Page last updated at 22:07 GMT, Monday, 19 October 2009 23:07 UK

Spaniards feed on hard times

By Nikita Gulhane
Roses, Girona

It is impossible not to see the kitchens at El Bulli.

El Bulli
El Bulli operates a lottery for its 8,000 seats per year.

A huge window by the entrance gives diners a view of the dozens of white apron-clad chefs working below.

Enter the kitchen, and there is no wall of heat to blast the face, no clattering of pots, no shouting. There is barely even any smell.

Plate after sculptured plate is calmly and quietly assembled with small piles of ingredients. It is clean, spacious, artistic even.

This is where Catalan chef Ferran Adria i Acosta - acknowledged by critics and fellow chefs as one of the world's most influential chefs in many a generation - plies his trade.

El Bulli has topped the best restaurant list for the past five years, but it is not just Mr Adria's menu with its crunchy rabbit ears, sliced anemone or hazelnut oil on water, that make this Spanish gourmet restaurant stand out.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this establishment is that in spite of a tasting menu priced at 230 euros ($344; £209), plus wine, El Bulli is not only fully booked, it is even operating a lottery system to decide which of the more than a million applicants will be allowed to take up one of the 8,000 seats available each year.

Budget cuts

El Bulli's performance stands in sharp contrast to the experiences of many other fine dining enterprises at both ends of the Pyrenean belt, from San Sebastian in the west to Barcelona in the east.

Barcellona window shoppers
Barcelona's crowded streets are full of window shoppers.

Here, a wealth of Michelin-starred restaurants provides homes to some of the biggest names in global gastronomy, a fact that used to attract food lovers from all over the world.

These days, though, most of the restaurants are suffering a drop in custom.

Some have even decided to stop serving lunch as the fondness in Spain for the two-hour business lunch is suppressed by budget cuts.

Cautious customers

Mr Adria's cooking at El Bulli also appears to mirror the Spanish economy, in that nothing is quite as it appears.

In Barcelona's busiest shopping district, the crowds remain as big as ever. But hardly anyone is laden down with shopping bags.

August saw the first increase in the annual change of the overall consumer price index since July 2008, though spending on clothing and footwear fell 0.8% compared with the previous month, according to national statistics.

Tapas bars
Tapas bars account for some 70% of all food service outlets.

It is tough for big chains such as Zara and El Corte Ingles, but it is even worse in the old town with its narrow streets crammed with boutiques.

In Oroliquido, a small gastronomic paradise, manager Maria Antonia Espinall gently cradles a bottle of olive oil priced at 70 euros for half a litre.

Wistfully she remarks how it was not that long ago people did not even bother looking for the price.

"Now everyone is cautious," she says.

Less spent on food

In Spain, eating out is a deep-rooted pastime and very much a family affair.

In 2007, Spaniards spent on average 2,700 euros eating at bars, cafes and restaurants.

This year, people are tightening their belts.

Market research group Euromonitor International has had to revise an earlier prediction of a 1.3% fall in sales in the food sector as a whole.

Now consultant Ingrid Vergel believes that figure could be closer to 5% by the end of this year.

But this does not mean Spaniards have stopped going out. Instead, many cut back on fine dining, instead choosing cheaper eateries.

Booming tapas

Tapas bars are two a penny in Spain, accounting for some 70% of the total food service outlets.

Ferran Adria
In a period of crisis, that's when you need to be more creative and look for ways to move forward
Ferran Adria i Acosta

Popular with locals and tourists alike, they are cheaper than eating in restaurants and have a much greater appeal than global fast-food brands.

Often serving very simple and traditional food in bite-sized portions, many have benefited from people's changing habits.

If the losers during the recession have been fine restaurants, the winners can be found here, lining the streets of Barcelona where many tapas bars have formed a frontline of gastronomic creativity, having attracted some of the city's most innovative chefs to devise intriguing combinations of ingredients.

Judging by the hopefuls still queuing outside Tapac 24 at quarter to midnight on a Monday, they are worth the wait.

Do or die

Lunch costing more than 60 euros per head has taken a big hit, according to Sergi Ferrer-Salat, owner of Monvinic, arguably Barcelona's most innovative wine bar and restaurant.

"Business is down by a third," he says. "People are bowing to their wallets."

And even though it pains him to admit it, customers are also cutting back on the wine.

Many of the city's best chefs, Mr Ferrer-Salat included, have responded by opening bistros that offer much lower prices, yet retain much of the style and finesse found in their Michelin-listed restaurants.

The turn-around in the bistros is quicker; a meagre one hour sitting, but being able to adapt is essential for anyone who wants to survive the recession, Mr Ferrer-Salat says.

"Businesses and customers have had to grow up," he says.

"Yes it's been painful because the demand has changed, but on the plus side at least there still is one."

El Bulli's Mr Adria agrees.

"In a period of crisis, that's when you need to be more creative and look for ways to move forward and not stagnate, as this could be worse," he says.



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