Mari Carmen Vélez
The Essence and Flavors of the Sea
Text: Rodrigo García Fernández /©ICEX
Translation: Jenny McDonald /©ICEX
Photographer: Spanish chef Maria Carmen Vélez. Toya Legido and Tomás Zarza/©ICEX
María del Carmen Vélez is one of those chefs that aim to touch the soul of their customers. As a young girl, she learnt to tell the difference between good and not-so-good produce as she helped her parents, first at their fish stall in the market in Elda (Alicante, Valencian Community) and, later, in a seafood restaurant La Sirena. Located in Petrer, this establishment is just 30 kilometers (18½ miles) from the Alicante coast where it sources its fish, and all around are market gardens providing top-quality fruit and vegetables.
Vélez started to study law but circumstances forced her to leave university and help out in the family business, which she was able to turn around, making it one of the landmarks on the gastronomic map in the east of Spain. Today, La Sirena offers two different types of cuisine – food that continues with tradition, and food that has evolved from tradition to represent what is going on in the contemporary scene. In both, María Carmen Vélez has retained one of the cornerstones of her parent's cooking – nothing but the best of produce, with a special emphasis on fish from the Mediterranean, and shellfish from the Cantabrian Sea. And La Sirena continues to be a family-run establishment, with her husband as maître and sommelier, and her sister Lola, a disciple of Paco Torreblanca , in charge of the desserts station.
The master of alioli
La Sirena’s menu is partly traditional – with rice dishes, suquets (fish stews) and simple dishes offering Alicante flavors and made from prime raw ingredients. To complement these, there are contemporary dishes based on accuracy, creativity and innovation by Vélez. One of her most important contributions to the Spanish culinary panorama has been her focus on aliolis, a traditional sauce from Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, the Valencian Community and some parts of Aragón and Murcia, based on an emulsion made from garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Vélez has carried out a study together with her sister Lola and has found a way of adapting the traditional method for making this sauce, using the lecithin in the egg yolk as the emulsifier for creating a thicker, more attractive sauce. Another difference is that the garlic she uses in alioli is first cooked -in a confit, or grilled over coals.
Her aim is to make lighter sauces that are easier to digest. She has also drawn up a wide range of possible flavors for alioli – herbs, algae, nuts, truffle, chocolate, cheese, vanilla, blood orange or foie gras, all of which take some of the limelight from the garlic. "Alioli must bring together all the different flavors. It should form a harmony of flavors from all the ingredients in the recipe", says Vélez. "It should not just be served to one side of the plate as a garnish".