Feasting on Botanical Cuisine Prepared With Foraged Flowers and Herbs
August 4, 2013 by Robin Plaskoff Horton
Like the nearby open fields where La Calendula’s owner/chef Iolanda Bustos forages for flowers and herbs, her restaurant’s exposed kitchen resembles a verdant theater in the round, a center stage surrounded by the colorful bounty she gathers every day between lunch and dinner seatings.
At the Girona restaurant, about an hour northeast of Barcelona, the wild plants Bustos collects become the main ingredients and colorful garnishes for every dish she prepares, botanical works of art that are not only edible, they are gastronomic experiences that treat both the palate and the eye.
When I visited Girona, Bustos invited me and my two Spanish friends to sample her botanical cuisine. More than a meal, it was a multi-sensory experience and a narrative of times past, before “farm to table” and “garden to glass” existed, back when it was just considered normal to cook with what one plucked wild from the earth or grew in the garden.
Cooking this way, Bustos told me, is in her blood. She grew up on a farm in the small Catalan village of Palau Sator where everyone, she recalled, foraged for herbs and flowers. While working as her mother’s sous chef in the family’s traditional restaurant, Bustos began to cook with the flowers from the landscape that remains today her source of inspiration and creativity.
But after years in the family kitchen, Bustos said she was ready to leave, thinking, “I will never work in a restaurant again. I wanted to be free.” She subsequently studied public relations and tourism, then at municipal job where she worked with some botanists, began to have a renewed interest in plants and in her own ethnobotanical story. “I wanted to tell everyone,” said Bustos about sharing her knowledge,”to educate people and preserve and record this story for young people.” In 2009, after taking post-degree courses in cooking and nutrition, she and her husband opened La Calendula.
Much smaller than its sibling city Barcelona, Girona has become kind of a culinary mecca. It’s the home of El Cellar de Can Roca, recently publicized as “the world’s best restaurant.” I’m not sure who has the authority to determine and proclaim that, but nonetheless the label has made it impossible to get a table there even if you know someone, which I did. I’ll save that story for another time.
At La Calendula, you will not find a luxury setting or a pretentious performance. It is a simple, yet very unique epicurean adventure, one where you are certain to taste things you have never tried.
As a prelude to our forthcoming feast, the waiter filled our glasses with Bustos-vinted Sparking Elderflower bubbly and we whet our palates with a savory mix of fried flowers.
Bustos and her husband produce the botanical sparkling wine for Beuflor, their brand of all natural beverages made from herbs, flowers, and berries. We never saw a menu, but my dining partners and I enjoyed course after course created with one or more flowers and herbs, each served up with a description as unique as their ingredients, and all washed down with Gala de Flors, a Beuflor-brewed craft beer made from hibiscus, marigold, and elderflower.
Bustos believes beautiful presentation is nearly as important as taste, not just for visual pleasure, but for making people comfortable trying unfamiliar ingredients.
Our meal began with a perfectly chilled tomato and strawberry soup topped with a dollop of blue cheese “ice cream,” and garnished with a “shower of petals.” Although I can recognize the more familiar blooms like peppery Nasturtiums, minty Pansies, and rose petals, I probably could not tell a Hollyhock from a Hyssop, and if I did recognize one, I might not recall the name. So it was a good thing that Angels Artigas Claret, a local floral designer and friend of Busco’s, was at the table to identify the unreported varieties whose names we sometimes had trouble translating.
I’d almost licked my soup bowl clean when a pumpkin coulant arrived–something akin to a soufflé with a runny center. This one was stuffed with Brie and rose petals, and all I could think was, “how did she ever think of this?”
As a main course, Bustos prepared an interpretation of Bacalao al Pil Pil, a traditional Basque dish of Atlantic Cod with Pil Pil, a sauce made from the olive oil in which the fish was cooked, garlic and very small, hot peppers or guindillas. Her twist on the dish included a very creative blend of marigolds (calendula!), almonds, and sour apple. Delicious.
Just as were all admitting to feeling a bit full, out came an Apple Cannelloni stuffed with Catalan Sausage on a bed of pesto of flowers. We each agreed we could not possible finish it, yet all submitted to our taste buds and cleaned our plates. I was sure this one had been my favorite dish. Until dessert.
Calendula’s staff granted us a few minutes respite before presenting a large edible collage of sweets including a rose-infused chocolate cake, orange and almond cake dusted with cocoa, toffee brownie, and a smooth chocolate and peanut ice cream with mint–a very sweet final touch to this botanical gastronomy experience.
Both Bustos and the Calendula are native to the restaurant’s Mediterranean Catalan region. She named her establishment after the flower hoping that her endeavor would embody the same strength and beauty and grow in abundance like the bright orange blossom.
When asked what was on her plate moving forward, Bustos shared that investors have approached her offering to finance a Barcelona outpost of La Calendula. “But I don’t want a big fancy restaurant,” she explained. “And in the city, how would I forage like do here only a few minutes from the restaurant?”
Her dream is to have a small farm restaurant in the countryside, surrounded by animals and gardens where she can pick flowers, herbs, and vegetables right outside her door. “I don’t want to be a big famous chef,” says Bustos. “I want to cook.”
All photos via Robin Plaskoff Horton for Urban Gardens, unless otherwise noted. This is an original Urban Gardens post. Please link back to us when reposting. Note: I was a guest of the restaurant, but all opinions are my own.