CORDOBA: To have missed out on the first four seasons of Noor is akin to having started watching Games of Thrones directly in its fifth season. That’s an analogy Paco Morales, chef patron of Noor makes as he now enters the age of discovery or exploration as the 15th century is often known.
Today you can say Paco is riding the crest of the wave. For five years, since opening his restaurant Noor, or Light as it is translated into English, he has constrained himself to explore his city’s glorious past limiting the scope of space and time while following a clear time path. Since 2015, when the restaurant opened, he has served guests a taste of Cordoba’s culinary history researching past centuries starting from the 10th century,
Paco chose a suburb where he grew up to open his restaurant. It is a modest neighbourhood that also reflects Paco’s modest past. The neighbourhood was build in the 1950s and it would take years before it had power, telephones and paved streets. It is in this neighbourhood that Paco has returned to prove to himself and his father that he has what it takes to create a touch of magical realism.
He returned home after successful stints with Spain’s top chefs Andoni Luis and Ferran Adria among others to create a project that to this date remains one of the most unique in the culinary world.
Under the caliphate of Cordoba, Al-Andalus was a beacon of learning and the city, the largest in Europe. It became one of the leading cultural and economic centres throughout the Mediterranean basin, Europe and the Islamic world. That is still very much in evidence as you walk the narrow streets of the centre of Cordoba. Its streets are lined with orange trees wherever you look and architecture that blends Roman, Arab, Jewish and Christian influences, a stroll around the city and particularly in the Mezquita, a mosque turned into a Cathedral gives you a sense of the grandness of the history the city is steeped in.
Paco might not be someone who liked studying in the past but today he could easily be described as one of the world’s leading culinary archeologists at least for the Mediterranean part of the world. Since the start of the project he has teamed with a historian Rosa Tovar to research the culinary history of the region and to create menus that give a sense of time and space like nowhere else in the world.
Guests who have visited the restaurant in the early years might have even found it difficult to understand Paco’s cuisine because the chef was aware that not everyone going to the restaurant was necessarily interested in story-telling. He therefore needed to thread carefully in those first years. Some even could question why a talented chef should impose imaginary constraints on himself. But what Paco wanted to create was not just a restaurant but rather a cultural project that transcends what a restaurant should be.
His dream is that of rediscovering an important part of Spain’s history in order to showcase it using a contemporary approach.
And it is in these constraints that Paco’s talent has shined. That talent is still very much visible in the new menu. Take the dessert of carob which Paco has worked with in past menus from different centuries between the 10th and the 14 century. He used it as a replacement to chocolate which was not available in the region until the discovery of the Americas at the end of the 15th century. The carob dessert, today is a star in its own right but the knowledge that this was created through the constraints Paco placed on himself makes it all the more special.
His repertoire in the first years of the restaurant had many constraints. And it is thanks to these constraints that Paco’s cuisine has such a unique identity. He would use citrus fruits, olives, spinach, eggplants, carrots, pine nuts, almonds, saffron and carob to give a few examples but there was no such thing as tomatoes, cocoa, chocolate, potatoes or peppers because these had not come to Europe or Andalusia at the time. Those were only brought to Europe after Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas.
Paco Morales, today has clearly established himself as one of the leading lights of Spanish cuisine. As he told us during a stroll in the centre of Cordoba, the importance of Ferran Adria for the culinary world was not in the techniques he created but rather in enabling a whole generation of chefs to think creatively.
That creative thought process is constantly visible at Noor. Researching the region’s past opens the doors to Paco’s creative process. It has also helped him to discover long lost habits or ingredients. One such example is a garum with the same intensity of the colatura di alici but one which had no fish but used barley instead.
Walking into the restaurant is like taking a trip through Cordoba and Spain’s past. Combine it with a walk among the narrow streets of Cordoba or a visit to its impressive Mesquita (a mosque turned cathedral) and it is like you are stepping back in time. But it is also an exercise into the realm of possibility.
With a number of dishes like almond curd with 100% Venezuelan Araguani cocoa mass, the karim of pistacchio, the use of citrus in his dishes and a white prawn marinated with carob he is also showcasing Cordoba’s and Andalucia’s future. While steeped in the past, Paco’s cuisine is far from traditional. He is using today’s techniques to showcase what the future of Andalucian cuisine with its Moorish influence can look like in future.
Today, 5 years after the opening of the restaurant, Paco has no idea what the end game for the restaurant will be. To use the Game of Thrones analogy, he is still writing one chapter after another. When asked (you can read an interview with Paco soon) what the future holds for the restaurant and whether at some point the project will lose its scope because all ingredients will become available, Paco says that there are many possibilities that he is discussing with his team including going back to the past or even examining different influences within the centuries.
This new menu may have less constraints from the past but its still an anthropological study of a time forgotten.Together with items from the previous seasons, there is a glimpse of where Paco and his team will take the restaurant in the coming months and years. With the discovery of the Americas, there is the use of avocado, tomatoes, potatoes, black mole. There is a pigeon dish with a chocolate preparation incorporating a pigeon pate that is nothing short of exceptional. As they say well-designed constraints improve creativity. Noor and Paco Morales clearly prove the theory correct.