Articles by Author
My first serious cookbook, “European Peasant Cookery,” published in the United Kingdom in 1984 and still in print with Grub Street, was published in the U.S. the next year as “The Old World Kitchen.” Now, it is again available in the U.S. in print, in a splendid new edition from Melville House.
Initial research, a matter of filling gaps because I’d already been collecting raw material for years, was conducted among the shelves of London Library’s Topography section. (I’d already exhausted Cookery.) There, I quickly discovered that the only authors of 19th- and early-20th-century travel books — the glory days of the genre — who can be relied on for details of the domestic — meals as well as interiors — are vicars and women.
More from Zester Daily:
That said, it can generally be assumed that travel writers, men and women, fall into two categories: those who tell you what they eat and those who don’t. And complaints can be just as interesting as praise. Among those who share their dinner is Mark Twain, whose low opinion of the European breakfast is set against lyrical memories of the same meal in his native land: “A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery,” he explains sorrowfully, “would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away and eventually die.” This was true enough at a time when the hungry hordes were emigrating in droves to the New World: “Imagine,” he continues dreamily, “an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porter-house steak an inch and a half thick, hot and spluttering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy; archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender yellowish fat …” and so forth till the hungry reader could eat a horse. And did, in those more omnivorous times.
If American Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) didn’t think much to what came out of the Old World kitchen in the 1880s, English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (read all about him in Artemis Cooper’s fine new biography) appreciated the asceticism of supper with the Benedictines of St. Wandrille-en-Fontanelle near Rouen in northern France in the 1950s: “As the monks tucked their napkins into their collars with simultaneous and uniform gesture … the guest-master and a host of aproned monks waited at the tables, putting tureens of vegetable soup in front of us and dropping into our plates two boiled eggs, which were followed by a dish or potatoes and lentils, then by an endive salad, and finally by disks of camembert, to be eaten with excellent bread from the Abbey bakery.” Sounds pretty good to me.
The monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in southern Belgium — half an hour as the crow flies from St. Wandrille — keep the roof on their beautiful medieval buildings by providing monastic rations of potage du jour with their own good bread and cheese to tourists by the busload, myself among them. What goes into the pot depends on season and availability, as was always the way for the independent peasantry on whose good will and labor the monasteries depended. More such down-to-earth recipes are included in “The Old World Kitchen.”
For the soup:
8 ounces (250 grams) mushrooms (wild or cultivated)
2 ounces (50 grams) butter, divided
2 shallots or 1 onion, diced
Salt to taste
1 celery head, finely sliced with leaves
2 large leeks, sliced including both white and green parts
1 to 2 mature carrots, scraped and diced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 pints (1 liter) water
Pepper to taste
1 pound (500 grams) potatoes, peeled and diced
A generous handful parsley, finely chopped
1. Pick over the mushrooms, trim and dice.
2. Melt half the butter in a roomy pan over a gentle heat. Add the chopped onion or shallots, salt lightly and fry gently till golden and soft — allow at least 10 minutes.
3. Add the rest of the butter. Wait till it melts before stirring in the mushrooms. Continue frying till the mushrooms release their water and begin to caramelize a little.
4. Add the celery, leeks, carrots, bay leaf, thyme and nutmeg and stir in the oily oniony juices over the heat for a minute or two.
5. Add the water to the pan, then add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover loosely and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes, till the vegetables are soft and the broth well-flavored.
7. Add the diced potato and continue to cook gently for another 10 to 15 minutes, till the potato is soft enough to mash a little to thicken the broth. Taste and correct the seasoning.
8. Stir in the parsley and ladle into bowls. Accompany with a bowl of radishes, thick slices of sourdough bread and soft-boiled eggs or your local cheese.
Illustration: The interior of the abbey. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
This is a story of carobs and cocoa. At Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica, Italy, the longest-established chocolate factory in Sicily, they make chocolate bars the old way, at a low temperature and without conching, the process by which the cocoa butter is separated from the solids and reblended to make smooth-textured and solid eating chocolate as prepared commercially.
At Dolceria Bonajuto, the raw cocoa nibs are crushed by hand using a stone rolling pin on a metate, a curved stone shelf supported by two narrower base stones placed at either end, a combination favored for the same purpose by the Aztecs. None of the usual additions — butter, milk derivatives, lecithin — are permitted.
