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Original Essays

Spain Event

by Anya von Bremzen
I first went to Spain in the late 1980s — and it was love at first bite. The New Spanish Table chronicles my two decades of travel across one of the world's greatest foodscapes. It was a thrill to eat paella in Valencia, in its natural habitat, and discover how shockingly superior the dish was to the mushy rice I had always tasted elsewhere. I loved hanging out until madrugada (dawn) at tiled, smoky old tapas bars swigging sherry and grazing on arrays of pungent small dishes. There were incredible food pilgrimages to countryside Basque cider houses for fizzy apple brew and suavely charred rare steaks; up medieval Castilian hilltop villages for roast suckling lamb with the crispest of skins; along panoramic Galician coastal roads to seafood hideaways for pristine crab and saucy clams in salsa verde.

But it was a lunch one June day back in 1997 that had truly changed my life as a food writer and restaurant critic.

I was in Catalonia, reporting a food article for Travel and Leisure magazine where I'm a contributing editor. Local gastronomes whispered to me about a wacky chef named Ferran Adrià who was performing far-out experiments at a restaurant called El Bulli near the resort town of Roses, close to the French border. At that time I didn't really subscribe to the notion of experimental cuisine. What a waste of an afternoon, I thought to myself: to have to endure the eccentric whims of some egotistical chef, when all I craved was "real" earthy Catalan food. "Go!" my friends insisted.

Which is how I found myself in a taxi huffing and puffing up a dusty perilous potholed road that wound out to the restaurant. That year Adrià had received a third Michelin star and El Bulli was already creating a stir among food critics. Yet when I came in, there were just a few forlorn diners in the white-washed dining room overlooking the sea. It didn't bode well for my lunch. (Who knew that today, some ten years on, the restaurant would get hundreds of thousands of reservation requests a year, and that for mere mortals, eating here would be all but impossible?)

Then I took my first bite, and was shocked by a rush of excitement. In the kitchen was a genius chef, not afraid to brazenly challenge the traditional notions of dining and jolt palates out of complacency. Blurring boundaries between the sweet and the savory, the tapas consisted of a Parmesan ice cream sandwich, and a poached quail egg entrapped in a caramel cage. There was a puzzling, ephemeral ice cream fashioned from ajo blanco, an Andalusian almond gazpacho; and "smoked water foam" — a mousse based on water that had been smoked over burning wood and aerated in a nitrous oxide canister. The rest of my meal progressed as a series of iconoclastic gestures, each new taste a slap in the face of convention. Ravioli had wrappers of paper-thin cuttlefish and a filling of liquid coconut. Eggplant pockets were stuffed with a yogurt mousse and caramelized with... Fisherman's Friend cough lozenges! Not since the days of nouvelle cuisine — a revolutionary French movement that made food lighter, smarter, and prettier — has there been such a paradigm shift in the world of haute dining.

I drove away smitten, convinced that this nueva cocina was going to conquer the world.

I was right. A self-proclaimed heir to Salvador Dalí, Adrià has become one of the most famous people in Spain, anointed by practically every international food critic as the most important chef on the planet. Time magazine even proclaimed him to be one of the most influential people of our times. The genie that he released from the bottle assures that anyone in Spain under forty with a whisk and a sauté pan treats cuisine as a conceptual play of ideas, flavors, and textures — fusing scientific experiments, high design, brainy theory, and provocative wit into food that proves that rules are made to be broken. Adrià's most important contribution was to teach other chefs to re-examine traditional cooking methods through the prism of physics and chemistry.

Today, a fascinating and fanciful fusion of gastronomy and science is de rigueur in contemporary Spanish kitchens. Eating here I sometimes feel as if I've landed in some high-tech culinary wonderland, a giant poetically touched science lab. Some chefs work with fragrance experts on desserts that mimic the scents of famous perfumes (Calvin Klein Eternity as a final course). Others are studying rice DNA to revolutionize their paellas; using laser technology to perfect a grill pan; inventing futuristic vacuum distillers to extract colorless "flavor essences" from ingredients. They apply liquid nitrogen to gazpachos, they poach vacuum-packed food in a space-age bain-marie originally used by biologists for heating vaccines. While some of the early experiments were hit and miss, today this cuisine is not just "progressive" but wildly delicious. Spain has become the food mecca of the 21st century.

