The rolling green hills and open skies of Córdoba, a 90-minute drive from the eponymous capital, set the scene for one of the province’s top dining spots. Setting up shop in La Cumbre wasn’t exactly a bed of roses for chef Santiago Blondel so it’s no mean feat that he is notching up Gapasai’s tenth anniversary this year.
It’s these very rolling hills – and beyond – that inspired him a decade ago. Flick back to Argentina in the late 1980s when a young Santi would scamper about the campo, liberated from school rules in Buenos Aires and free to roam the land every summer while vacationing at the family holiday home. It’s this countryside that today provides the inspiration and ingredients that are key to Gapasai.
Santi doesn’t care that he drives a shitty old banger to go foraging or pick up a box of freshly caught river prawns; on the contrary, he’s proud of the sacrifices he makes. He’s equally proud of the mud-brick house he constructed with his wife; the Teletubby-esque abode’s garden is chock full of herbs, fruit trees, and vegetables.
The chef’s story begins when, from the age of 18, Santiago started traveling the world to gain kitchen experience in Spain and Australia. It wasn’t until he returned to Argentina, however, that fate forced his hand.
He says: “I came back to get a visa with the idea of making Australia a permanent fixture but it turned out the paperwork would take a year to come through! I needed to come up with a plan and saw potential in the family holiday home’s play room.”
Inspired by fine-dining establishments such as the now-closed El Bulli and Mugaritz, restaurants that create travel destinations, Santiago vowed to put La Cumbre on the map. Today, 20-seat Gapasai exclusively deals in ingredients sourced from La Cumbre and the surrounding countryside, where hills and rivers converge, sports hunters release their pent-up energies on wood pigeons and medicinal herbs and plants bounce around in the breeze.
While he had the advantage of bricks and mortar to play around with in the early days, regardless Santiago pulled out all the stops to ensure Gapasai would work in such a remote zone. “Once I converted the playroom into a kitchen and salon myself, I then lived upstairs and would go back and forth between Menorca during the European summer to make ends meet. That went on for a few seasons.
“Plus, ten years ago, it was hard to simply get the message out that we had opened. Journalists didn’t tend to focus on local cuisine back then and the general public wasn’t really interested in gastronomy.”
Interest levels have changed, fortunately, and while the challenge of getting punters out to La Cumbre remains, Gapasai comes armed with a hugely important weapon: a three-room B&B with extensive 180-degree views of Valle de Punilla and a tempting #pooloftheday to cope with those balmy Córdoba summers. Getting home from dinner has never been so easy.
Maintaining three gardens and orchards depending on the time of year, Santiago might be growing quinoa, amaranth, maize, an array of pumpkins, Jerusalem artichokes and carrots at any given moment, also tended by his right-hand woman, sister Inés. But his heart lies in foraging. He adds: “I’m really into gathering local herbs right now.
Medicinal and edible herbs really stand out in the zone and I discover culinary herbs all the time. Other local highlights include river fish and river prawns – I make a delicious risotto with those – as well as game birds, honey and carob. I make a syrup with chañar bark [a small deciduous tree], which I then use for ice-cream.”
While he doesn’t fish or hunt himself, he works with different providers, who, depending on their efforts, unwittingly dictate the flow of Gapasai’s tasting menu. Santiago says: “I get a call from a fisherman who says ‘I’m going out today,’ then he calls back to say he caught some boga: I then drive 30 or 40 kilometers to collect them. What that means, however, is that the menu is alive because it totally depends on product availability.”
With spring in the air, foodies should kick off dinner at Gapasai with cocktails and charcuterie on the terrace overlooking the valley before sampling the nine-step Ciclos tasting menu. Dishes start with seeds and work their way up through the ground to roots, leaves, fruits and finally back to seeds. Underground might star onion dressed up as focaccia, crunchy ash and caramelized ice-cream combined with a beetroot and ginger soup while Leaves might showcase eucalyptus granita, thyme foam and peppermint meringue.
To mark Gapasai’s tenth anniversary, Santiago has been cooking with an array of foodie friends including Gonzalo Aramburu of Aramburu, Ale Feraud of Alo’s, and Pedro Bargero of Chila. But in December, he’ll be throwing a big old fiesta and paint La Cumbre red. You heard it here first.