The result of the Modica way of doing things is a solid bar of very dark chocolate with a satisfactorily reddish tinge, a good bark-like break and an unusual, rather Mexican purity of flavor. The main difference is an interestingly gritty texture mostly but not entirely derived from undissolved sugar.
The first cocoa beans arrived on the island some time after the Spanish conquest of Mexico through Sicily’s association with Spain’s Levante region, particularly Alicante, home of Spain’s marzipan and turron industry, where chocolate is prepared in similar fashion. Because Sicily was under Spanish rule from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 18th, this is scarcely surprising.
More from Zester Daily:
Chocolate as a refreshment was first introduced to the islanders by traveling salesmen who went from household to household, preparing the drink by hand using portable equipment. However, it’s fair to assume that a taste for a cocoa-like product was present on the island long before the ships of Christopher Columbus sailed toward the sunset, returning with news, among other botanical surprises, of a miraculous bean that could be transformed into the raw material of a coffee-like drink with miraculously restorative properties.
This was scarcely news in Sicily, where the naturally sweet seeds produced by the carob tree, dried and ground to a flour, had long been an important food source for both people and cattle. The seed pods of the carob tree, a North African native long established throughout the northern shores of the Mediterranean, are highly nutritious and full of vitamins, virtues not lost on those with a close association with the land. The trees are still found everywhere on the island, though the crop is mostly now either left to lie where it falls or gathered to prepare as silage for cattle fodder.
Carob still treasured in Sicily
Nevertheless, the beans, when ripe and dried and ground to a fine powder, are still valued on the island in the preparation of caramel-based sweets and cookies. Their texture is gritty, much like that of Modica’s distinctive chocolate, with a flavor that’s nutty and a little spicy. That no doubt explains their continued popularity in Modica’s Dolceria Bonajuto, proud of its establishment as purveyor of sweet things to the affluent of the town.
Carob remains very much a part of a Sicilian childhood. You’ll see carob sweets — along with licorice-root chewing sticks that once served as toothbrushes — for sale by the piece to schoolchildren at the checkout counter in small-town supermarkets, where the old flavors are still remembered with affection. Although the beans can be eaten fresh from the pods when ripe and brown — Sicilian carobs are particularly sweet and pleasantly chewy, like dried dates — the beans are of more general use in storable form as a flour milled either from raw or roasted beans. The flavor is caramel with a touch of cinnamon, but the bean, well endowed with tannins but lacking both fat and caffeine, cannot deliver the complexity and addictive qualities of its lookalike. Nevertheless, color, texture and cooking properties are alike enough to make carob flour a worthy substitute for cocoa in baking.
Sicilian Carob Macaroons
Almonds and pistachios are important crops in Sicily, as indeed was the old trade in cane sugar. Both nuts and sugar were and continue to be used in the sophisticated confectionary prepared on the island, including the beautiful painted marzipan fruits prepared for All Souls and other important church festivals, and now exported all over the world. The best pistachios (no argument allowed) are those grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
Makes 15 to 20 macaroons
14 ounces unskinned almonds or pistachios, powdered
6 ounces carob flour
Whites of 3 large eggs
14 ounces powdered sugar
15 to 20 whole blanched almonds or pistachios
1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C or Gas 4).
2. Mix the ground almonds or pistachios with the carob flour in a bowl.
3. Whisk the egg whites till light and firm and whisk in the sugar gradually, maintaining the volume.
4. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture till you have a soft and slightly sticky dough.
5. With damp hands, scoop out walnut-sized bits of the dough and form them into little balls.
6. Arrange the balls on a baking tray — nonstick or lined with baking parchment — and make a little dip in each little ball with a wet thumb and push in a nut.
7. Bake till brown and firm.
8. Transfer to a baking rack to cool. They’ll stay fresh in an airtight tin for a month, or freeze if you want to keep them for longer. For a simple dessert, serve with a little cup of very strong coffee, a Sicilian lemon granite or a little glass of very cold limoncello or sweet wine, vin santo, for dipping. Crumbled, they make a sophisticated biscuit base for cheesecake.
