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A new discovery?

30 Jun

Another great week has passed. Unlike the two weeks before, I only worked at Alicia until Wednesday, as I fell pretty ill on Wednesday night. I am still sick, but I am recovering slowly, relaxing and drinking tons of water. Despite my illness, this was probably the best week yet. After spending the weekend together with the other interns in Costa Brava, I returned to work full of energy (and pretty sunburned). I am really getting to know the people at Alicia, and I am becoming more and more accustomed to the working environment. As my Spanish is improving, I am able to communicate more clearly with the senior chefs and scientists as well as with my co-workers, though most of the current communication happens somewhere in the intersection between Spanish and English – that is, Spanglish.

Yet, my Spanish communication skills have improved significantly since I arrived. Together with my increasing gastronomic knowledge, this allowed me to inform my supervisors about an interesting observation that I made on Wednesday.  As I mentioned earlier, testing recipes is a part of my work editing the gastronomic lexicon. One of these recipes was an “herb sauce” made from pure mint juice and a thickening agent, locust bean gum. The recipe was successful and produced a very refreshing sauce with a relatively high viscosity. After the product was approved by my supervisor, I decided to try to mix some of the fresh sauce with cold water to drink. Dropping small amounts of the mint sauce into the ice-cold water, I discovered something incredibly interesting. As soon as the liquid entered the water, it formed small, solid, spheric bodies. These bodies floated in the water and could be moved around freely without any changes in texture. Surprised by this observation, I decided to drink the water, expecting to encounter a mint “solid” while drinking.

While I was drinking, however, I could feel no texture. In fact, the “solid” bodies seemed to explode as soon as they reached my mouth, leaving only an incredibly fresh mint flavor. This was confirmed when I tried to remove the “bodies” from the water and it did not work. As soon as the bodies were removed, they became the viscous mint sauce they were before entering the water. I immediately consulted my supervisor, a food scientist who was one of the people behind the cutting-edge creations of El Bulli. When I explained to her what I had seen, she did not believe me, as the viscous mint sauce should normally dissolve in liquids. To prove my point, I showed her the process. She was surprised, and called other scientists to come observe what just had happened. After an intense conversation in Catalan – none of which I understood – it became clear that no one could explain what had happened. The scientists decided to sit down and work on a proof.

Meanwhile, I decided to test if the same process worked in liquids with different properties, such as pH, salt concentrations, etc. Here is the result (The proof is currently work in progress):

In cold water; the time of discovery.

It worked in Bacardi, 37.5 % alcohol

It worked in pure vinegar, very low pH.

It worked in olive oil.

It did now work in Soy Sauce

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Artisan adventures: a small expedition to Northern Catalunya

30 Jun

Artisan adventures: a small expedition to the North of Catalunya

On Wednesday I and 7 other interns headed up to Northern Cataluna to explore the culinary treasures of Olot, a small town situated amid sleeping volcanoes. The trip was partly an occasion to say bye to David – a chef and historian who has been working at Alicia for the past month and who lives near Olot. Although I got very sick towards the end of the small expedition, I really enjoyed myself and was thrilled to witness the pure catalan authenticity and thriving artisans that can be found in the most surprising places.

Below is a small photo story from the trip.

L’hostalet, the village where David lives, is a small, sleepy village, where the 200 inhabitants all know each other; a town where a 2-meter tall Swede is a certain peculiarity. Working in his parents traditional catalonian restaurant on the weekend, David gets to witness the moments when his village wakes up, as people from all across Catalunya and Spain come to observe and enjoy the many culinary treasures of this small pearl.

And it is probably the tourism that allows artisans like this baker to survive only from baking bread the way it has been done for centuries. The bread – juicy, tangy and crispy from the long fermentation process – is prepared in a traditional stone oven and is sold to everyone from next-door neighbors to Swedish tourists like me. We got a tour of the small bakery that is located on the first floor of an old stone building. The temperature inside reflected more that of a coal mine than a bakery; it was clear that no one but the baker himself has evolved in accordance with the wood-fire oven and the heat therein.

