The cliché version of Andorra is that it consists entirely of private banks, duty-free shops and ski slopes. In fact there is more to this Pyrenean enclave than prejudice might allow – such as its food, which has a variety and quality out of all proportion to the country’s exiguous surface area.
Andorra’s 181 square miles (not much bigger than the Isle of Wight) provide reasons to visit as diverse as Romanesque architecture and wildflower safaris, to which the “Itinerari de les Bordes” adds another: traditional gastronomy. The bordes are stone-built barns, a legacy of Andorra’s rural past, many of which have been converted over the years into rustic restaurants. Now, thanks to an initiative by the national tourist board, 25 borda-restaurants have come together in an informal “route” intended to lure visitors with the promise of authentic food in picturesque settings.
I drove the two and a half hours from Barcelona airport up to Andorra, winding through the foothills and the high sierras of northern Catalunya. A few miles after the well-manned customs point – a novelty in itself in Europe – I turned off the main road towards a borda, the first on my trip, that turned out to be a fine example of the genre.
Borda de les Pubilles stands on the village square of Aixirivall, the eaves of its pitched roof heavy with a late snowfall. The bordes were commonly built of Pyrenean granite on two floors with a black slate roof. The ground floor was used as stabling for cows, horses, and pigs; upstairs was a high-ceilinged hayloft for storing fodder and/or drying tobacco (a traditional cash crop in old Andorra). Antoni Búcar, owner of Les Pubilles, pointed out the three massive pine beams holding up the roof above what is now the dining room, cut from the forests of nearby Peguera when the barn was built in 1790.
I sat down at a table beside a stone wall and watched a whole piglet, splayed on a terracotta roasting dish, emerge from the kitchen and arrive at a table of whooping Frenchmen. The long menu at Les Pubilles told a fascinating story. There were dishes here that harked back to Andorra’s deepest rural past, like trinxat de muntanya – a relative of bubble and squeak, cooked potato and cabbage packed into a cake – and escudella, a soup/stew based on chickpeas with root vegetables, mixed meats and meatballs, eaten in three courses. But there were also French classics such as onion soup, duck confit and fondue savoyarde, as well as hardcore Catalan dishes like canalons and pigs feet with snails. A cultural crossroads is usually also a culinary one, and Andorran food has happily taken on board influences from both its northern and its southern neighbours. It also happens that many of the bordes are now in the hands of Catalan or Spanish owners: Antoni Búcar is from Barcelona, while his wife Pilar hails from Segovia.
The dining room windows framed a wooded hillside with a further horizon of jagged mountains rising behind it, stippled with the timid green of spring’s first pastures. Despite the sprawl of ribbon development that has scarred some of Andorra’s valleys, the consequence of a 30-year building boom, there is still grandeur and beauty in this mountain landscape.
Night and a scattering of snow were falling as I arrived in the small town of Soldeu, in the north-east of the country, up towards the French border. The story of the Calbó family, who exchanged the hardscrabble life of mountain herdsmen for the more lucrative business of owning their own ski resort, seemed like a metaphor for the recent history of the country as a whole.
The family’s five-star Hermitage hotel is a bold statement of luxury involving vast expanses of pine roof and grey slate floor. It also contains an exceptional restaurant, Origen, overseen by Nandu Jubany of the Michelin-starred Can Jubany in Vic, in Catalunya, where my first-night dinner was nothing less than a masterclass in contemporary Catalan cooking, with pumpkin gnocchi and black truffle with parmesan ‘whey’, hare à la royale with foie gras and pears and “evolution of the piña colada”.
But all that seemed a little bit Barcelona. What interested me more was the borda and what it had to say about an agricultural society where every calorie had to be worked for. Fifty years ago the country’s 5,000-strong population (against today’s figure of 80,000) scraped by on subsistence farming, tobacco cultivation and contraband. About eight miles down the road in Encamp – until the mid-20th century a hamlet of 50 souls – I looked round a village house in which the traditional way of life had been preserved in all its touching functionalism. The animals on the ground floor helped to warm the human beings on the floors above. What had the inhabitants fed on? There were clues in the fishing nets and harpoons, for catching trout in mountain lakes and the cellar downstairs for hanging sausages. The traditional country diet of cabbage and potato would have been supplemented by a little pork and beef, game in winter, and wild salads in summer. Olive oil and wine were scarce.
