I have a lot of contradictory thoughts on Spain and the World Table conference that ended Saturday night with a rousing performance by Ferran Adria, who demonstrated a few of the core techniques he’s developed and discussed the importance of cataloguing the progression of his work in terms of others’ understanding his work. About which I’ve got some thinking to do.
But part of the contradiction I’ve got to get through before I can digest the information from what was a really interesting conference lies here. Spain was chosen as the focus of this conference because of the fame of Adria. Not because Spain has a rich culinary tradition to be explored, per se (though it obviously has that). Maybe I’m wrong about this, but if there were no Adria or if Heston Blumenthal were the one who’d become the godfather of the molecular gastronomy movement, would Spain have been chosen? No.
So the irony is that here was a substantial conference on Spain because of one guy who doesn’t cook Spanish food. As Thomas Keller said in his introduction to Adria that night, what he’s really doing is global cuisine. One might also say what he is doing is a-regional–it has no history, no precedent, no terroir. And yet there is nevertheless so much to be explored in terms of the culinary traditions of Spain, about which America seems to know so little.
An example of how media-driven our culinary knowledge and beliefs may be.
But here is the anecdote I want to convey for now, and it encapsulates the difficulties in thinking about the new Spanish cuisine, perhaps the new ground where molecular gastronomy and the terroir of Spain meet. And it centers on the oddest concoction of the week. It came from Joan Roca, a chef known here for his book on sous vide cooking. Roca presented first a video of this technique then demoed it the next day. The stylish video showed Roca trudging through the woods of his homeland with a shovel and a bucket. He dug up a few shovelfuls of dirt and returned to his kitchen. He added water to the dirt and stirred thoroughly to make a dirt batter, known here in America as mud.
He then added some of this mud to a large glass beaker, fitted the beaker into a distilling machine and turned it on. The beaker rotated and the mud heated up and gave off a vapor which went up through some glass tubes, condensed and dripped down into a smaller beaker, crystal clear liquid, a literal distillation of his terroir. And this was the technique, eau de dirt.
How did he use this dirt essence? He put a spoonful of it on an oyster as part of a small oyster dish. Surf and turf. Oyster with eau de dirt.
That night, I spoke with my friend Susie Heller who produces food television shows and is also a recipe writer and tester for the French Laundry cookbooks and most recently Michel Richard’s excellent new book and a new book on chocolate called The Essence of Chocolate.
“What was THAT all about?” she said of the Roca video and presentation. “Was that not the weirdest thing?”
I had to agree.
The next day, I saw Susie at the conference, and she had already changed her mind. “I talked with Harold about it,” she said. Harold McGee was a moderator at the conference. “He said he’d HAD the dish. He said it was incredible, said the guy was a genius. So maybe I was wrong!”
The following day, after the conference, Susie, I, McGee and Keller met at Bouchon Bakery to discuss a new book we’re about to begin work on. Roca’s technique came up. He’d demoed it in the CIA kitchen using St. Helena dirt.
“I tasted it,” McGee said.
“And?” I asked.
“It didn’t taste very good.”
I asked, “Did it taste like dirt?”
McGee nodded and said, “Yep.”
So there it is, molecular gastronomy meets terroir.