The cook, the academy and the Spanish gastronome
A range of delicacies chosen by acclaimed chef Frank Camorra of MoVida restaurants and bars in Melbourne was on the menu, but conversation around the tables at a recent event bringing together staff from the University’s Spanish program and ‘peninsula foodies’ was all about the closure in 2011 of El Bulli restaurant.
Led by Lara Anderson, whose subject in the University’s Spanish program and book of the same name – Cooking up the Nation – explores the interplay between food and national identity in Spain, the event was part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
With the theme ‘Spanish Cuisine in a Post Bulli Era’, the event considered the future for Spanish haute-cuisine after the announcement last year by chef Ferran Adria of the closure of what was considered by many to be the world’s ‘best’ restaurant. Certainly El Bulli achieved an astonishing five such accolades from the iconic The Restaurant magazine.
Event panelist Lisa Abend, a correspondent for Time magazine, and author of the book The Sorcercer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at El Bulli, said the Spanish reaction to Adria’s announcement that he was to close El Bulli and turn the seasonal restaurant into a creative centre shocked Spain to its core.
“You would have thought someone had just told Spaniards they were going to have be home and in bed by 11 o’clock at nights,” she says, noting that the announcement ran on global news broadcasts including on CNN, the BBC and in Australia.
Ferran Adria is known in the cuisine world as a vanguard chef, bringing to cooking ideas from science and modern art, and pretty much establishing the idea of gastronomy. Ms Abend said his attitude to cooking has had global influence.
“If you’ve ever eaten a foam, or had something brought to the table smoking because it had been frozen with liquid nitrogen, or bit into something that looked solid but was actually liquid, that’s because of Adria,” she says.
“He has been the most influential gastronome since Escoffier, the French chef who really invented the concept of the modern restaurant. With his philosophy and attitude to food Adria freed chefs from a very rigid, codified existence so they could ‘play’. The entire concept of chefs having the freedom to invent, or play with ingredients, really comes from Adria.”
Chef and restaurateur Frank Camorra, like Ms Abend, said that the change El Bulli had brought to Spanish cuisine was echoed in his own eateries, which produced a fusion of traditional and ultra-modern food.
The name MoVida comes from the Spanish counter-cultural movement, La MoVida, which was characterised by “innovation, creativity and anti-reverence”.
Describing his food as ‘elevated’ tapas he said his restaurants took the traditional flavours of the Mediterranean but said that being in Australia, “we’re able to play around with food like the Spanish do.”
Hosted by the Faculty of Arts for Alumni and friends and with catering by Rocket Catering, Spanish Consul General to Melbourne Miguel Gómez de Aranda introduced the audience to a panel rich with knowledge about Spanish food and identity – two things intrinsically linked in most cultures, but powerfully so in Spain.
Dr Anderson, whose teaching and research were really the impetus behind the event, is an expert in fin-de-siècle Spanish culture.
She says the end of the 19th century was a critical time in the political life of Spain, with its entrenched regionalism, and as it entered a period of significant political upheaval that eventually saw the rise of facism.
“Spain is one of the gastronomic powerhouses of the twenty-first century,” she says. “And Spain’s position as an international culinary reference point has produced a wave of books and magazine articles.”
But she says although the textual interest in Spain’s culinary cultures has been primarily journalistic, “there is an emerging field of inquiry within Spanish cultural studies that is aimed at theorising and historicising different aspects of Spanish cuisine.”
In her book Cooking up the Nation: Late-Nineteenth & Early-Twentieth Century Spanish Culinary Texts and Culinary Nationalisation, Dr Anderson looks at the way Spanish journalists and intellectuals of note from the turn of the last century began to question what it meant to talk about a Spanish national cuisine in a nation with such profound regional differences. As this book’s analysis of gastronomic texts, cookbooks and other culinary texts shows, writing about food was often just as engaged with the wider national project as were other more canonical forms of cultural production.
“Spanish culinary nationalisation, like that of other countries such as France, Italy and India, emerged as a topic of discussion at the same time at which attempts to unify the country were being constituted in law and narrated in fiction.”
Alfredo Martínez Expósito, Inaugural Professor of Hispanic Studies and head of the School of Languages and Linguistics at Melbourne University, says the ideas expressed by writers in the late 19th century about the connection between food and national identity are reflected today in the role Ferran Adria plays in representing ‘brand Spain.’
“Adria has been appointed an Honorary Ambassador of Brand Spain to help raise the profile of Spain in travel and industry alongside other Spanish luminaries such as the football team Real Madrid, or tennis player Rafael Nadal.”
Those responsible for the marketing of Spain have seen that Adria represents experimentalism, the vanguard. His cuisine positions Spain at the cutting-edge.
“Brand Spain is trying to reinvent or rewrite the country along the lines of experimentation, excellence and intellectualism, rather than the older, more traditional kinds of values,” he says.
And it is quite successful.
“One of the most striking things in Spain is the way everyone talks about food, and understands the connection between people, the culture, the food and earth. Cuisine is such an integral part of Spanish identity,” he says.