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Fina Puigdevall Nogareda: Catalonia’s volcanic chef

Fina Puigdevall: Catalonia’s volcanic chef

by Great British Chefs 24 October 2018

As owner and head chef of Restaurant Les Cols in Olot, Girona, Fina Puigdevall has become one of the region’s most well-known chefs. By championing ‘volcanic’ cuisine, she has turned a stunning Catalan farmhouse into both an architectural wonder and bastion of local produce, attracting diners from all over the world. We talk to her to find out more.

Catalonia is home to one of the most varied, fascinating and beautiful landscapes in Europe – so it makes sense that the food of the region reflects that. There’s fish and seafood from the coast and incredible Mediterranean ingredients grown all over the area. In the north, however, sunny climes turn into Pyrenees mountain ranges – and it’s here you’ll find some of Catalonia’s most interesting cooking.

The chef championing this part of Catalonia like no other is Fina Puigdevall, who has held two Michelin stars at her restaurant Les Cols since 2010. She was born and raised in La Garrotxa – the name given to this part of Catalonia – and ever since she opened Les Cols back in 1990, Fina has become a pioneer of the region’s food and drink.

‘When I first opened this restaurant with my husband it was small, but after ten years we started to change everything on both a culinary and aesthetic level,’ she explains. ‘We wanted to make it into our dream restaurant, so we brought nature indoors by allowing more sunlight into the dining room. The most recent change was the addition of La Carpa (‘The Canopy’) seven years ago, which accommodates around 240 people for big celebrations.’

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Les Cols is housed within a traditional Catalan farmhouse…
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…but Fina and her husband worked with RCR Arquitectes to create a contemporary glass-walled dining room and kitchen towards the back, which has won prizes for its design

The changes to the restaurant over the years have turned Les Cols into an architectural wonder; the old Catalan farmhouse has been extended with a glass-fronted dining room and kitchen which perfectly represents the traditional-meets-contemporary food on offer. Outside is a chicken coop, allotment and fruit orchard, which is where Fina grows and harvests her most prized ingredients. RCR Arquitectes, which designed the space, won the Pritzker Prize in 2017 for it, and Les Cols regularly features in design magazines. Ask Fina, however, and it’s the ingredients that make the restaurant truly stand out.

‘We love using local produce, which is why you won’t see any seafood in our kitchen (Olot, where Les Cols is based, is not by the sea) – we use canned or salted fish instead,’ she says. ‘I like to focus my attention on just one product, without too many ingredients on the plate. My dishes are usually monochromatic or at least within the same colour range, which makes them look very neutral and simple. I think there’s a very thin line between a great dish and an average one, and I love it when you manage to make something great.’

Cooking at a two-star level means that Fina’s dishes are anything but rustic, despite the focus being on showcasing the indigenous ingredients and flavours of La Garrotxa. Eggs from the restaurant’s chickens are put centre stage in one dish, for example, but they’re accompanied by a cornmeal porridge, freeze-dried corn and a corn crust. These advanced techniques, combined with Fina’s monochromatic style of plating, result in some seriously accomplished and beautiful dishes. But without the larder of La Garrotxa, the flavour wouldn’t be the same, and being a mountainous region, it’s vital to follow the seasons.

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Fina's dishes at Les Cols often look minimalist and simple – although the processes used to create them are seriously complex
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Local ingredients such as buckwheat – seen here as a spiral of spaghetti in mushroom broth – are championed above all else

‘We have an allotment nearby at Vall de Bianya as well as a research and development centre where we come up with dishes depending on what’s ready to harvest,’ explains Fina. ‘Seasons are so important, as there are certain times when things taste best and contain the most vitamins. We’ve built up some great relationships with our suppliers over the twenty-eight years we’ve been here, and now we can get things like wild strawberries and asparagus when they’re at their peak. We have a guy we call ‘Mr Quality’ who brings us the exact mushrooms we want when they’re nice and small. We know someone else who goes up into the mountains to fish for river trout, and another person hunts hare and wild boar for us. You can only get these ingredients once you have built up a trusted relationship with people.’

Of course, many chefs all over the world follow the seasons when creating dishes, but Fina goes one step further. She is one of the pioneers of ‘volcanic cuisine’; a movement designed to champion the ingredients of La Garrotxa and how the local soil impacts their flavour. This is what makes Fina an internationally renowned chef, and has helped put this part of Catalonia on the culinary map.

‘The volcanic cuisine movement was created a few years ago, when we got together with a few other restaurants in La Garrotxa to help spread awareness of the local produce. The soil here has a certain way of retaining water and imparts a unique flavour onto the ingredients grown in it, which is why we love to use them in our cooking so much. Some of the most iconic volcanic ingredients are Santa Pau beans, which are PDO-protected, as well as walnuts, turnips, chestnuts, pumpkins and a wide range of potatoes. Round here you also get many different kinds of mushrooms, which change depending on the season.’

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The kitchen at Les Cols is modern and sleek, with a team of chefs ensuring each dish is the best it can be
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With so many courses served as part of the tasting menus, it's important that all the chefs work as one well-oiled machine

Today, regional cooking is all the rage, but before volcanic cuisine was conceived chefs in La Garrotxa weren’t shouting about their incredible produce as much as they could’ve been. ‘When we started, French cuisine was much more popular than Catalan, but we wanted to have a cheese trolley that was entirely made up of local cheeses,’ says Fina. ‘At the beginning it was hard to find enough cheeses to even fill it, but today there are so many. We have amazing charcuterie in Olot, too, because there are so many pig farmers around here. All our menus start with pork, cured meats or buckwheat, which is the most common cereal in La Garrotxa.’

A meal at Les Cols is one of the best ways to experience the flavours of La Garrotxa, with extensive tasting menus touching on every aspect of the local cuisine through little tastes of the region’s produce. The aforementioned buckwheat is clearly a very important staple in this part of Catalonia, being presented in a variety of ways, as are the Santa Pau PDO-protected beans, which are described as ‘the caviar of La Garrotxa’. And while these ingredients would no doubt be delicious wherever you are in the world, it’s the volcanic soil and climate of the mountains that makes them truly special; something few of us would know about if it wasn’t for chefs like Fina.

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