Top illustration: Carob beans on the leaves of a carob tree. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Certainly there will be other places where you can get the real thing, but for the authentic cannoli experience, head for the Pasticceria Gelateria Cortina, Via Genuardi 10, just behind the marketplace in Porto Empedocle, where the boats come in for Syracuse, Sicily’s most graceful city port.
You’ll know you’ve found the right place when there are no cannoli visible in the refrigerated glass-fronted display case where the fancy cream cakes are set out for admiration. Italians, particularly Sicilians, adore their dolci, a source of happiness to be taken at any time in the day or night, standing up by a cool counter or at a cafe table in the shade with a glass of water to cut the sugariness.
Cannoli are the quintessential Sicilian dessert
Cannoli, however, are not just any old dolci; they’re a statement of what it means to be Sicilian, a declaration of regional (actually national) identity. Nor are they simply a ladies’ treat, as are so many of the Mediterranean’s sugary little mouthfuls, descendants of the convent sweets prepared by nuns who had the recipes from the pastry cooks of the sultan’s seraglio.
More from Zester Daily:
You might think, wandering into a pasticceria in a Sicilian town square, that what the white-shirted lawyer or banker or businessman is holding in a little square of paper is a savory snack, something suitably fortifying for a man such as he — perhaps arancini, the cone-shaped rice fritters that are the quintessential Sicilian fast food. No, what the man of affairs is eating so carefully from one end to the other, taking care not to spill a single crumb on the lapels of his impeccable jacket or mark the gleaming white shirt with a dribble from the crystallized cherry, is a hollow roll of fresh egg-enriched pasta dough slightly longer than a man’s hand, deep fried and filled, just before consumption, with sweetened ricotta.
I had already inspected the array, ordered a coffee and settled on an almond cookie flavored with aniseed before I noticed the gentlemen in dark suits eating what I had hoped to find in the cabinet.
Could I have what the signori were having?
Indeed I could.
The young woman behind the bar disappeared through a bead curtain. A few minutes later she reappeared.
“Va bene cosî?” (Is it OK like this?)
The cannoli, carefully cocooned in its little paper nest, was offered across the counter in her hand. The audience of dark-suited gentlemen nodded approvingly. Cannoli must be eaten from the hand, was the general consensus. And they must be freshly prepared and consumed standing up.
And furthermore, the audience continued, I should know that the distinctive shape achieved by wrapping a circular piece of dough around an aluminum tube before lowering it into the frying oil was derived from the original mold. This was a Sicilian marsh reed identical to Egyptian papyrus — though some might dispute this. I could judge for myself as the reeds were still grown and harvested for roofing, matting and providing shade for commercially grown tomato plants. This same reed, split at the thick end and woven into a cup shape, also once served as a draining basket for ricotta.
And if I wanted to taste fresh ricotta made in the old way, there was a contadino who made it most evenings at Donnafugata, a little hamlet below the famous castle, a tourist attraction whose popularity allowed the enterprise to make enough money from demonstrations and sales to support a precious herd of red-coated cattle of the old Sicilian breed, big-boned beasts whose milk yield was sustained through the summer on carob pods harvested from trees planted by the Arabs.
In addition, should I care to pay the ricotta maker a visit and put forward my request, his neighbor Carla — family name unknown — would show me how to prepare cannoli. Which indeed is what she did.
These were the Sunday treat in Sicilian farmhouses for those who made ricotta fresh Saturdays, said Carla, as everyone did in the old days with the whey from the cheesemaking. And to fill a batch of cannoli for a party, she added, you need plenty. If you don’t have the proper molds, you may cut the pasta into any shape you please and fry as cookies to eat with ice cream. Either way, the dough makes very good crisp cookies that keep well in a tin.
Makes 24 cannoli (or thereabouts)
For the pastry:
1 kilogram (2 pounds) double zero pasta flour
100 grams (4 ounces) finely pounded cane sugar
100 grams (4 ounces) unsalted butter (or pork lard)
About 100 milliliters (¼ pint) marsala wine
For the filling:
2 kilograms (4 pounds) fresh ricotta, drained
400 grams (7 ounces) icing sugar
1 egg, beaten (also a fingertip of egg for the pastry)
1. Heap the flour onto a board and mix in the sugar.
2. Work in the butter or lard cut in small bits and add enough wine to make a softish dough.
3. Roll out like pasta dough using a pasta roller or a long, thin rolling pin. The result should be a little thicker than homemade pasta.
