Any restaurant worth its salt makes a point nowadays of serving seasonal food, locally sourced and artfully served. Chef Iolanda Bustos’s restaurant Calèndula in the tiny village of Regencós on Spain’s Costa Brava does all of the above – of course – but takes things up a notch. She purchases, picks and forages locally because it’s in her genes: her knowledge of the edible flowers and herbs of the Empordà region comes from her mother, and from constant experimentation in the kitchen. I love that her food is fundamentally natural, with none of the marketing hooey usually attached to the term.
Because sourcing local and seasonal ingredients is so central to Bustos’s cooking, the menu changes frequently – another reason to visit regularly without danger of déjà-vu. I love the tasting menu (€74 per person): 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. A bonus on my most recent visit was to join the chef for her so-called maridatje amb la natura, a nature walk through the biodynamic vineyard of Sota els Angels, picking wild flowers and herbs under her guidance. We inhaled their aromas, tasted to assess flavour profiles and finished up back at the restaurant with a menu based on our rich pickings.
Depending on the time of year, the menu may feature brilliant orange mussels with saffron mayonnaise cradled on a soot-black rice tuile, or an oyster with strawberry Bloody Mary flecked with deep-blue lovage flowers, or – my favourite – wild snapdragon flowers painstakingly stuffed with a mixture of recuit(ricotta) and anchovies. They come to table in a little vase and you nibble the stuffed flowers directly from the stalk.
I’m always hoping there’ll be a carpaccio of cuttlefish with fava beans topped with a slender potato crisp, sharpened with sorrel and scattered with wild mallow flowers, or some shockingly pink shrimps from the nearby port of Palamós, floating in a pool of almond cream. If I’m in luck, the meat course will bring a nugget of sucking piglet, its crackling skin intact and served with a contrasting quince compote and wild sage flowers.
Recent desserts have run the gamut from crimson sorbet of Barbary figs, startlingly twinned with a sweet/salty crumble dotted with black olives and topped with cistus petals, to a finger of sponge cake imbibed with the chef’s homemade limoncello, slathered in a lemony crème pâtissière and scattered with redcurrants and geranium petals.
True to her philosophy, Bustos focuses extensively (though not exclusively) on wines from around Catalonia. When you’ve wandered through the warm vineyards of Sota els Angels with the chef and the winemakers, picking wild herbs and flowers from beneath the rows of vines, a bottle of soulful white Meravelles (€43), made from Garnatxa and Picapoll grapes, to accompany the tasting menu takes on quite another dimension: nature captured in the bottle and on the plate.