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Passion for Spanish wine

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It’s rare to find a chef as deeply in love with her menu as with her wine list. For Iolanda Bustos at La Calèndula in Empordà, the food – as local as possible, with much of it foraged in the fields and vineyards nearby – and the wines – from carefully selected bodegas, probably organic, possibly biodynamic, with a good number of them based in Empordà – are all of a piece. The sommelier, Salvador Casaseca, shows the same crossover traits as the chef: before falling under the wine spell (he’s currently taking his Masters in sommellerie and oenology), he worked in the kitchen. It’s a killer combination and it lifts eating at La Calèndula into another category.

The restaurant, close to Begur in the tiny village of Regencós (barely 250 inhabitants), is housed in a building that served successively as a school and a cinema before assuming its current role. The high-ceilinged, light-filled dining room is dominated by a huge refectory table. Along one side is a stage, which recalls the building’s theatrical heritage, and which is used for occasional tastings. Attached is a further dining space which gives onto the garden, where herbs and edible flowers tumble out of flowerbeds.

Dishes that change with the seasons are the norm; Iolanda’s menus are even more closely in tune with nature, not simply with the seasons but also with the phases of the moon (she describes herself as a biodynamic chef). “My mission as a cook is to connect people with nature.” The 74-euro tasting menu is served from early spring to mid-June, takes a break during high summer, and resumes in September with different, seasonal dishes. It’s a wild celebration of colours and flavours, featuring plants, flowers and produce from all along the northern Costa Brava, as well as from the chef’s own garden. An extra €32 will get you the (unusually interesting) wine pairing option.

The food is dazzlingly beautiful as well as tasty – picture a brilliant orange mussel cradled on a crisp black rice tuile, an oyster with strawberry Bloody Mary and deep blue lovage flowers, or a delicate little pancake of whitebait (sonsos) reminiscent of a tortillita de camarones, served with slivered mushrooms and sprinkled with plucked elderflowers. A bunch of wild snapdragons (flor de conillet) comes to the table in a little vase. Its flowers have been painstakingly stuffed with a mixture of recuit (ricotta) and anchovies, and you nibble them whole, directly off the stalk.

On the fishy front, pink Palamós shrimps come perched on a pool of ajo blanco garnished with mallow flowers, and an intriguingly named ‘ortiga’ de mar – a (prickly) sea urchin – is twinned with a crisp (but not prickly) gougère of ortigas (nettles). A succulent piece of sea bass is served with fingernail-sized broad fava beans and mallow flowers, and slivers of pinkly roasted duck breast are set on a beetroot tartare with a shower of crunchy pine nuts.

The menu concludes with a crimson sorbet of barbary figs startlingly twinned with a sweet-salty crumble dotted with black olives and scattered with cistus petals – gorgeous to look at, surprisingly delicious to eat – followed by a chocolate creation that combines ‘real’ chocolate with specks of crunchy salt and a mousse of carob pods.

Just as the menu takes a wander through the surrounding countryside, so too the wines reflect the landscape in which they are grown. “Choosing a wine”, writes the chef in the introduction to her short, succinct list, “is like choosing a travel destination, a place where you can walk and enjoy the culture and the landscape in peace and harmony. Every bottle from our cellar contains the soul of the people who make it…”

Entries are peppered with symbols denoting whether the wine is organic or biodynamic, from old vines, fermented in amphorae or concrete eggs, natural and/or without sulphites. The chef’s homemade elderflower wine makes an appealing aperitif, gorgeously perfumed with the white, lacy flors de saüquer (and barely 1% alcohol). Cavas include Gramona’s Imperial Brut Gran Reserva (€29) and Recaredo’s single vineyard Brut de Brut Finca Serral del Vell (€48).

Still wines from around Catalunya include Espelt’s complex Lledoner Roig (Garnatxa Gris, €35) or the aromatic Chardonnay/Garnatxa/Moscatel blend Verd d’Albera from Martí Fabra (€17), Chardonnay from Alta Alella (€19), and Orto Vins’ Blanc d’Orto Brisat (€29). Reds feature favourites like Hugas de Batlle’s Coma de Vaixell (€22), grown in giddyingly steep vineyards carved out of the hillsides above Colera, or Finca Garbet (€115) from Perelada’s similarly dramatic terraced site overlooking the Mediterranean, Furvus (€28) from Vinyes Domènech’s enchanted valley above Capçanes and Finca Dofí (€132) from Priorat.

There’s a handful of whites from Rías Baixas, the Duero area and Rioja, while red wines from other regions privilege Ribera del Duero (Alión, €75; Flor de Pingus, €159; Pago de los Capellanes, €45 and Vega Sicilia Unico, €248) and Rioja (Cirsion from Roda, €197, Viña Tondonia from Lopez Heredia, €38). The wine pairing option dips into the list to feature some of these; many are available by the glass. S.S..

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