Article by David Cánovas Williams, from Spain Gourmetour magazine, Issue #72, 2008. Photos below by Toya Legido and Tomás Zarza ©ICEX.
There’s nothing new under the sun, especially if we’re talking about one of the world’s most ancient fruits–extra virgin olive oil. But recent technical advances and the inventiveness of a group of young Spanish chefs have subjected this age-old product to all manner of interpretations, and new creations with olive oil take our taste buds to territories both familiar and unknown, but always along unexplored paths. The actual role of olive oil is undergoing a metamorphosis. From being the guest of honor in salads, fried foods and cooked dishes, it now often features as the star ingredient and is preparing to steal the show in the 21st century.
Dani Garcia's Palomita de Aceite de Oliva con Tomate Raf
Just as modern aircraft took their inspiration from the flight of birds, at the end of the 1990s Martín Berasategui dared to break the rules, taking his inspiration from local customs. This three-Michelin-star chef was interested to learn that in some parts of Provence in France, people used to place olive oil in the fridge so that it could then be spread on bread like butter. His curiosity about the physical changes in oil led him to devise a new recipe, now a classic: olive oil ice cream.
When the time is ripe for a new idea, history always makes sure there is someone who can put it into effect. That was more or less what happened at Lúculo, the first creative cuisine eatery in Madrid. Hundreds of miles from Berasategui’s restaurant in the Basque Country and almost 15 years earlier, the young Angel García was experimenting with vegetable sorbets when he decided to start including extra virgin olive oil. “Now sorbets are made of all sorts of things, but at Lúculo we were the true pioneers. Sorbet can’t be made with water because it goes hard as a rock. Extra virgin olive oil sorbet was born because we were keen to replace the cream and butter with olive oil to get a creamier texture.” It was 1984 and his restaurant was producing sorbets with tomato, green pepper, celery... Like Berasategui, Angel García used these sorbets as a garnish for savory dishes: gazpacho, cold soups such as cream of white beans, and carpaccios.
Cooking Between -319ºF and 356ºF
Chef Dani García
Dani García holds up a siphon. Before him is a smoking container of liquid nitrogen. He has just sprayed olive oil over a gas at -195ºC (-319 ºF). Seconds later, he extracts tiny golden pearls: it’s his famous olive oil semolina. This is pure virgin olive oil but it doesn’t leave behind a single trace of fat on the palate.
But liquid nitrogen is not the only way in which this young Andalusian chef has put extra virgin olive oil to the test. In a radical move, Dani García decided to focus on the other temperature extreme: frying. At Casa Joaquín, Encarnación Godoy fried whole fish in such a way that the scales acted as a ready-made papillotte. So the skin fried while the flesh, which is separated from it by a layer of air, cooked in its own juices. The effect is surprising as the fish blows up like a balloon and floats on the surface of the oil.
Dani García decided to adopt this technique with large fish. Sole and turbot were the first candidates for this treatment at 182ºC (359.6ºF) and the result was so positive that they were included on Calima’s menu.
A Matter of Consistency
In addition to Dani García, the seminar ‘Andalusian cuisine and olive oil in the 21st century’ also featured Paco Roncero, one of Ferran Adrià’s star pupils who is making his mark today on the cuisine at La Terraza del Casino in Madrid. “I chose another path, that of gellifiers, thickeners, etc. That was what elBulli was doing at the time.”
Chef Paco Roncero
Oriol Castro, Ferran Adrià’s right-hand man, explains some of the research being done over the last few years. “Not only did we work with oil texturized by cold treatment, as in 1999 we developed butter based on this technique, but we also focused on thickeners. In 2006, we created an extra virgin olive oil caviar using alginate, a thickener made from seaweed. We are also carrying out spherification with olive water. Spherification results in an olive-sized mouthful that contains the water from a dozen olives”.
After seeing how some of these techniques were being applied in the elBulli workshop, Roncero decided to work on a specific line of research. His first creation was the extra virgin olive oil gum drop. “The process is perfectly simple. First you make a syrup with sugar and mix in the olive oil. Then you add a sheet of gelatin and leave it to cool. When we did this hot, the sugars separated from the oils, so we decided to use a mayonnaise technique.”
