egg roll

George Semler

Barcelona's Òpera Samfaina: How Does Catalunya Taste?

A dining experience that is unique in multiple ways

Underneath el Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Barcelona opera house, a creative consortium featuring Tast Barcelona, multidisciplinary artist Franc Aleu, and the Roca brothers has opened a spectacular Walt Disney-meets-Salvador Dalí answer to the question: What is Catalunya, and how does it taste?

Walking down the stairs to the right of the Rocambolesc ice cream emporium at the corner of the Rambla and Carrer de la Unió is like descending into the seventh circle of, well, something playful and filled with sounds, smells, sights and colors of every stripe and spot and timbre.

Just the name of the place, Òpera Samfaina, suggests a symphony of Catalan ingredients, a potpourri of vast culinary breadth covering the history of the land and its produce. Samfaina or Xamfaina is a fundamental Catalan sauce consisting of about everything you can think of: peppers, eggplant, zucchini, garlic, onions, olives, and olive oil. Similar to the Spanish pisto or the French ratatouille, ingredients vary widely and have many interpretations. Samfaina can be used as an accompaniment or as a base for meat or fish casseroles and marries happily with cod, chicken, or lamb sweetbreads. The word samfaina is also used to describe an eclectic assortment, a chaotic enumeration of people or ingredients that combine symphonically into something coherent.

George Semler

Annette Abstoss, a founding partner in the project and longtime Barcelona food and culinary expert (her 2005 CUINASIA symposium brought together Asian chefs from around the world) showed us through the various elements of this underground gastronomical wonderland. After the upstairs “Vermuteria”, the vermouth bar specializing in the classical Catalan aperitif, we took the stairs down past a series of animated dioramas that chronicle the history of Catalunya. At the bottom of the stairs is the “Odissea” room containing a circular sixteen-seat table where a short animated film explains Catalunya and its most traditional food products — olives, grapes, cheeses, sausages, and seafood — along with a tasting.

The “Barra Solidaria” features tapas created by a series of alternating local chefs such as Nandu Jubany, Albert Adrià, Carles Abellán, Quim Marqués and Christian Escribà with proceeds donated to a local orphanage, while the “Diva” section serves seasonally changing tasting menus with wine pairings on circular tables for eight with a server-croupier in the center narrating the dishes and products. Cod in samfaina is the signature dish, while the shepherd’s pie of calf cheek and tail is the closer. Overhead projectors illuminate each offering with colorful themes of fish, vegetables, landscapes, and livestock.

George Semler

For dessert, our server-croupier dealt us cards designating (albeit non-bindingly) our choices and we moved into the “Mercat” section of the space where a large glass cow holds pride of place. A small counter takes orders for desserts ranging from foam of crema catalana to pineapple with muscatel or various Jordi Roca ice cream selections.

Meanwhile, equipped with bracelets that record each purchase for check-out at the exit on Carrer de Sant Pau, visitors can linger at the Catalunya D.O. wine bar with Fabio, the dashing and über-popular barman, tasting wines from all over Catalunya or just chilling out. Many of the sculptures bear some serious inspection, such as the pig/dragon slaughter scene with Jordi Roca saving his buxom wife Alejandra from the clutches of the hybrid monstrosity while an anthology of ceramic sausages bursts into the air. Nearly every major idiosyncrasy of Catalan culture is present somewhere in Òpera Samfaina, from the castellers, or human castles, to the ou com balla (“dancing egg”) to the caganer, the faithful defecator pictured in the bushes behind the manger in every Catalan nativity scene . In the Mercat section you can purchase the famous Birba cookies from Camprodón or a T-shirt emblazoned with “Somio Truites” from the curious Catalan word for a dreamer, somiatruites, literally “trout dreamer” or “omelette dreamer” — Catalan uses same word for trout and omelette.

George Semler

No one could accuse Franc Aleu and his team of artists, the Roca brothers, or gastronomical director Annette Abstoss of dreaming anything less at Òpera Samfaina. This through-the-looking-glass and down-the-rabbit-hole (consecutive, not mixed, metaphors) imaginative tour de force is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It is not to be missed.

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