The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: France versus Spain - How the Spanish beat the French at the cuisine game
If you were to ask any foodie which country had the best restaurants and was at the cutting edge of gastronomy, many people would say Japan. And they would not be wrong. Japanese cuisine is sophisticated and traditional at the same time and the great Japanese chefs are true masters of their craft.
But here’s the thing: virtually nobody would say France.
At the end of the 20th Century, something like eighty per cent of anyone you asked this question would have had no doubt: France was the mother of all gastronomy.
The French had their superiority universally acknowledged until the Spanish knocked them off their perch.
Spanish cuisine blossomed at around the same time as Spain became a democracy. In 1975, General Franco, the fascist dictator (and pal of Adolf Hitler) who had ruled Spain for decades went off to the great bunker in the sky and his country began a slow transition to democracy.
I remember going to Spain as a boy in 1976 and finding a country that took no pride in its own cuisine. Hotels and upmarket restaurants served a French-based international cuisine and about the only Spanish dish you saw on most menus was paella.
I remember my mother saying to me, as we flew out of Madrid; “Well that was very nice but we never found out what Spanish cuisine was.”
All that changed in the years that followed. For a start, the Spanish finally started taking pride in their own cuisine. Such concepts as tapas, meaning small plates of snack-sized portions of quite complex food spread all over Europe and then to America. Such Spanish ingredients as their many peppers found favour all over the world.
Till the start of this century, the French claimed to make the best charcuterie (cold meats) in the world and the Italians made extravagant claims for their Parma ham. Today, nobody would seriously dispute that the Spanish are the true masters of charcuterie or that their Jamon Iberico is the best ham in the world. The Spanish chorizo, once a niche sausage, is now world famous.
Then, the Spanish took the French on in their backyard. France has two great claims to culinary excellence. The first is that the techniques and sauces that are the basis of all Western cuisine were invented in France. The French taught the world to sear, sauté, poach, bake and roast. Their ‘mother’ sauces (hollandaise, bechamel, etc.) were the foundation of traditional “continental cuisine.”
That guaranteed France’s superiority for decades. And then, just as the world began complaining that French cuisine was too heavy, along came a nouvelle cuisine that ditched flour-thickened sauces and focused on ingredients.
Whereas earlier French cuisine had relied on recipes (as Indian and Italian cuisine still do), the French now rediscovered ingenuity. The best chefs were those who took fresh ingredients and cooked them in a way that brought out their own flavours. So, fish was cooked for much less time, vegetables had to remain crunchy and nouvelle chefs would go to the market each day to find out what was fresh and create dishes around those ingredients.
But the Spanish beat the French on both counts.
Till the 1990s most French chefs used techniques that had been invented decades ago with only minimal updating i.e. they would blanch vegetables rather than boil them. Sous-vide (cooking ingredients in a plastic bag submerged in a water bath that remained at a constant temperature) was probably invented in France but never really caught on in its country of origin.
The Spanish mastered these techniques. And they invented new ones. What came to be called molecular gastronomy (by the French; the Spanish don’t like the term) emerged in Spain.
In 1994, Ferran Adria at El Bulli invented the first foam, using siphons that were normally used for whipped cream and putting liquified ingredients in them. In 1998, he invented hot jellies (a mystery to the French who expected jellies to melt at high temperatures). In 2002, he created an even lighter foam and called it an air.
A few years later, Ferran’s brother Albert invented ‘caviarisation’, a way of turning drops of liquid into little spheres with the consistency of caviar by using sodium alginate.
At first the French were generous. The great French chef Joel Robuchon, (who died last year) hailed Adria as one of the world’s finest chefs. But as the techniques pioneered by the Spanish chefs began to take off all over the world, the French became resentful. Robuchon backtracked on his original praise and the French began portraying the Spanish as mad scientists who worked in labs not kitchens.
But it was too late: Spain’s techniques had already influenced nearly very restaurant kitchen in the West.