From then on, Roncero gradually started using different thickeners. The first was cocoa butter. “I love going to a restaurant and being served butter with my bread, so I thought we could replace the butter with olive oil, a much healthier option. That led me to the idea of creating an olive oil butter with a technique different to that of elBulli. We did lots of tests and eventually ended up with a mixture of oil heated to 35ºC (95ºF) and 10% cocoa butter.”
One of Roncero’s simplest and most masterly creations is, without a doubt, his spherified tomato. Using alginate as a thickener, Roncero has created a gelatinous sphere containing tomato water and extra virgin olive oil in suspension. Pastry Chef Paco TorreblancaBased on Japanese soba soup, Roncero created some very unusual noodles. He uses an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil with methylcellulose to create a cream which is injected into the hot soup using a syringe to form perfect spaghetti.
The Perfect Substitute
Together with Jordi Butrón, Xano Saguer is one of the founders of Espaisucre, the world’s first center to combine a school and a restaurant for desserts. At Espaisucre, they have worked with olive oil ice cream, olive oil gum drops and cakes using a manzanilla olive cream, and they have created olive oil clouds (an update on the classic marshmallow).
In Elda (Alicante), the Totel patisserie, bastion of Paco Torreblanca, uses the same technique but for a different purpose. “We have been replacing butter–or some of it–especially in the cream inside chocolates. What we care about most is texture. Olive oil is a fat that crystallizes in a different way, whereas butter hardens with the cold. With oil, the product takes much longer to oxidize so the texture is much creamier and elastic,” says Torreblanca.
Torreblanca's olive oil chocolates
A Stable Relationship
Oil and water have always been used as an allegory of incompatibility. However hard you try, they will always end up separating. As we have seen, chefs have searched for ways to get around this problem. They use thickeners and emulsion agents, such as soy lecithin, but in most cases these bring with them unwanted flavors, do not achieve stable emulsions or require thermal treatments that affect the quality of the oil. That was until the arrival of aerosil.
José Luis Navas, from the restaurant La Espadaña in Jaén, and Juan Gutiérrez, from the Bodegas Campo R&D laboratory, yet again under the watchful eye of García del Moral, are investigating applications of this silex mineral which could be the new Holy Grail of creative cuisine. Top-ranking chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Quique Dacosta are currently trying out culinary applications with aerosil. The nanoparticles of this colloidal silex dioxide are odorless, colorless and tasteless and can be applied in microscopic amounts to achieve emulsions never imagined before.
Aromatized Olive Oil
Is it possible to cook with charcoal aromas without the coal? This was the question asked by Francis Paniego, chef at Echaurren in Ezcaray (La Rioja). “About five years ago we had a problem. We wanted to use vine wood to aromatize meat but we didn’t have grills, so we thought of using aromatized olive oil, and that was how we devised wood-flavored oils.” Paniego’s research in this field started out through a collaboration with Bodegas Roda in La Rioja to determine how oaky aromas are transferred to wine from the barrel. “We tried to transfer the aromas of different types of wood to oil by combustion inside a pressure cooker. This method, originally devised by Ferran Adrià for his famous smoke foam, had to be changed a little for our purposes. He smoked water in a pressure cooker and we swapped the water for extra virgin olive oil.”
Olive Oil Culture
All these innovations–liquid nitrogen, aerosil and new crushing methods–form part of a much bigger picture. Olive oil is crossing frontiers and is crying out for a place of its own in today’s cuisine. There are now many restaurants that offer trolleys of extra virgin olive oil for tasting by way of aperitif, and themed menus based on extra virgin olive oil have become “the in thing”. “In the mid-1980s, we were one of the first restaurants to offer an olive oil trolley,” recalls the 3-Michelin-star chef Pedro Subijana. “Back then, it was very difficult to find artisan extra virgin olive oils, but today there is an amazing variety of quality olive oils. We work with Marqués de Valdueza and Pagos del Olivar. Every day we offer a special olive oil.”
David Cánovas Williams has worked as a journalist in digital media and as a freelance translator. He was an intern journalist with Spain Gourmetour until September 2007.