Queen of Saffron
Text: Rodrigo García Fernández /©ICEX
Translation: Jenny McDonald /©ICEX
Image: Spanish chef María José San Román. Toya Legido and Tomás Zarza/©ICEX
María José San Román forms part of a select group of women chefs who over recent years have firmly placed the provinces of Alicante and Valencia on the Spanish haute cuisine map. Other members of this food-centered club are Mari Carmen Vélez , Susi Díaz, Pepa Romans and Anna María Santoyo.
María José San Román owns Monastrell, a restaurant in the city center of Alicante that bears a Michelin star. The name chosen reflects one of this chef's priorities - the best local produce. Monastrell is the black grape that is native to the province of Alicante and neighboring Murcia, to which she pays tribute in her extensive wine list.
This chef, who acknowledges that her vocation revealed itself late in life, is completely devoted to culinary creation and the study of the ingredients she uses. Examples are her updating of the traditional rice dishes of eastern Spain, and her research into the culinary uses of Alicante pomegranates. But the best-known of her activities has been the study of saffron and new applications for it. This research and development is being carried out in conjunction with the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha(Castile-La Mancha being the growing area for the world-famous Azafrán de La Mancha saffron) and the company Verdú Cantó Saffron Spain.
The aim was to show that this spice, one of the earliest on record , could offer much more than a touch of flavor and a bright color. Her conclusions indicate that it can enhance other ingredients in a recipe, and a possibility for transmitting the flavor of saffron without its smell is to make infusions in oil, such as olive oil. "Saffron is the secret ingredient in many dishes and, now that we can conceal its smell, the mystery is growing", she jokes, during a talk at the Madridfusión congress. The New York Times found this research fascinating and, during a stay by the chef in New York, devoted an article to her in its Food &Wine section. From Monastrell to the gastrobarCertain distinguishing features can be noted in the gastronomy on offer at Monastrell. San Roman's dishes recover the tradition of local flavors but appear in state-of-the-art guises. Her essentially Mediterranean cuisine is healthy, light and surprising.
María José San Román is also responsible, together with her daughter Geni Perramón, for La Taberna del Gourmet, an establishment in Alicante that can be described as a gastrobar. This is a culinary movement that arose in Spain towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century and aims to reinterpret the traditional concept of a tapas bar by offering auteur cuisine. Other examples of gastrobars are Estado Puro under Paco Roncero in Madrid, Tapas 24 under Carles Abellan in Barcelona and La Moraga under Dani García in Málaga.