4. Make a template with paper by rolling it around an aluminum cannoli mold and cut out a cardboard template to match.
5. Brush the molds with melted lard or butter or oil (not as effective).
6. Use the template to cut the paste to the right-sized oval, wrap it around the mold and stick the overlap together with a fingertip of egg.
7. Drop the whole thing into boiling oil; wait till the pasta is puffed and brown, then remove with draining spoon to kitchen paper.
8. Wait till a little cooled before slipping off the mold. You need at least 4 molds to avoid going crazy. Continue till all the mixture is used up.
9. Sieve the well-drained ricotta, mix in the sugar, then sieve again. (Or beat with a whisk as for whipping cream till glossy.) Use this to stuff the cannoli just before serving or they’ll be soggy.
Optional embellishments: Dip the ends in crushed pistachios, of which the best are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, or finish with a crystallized cherry at one end and a sliver of candied quince at the other.
Top photo: Cannoli. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Traditions of the ancient Greeks continue to echo through modern life, including food customs such as trahana. This combination of a grain and protein sustains modern Greek supermarket shoppers just as it did ancient travelers.
The temple of Delphi, where the ancient Greeks consulted their politically astute oracle, was once a month’s journey over land from Athens but can now be reached virtually overnight by boat through the Corinth Canal, provided the vessel is shallow and slender enough to slip between the narrow cliffs.
Delphi is no longer inaccessible but can be reached via the port of Itea by taking an hour’s coach ride with fellow tourists through a fertile valley with newly planted olive trees and almond trees. As the road rises into the mountains through pine trees with bee hives, snaking up near-vertical slopes in hairpin bends, the landscape becomes bleak and inhospitable, dotted with thorn bushes. It is dry as a desert, so it is impossible now to imagine the survival of any living thing, let alone a community of the size that occupied what are now the Delphic ruins.
The ruins are visible from a distance as planes of pale stone that reveal themselves, on closer inspection, as a vast stone pavement bordered by half-broken Corinthian columns. The semicircular amphitheater is perfectly angled toward the setting sun and a handful of semi-restored domestic buildings, all reached by a steep pathway heavily trodden by tourists’ feet.
There is a museum, of course, an elegant modern building in which rescued artifacts are displayed in cool white rooms. These include statues, fragments of bas-relief, drinking vessels, amphorae, domestic utensils and jewelry.
Eat like the ancients
In an anteroom, a line of screens displays information in Greek and Italian of the foodstuffs used by the temple-dwellers in the days of Homer. The medicinal plants available in region included lemon, bay, juniper, dianthus, unidentified wild fungi, opium poppy and disinfectant rosemary. There also was tilia, or lime-blossom, for soothing infusions. Hemp was grown for rope, genester for thread, and flax for cloth. Olives were pressed for oil and grapes, Vitis vinifera silvestris, for wine.
More from Zester Daily:
Fruits enjoyed by the inhabitants were rose hips, quince and peaches. The little scarlet fruits of arbutus or strawberry trees were available, as were figs and pears, which were preserved in honey. There was also, on occasion, feasting on fresh meat from the temple offerings because the gods received the smoke and mortals consumed the substance.
More dependable protein, however, was goat’s or sheep’s milk consumed in the form of yogurt or cheese or conserved as a miniature grainfood, trahana. It is prepared by mixing wheat flour into a dough with some form of liquid, such as milk, yogurt or whey from the cheesemaking. It is then rolled or broken into little pieces and spread in the sun to dry.
Given the Delphic spring-water and a store cupboard full of trahana — protein and grain food in a single portable package — the Delphic community could survive without outside provisioning from one year to the next. This was an important consideration when the advice delivered by the oracle didn’t deliver as planned.
Sweet and savory versions of trahana are sold in most Greek grocery stores at home and abroad. Some households still prepare it in much the same spirit as Italians make their own pasta, because it’s good for you and you know what’s in it.
On Ithaca, the island that Ulysses called home, I watched trahana prepared in the old way, with a pestle and mortar for grinding the wheat and the cheesemaking whey used to bind the flour. The dough was then shaped into egg-sized balls turned daily till dry enough to crumble onto clean cotton sheets spread in the sun.