Then, the Spanish took the French on in the area of ingredients. The great French chefs knew how to find the freshest eggs. But they didn’t really understand the egg itself. It was such chefs as Andoni Luis Aduriz (who cooked in Delhi last year) who worked out that egg whites cook at a different temperature from egg yolks and discovered how best to cook an egg.
In the process, the French have lost out. They are still perceived as being too wedded to the approaches of the past, while the Spanish are at the cutting edge of cuisine.
Speaking for myself, I love French food. French is still the classic cuisine. But these days, when I want to eat, I go to Spain not France. Over the last four years, I have been at least twice every year and have rarely had a bad meal.
It isn’t just the modern or fancy places: even the food at the cheapest local places is excellent. Sometimes you don’t realize how good dishes are till you try them. Read about a Spanish omelet and you will learn that it is an omelet stuffed with potatoes. That is an accurate description but an incomplete one. A Spanish omelet is really a potato pie with no flour. Instead, a thin layer of cooked egg holds the potatoes together. It looks like a pie and you eat it like a pie, cutting off triangular slices.
But yes, Spanish restaurant food can be extraordinary. It doesn’t have to be ‘molecular’. One of the best meals I had in Spain was at restaurant Martin Berasategui, near San Sebastian (the same chef has another three star restaurant in Barcelona) where such dishes as his foie gras shaped to look like black truffles would have not seemed out of place on any French menu. Sergi Arola, a globe-trolling two star chef, once cooked me every dish on the menu at his Portuguese restaurant and though it was too much food and though Arola is an Adria acolyte, there was very little science on the menu, just delicious food.
A week ago, a friend took me to El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. This has twice been rated as the best restaurant in the world and is currently number two on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. (It has had three stars for years.) The Tasting Menu had 25 dishes so I can’t remember them all but what struck me was how well the chefs had merged simple (well, relatively simple) fresh dishes with complex ones. There was a scorpion fish, characteristic of the Mediterranean, simply cooked with a seaweed filling but there was also a green olive ice-cream with black truffle tempura. It was hard to imagine a meal of this quality and imagination in any French restaurant.
The Rocas are masters, in a league of their own. But the meal that has stuck in my memory was dinner the night before. I ate at Disfrutar in Barcelona. This is a restaurant run by three chefs who worked at El Bulli with the Adrias. El Bulli closed in 2011 and many people said it had come to the end of its natural life.
The Disfrutar chefs disagree. They are cooking the food that they believe El Bulli would have cooked if it was still around. This means that their techniques are even more advanced and their dishes are truly awesome. Of the many, many dishes we had, two have stayed in my memory. One was a pao (bun) which tasted delicious. But as you look a bit further, you discovered it was filled with caviar. As the caviar grains popped in my mouth, I wondered how they had done it. As any chef will tell you. If you cook caviar it turns into a nasty jam. Yet, here it was at the centre of a bun, tasting as fresh as ever.
The answer: technique, technique and more technique.
Another dish consisted of an egg shell from which the egg had been removed and a truffle mushroom mixture filled inside. This was delicious. But what surprised me was the egg-yolk tempura on top of the egg. How can you keep a yolk runny if you are deep-frying it, pakora style?
It was yet another technique perfected at the restaurant. No doubt as time goes on, the Disfrutar techniques will become as common as Adria’s spheres, airs, and foams have now become. But eating there that night, I had a real sense that we were at the edge of the gastronomic horizon. And the food tasted great.
So, will France ever recapture its past glory? I am skeptical. The French have adopted many of the ‘molecular’ techniques they once derided. They have learned to go beyond freshness and colour while assessing ingredients.
But I can’t think of a single French chef who demonstrates the imagination and inventiveness of today’s top Spanish chefs. The best meals I have had at any restaurant run by a French chef have been in New York (at Le Bernardin where Eric Ripert has re-invented fish cooking) and in Monaco where Alan Ducasse does the whole haute cuisine thing brilliantly. But apart from those, there is very little that seems surprising, exciting or even great about French food today.
Over the two decades after El Bulli changed the rules and eight years after it closed, the Spanish have maintained their lead.
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