Barcelona is gastronomy city, full of many amazing restaurants steeped in a tradition of Iberian cooking. The highlight for years – for the chosen few – has been a trip to elBulli. Anyone who is a foodie will know just how much it means to dine there – especially before it closed its doors for the last time this summer. It was a magical place where one could have the most extraordinary dinner, unimaginable, tasting sublime flavours, textures and aromas in beautiful surroundings.
Countless books, blogs, documentaries and articles have been written or made about the unique elBulli experience, covering every angle, from the sacrifices of being a stagiare to the privilege of being a diner – and for very good reasons. Apparently, over a million people have tried to book a table there, and those lucky enough to be selected have often had to wait a year before taking up their invitation. Such is the global fascination and world-wide reputation.
By serendipity, I was invited to attend a workshop in this majestic city, entitled ‘Gastronomy and Technology Days”, organized by the great man, Ferran Adrià, himself, in conjunction with the forward-thinking Spanish company, Telefonica. The opportunity to be in the physical presence of the former was exciting enough, but to be able also to spend a couple of days in the company of top foodies and techies from all over the world, talking about and sharing their insights on a diversity of themes related to food, dining and technology, was wild. I did not stop buzzing the whole time I was there.
I arrived late in the evening on the Monday and went straight to Estrella Damm– where the first night’s social event was just starting. This famous spanish brewery in conjunction with Ferran and some of his chefs had organized the evening, featuring a range of elBulli inspired Iberican tapas. I had literally jumped off the plane, sprang into a taxi and walked straight into a large bustling, happening dining cellar. It was full of people talking mainly Catalan and drinking Estrella’s special red star beer, poured by serious waiters from dark wine bottles into delicate wine glasses – a beer fit to sit proudly among the best of wines. It was the creamiest and most delicious-tasting beer I have drunk.
Whilst we were waited on by the electable staff, Ferran swanned around the tables doing the rounds, to the delight of his captivated accolades, happily obliging to put his arm round those wanting to capture the moment on their phones. I watched in awe.
My memory of tapas is of wholesome, comfort food: spicy potato bravas, thick crusty bread, succulent olives, pungent garlic mushrooms, textured tortilla and for those who eat meat – the sight of hearty sausages, meatballs and seafood dishes. The tapas served to us at Estrella, however, were in a different league of sensational tastes, scented smells and sumptuous sights; locally produced, creatively designed and artfully combined – befitting of elBulli. It was a culinary experience that required one’s undivided attention at tasting rather than being backgrounded to the ongoing bright conversations.
Reluctantly, I skipped the meat and fish dishes, but nonetheless enjoyed them vicariously through the descriptions and facial expressions of the international group of participants I had joined. When the desserts arrived, I was able to return centre stage to the shared foray; sampling from the delicate bowls various combinations of cheese, sorbet, ice cream, fruit, biscuit, caramel and cinnamon flavours and textures. The tiny scoops were divine, hitting the spectrum of my tastebuds in perfect harmony.
But then out of the blue, the last tapas that enveloped my sensory perception system, hit me with an enormous thud.
It was called “Pera escalibada, toffee de moscovado, mantequilla tostada y nube helada de pera y trufa”.
Emanating through the mix was a very strong taste of meat – almost like its very essence. It was such a shock. I have not tasted meat for over 30 years now and yet the memory of it came vividly and immediately back to me in a rush. But how was it possible that a dessert could produce such an intense flavour of meat for someone who had assumed it to have faded into the distant past (later on, one of my culinary companions explained the science of why such a sensation could happen). It was not that it was unpleasant, rather that it came upon me so suddenly and so strangely. I didn’t know what to do next.
As a reality check, I commented on what I had just experienced to K, who was standing next to me. He agreed he’d tasted the same. I exclaimed how was this possible? He smiled and ate some more. My mind and emotions then went into overdrive. Supposing it really was meat I had tasted – would I become ill (the reason I refrain from eating meat) or, if not, would it mean I could start eating meat again and this time enjoying it? I imagined myself going down to the buffet the next day for breakfast and loading up my plate with bacon rashers. But then fear returned.
Panic started to mix with anticipation.
And then a memory from my childhood flooded my consciousness – the first time I could remember eating meat. It was when I was about six. I had gone round to a friend’s house for tea and was confronted with the bright coloured flesh of a spam fritter whose fullness was only revealed to me when I cut into its battered coat. It looked pretty in pink but I remember it tasting foul.
Presciently, my talk the next day was called “Transforming Dining Through Technology-Induced Perceptions and Proustian-Invoked Memories”. I presented some nascent ideas about how we might capitalize on our food memories (both positive and negative) and design pervasive technologies that would enable people to make more of their ephemeral experiences and subsequent shadow memories, through transforming them in new directions. But Proustian moments are usually so personal and private. I wondered what it would mean to make them more public; turning the unexpected assault of a powerful memory into more of an intense shared experience.
The next night we went to a very down-to-earth looking Tapas bar in the centre of Barcelona. It was simply called Tapas 24. No booking and a simple menu to choose from a small chalked black board and the back of a manila envelope. The ambience was convivial and a small group of us from Korea, America, Chile, the UK and Spain sat closely together at a shiny counter tabletop, that was brightly lit.
As we were to discover, it was far from being your average tapas spread. The owner, Carles Abellan (who had worked for many years with Ferran Adrià) has removed the aura of “sacredness from high cuisine”, making it possible for all to enjoy at a very affordable price. On the bar’s website, it notes “the keystone of Carles Abellan’s proposal are his tapas, which are based on the tastes of memory…”
We had a brilliant evening getting to know each other, sharing food memories and the current culinary delights. This time, the desserts did not shock with meat essence but were unbelievable. I could not stop myself scraping the plates for a last taste – the one I will remember most was the chocolate truffle-mouse drops in olive oil coated with Iberian salt.
Our hosts chose mainly dishes that I could eat (my glimmer of hope of being able to eat meat again was short-lived) despite my protestations. It was genuine altruism. They wanted me, too, to be able to open and close my eyes, go ahhhhhh, ummmmm, and talk excitedly about the dishes. And only later did I realize that such selflessness actually heightened the pleasure for them.
Memories and personal stories were regaled by all sitting round the tabletop. The conversations flowed in many different directions, each of us following up ideas from our respective talks and then returning to social talk, seamlessly moving between ideas for the future and reminisces from our past.
We left full of endorphins.
It made me rethink my view on technology and food; you don’t need the former to make the best of food or food the best – all you need is a convivial atmosphere, an appliance of science and lovingly created interactive ingredients. But maybe there might be a more compensatory role for it when you can’t have those.