“A most convenient foodstuff,” said my informant, adding that if trahana is prepared in sufficient quantity, your family will never go hungry. Fishermen take it to sea in case they miss the evening tide. Travelers never leave home without it. Trahana, one might suppose, provisioned Agamemnon’s ships as they sailed to Troy to recapture runaway Helen.
1 pound flour
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Mix the eggs with your hand slowly into the flour and salt until you have a few pieces of very stiff dough. If you need more liquid, add a little water. If the mixture is too soft, add more flour. Leave the dough, covered with a cloth, to rest and dry out a little.
2. To use right away — perhaps as tiny dumplings to fortify a soup or as first food for a baby – grate the dough through the largest holes of a grater straight into the boiling liquid and they’ll take less than a minute to soften.
3. To dry trahana for storage, grate the dough onto a clean cloth over a roomy tray, allowing the gratings to fall loosely in a single layer like grains of barley. Leave them on the cloth for 2 to 3 days in a warm dry kitchen, tossing them lightly every now and again to keep the grains separate and allow them to dry evenly till they’re as hard as catapult pellets. Thereafter they can be stored in an airtight tin more or less forever.
To prepare dried trahana as porridge: Bring 1 pint milk and 1 pint water to the boil and stir in the above quantity of dried trahana. Simmer for 3 minutes or so, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Eat with honey and yogurt as a nourishing breakfast, or with grated cheese for supper.
To prepare as gratin: Toss the cooked trahana with butter or olive oil and spread in a heated gratin dish, sprinkle with grated cheese and bake in a hot oven — 450 F — for 10 minutes or till brown and bubbling.
To prepare as a risotto or pillau: Treat dried trahana exactly as you would grains of rice: fry them first with your chosen flavorings, then add the cooking liquid and simmer till soft.
Top illustration: The amphitheater at Delphi. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Easter is a moveable feast in both Eastern and Western church traditions — quite literally, since the date can vary by several weeks whether celebrated according to the Western (Roman Catholic) or Eastern (Orthodox Catholic) calendar: This year’s Roman Catholic Easter is March 31, and the Orthodox date is May 5. This can make for some confusion where the two groups intersect, as they often do in central Europe. Traditions in both camps, however, feature eggs as the universal symbol of rebirth.
A Russian Orthodox Easter as celebrated in the early 1990s by a self-sufficient farming family of Ruthenes living in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains on the borders of the Ukraine provided me with a lesson in maintaining national identity through festive traditions in a situation where church festivals were not officially celebrated at all.
The Ruthenes, Russian-speaking Ukrainians marooned in Slovakia in the aftermath of World War II, maintained their language and religion throughout the years of communism thanks, in all probability, to their minority status and the inaccessibility of their steep ravines and dense forest. Through the long winters, while the city dwellers of Eastern Europe endured shortages and bread queues, the peasant communities of the Tatras survived as they always had, through self-sufficiency and a well-stocked store cupboard. And at Easter, the most important festival of the Christian year, those who had moved to the cities to find work returned home to be with their families and enjoy the last of the stores, providing extra hands to plant the potato crop, the most important and labor-intensive task of the year.
At the time of my visit, my hostess, Anna Ludomirova — matriarch of a peasant farming family in the High Tatras — was preparing the Easter basket to be taken to the churchyard. Packed with good things — a tall round babka enriched with eggs and butter, decorated eggs, salt (a very important item in any self-sufficient household), the last of the ham from the brine pot — the basket was taken to be blessed with a sprinkling of holy water by the monks at the Russian Orthodox church on Easter Saturday. Once this ritual had been observed and the basket shown to the family ancestors buried in the churchyard, everyone returned home to unpack and share the contents.
Easter egg cheese part of traditional holiday meal
This picnic-style meal freed the ladies of the household to enjoy the company of visitors. But before the feast could begin, certain rituals had to be observed. A bowl of decorated Easter eggs painted with wax and dipped in colored dyes was set on the table and a ceremonial candle lit. Then Mama Anna sliced the top off a raw egg, mixed the contents with a little spoon and passed it round the table for everyone to take a little sip — a unifying gesture shared by all.