Andorran food has come a long way in a short time. Once-exotic ingredients – such as shellfish, duck, lemons – are now available in the local supermarket. A new-found interest in local ingredients has raised the profile of trumfa, an especially tasty Pyrenean potato, and exceptional Andorran beef and lamb – now promoted and protected under a government quality seal.
It came as a surprise to me that there is Andorran wine, two bodegas now braving the hardships of the Pyrenean climate to produce palatable vins de alçada (high-mountain wines). One morning I visited a vineyard at 1,200m above sea level outside the village of Sant Julià de Lória, where Joan Albert Farré makes a wine called Escol from grapes harvested as late as mid-November. You’d think making wine at this altitude would be a troublesome venture but Farré says global warming is making it easier. The main problem is wild boar steal ing grapes and grubbing up young vines. We stood in the winery with a glass of steely, lime-fresh riesling, looking out at a wide-screen view of craggy peaks and gloomy valleys that was pure Ansel Adams.
Farré’s wine, and the crisp mountain air, had primed my appetite for another stop on the borda route. But which one? The choice was wide. Andorra’s borda-restaurants provide rustic charm and sophistication in varying combinations. Most of them retain elements of their former incarnation, such as feeding troughs and cattle-stalls reborn as private nooks for tables. Some, like Borda Pairal 1630 and Borda de l’Avi, have become rather urbane and upmarket with the passing years, while others have stayed truer to their rustic roots. It’s worth seeking out those that still make a big deal of hard-to-find Andorran specialities such as cuts of meat cooked a la llosa – sizzled on a slab of slate heated over the fire. Borda Estevet, on the outskirts of Andorra La Vella, is especially worth the detour for its heartfelt interpretations of wild boar civet, a dark dense casserole, and a fine trinxat served with the black pudding butifarra.
The Moli dels Fanals, a famous old borda in the village of Sispony, was a tip-off from a local who had high praise for the culinary skills of Dolors Abad i Bellsolà, cook at the borda for the past 32 years. This borda was a grand old building; its inner walls were black with age. Dolors came out of the kitchen and showed me round, explaining how the hayloft windows were once open to the cold dry mountain air.
The lesson of this journey was that Andorra offered plenty to do, and eat, without needing to go near either a duty-free shop nor a ski slope. Between borda and borda there are museums to see, and Pyrenean pastures like those of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valley (a Unesco World Heritage site occupying about 10 per cent of the country’s surface area) to be hiked in spring, when a riot of wildflowers can be safely predicted. The country’s cultural heritage includes 55 Romanesque churches, many of them guarding medieval artworks of grave and simple beauty.
I finished my trip among the grey granite lanes of the capital, Andorra La Vella, at the Hostal Cisco de Sans, recommended to me in a grocer’s shop as the place to find a proper home-cooked Andorran lunch. Two sisters, Fanny and Meri Riera, ran the tiny dining room while their mother Rosa worked away in the kitchen. Her repertoire took in snails, frogs legs, onion soup, but also “mountain rice”, pigs trotters, and fillet of local beef.
I devoured a bowlful of garlicky meatballs in a rich sauce while Meri chatted about life in these valleys when her mother was a girl. The staples were trinxat and escudella, naturally, but what I didn’t know was that squirrels, in a kind of paella, sometimes formed a savoury adjunct to the monotonous rural diet.
“There’s a lot of Andorra to Andorra,” said Meri as she cleared my table. “It may be just a little scrap of a place but it’s got its own story.”
Paul Richardson was a guest of Andorra Turisme and www.carrentals.co.uk (which offers four days’ car hire from £38, picking up at Barcelona airport). For details of the ‘bordes’ mentioned, see www.andorra.ad