Sunday, May 23, 2010

MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY

There must be something in the water in Spain, birthplace of at least two famous chefs who practice food physics: José Andrés, who has eight restaurants in the US and Ferran Adrià who, of course, has El Bulli.  Considered the best restaurant in the world in 2007, 2008, 2009, El Bulli, became famous for Adria’s so-called molecular gastronomy, his use of tools such as precision scales, liquid nitrogen, centrifuges and chemicals to create dishes that taste as unusual as they look:  solid-looking raisins are really spherified drops of sweet sherry, a thin membrane having been chemically created around the liquid.  Seemingly-solid olives are really deconstructed, emulsified and spherified olives.  There are unexpected temperatures (little balls of frozen egg yolk) and interesting flavours and textures like monkfish livers with sake-infused grapes, vanilla-flavoured mashed potatoes, tartare of marrow and green tea, a raspberry butterfly on yoghurt covered in liquorice powder, beetroot-yoghurt meringues, black sesame sponge cake with the texture of crumbling lace, violets with nectar and tobacco-flavoured blackberry crushed ice.
    Lest you want to rush over to Spain to try some of the above, be aware that El Bulli will close on July 30, 2011 and will re-open in 2014 as a "gastronomic think tank" exploring further experimental gastronomy.
   Both Adrià and Andrés have lectured at Harvard University. In December 2008, Adrià demonstrated "caviar" of melon droplets and "pasta" made of ham. While there, he signed a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to collaborate on gastronomic science with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
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                                                      ^ Art: Guiseppe Arcimboldo>
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    Meanwhile, in America, José Andrés, has bravely introduced the "small plate" dining concept and opened a chain of restaurants, including Minibar, Cafe Atlantico, Jaleo, and Zatinya.  It's possible that this concept won’t catch on with American diners, who tend to prefer the "large platter" dining concept.  Andrés does the same sort of things Adrià does: culinary foams and gels, odd temperatures, strange flavour and texture combinations.
    Then there is Heston Blumenthal's THE FAT DUCK in Bray, Berkshire, which serves sardine-on-toast sorbet, snail porridge, various froths and foams and bacon-and-egg ice cream.  
   Even though some of them are just plain silly, I like some aspects of molecular gastronomy enabled by new technology (candied cilantro, frozen honey), take a look at this.  But why all this taste deception and culinary disguise?  I’m not against adventures in taste or texture, I'd try these taste-pranks for fun, but I object to fooling my palate and torturing food like this on a regular basis.  Are food cocktails better than savouring flavours individually?  I don't think so.  I don't really want my palate to be surprised or bewildered by food that’s been foamed, frozen, gelled, frothed, emulsified, acidified, artificially colored, or chemically enhanced.  And besides, wine can’t be matched to this motley molecular cuisine.  Eating fine food with fine wine is one of life’s great pleasures and shouldn’t be messed with.  The novelty of eating something hot that you expected to be cold, something sweet you expected to be savoury and vice versa quickly wears off, whereas the  euphoria created by a lusty meal of ordinary food and wine lasts for days.
    And if we’re considering culinary adventures, why not explore all the less familiar foods that we rarely get to taste?  Like goat eyes, octopus beak, snail eggs, cock combs, hedgehog, kangaroo tail, crocodile or snake?  
    But, whatever the cuisine, food exploration is something we should start in school.  Nobody should grow up thinking fast food is all there is.  Our palate and throat need educating too and we should learn that food and wine can be so much more than mere fuel.  Teachers at Pembroke College, Cambridge dine well but is should be the students who do.  It's not such a wild idea though, food could be used to teach chemistry and physics and, along the way, an appreciation for gastronomy.  After all, this chemical cuisine was started by scientist Hervé This in France, where he has served as adviser to the French Minister of Education and has been invited to join the lab of Nobel Prize-winning molecular chemist Jean-Marie Lehn.
    On a more natural culinary note, Copenhagen’s NOMA was named best restaurant in the world in 2010 and it certainly sounds a lot more sensual and food-friendly.  Chief cook and owner, René Redzepi has worked at El Bulli, but seems much more respectful of natural food than the molecular gastronomists.  No chemicals and foams here, Nordic freshness and purity is predominant: horse mussels, deep-sea crabs and langoustines from the Faeroe Islands, which are alive until the moment they are served, seaweed and curds from Iceland, musk ox, smoked marrow, dried scallops and watercress, vintage potato and whey, pickled pear and verbena, sea-buckthorn, herbs and frozen milk, berries and the purest drinking water from Greenland.  They also have a very serious wine list which you can actually match to the food.
    Now that sounds like something worthy of the detour and the bill.

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7 comments:

SomeBeans said...

Sad to say it is the fellows that are the main beneficiaries of fine wine at Pembroke, rather than the students. Whilst I was there we did recruit a new chef from a smart restaurant who confused the interviewing committee by referring to the fellows as "covers"!

Heston Blumenthal is a bit of a TV star in the UK. I like him because he thinks about what he has doing and clearly has amazing imagination. Furthermore, he doesn't make his living by shouting which seems to be the way for many of our famous restaurant chefs.

Nora Lumiere said...

What is the difference between a "student" and a "fellow"?

Having a chef from a smart restaurant at uni is so sophisticated.

Heston Blumenthal is a relief after Gordon Ramsey, who serves cheese on FISH (!) and Jamie Oliver, who drools a lot but whose school menus have improved grades and that's terrific.

SomeBeans said...

The "fellows" are the teaching and research staff, the students are the undergraduates in a college.

Nora Lumiere said...

Thanks for the info.
At some colleges in the US, the students are known as "fellows", just to confuse the issue.
And most of the students at Cambridge probably know plenty about gastronomy anyway.
Actually, I don't think one can get a good idea of gastronomy from watching cooking shows, lessons and field trips to starred restaurants should be part of all school carriculi. And cooking too.

Rebecca Sutherland said...

I don't think students know about food unless they cook it themselves and make their own discoveries. I know two students currently at Cambridge and they have opted to have meals cooked for them. Although they are very bright, they will learn nothing about how to cook until they enter the real world. After all, food is about getting involved at whatever level. I learnt, like most at home from my mother, and continue to learn every day as I feed my family. For me cooking is far more than following recipes, it's about sourcing ingredients, making judgements as well as mistakes!
It's great to see the preparation of this necessity as a science and an art - it's fun. Looking at the utube link I see chefs excited in their work. I plan to visit The Fat Duck this year to enjoy the drama Blumenthal creates, but I will take it with a pinch of salt too, and will not be attempting the techniques in my own kitchen!

Nora Lumiere said...

I agree, everyone should know how to cook properly, not just microwaving and barbecuing.
Almost all Frenchmen know how to cook well, making the affectation adopted by some women who claim they don't cook because they're feminists, look pretty silly.
Fine food doesn't have to be grand or odd, just fresh and tasty.

Nora Lumiere said...

I definitely meant to say "carricula" not curricula :-)