The fertile volcanic soil and the mountain climate of this region of Catalunya makes it an ideal place to grow corn. And corn they grow. I guess that I have to make a corn-analogy, because I am Carleton student. Here it is: It was almost like being in an exotic, interesting and mountainous Midwest. Or not… I guess the only similarity is the corn.

After some sightseeing, we jumped in to the car and headed towards Olot. Five minutes outside the volcanic city we met a family that runs an artisan sausage business. The family, very proud of their product, oversees the entire production process and makes sausages from around 1000 pigs a year. Even though 1000 pigs might sound like a large number for a small farm, it is miniscule relative to other farms in the region. That the region is famous for its meat came as no surprise when I found out that around hundreds of thousands of pigs become sausage each year, being exported to Japan, China and Russia. The farm was cute and the family was nice. However, the pigs did not seem very happy. Not a surprise, considering that more than 15 pigs had to live in an area smaller than 3 x 3 meters. We stayed at this place for more than an hour, and this left a few of us incredibly frustrated and tired . I still don’t understand what was so fascinating about making sausage from pigs.

Driving down a dark, winding road, we eventually arrived at another small farm. Sleeping in the car, I was woken up by a loudly barking dog, and immediately realized that we had arrived at a place that had something to do with sheep. Indeed we had. The last stop before dinner was a small goat-and sheep cheese farm run by a woman in her 70’s. We got a small tour of the production area and got to taste two kinds of aged cheeses; sheep’s and goat’s cheese. My favorite was the sheep’s cheese. At this point, I was so tired and hungry that I did not enjoy myself that much. We bought the cheese and headed and drove to a very special location in Olot, where we enjoyed the ingredients we had purchased: the sausage, the cheese, the bread, and some tomatoes and local white beans that David picked up at his parent’s restaurant. Right as we were about to eat, I got a fever, shaking vigorously.  As you might understand, I did not enjoy this part of the trip quite as much. Quite frankly, I don’t remember much either. However, taken as a whole, the trip was a great expedition. It was yet another taste of the richness that Catalunya has to offer.

Catalan Cuisine: Baccalao con Xamfaina (recipe by Angel Castel Roqueta)

30 Jun

Of those sacred recipes that Angel carries from generations of his family, one recipe might be extra special: the traditional catalan dish “Baccalao con Xamfaina.” Below is Angel’s own rendition on this catalan classic. Even though it is very similar to the original recipe, Angel’s recipe calls for more finely diced vegetables and does not include eggplant. Baccalao con Xamfaina is ubiquitous in Catalonia, as you can find it at almost any decent-sized restaurant along the coast. Yet, Angel’s version is probably the best dish I have eaten during my visit to Spain.

 

Baccalao con Xamfaina

4 servings

You need:

1.5 Onion, finely chopped

5 tbsp olive oil

1 clove garlic, sliced

1/2 red pepper, chopped

2 green peppers, chopped

6 tomatoes, seeds removed, diced and drained

1 squash, finely chopped

2 tsp salt

pepper to tase

1 tbsp sugar

3-4 cod filets, with spines

 

1. Heat up olive oil in a pan, and add onion and garlic. Medium heat.

 

2. Cook until light brown, and add green pepper

3. Add red pepper after 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper

4. Leave until cooked (5-8 mins) and add squash. Cook for 7 mins, stirring occasionally.

6. Add tomatoes and sugar. Stir and leave on low heat for 20 minutes.

7. When done,

 

Fish + emulsion

1. Remove spines from filet and drain on absorbent paper. Drain filet on absorbent paper.

2. Heat up 1/2 cup olive oil in a pan, medium/low heat. Make sure it does not smoke. There should be enough oil to cover the fish.

3. Cook the fish “sous-vide” and make sure that the gelatin from the cod disperses into the oil

4. When the fish is soft and cooked (around 5 mins), put aside and remove skin if necessary

5. Add the spine pieces to the olive oil and leave for around 5 minutes to extract the gelatin from the spines.

6. Cool down oil to around 36 degrees Celsius and emulsify (mix) using a handblender. When the desired texture is achieved, add 1/4 of the vegetable mix previously prepared and blend using a handblender. Then, add half of this mixture to the vegetable mix and mix properly.

7. Add the cod filets to the sauce and serve over spanish rice.

 

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