Tuesday, 16 December 2008
Book Review - A Day at el Bulli, Ferran Adrià
When is a cookbook not a cookbook? Perhaps when most of its target audience could never be expected to be able to make any of the recipes in it. I'm not just talking about difficult techniques, rare or exotic ingredients or even prohibitively time-consuming methods. I mean recipes that are literally impossible for any home chef to attempt, involving the use of expensive chemicals not available to consumers, bespoke culinary equipment and a range of techniques that are known to perhaps a handful of people in the entire world. A cookbook is not a cookbook when it's Ferran Adrià's A Day At El Bulli - but that should not stop you buying it.
Like many people, I bought the Heston Blumenthal book In Search Of Perfection not so I could try and recreate his Black Forest Gateau recipe in the comfort of my own home - oddly enough I don't consider my vacuum cleaner an indispensible kitchen utensil, and I intend to keep it that way - but purely as reading material, and very entertaining reading it was too. But the whole conceit of the Blumenthal book was that it was, theoretically (if not often practically) possible to make those dishes at home. Sure, it would take you days of tedious grind, cost you a fortune and it would be almost guaranteed you'd not end up with anything even remotely resembling the pictures in the book, but the challenge was there; the Peking Duck recipe for example involved painstakingly removing the duck skin from the flesh then sewing it onto a piece of chicken wire just so that when it was fried it didn't lose its shape. Professional Chinese kitchens would have a special duck oven where the animals are hung vertically and cooked in such a way that the same effect was achieved without the need to get the sewing kit and chicken wire out, but this was "cheating" - Blumenthal resisted any professional-level culinary equipment for the sake of editorial consistency. A Day at El Bulli makes no such concessions.
Take the dish Melón con jamón 2005 for example, which involves the use of Calcic, Algin and something called Xantana (isn't he a guitarist?), as well as a custom-designed syringe battery which deposits exactly the right amount of the thickened melon juice into the Calcic solution, one drop at a time, to produce a kind of melon caviar which swirls around in ibérico ham consommé like bubbles in a glass of champagne.
Fascinating stuff, and the accompanying pictures are nothing short of food porn, but Calcic? Xantana? Clearly Adrià is not expecting us to have a go at any of this stuff ourselves. The "recipes" in the El Bulli book are not instructions, but painstaking documentation - an insight into the mind-bogglingly complex techniques of the kitchen without any desire to motivate the readership into copying them. A Day At El Bulli wants you to admire, to be inspired and even to worship the foods listed in its technicolour pages, but it is not asking you to participate. And quite frankly, after the Blumenthal book, that's almost a relief.
Much like some of the more outré creations from the El Bulli kitchen itself, the book does have a tendency for glorification and self-mythology. A whole four pages, for example, are taken up with amateur shots of the not particularly interesting coastal road down which diners travel (the symbolism is heavy-handed) on the way to the restaurant. There are close-ups of doors and aluminium kitchen workstations, various members of staff performing tedious bookkeeping jobs and and filling in work orders. "OK", you think, "This is all very well, but I want to know about the food, I don't care how they go about filling in their tax returns". But fortunately, when the recipes do make an appearance, they are simply stunning.
The above is a dish called 3D al ras-el-hanout con germinado de albahaca limonera. "Ras-el-hanout", the book explains, "is a Moroccan spice blend". OK. And 3Ds? "3Ds are a brand of cone-shaped potato chip". Only Ferran Adrià could get away with opening a packet of Doritos and calling it haute cuisine. But doesn't it look fantastic? It's a shame we can only imagine how it tastes.
If you are one of the people who submitted your request to El Bulli in October and received that iconic rejection a couple of weeks later - and I know for a fact there are two million of you out there - then you should find a lot to like about A Day At El Bulli. You're not going to find any solutions for your next dinner party, you're not going to win a golden ticket into the restaurant and as they're essentially preaching to the converted it's unlikely to change your mind about the food there. But it's a comprehensive, detailed and lavishly produced account of the most influential kitchen in the world today, and if that doesn't rock your boat then there's always Nigella Christmas. Your call.