A taste of history in Cordoba: how chef Paco Morales is taking diners back in time
At his restaurant Noor, Paco Morales depicts the historic cuisine of Moorish Spain through a fine-dining filter.
When it comes to experimental cuisine, El Bulli put Spain on the map. And while the iconic Catalonian restaurant closed its doors more than a decade ago, its influence can still be felt among a generation of chefs and restaurateurs looking to push culinary boundaries ever further.
One such chef is Paco Morales, who returned to his home city of Córdoba in 2016 to open Noor. Morales had left Córdoba aged 17, heading north to work in restaurants such as El Bulli and Mugaritz, because in southern Andalucia, “a culture of big, fine-dining restaurants did not exist.” Since his return, however, he’s been spearheading change, with a distinct culinary concept that’s so far garnered two Michelin stars.
Noor’s menu draws upon the cuisine of Al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled region that covered most of the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth century to the end of the 15th. It does this by only using ingredients that would have been available in Spain during this period, presenting them in dishes that display all the fine-dining flair and technique one might expect from a chef who passed through El Bulli.
Playfully dubbed the world’s first ‘gastroarcheology’ restaurant, Noor commemorates a period of Moorish rule that may historians believe saw Muslims, Jews and Christians coexist in relative harmony. “The challenge wasn’t to create history, but to be able to translate and express it through cooking,” explains Morales. “Time is an ingredient at Noor — that was the difficulty.”
The restaurant’s multi-course tasting menus are the product of meticulous archival research — recipes are developed in conjunction with food historian Rosa Tovar and other local experts who have trawled ancient cookbooks and manuscripts for a clearer picture of Córdoba’s culinary history.
The fruits of this approach can be seen in creations such as Puerta del Perdón, or Door of Forgiveness, a dish named after an architectural feature found in Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral. Comprised of fried brick dough dressed in garlic puree, parsley mayonnaise and coriander, it features the same decorative motifs found on the real door, created using special moulds.
The restaurant’s aesthetic is inspired by the former Caliphate of Córdoba, with plates featuring Islamic geometric designs like those found across the city. Meanwhile, the ceiling of the main restaurant is a skylight framed in spiral shapes, which represents its name (Noor means ‘light’ in Arabic).
While Noor has received plenty of praise for its creativity, Morales claims many locals were initially sceptical — not least his own father, who ran a rotisserie chicken shop in the same neighbourhood until last year. “He didn’t take it very seriously at first,” says Morales. “When my father eventually recognised the project, that was the biggest marker of its success.”
Since its launch, the restaurant has operated in ‘seasons’, each reflecting a different historical period — starting with the 10thcentury Caliphate of Córdoba in 2016. Its current fifth season is a retrospective of the previous four, while upcoming ‘new world’ seasons will see Noor moving beyond the 15th century, allowing the kitchen to use ingredients such as cacao and potato. And, having explored Spain’s own complicated history as a conquered land, the team must now navigate the country’s problematic past as a colonial power.
As such, all eyes remain on Morales. “Noor is like Game of Thrones,” he laughs. “If you don’t know what it’s about, you have to go back and watch the rest or you’re kind of screwed.
“But the great thing is, you never know what will happen next.”
Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller
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