I can clearly remember the first time I encountered the name and work of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, a 2006 documentary hosted by American chef Anthony Bourdain called ‘Decoding Ferran Adrià’, who was sceptical about the praise and attention this Catalan man and restaurant were receiving. I, like Bourdain in the programme, was captivated by what I watched; apple caviar, foams that left no trace in the mouth, raw tuna masquerading as iberico ham, and have been almost evangelical about it ever since, passing it on to anyone who’ll listen to me talk and take it away to watch.
One lucky friend and fellow food blog writer Milly had the good fortune to be eating at Cala Montjoi this week and I am unashamedly, insanely jealous but nonetheless looking forward to reading all about it.
Luckily for me there was a slight antidote to this envy in the form of the ‘Materia Condensada’ exhibition at the Arts Santa Monica, which explores how our perception of food is affected by our senses and genes and which excitingly and unexpectedly demonstrated some of the techniques and experiences I’d seen in that epiphanic documentary.
You are drawn into the food world as you approach up the stairs, a mural from a previous artist’s exhibition leads you to the setting for this one.
SPOILER ALERT: If you are interested in seeing this exhibition then you might not want to read ahead so you can fully enjoy the whole experience.
I was rescued after the first 5 minutes of trying to comprehend an English language video on incredibly low volume subtitled in Catalan by one of the gallery’s guides who obviously detected my enthusiasm from my notebook scribbling and was fantastically attentive with me the whole morning. The video was explaining our genetic predisposition to detecting certain tastes. My friendly guide gave me three small strips of paper each containing a flavour which she asked me to define. The first, just tasted of paper. Correct answer. This was to clean my palette. The second for me was bitter followed by sweet. She then revealed this was sodium benzoate (which you may have seen listed on the ingredients of fizzy drinks) which depending on your genetic make up can taste sweet, bitter, savoury or sour, or to some, of nothing at all. It is used as a preservative or occurs naturally in fruits such as apples, plums, raspberries and spices such as clove and cinnamon.
The third strip of paper was INCREDIBLY bitter, so much so that I immediately spat it out and she almost dashed to get me a glass of water. This is PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) and this was my first experience like Bourdain in the aforementioned documentary. I remembered this, they stood in the El Bulli taller on C/Portaferrisa and each tasted this substance, for some it is undetectable (around 30% of the population), for others mildly bitter, or for some, such as myself, incredibly bitter. How it tastes to you is dependent on a gene (TAS2R38 if you’re interested) and other genetic and environmental factors. This chemical does not occur naturally but similar compounds can be found in vegetables such as brussel sprouts, which may explain why to some they are the devil’s work.
We then moved on to test our perception of smell. The object of this exercise was to stand in the centre of this room and to try and ascertain what kind of dish you could smell and what the individual components were.
This section was a little weak, the room smelt strongly of fruit and once you have made your decision about what you can smell you can check by smelling each fruit and spice individually in the counter-top black boxes, but as I was given a list of the aromas it diminished the element of discovery and truly concentrating on what you could pick out.
Moving on from the sensory stimulation, I turned the corner to encounter a timeline of over 300 years of books published on the subject of culinary science. After slavishly copying the titles for a few minutes I was advised the full bibliography is available here.
This lineage of fascinating and brain stretching material then led into the main hall, where I found a display and explanation of gadgets and contraptions that are now being regularly used in some of the best restaurants and food industry.
For me this was a chance to see and learn more about processes and equipment I’ve regularly read about or seen used on TV programmes, for those not aware or familiar with these items it was a great introduction. Below are the exhibits, I’ve included links to the exhibitions website for more detailed description of the equipment and their usage.
The inclusion of the mortar and rudimentary prehistoric flint knives was an excellent example of how humans have been manipulating food for millenia. It was such a good invention that we are still using it to this day.
The omnipresent water bath, used in professional kitchens these days for cooking foods at an evenly maintained temperature, I read this article recently about trying to recreate the same conditions in a domestic kitchen.
Next was another vicarious El Bulli experience, this time ‘spherification‘. I’ve seen this process before whereby a liquid is made into a sphere of itself so it has the appearance and structure of caviar, globules of the purée, sauce or oil for example that burst in your mouth but contain nothing apart from the main ingredient.
I expected the spheres of olive oil to disintegrate into liquid as soon as they hit my mouth, but bizarrely they have a ‘skin’ which bursts when you chew.
Something I hadn’t seen before was the use of xantana or xanthan gum, which can be added to gaseous products to make them hold their gas and thus be denser. Xanthan gum is also a common food additive.
In nearby Sant Sadurni d’Anoia some cava producers are adding this to their product so it can be used for desserts and other recipes where a thick, almost gloopy texture is desired but that the cava still holds it fizz. A good Christmas present idea sprung to mind.
Do you regularly use granulated coffee? Have you ever had a ‘powder’ on a restaurant dish? Then the lyophilizer will probably have played a part. I’ll leave you to read the link which can explain the science way better than I could even attempt.
Jellies and sweets such as Haribo are something we’ve all come across at some point in our lives, here were different examples of gels made from seaweeds such as agar agar and meat derivatives. Interestingly the gels textures and strength differed depending on the agent used. Those made from agar agar (the darker of those under the glass dome) were very firm, more difficult to squeeze and wouldn’t melt in your hand.
The Rotaval distiller is another one I’m going to let the exhibition website explain to you. I was able to taste the honey wine concentrate produced by this machine, it truly did have all the taste of wine without the alcohol punch. The evaporated water from the material or liquid being distilled will also have the taste of that material, thus you could have coffee, chocolate, wine flavoured water. Magic…….well chemistry.
Moving on from equipment to more earthly matters of fruits and vegetables and how their climatic and soil conditions change their flavour.
The plants featured were from areas around Catalonia; Ebro Valley Clementines, artichokes from El Prat de Llobregat (the area around Barcelona airport), El Maresme strawberries, white pears from Lleida, Mura tomatoes, Santa Pau Fesolet beans, Gósol potatoes and of course that Catalan emblem the calçot which I finally learnt is the humble white onion earthed up and manipulated to grow into this long, leek like vegetable. I’m looking forward to that season coming round again.
The exhibition is also running Sunday workshops and despite being in Catalan, me being dry-mouthed and a little headachy from the previous evening and the session predominantly aimed at children this exhibition had fired my interest so I went along to learn more. I’ll share what I learnt later in the week.
‘Materia Condensada’, Arts Santa Monica, Rambla 7 (Drassanes) – Exhibition runs until 5th December