Ever since my first article about Adrià in 1997, I've been championing new Spanish cuisine in America — reporting on the country's astounding gastronomic developments for publications like Food and Wine, Travel and Leisure, and Los Angeles Times. As a food journalist, my job is to seek out what's exciting and new. But the task of a cookbook writer is different. My favorite cookbooks are those that offer a window onto a culture, ones that blend anthropology, reporting, and history. Yet having written four previous books on ethnic cuisines — Russian, Latin, Southeast Asian — I know too that great recipes are what matters the most, recipes that translate into the kind of simple addictive dishes everyone wants to cook and eat again and again.

When I started the writing of The New Spanish Table, my first challenge was to reduce the heaps of chef's notes on my desk to a manageable pile of recipes that wouldn't be lost in translation for an American home kitchen. (For all my desire to convert readers to far-out experimental Spanish techniques, somehow I doubted their willingness to tackle foam-making, vacuum-poaching, and liquid-nitrogen freezing at home. A recipe from an Andalusian chef-slash-marine biologist that calls for extracting the vitreus humor of fish eyes? Nah.) Then I started testing. With each recipe, I wanted to pare the dish down to its essence, distilling the flavor while casting off the complexities. Sometimes I found myself cursing and crying in front of panfuls of ruined cod or asparagus. More often, I'd be rewarded with such utterly simple but thoroughly striking flavor sensations as chocolate mouse with a drizzle of peppery olive oil and a sparkling of flaky sea salt, or basic seared scallops elevated to the realm of sublime by nothing more than slivers of candied lemon. Friends came to dinner, drank us out of the house, and said, "Wow," after tasting the likes of low-temperature salmon transformed by a touch of vanilla oil and a dollop of salmon roe. Or a traditional gazpacho of Andalusia rendered into a new-wave sorbet.

But recipes from trail-blazing chefs are only part of my story. Absorbed as I was in the magical alchemy of contemporary Spanish cuisine, at the same time I found myself more and more drawn to tradition. The two worlds really aren't mutually exclusive. In Spain, the classic cuisine is alive and in better shape than ever before. And in one of those delicious culinary give-and-takes, traditional cooks and avant-garde chefs feed off each other, learning from each other's kitchens. Experimental chefs swoon over the luminous quality of native ingredients and the rigorous simplicity of classic preparations — hanging out at old tabernas, tascas, and tapas bars along with the rest of Spanish gourmands. Meanwhile, owners of old-school restaurants send their children and business heirs to apprentice with new-wave maestros for progressive kitchen tricks. I don't know any other place on the globe where the union of old and new is so strong. In the end it's this marriage of tradition and innovation that makes eating in Spain such a thrilling adventure.

My researches of classic dishes have taken me to all corners of Spain: east to Mallorca, west to Galicia and Extremadura, south to Anadalusia, north to the Basque Country. In San Sebastian, Spain's tapas capital, I trudged (smiling) from one food-laden counter to another, cataloguing the wares and cajoling the owners into sharing their recipes. In Sevilla, I befriended convent nuns who showed me the tiny garments they embroider for Baby Jesus and told me how to make marzipans (nuns are famous bakers in Spain). I spent weeks by the Mediterranean in the Valencia and Alicante regions trying to absorb the secrets of a proper, authentic paella. This dish is so militantly regional, so dependant on specific ingredients and techniques — well, it took me literally years to perfect it at home. Now I can't imagine a dinner party which doesn't involve triumphantly carrying a vast steaming paella pan to the table.

I've never eaten as well in my life as I have in Spain over the last several years. Now that The New Spanish Table is finished and hitting the stores, I feel pangs of sadness. How will I ever find a food subject so absorbing, so tasty, ever again? spacer

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