Just outside Barcelona, Carme Ruscalleda assembles a dainty dish her menu introduces as 'Strawberries and Tomato Ketchup'. A sliver of spiced tuna, a dollop of strawberry ice-cream, a smear of roasted cherry tomato, a sprinkle of wild rice.
On the slopes above Sant Fruitós de Bages, Jordi Cruz lifts the lid on his dish of Galician octopus and admires the special-effects smoke that billows out. It's a little bit of theatre to highlight the fact that the marinated tentacles have been smoked by dry-roasting a sprig of the haya tree.
And at flavour-of-the-month DiverXO, hidden in the back streets of Madrid, David Muñoz is dusting cocoa powder on a red curry of oxtail, to be served with rice cooked in the pan juices, accompanied by fried mint and coriander.
In today's brave new culinary world, Spain's latest crop of culinary stars display all the imagination and daring of Gaudi and Dalí. But they are, in fact, devoted disciples of Ferran Adrià, the culinary alchemist whose El Bulli restaurant at Roses on the Catalan coast is regarded as the most spectacular laboratory of molecular gastronomy [ED'S NOTE: you can read our El Bulli primer here]. It's all about deconstructing food to establish its essence and then reconstructing it in a surprising form. Author and kitchen scientist Harold McGee comes closest to defining it as "the scientific study of deliciousness".
"Who wants to eat this stuff?" mutter grumpy old men. Well, about 85 times more than get to, it seems. Each April to September season, 7,000 people get a seat at El Bulli. About 600,000 try to book one.
Adrià's influence is everywhere in Spain, and Catalonia now boasts the highest concentration of Michelin stars outside France. It is possible to graze your way through 28 of them. This is a reasonable reward for the Spanish people whose capacity and perseverance for food consumption is, well, gobsmacking. Whatever the persuasion of the gourmet globetrotter, Barcelona and Madrid are the happening international culinary reference points. They are habanero hot.
It is the burnished traditions of Spanish gastro-nomy that give such incandescence to the new food scene. Best then to experience the contrast by visiting such great culinary landmarks as 4Gats, which opened its doors in Barcelona more than 100 years ago and counts Picasso and Gaudi as past patrons. And in Madrid, Lhardy's magnificent 169-year-old façade is a magnet for those seeking a refined dining experience preserved in aspic. A visit to Lhardy is one of the most satisfying of all of Spain's culinary experiences, especially when enjoyed as part of an evening tapas and tavern tour conducted by Ana Saldaña Varela's Viavinum wine tour company.
Catalan people, in particular, are not noted for their daring imagination, but Spain's current crop of culinary anarchists are unique for not only thinking outside the square but outside the continent. Adrià himself acknowledges the creative energy and artistic inspiration that is coming from the East. Japan and, increasingly, China, are stimulating European trendsetters including the Spanish.
Carme Ruscalleda is the only female chef in Spain with a three-star Michelin rating for Restaurant Sant Pau. Make that five - her spin-off restaurant in Tokyo also has two. Born and raised in Catalonia, diners have said to her: "You're Japanese… and you don't know it."
It's a reference to the artistic arrangement of the elements of each dish and to the harmony - almost poetry - of flavours and textures. A sort of ikebana and haiku on a plate. Tiny coins of Iberian acorn-fed ham in a pear consommé with diced peach and preserved ginger and caramelised rose petals. A morsel of crisp-skinned Peking duck presented with pickled plums and grated cucumber. A cube of spinach sponge cake to accompany a fillet of wrasse presented with toasted pine nuts and dried fruits. Where do the unlikely flavour combinations come from? Is it a form of culinary rebellion?
"Not so strong as rebellion," Ruscalleda says. "My attitude is, 'Why not?' And I find that confusion and harmony can co-exist very well."
While Carme Ruscalleda revels in witty little contradictions of flavour and texture, fellow chef Jordi Cruz leans in a different direction. He's written a book titled Logical Cuisine, which stamps him as one of Adrià's closest deputies. Today, he struts his prodigious talent at Restaurant L'Angle at Hotel Món, part of the Món St Benet complex, which includes the Alicia Foundation established by the Catalan government and Ferran Adrià. Alicia's activities range from nutrition workshops for children and research by culinary anthropologists, to gastronomic innovation and investigation.
Cruz believes there is a simple logic behind every element of cooking, and he is motivated by a desire to do new things, and old things in new ways. Gels and foams are very big in this new wave of experimentation, and so we sit down to a gel of gin and tonic to amuse the bouche, and onto an inventive and playful meal including prawns, lobster, rice and artichokes with a parmesan foam, and foie gras with pumpkin purée and hazelnuts.
Back in Barcelona, things are no less exciting. A stroll through the old Gothic Quarter reveals the double delight of upstairs-downstairs Lluçanès and Els Fogons de la Barceloneta. New features of the renovated Barceloneta market, both are under the direction of Angel Pascual who has been awarded a Michelin star every year since 2000.
The Lluçanès tasting menu offers five dishes and two desserts for about $115 and the full 10-dish and three-dessert production is priced at $160. Popular dishes include cuttlefish barbecued with straw on a bed of black rice; kid confit marinated in Lluçanès herbs and pears with calvados; and a slow-cooked pork neck served with cardamom and vermouth sauce, cumquats and mushrooms.
Food and wine touring is a highly organised industry in Catalonia. Sixteen distinct routes have been established by the regional tourist body to maximise the experience of touring food and wine lovers. The fish markets of the Costa Brava, the artisan cheese producers of the Pyrénées, the wineries of El Penedés and the smallgoods specialists of Osona are all well-educated in the fact that the region's gastronomy is a valuable tourist asset.
