Spain's gastronomic revolution turns cuisine into art
Avant-garde chefs in Spain live by the mantra of irony, surprise and provocation when it comes to food.
MADRID -- For the affluent gourmets dining at Spain's top restaurants these days, a sugar ball flavoured with oak smoke might constitute a nice little novelty.
Tobacco ice cream might also make the bill of nearly 200 euros, as would lamb tail cooked in ravioli, a deconstructed omelette or liquid croquettes.
Irony, surprise and provocation are the mottos of avant-garde chefs in the country whose haute cuisine has risen to compete with that of France, and where gastronomy is being classified as a science as much as an art form.
The celebrity status of top chefs reflects a cultural revolution in which hedonism and buying power reign supreme, according to analysts.
For a long time, Spanish cooking was regarded as rather simple through healthy peasant food.
A gastronomic revolution launched in the 1970s under French influence has turned the country into a gourmets' paradise known for its exquisite small restaurants especially in the northern Catalonia and Basque regions.
The best-known is El Bulli on the Costa Brava, owned by Ferran Adria, dubbed the world's best chef, who has a waiting list of up to 18 months.
In such places, "we do not try to nourish," but to "create a (special) moment," Andoni Luis Aduriz, one of Spain's top chefs, told the daily El Pais.
In kitchens resembling laboratories, chefs and their assistants are constantly experimenting with the most unexpected ingredients, measuring them with surgical precision and using the very latest technology to prepare dishes they compare with works of art.
Food must not only appeal to taste, but also to other senses with its smell, appearance, texture and the sounds it makes when consumed, according to chefs who are being described as revolutionaries or visionaries in a movement known as molecular gastronomy.
Adria was awarded doctor honoris causa by Aberdeen University for his contribution to contemporary thought. The creations of the likes of Adria, whose restaurant is closed for half a year to experiment with new dishes, have turned them into celebrities running business imperiums comprising books, shops, culinary products, catering chains and publicity contracts.
In the recent months, such outlandish dishes have come under fire when Catalan top chef Santi Santamaria said the chefs would not eat the dishes they prepared.
The author of the book "Cuisine in the Nude" sparked a storm in the Spanish gastronomy world when he accused his colleagues of forsaking their national gastronomy traditions in favour of a commercial, rootless and globalised cuisine.
In their eagerness to use scientific methods, Santamaria claimed, chefs were using unhealthy additives.
That charge was refuted by the health authorities, and Santamaria's colleagues accused him of sabotaging the haute cuisine that was becoming one of the trademarks of Spain.
Haute cuisine is not elitist, its advocates argue, because it influences traditional cooking in the same way as haute couture inspires off-the-rack clothes designers.
Whether haute cuisine is art or "the apotheosis of banality," as one commentator put it, remains an open question.
"The satisfaction produced by a good meal may be comparable to that given by a movie, but the two are not in the same category," art journalist Alicia Murria said.
In a world where people in poor countries suffer from hunger, the post-modern cuisine is "a reflection of our society", historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto told El Pais.
It reflects the wealth of Western society, its search for novelty, its celebrity cults and our desire to"turn everything into science," he said.
Photo: Christian Volbracht.