More from Zester Daily:
These important rituals concluded, the company tucked into sliced ham and wind-cured sausage, spiced beetroot and gherkins in sweetened vinegar, grated horseradish in cream, eggs hard-boiled and saved in obedience to the prohibitions of Lent, thick slices of the buttery babka spread with more butter. Most unusual, however, was the centerpiece of the feast, egg cheese, a magnificent yellow globe as large and round as a soccer ball made by scrambling the first of the year’s eggs with the first of the year’s milk, tipping the result in a cloth and leaving it to drip overnight till firm and dry — a technique that mirrors the preparation of rennetted cheese later in the year, when the calves are weaned and the cows put out to grass. The eggshells did not go to waste, as they were emptied through pinholes to keep the shells intact and saved for the children to decorate with melted candle wax for the patterned Easter eggs sent to the churchyard in the basket.
After the collapse of the Russian empire and the splitting of Slovakia from the Czechs, the Ruthene communities returned to the Ukraine carrying with them traditions forgotten in their native land but preserved in all their ancient symbolism by a stroke of the politicians’ pencil all those years ago.
Wax-patterned Easter eggs
You need white rather than brown eggs for the patterns to be effective. You can use ready-blown eggshells from making egg cheese or cooled hard-boiled eggs. You’ll also need candle ends — plain, colored or both — food coloring and a pin with a large head.
1. Stick the pin in a cork to make a pen.
2. Melt the wax, keeping the colors separate.
3. Hold the egg firmly in one hand, big end upward. Dip the pen in the wax, and, starting half an inch below the apex of the egg, dab with the wax and drag it up toward the top to give a tadpole-shaped tick. Continue around the egg to make a sunburst pattern. If you use alternate lengths of stroke and different colored waxes, the pattern will be even prettier.
4. Repeat on the other end of the egg. (Hold it carefully or place in an egg cup so the warmth of your hand doesn’t melt the wax). Make more sunburst patterns around the sides.
5. Dip the eggs in diluted food coloring, as for batik.
6. Pile the eggs in a pretty bowl.
Easter egg cheese
This is a very unusual dish, a solid sphere of scrambled egg. It looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes very well with ham, the traditional Easter meat in northern and Eastern Europe.
1 liter of milk
12 free-range eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk all but one of the eggs with the salt.
2. When the milk boils, whisk in the egg. Keep whisking until the resulting custard is thoroughly scrambled.
3. Tip the mixture into a clean pudding cloth. Hang it in a warm place to drain with a bowl underneath to catch the whey, exactly as you would fresh cheese.
4. When it’s quite drained, tip it out onto a clean dish, paint it with the remaining egg, forked to blend, and place it into an oven preheated to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4) for 10 minutes to glaze. The result should look like a large, shiny, yellow Easter egg.
5. Slice thickly and serve with ham, butter and bread.
Illustration: Ruthene women. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Nine years ago, Ferran Adrià of elBulli, the most féted chef on the planet, came to London to demonstrate his extraordinary techniques to an invited audience of some 200 chefs and food writers — mostly British but with a fair sprinkling of Europeans and Americans. However, the mood in the hall was somber. It was March 11, 2004, the same morning that the Atocha railway station in Madrid had been blown up by terrorist bombers as commuters arrived for work.
The demonstration theater — a large underground bunker beneath a luxury hotel just up the road from the Houses of Parliament where Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plotters were deflected from a similar purpose a few hundred years earlier — had been converted into a gleaming space laboratory. When our instructor began to speak, it was to request a minute’s silence in memory of the 180 people already reported dead; the final toll was 191. Such moments are hard to forget.
Fortunately for me, as a Spanish speaker, Adrià addressed his audience in Spanish rather than Catalan, with translation into English provided over earphones. Simultaneous translators don’t always deliver the full picture, so I kept my own notes as a reminder of what he said. What follows is an edited version of his thoughts that day.
Ferran Adrià discusses why and how we eat
“Never forget, ladies and gentlemen, that the primary purpose of serving good food in pleasant surroundings is to give pleasure. We are not revolutionaries in the usual sense of the word. We have only one aim in what we do: to be happy ourselves and to make others happy. This is a useful service in a world where unhappiness is not unusual, as today’s terrible events have shown.
