“No, no, no, not the arbequina, bring me the cornicabra.” Maria Jose San Román is in full whirl in the kitchen of Monastrell, her stylish restaurant just off the Explanada, the waterfront in Alicante, Spain. The line cooks perk up, the pastry chef pokes her head around the corner and the dishwasher wants a taste of the action. San Román is one of Spain’s most acclaimed chefs, with a handful of bars and restaurants in Alicante, including Taberna del Gourmet, which as been hailed as one of Spain’s best tapas bars.
And if you’re wondering why she’s fussing so intently over the arbequina and cornicabra, two of the many varieties of olive oil Spain produces, it’s because her current passion is matching great oil flavors to great dishes.
At the moment, the dish in question is white asparagus covered in a white sauce, sprinkled with grains of crushed coffee beans. My initial reaction? Eeeyuck!
“No, no, wait!” says San Román with a confident grin. First she deals with the asparagus — fresh, lightly steamed, firm-textured plump spears that have been cut in rounds and scattered on a plate like scallops; the tops set aside. Next the white sauce, a mousse of aged and grated manchego, deliciously fragrant, mixed with cream, milk and a little gelatin. After blending in a Thermomix, a machine that all Spanish chefs (and few Americans) have in their kitchens, the mousse was forced out into a dense foam of puffy, cheesy cream. On top of that goes a sheet of Vietnamese rice paper soaked in milk to soften. In holes poked carefully through the paper the asparagus are set upright, like little blanched sentinels. “You need it to hold the asparagus spears,” says San Román of the rice paper. “Otherwise, they’ll tip over.”
A garnish of ground coffee and cornicabra
Finally, the crowning touch, a scattering of coarsely ground coffee beans, the only color in the dish until the golden cornicabra oil, a cultivar from Toledo in central Spain, is spooned generously over all.
“First, taste the sauce on its own,” San Román instructs me. It’s good, the coffee bits crunching nicely, adding bitterness to contrast the richness of cheese. But I don’t think it’s great. “And now taste with the cornicabra.” With the addition of the golden oil, the sauce comes alive, almost singing with flavor, the asparagus subtlely coming through.
But wouldn’t the arbequina have had the same effect?
San Román pours a little spoonful on the side of the dish. “Try it.” Arbequina is notably soft and sweet: There’s almost no change from the blandness of the original dish, I admit. San Román is triumphant: “And now, as an experiment, a little picual.”
The potency of picual
Picual is the bad boy of Spanish olive oil, the variety everyone loves to hate. Not incidentally, it accounts for most of the oil made in Spain — which is to say almost half the oil made in the world. It can be extremely good when handled properly, but most of the time it’s treated industrially, producing an indifferent, commodity oil. (That flavor you think of as supermarket oil? That’s the fusty flavor of overripe picual.) However, what San Román has in her kitchen is very good picual, made by Castillo de Canena, a noted Andalusian producer. So she dribbles a little of the deep green oil on the edge of the plate. Combined with the asparagus, the cheese sauce, the coffee, it’s an atomic bomb of flavor in which the picual is so dominant as to obscure everything else going on. Nothing subtle here at all.
“You see,” San Román declares with a look that says it all: Q.E.D. It’s the cornicabra oil that works best, creating a surprising and satisfying dish out of such disparate ingredients.
“We live on olive oil in my restaurants,” San Román explains. “It’s always been part of my business, but now it’s become my religion.”
The altar of her religion is an innovative machine called OliveToLive, developed at Villa Campestri in Tuscany, where San Román was guest chef in an olive oil culinary program I developed last October. The controlled system makes it possible to maintain the freshness of olive oil from the moment it’s produced until it reaches the consumer. (Visitors at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., can sample from a similar system.) Captivated by the way OliveToLive protects the finest oils from degradation, San Román ordered one for Monastrell. Installed last December, it won an award for the year’s most original innovation at Madrid Fusion, the annual January celebration of modernist cuisine in Madrid. From the device, restaurant waiters provide diners with a sample of three very different — and very fresh — extra virgin olive oils to sample and compare. It takes a sensitive palate to move from a simple progression of blended to virgin to extra virgin, to arrive at an understanding of how different oils can work to enhance flavors, or to suppress them, or to meld them together in a dish. San Román is a master.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Monstrell chef-owner Maria Jose San Román. Credit: Courtesy of the chef