One of the most fascinating of these is the cava route. France's insistence that the term 'Champagne' be excluded from use by Spain's champenoise sparkling wine producers proved to be a massive boost to the popularity of the cava product, which is establishing an increasing profile in the global wine market.
In the heart of cava country, around Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, it is possible to visit the mammoth producers of Codorníu and Freixenet, though the family-owned Torelló operation is more rewarding both in integrity and scale. Very much top-shelf producers, the second generation members of the family use modern technology but demand traditional values and standards to produce premium quality cavas including the prestigious Kripta, unique for its amphora-shaped bottle.
Another high point for the wine lover is to be found in the heart of Barcelona, on the Paseo de Gracia, where major wine and brandy producer Torres has created La Vinoteca Torres, a stunning vinoteca concept store plus tapas bar and restaurant. The visitor can taste any of nearly 50 wines with perfectly matched tapas dishes and benefit from the advice of specialist sommeliers. Torres boasts a policy of allowing all their wines to express their own personality and to represent the character of their terroir. Try the Milmanda chardonnay from Conco de Barberà and you'll become a believer.
The ultimate souvenir from any gastronomic tour is, of course, to take the taste of the place home with you. In the centre of Barcelona, opposite the Boqueria Market - often named the best market in Europe, if not the world - Bego Sanchis and Teresa Rio conduct a great range of workshops under their Cook&Taste banner. Join them on a shopping tour of the famous market, discussing produce with the stallholders and picking up tips on selecting the best items.
Wandering through this foodscape of fresh Catalan seafood, salted bacalao, rare fruits and nuts, exotic delicatessen items, chickens, rabbits and Iberian hams, priced at up to $275 a kilo, is one of the world's great gustatory experiences. Then it's back to the demonstration kitchen to roll up the sleeves and help prepare a meal of traditional Catalan and Spanish favourites - authentic paella and gazpacho if you like, or something a little more adventurous like boletus (porcini) soup with rooster combs, Iberian bacon and toasted hazelnut bread. About $100 will cover the ingredients, cooking class and a meal with wine.
The current best dining experience in Madrid is DiverXO, a bland little canvas on which David Muñoz paints vibrant splashes of unimaginable flavour. The room is minimal rather than minimalist simplybecause he was strapped for cash when he opened and has been too busy to decorate ever since. This year, at the influential Madrid Fusión congress, he surprised nobody by being named Best Young Chef.
His training grounds include Madrid's Balzac and London's Hakkasan, which explains the Asian elements that add to the vibrancy of his food. Indian, Peruvian and Japanese elements are in evidence too, for that matter, because Muñoz raids the global pantry like few others.
Cod comes lacquered with Chinese honey; rabbit is braised with Chinese five spices; beef fillet gets a big wake-up call from wasabi and Canary Islands mojo (capsicum) salsa, and even the usually risky skate wing becomes a taste sensation with a smear of XO sauce. XO sauce is such a Muñoz favourite that he even added it to the name of his restaurant. Inventive in concept, precise in execution, David Muñoz's food is nothing short of exhilarating.
It is a hard act to follow but, 50 kilometres south of Madrid in beautiful Aranjuez, Fernando del Cerro shows the magic that can be created using a local pantry instead. Del Cerro was born in the district, trained as a baker, and began in the kitchen of Casa José in 1991. The restaurant received a Michelin star in its first year - a notable achievement outside the big cities - and is still rated among Spain's best regional dining experiences.
Far from embracing Ferran Adrià culinary pyrotechnics, Fernando del Cerro toes the 'regional and seasonal' line, encourages and promotes growers of local produce, and names Swiss chef Frédy Girardet as his greatest influence.
"I admire him for disciplines such as insisting on no more than three flavours on a plate," del Cerro says. "On the down side, I am annoyed that people no longer have respect for the seasons. They want things to be available 12 months of the year. This devalues the work of the local producer."
The excellence of the Casa José experience can be further enhanced by a visit to the bodega and enoteca of Gosálbez Orti at nearby Pozuelo del Rey. Here Carlos Gosálbez and his wife, Estrella Orti, organically cultivate red wines of the highest quality. Most years it is just one wine - a blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and/or grenache and syrah - but in years of exceptional vintage a varietal grenache, Qubél Excepcion, appears. Production is just 30,000 bottles a year but the wine is in demand worldwide.
Back in Madrid, new hot spots are opening as we walk the streets of a city that venerates good eating. Stop by Clara Maria de Amezua's Alambique, one of the world's great cooking schools and kitchen shops, at 11am on a Saturday morning, and the kitchen will be packed with predominantly male students fretting over their gazpachos y salmorejos (gazpachos and Andalucían tomato and bread soups).
Most promising of the new hot spots is Estado Puro, a lively newcomer featuring the 'sophisticated tapas' of Paco Roncero. Having worked closely with Ferran Adrià, Roncero was installed as head chef at the Casino de Madrid when Adrià assumed its gastronomic direction. He quickly established his own reputation at prestigious venues such as La Terraza del Casino. Designed by the progressive James & Mau studio, Estado Puro injects an element of funk into the gracious NH Paseo del Prado property located in the centre of the art triangle (Prado Museum, Reina Sofia Museum and the Thyssen Museum).
You'll probably remember this place for its mini-burger with Caribbean mustard and French fries, or its foie gras and lentil casserole. Or you may remember it for its great interior design… but you won't forget it for its clever deconstruction of tiramisù.
"Don't try to shape the future without knowing the past," is Roncero's message. And it seems the whole culinary world is listening.