“Spain’s seafood is the best in the world, no question about it,” says David Rosengarten, esteemed food critic and editor-in-chief of The Rosengarten Report. From the scallops and percebes (gooseneck barnacles) of Galicia to the anchovies, sardines, tuna, hake and spiny lobster fished from Spain’s other coasts, the country’s seafood catch is “a bonanza,” says Rosengarten.
With fish and shellfish this good, should chefs do anything but cook simply? Do Spain’s avant-garde chefs diminish the pristine appeal of fresh seafood when they subject it to new preparations? Several leading Spanish chefs made the case for innovation at the CIA Greystone’s Worlds of Flavor conference.
Chef Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona is one of the most respected culinary voices in Spain today. Roca’s ground-breaking cooking has earned the restaurant two Michelin stars. One technique he favors is the use of distillation to capture volatile aromas of ingredients such as passion fruit and truffles. “We obtain a different dimension from what we are used to,’ says the chef.
That’s putting it mildly. For one CIA demonstration, Roca made an oyster dish garnished with a distillation of soil. Even he admitted that the concept was “a little bit radical.” The soil was infused in water, then the infusion was distilled.
“A lot of aromas are linked to emotion and remembrance,” says the chef. “Moist soil has a nostalgic smell.” The distillation was thickened with xanthum gum to produce a sauce with the flavor of the earth. The Catalan kitchen has a long tradition of mar y montaña dishes—what Americans call “surf and turf”—but it’s a fair bet that few diners have ever encountered anything like this.
From Spain’s magnificent bluefin tuna, caught when it passes through the Strait of Gibraltar, chef Joaquin Felipe of the Urban hotel in Madrid has learned to utilize every inch. He cooks the roe in a vacuum for 12 hours at 65°C (150°F), then serves this delicacy with pasta or salad. The tuna’s heart undergoes the same procedure and can then be sliced like carpaccio and eaten cold. Tuna liver, anyone? Chef Felipe soaks it in milk for several hours, then wraps it in plastic like a sausage and vacuum-cooks it slowly for six hours. He uses it to enrich Italian-style rice dishes, in place of some of the butter and cheese. The fatty cheeks are prepared escabeche style, and even the skin has a star turn as tuna cracklings—vacuum cooked, then toasted until crunchy.