“Catalans are, as you must know, an independent people who have only recently been free to speak their own language. We do, however, recognize ourselves as part of the Spanish nation. Our aim is to make Spanish cooking contemporary, starting with Catalonia and moving through the regions applying our new techniques.
“We are inventing these techniques in order to express ourselves. We are not following fashion and we have no wish to repeat ourselves. Which is why I find it extraordinary that gastronomy is the only science in which innovation is not invested in or even encouraged, which is the reason we decided to continue our investigations alone.
“What is essential as a cook is to enjoy eating; if you don’t like eating, how can you enjoy cooking? When you’re at table, you don’t need to know the process by which the food arrives in front of you. But you do need to know how to read a plate. Pan con tomate in Catalonia is the most normal thing, but if you put it in front of someone who can’t read the plate, they won’t know what to do with it.
The first process is sight: This explains what we are about to eat. Joël Robuchon, for instance, explains exactly how to eat by the arrangement on the plate. Next comes smell: We have stopped smelling our food; it’s considered bad manners to put your nose to the plate and collect the odors. Then comes temperature: The contrast of temperature — frozen ice cream to boiling broth — does astonishing things to the palate. Now comes texture: froth, gelatin, asparagus, the mouth responds differently to each.
“At last we come to taste: Dulce, amargo, salado, acido — sweet, bitter, salty, acid — these are the four tastes. Grilled chicken with nothing but salt has neither acidity nor bitterness, but an oyster is salty, bitter and sweet. One person will detect saltiness and another won’t. The Japanese have a low threshold for salt, but among Spaniards it’s very developed because of the salt-cured ham and salty anchovies we eat from childhood.
“It’s all in the mind. There’s no real difference between eating a lamb and a puppy. And when I tell you that I know for sure my mother’s tortillas are the best in the world, it’s the heart that tells me it’s true. As a cook you must be honest. We must use what we know, which is why I share my expertise.
“At elBulli, we are 40 chefs serving 70 covers, evening only. We are not providing home-cooking. No one is going to drive 200 kilometers for a plate of bread and butter. When someone pays 300 euros for a meal, he wants something different.
“We started our experimentation with cocktails and discovered that a frozen margarita in a syringe sprayed with a little salt on the tongue is far more powerful than a whole margarita in a glass. The experience is of two temperatures — hot beneath, cold above. You can produce the same effect for children with frozen orange juice, like a homemade Fanta, though they won’t like it if they’re used to commercial Fanta.
“In 1988 we experimented with caramelizing. If you take a strawberry and dip it into caramel, you have caramelized strawberry. But if you paint it with gelatin and caramelize the sugar with a gas gun, the eating experience is far more thrilling. We made olive-oil caramelos and foie gras and mango caramelos. If you put things that don’t taste good together, the result won’t taste good either.
Adrià discovers delectable air
“In 1994 we started frothing. We made hot chocolate mousse with Campari and served it with an even more bitter sorbet; we served eggy bread with a vanilla foam. In 1995 we began to use air. Air is the flavor captured as a perfume, that’s all it is. When you use a vacuum, the air will raise a liquid. We found that carrot juice has an element which will hold air, so we prepared air with wasabi, air with melon and passionfruit. We were experimenting with texture at the time. So we fried fish bones — salmonete (red mullet) — till crisp and we served them with foam. Next we used a candy floss machine to cover the bones in candy floss. …
“In 1999, we began to experiment with hot gelatin. We discovered that agar-agar, seaweed gelatin, doesn’t actually melt till it reaches 90 degrees (Celsius). So we made a hot jelly with parmesan and squirted it into cold water so that it set into spaghetti strings. The same thing can be done by using agar-agar to set mangoor melon juice: If you shake it into limed water, it sets into little balls like caviar.
“Is it cooking or is it chemistry? It doesn’t matter. It’s no different from what happens when you bake a cookie for the first time. It’s the transformation that makes the magic.”
On July 30, 2010, Adrià’s restaurant on the outskirts of the village of Rosas closed to its paying punters (customers) and is due to reopen in 2014 as a center for creation and innovation. Which, of course, is how it all began.
Top illustration: A group of chefs at work in Barcelona. Credit: Elisabeth Luard