Of all the culinary fads and fashions and phases and phenomena, molecular gastronomy is perhaps the one that excites me most. Of course, I adore and pursue simplicity in much of my cooking and gastronomic pursuits but there is something so wondrous, so exciting and almost ethereal about re-imaging food in way propounded by Heston Blumethal, Ferran Adria, Hervé This et al.
Molecular gastronomy is oft misunderstood and seen as over-complicating cooking purely for the sake of it, merely for showmanship and bravado. Its deriders see it as a pointless addition or fleeting distraction from the tried and tested elements of classical cuisine: a bastard off-spring of that much parodied style nouvelle cuisine.
Granted, in the wrong hands, this form of cooking can lead to gross misrepresentations and laughable creations. I dare say that there are a number of enthusiastic young chefs who feel as if they can forego learning about the base elements of cooking and move directly into the world of culinary alchemy with some horrendous Dr. Frankenstein style creations ensuing. Words like ‘deconstructed’ and ‘emulsified’ appear on menus as chefs allow their egos to pollute their food.
But this is not what molecular gastronomy is about. It is about understanding. It is about breaking things down to see why they work, how they work and how they can be improved. How flavours, textures, tastes can be made better and new combinations created. It is about finding how much truth there is in kitchen folklore, such as should you salt your steak before cooking and does searing meat help retain juices (the answers are yes and no, respectively). It is an exciting and wonderful way of cooking that utilises new techniques and complicated sounding ingredients which has thus far been the preserve of chefs and scientists and unavailable to the home cook
Ferran Adria is one of the founding fathers of molecular gastronomy. As the chef/owner of El Bulli, deep in the heart of Catalan country close to Spain’s northern most tip, he has been the recipient of the prestigious ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ award no less than four times. His 30-some course tasting menus have become legendary and it is close to impossible to book a table at this place of gastro-pilgrimage during the six months of the year that it is open.
For the second half of the year, Adria and his team of chefs spend countless hours in the restaurant’s lab kitchen creating new dishes, refining old ones and conjuring up exciting new techniques to stay ahead of the game. They use a selection of weird and wonderful ingredients to achieve the remarkable techniques that they showcase in the restaurant: airs, jellies, spheres, caviars and numerous others. And they’ve recently made them available in quantities suitable for home use.
I had no idea that they were available until I picked up my (fabulous) girlfriend from work on Friday. She was clutching a box wrapped tightly in bubble wrap and smiling a broad and slightly cheeky smile. ‘I’ve got you a present’ she announced. I had to wait until we got home and we were sat down before she would let me open it, which was probably a good job because I might easily have fallen over had I not been on the sofa.
It was a sleek black box with the words ‘Minikit Sferificacion’ picked out in stark white lettering on the front. Although not immediately obvious what I was holding, the words ‘Albert y Ferran Adria’ made things clearer. Cut into the cardboard housing were five round holes, each offering a tantalising glimpse of the contents.
I’d previously only read words like ‘lecite’, ‘algin’ and ‘xantana’ in This’s books and on sites like Ideas in Food. Now I had five intricately packaged tins on my lap each containing one of these magical ingredients. This was exciting stuff, seriously exciting stuff. As well as the powders, the package contained a set of precision measuring spoons and a plastic syringe.
All those amazing creations I’d admired and read about are quite suddenly within reach. Spheres, jellies, airs, foams, suspensions and other intensely flavoured delights are no longer in the realm of impossibility but available to any enthusiastic home cook.
This is where the line between cooking and science becomes very blurred indeed and I cannot wait to start experimenting with these strange and alien additions to my kitchen.