ingredient he doesn’t really like, for instance Tarte Tatin with sweet potato. Fortunately, Delgado admits, “It had a good reaction from the guests, and the caramelization brings you back to your childhood memories; for me the most important is taste, and whether it evokes some  feeling or emotion.”  He adds, “But I do always try to make my desserts visually stunning.”

Miguel Guarro, head of pastry, Hofmann School
Miguel Guarro, head of pastry, Hofmann School

The two other Collective members I visited were also dedicated to exploring new paths for pastry, each in very different academic settings. Jordi Bordas, World Pastry Cup Champion in 2011, whose revolutionary B-Concept was featured in the summer issue of Pastry Arts, opened his eponymous school adjacent to his family’s pastry shop, Santacreu, in Viladecans, a suburb of Barcelona, in 2015.With a mission to achieve lighter, healthier, and tastier desserts, Bordas offers short, intense courses for a maximum of ten students, teaching the scientific principles behind different pastry textures and techniques, and how to use them to formulate recipes. When I arrived, Bordas was wrapping up a course for eight young Chinese pastry professionals and an interpreter – perfect timing for the grande finale, a tasting of their accomplished pastries, including one pairing passion fruit and pistachio, another chocolate and yuzu. Adrianna Jaworska, the school’s dynamic director of R & D, shared a page from the students’ recipe manual, illustrating a cross-section of the nine layers of another of the desserts we sampled, Framboisier Perl, a basil sponge topped with various raspberry components – mousse, crumble, compote, glaze, whole berries, creamy, lime zest and fresh basil leaves. Jaworska, with degrees from Cordon Bleu in both Japan and Paris, post-graduate research in food studies, and a stint teaching modern pastry trends in her native Poland, came for a course and stayed on. Her infectious enthusiasm for B-concept precepts and excellent language skills are a big plus for the courses Bordas teaches in English and French, as well as Spanish. Jaworska took some time off to guide me to the esteemed Hofmann Culinary School in the heart of medieval Barcelona to meet Miguel Guarro, 29, recently named the school’s pastry director, where he teaches eleven month and shorter advanced courses. Guarro, who, like Bordas, graduated from EGPB, said of his own training, “I started young; I was typical of many pastry chefs, I didn’t like to study much. But then you start to build something with your hands and you work really hard for five or six years, and then you have the capacity to say something interesting.” He became the youngest winner of the Best Chocolatier in Spain competition, worked in top restaurants, and taught for three years at the Chocolate Academy, Callebaut’s training institute in Gurb, an hour from Barcelona, alongside the Academy’s renowned faculty, several of them also members of the Collective. “There are lot of pastry chefs teaching,” Guarro points out, “because economics makes it hard to open a shop.” But at Hofmann, he has the luxury of teaching students to prepare desserts for the company’s Michelin-star restaurant, café, and patisseria. Like his Collective colleagues, Guarro is channeling sweet and savory, and using less sugar and fat in desserts such as the Chocolate Satum, a chocolate sphere with buckwheat crunchy, buckwheat ice cream, Guanaja 70% chocolate cream, and buckwheat cream. At the patisseria, just around the corner from the school, famous for its award winning mascarpone croissants, Guarro has introduced new selections like a lemon basil tart, and a paper thin pastry eggshell filled with pistachio mousse, crispy pistachio and yogurt, orange compote, passion fruit and yuzu. However, he jokingly promises never to touch the unsurpassable mascarpone croissant.

Gathering of members of Collective 21 Brix
Gathering of members of Collective 21 Brix

The Hofmann Patisseria ranks high on lengthy lists of ‘Best Of’ Barcelona contemporary and classic sweets emporiums, readily available online or by contacting the helpful Catalan Tourist Board. At La Colmena, for instance, the fourth generation of the Roig family offers traditional Catalan specialties; while at La Patisseria Barcelona, Josep Maria Rodriguez Guerola, Jordi Bordas’s teammate in the winning Coupe Du Monde competition, was recently honored for his innovations by the Pastry Guild of Barcelona, and also awarded the Guild’s top prize: Best Pastry Shop in Catalunya. The Guild, founded in 1901 to represent and promote the profession, presented those awards and several others, to the applause of some 300 colleagues and friends at their annual gala in June, held at the magnificent Juan Miro Foundation  against a backdrop of the artist’s colorful sculptures. As Guarro, whose Hofmann Patisseria picked up the prize for Best Social Network, observed, “There are lots of different profiles, but in Barcelona, there is a place for everyone.”   

Photo Credits: Jordi Play, Joan Pujol-Creus