A La Mesa: cutting edge cooking at the Spanish table

The Spanish are a terribly stylish bunch. Not only do they like to take lunch breaks that last several hours and involve a leisurely nap, eat dinner at 10pm and go out dancing at 3am, but they have also redefined the global gastronomic landscape in the last decade, making their French and Italian neighbours look like stuck-in-the-muds and lazy-bones respectively.

Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame led the way in this new approach to the business of eating, so it’s only right that his influence is strongly felt in a new exhibition celebrating the Spanish relationship between food and design, currently running in Dublin’s Cervantes Instituto. (As well as the main exhibit which is free, and open until late January, the Institute are hosting an exciting series of free talks, seminars and screenings. More anon.)

But back to El Bulli. I remember some six years ago, in my first few weeks on the editorial team of FOOD&WINE Magazine, being invited along to a Jim Beam cocktail demo involving the sous chef from El Bulli. One of the techniques being demonstrated was their groundbreaking spherification process, in which they use the reaction between natural extracts (sodium alginate and calcium) to suspend liquid within itself by forming self-contained droplets or bubbles. Having mastered the technique, the world becomes your caviar, literally, with anything from melon caviar or apple caviar to Coca Cola caviar, if that’s your bag (it was Jim Beam’s bag). Frivolous for sure, and just the kind of cheffy technique that winds up the kind of diner who likes to know they’ll leave well fed. Sure, no-one got fat or full on melon caviar, eh?

Still though, I’ll never forget the bowl of olives I grazed on, in the balmy Catalonian evening air of El Bulli’s terrace a year or so later when I managed to snag a table at what was the officially recognised as the World’s Best Restaurant at the time. Popping said olive in my mouth, it burst open to reveal a wash of delicious liquid olive essence. It sounds wrong, and in many senses it was, but it was also fun in a Willy Wonka kind of way and (most importantly) really rather tasty too.

Other ‘amuse bouche‘ elements served up that evening ahead of our 18-course menu included little frozen biscotti ‘cooked’ in seconds on a teppannitro grill. A what? Think teppanyaki (Japanese style grill which cooks food very very quickly at very high temperatures) and now add liquid nitrogen instead of heat. Now pour a little fruit puree onto this teppannitro grill, and in seconds you have your frozen biscotti. It’s up to you what exotic fruit you use: Ferran Adria favours soursop or guanabana.

Unlike Willy Wonka, chef Adria believes in sharing his knowledge – on his own terms of course. While El Bulli was still in its prime (it has since closed its doors indefinitely) hundreds of already skilled and talented chefs came from all around the world to work unpaid stages with the master of molecular gastronomy, as this approach to cuisine is known. Together with his brother Albert he also developed a series of ‘Texturas‘ products which these disciples could use on their return home to reproduce his techniques in their kitchens. And he produced books revealing these secrets, and welcomed cameras in to his kitchens to capture the magic.

If you never got a chance to travel to northern Spain and experience the El Bulli world firsthand, you could visit the Cervantes Instituto next Wednesday 16 November for the 6pm screening of the documentary, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. Get there a little early, and check out the exhibition, A La Mesa, which was curated by designer Martin Azua. Don’t miss the reproduction of Ferran Adria’s table, a visual representation of many of those fantastical techniques and inventions. You can check out his Texturas products too.

Bu there’s lots more in the exhibition from all sorts of Spanish designers, ranging from the practical (silicon citrus squeezers that preserve the cut lemon, serving trays with cut-out spaces for elbows, foldable drainer stands, colanders and chopping boards) to the frivolous (‘virtual’ chocolates, which you smell rather than eat) to the utopian (solar cooking stations). There’s much that is playful (puzzle dinner trays which aim to teach children how to lay a table) and much that is beautiful (tableware inspired by natural formation patterns of water or snow).

Ferran Adria himself won’t be making an appearance, but there will be talks with other chefs, including one of the pair behind Galician eatery, Abastos 2.0, which was named Most Innovative Restaurant at Madrid Fusión 2011 – no small achievement in a country boasting an extra-ordinary ratio of extra-ordinarily innovative chefs. That talk will take place on Monday at 6pm, and I’ll be moderating it, so if you do come along, I look forward to fielding your questions. I’ll certainly have a few.

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