Aggi Sverrisson, chef-director of Texture in London, has created a dish with the essence of a Mediterranean bread and tomato picnic, which releases its flavours through a series of different, harmonious textures. Michael Raffael finds out more.
What we think of as flavour, how we experience food, is a combination of taste and texture. Four key words (five counting umami) describe taste. How many refer to texture? Hard, soft, wet, dry, rough, smooth are obvious ones. Branching out from these roots is a whole vocabulary that picks up and distinguishes, say, crisp lettuce from crispy bacon, or the crunch of a Granny Smith from crunchy pork crackling.
Texture is just as important to the eating experience as taste. A big Mac squeezed from a tube would never have colonised the world. El Bulli's smartest move was to surprise its customers by serving familiar tastes in unfamiliar textural contexts.
Aggi Sverrisson, chef-director of Texture in London, uses texture to create a harmonious, well-balanced dish. It's what inventive chefs have always aspired to. Often though, they let the taste enjoy star billing, leaving its partner, texture, with a minor role.
Texture plays a unique part in the release of flavour. The tomato snow of Sverrisson's Heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella, tomato snow and olive bread numbs the palate at first. Then, it primes the mouth for the cheese, bread, fresh and semi-dried tomatoes. The dish takes the essence of a bread and tomato picnic on a Mediterranean beach and heightens it.
Before he opened Texture with Xavier Rousset, Aggi Sverrisson spent five years at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Employed by Raymond Blanc, and appointed head chef by executive head chef Gary Jones halfway through his time there, he's fulsome in his praise of their joint influence, one for teaching him how to run a kitchen, the other for giving him a palate.
Sverrisson believes food should look natural rather than perfect, but beautiful too. He doesn't want to lay out food in geometrical patterns or towers. The studied, careless look he uses matches his approach to tastes and textures.
He recalls how Blanc taught less experienced members of the brigade to handle salt: "There would be 15 glasses of water, each containing a different amount of salt. We would have to tell him which one we thought was seasoned just right," he explains.
Sverrisson's mentor may have initiated him to the subtleties of flavour, but he has taken the role of texture to another level. What looks simple, almost accidental on the plate mixes up crunchy, chewy, melting, sticky and juicy into a harmonious whole. Each sensation enhances the sweetness, saltiness or acidity of the ingredients.
If his dishes seem complicated, that's because the work that has gone into making them often is. Customers, though, don't need a degree in the culinary arts to enjoy them. On his menus the wording is minimalist. On the plate the food is appealing. In the mouth flavours are accessible and satisfying.
Sverrisson admits he was trying too hard when he opened Texture: "It was because I lacked confidence," he explains. "I made things that were overcomplicated. Now I am confident and I know what works."
ON THE PLATE
â- Semi-dried plum and cherry tomatoes
â- Heritage tomatoes with vinaigrette
â- Olive bread
â- Olive crumbs
â- Tomato snow
â- Micro-herbs and flower petals
The term is a hold-all describing varieties that are not grown on an industrial scale. They often have more flavour, but not necessarily so. In colour they can range from dark green to yellow, purple, black or striped red. Their size and fleshiness varies too.
Heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella, tomato snow and olive bread
BASIC PREP BEFORE STARTING
Day 1 Marinate the tomatoes in the morning; after evening service blitz them and strain them overnight to obtain the tomato water.
Day 2 Freeze the tomato water in a Pacojet; spin to obtain the snow.
Prepare a day ahead and store.
Make the dough ahead of service. Roll out and bake as close to service as possible.
(Makes about 1.3 litres/100 portions)
•800g stoned black olives
•8g grated lemon zest
•4g fresh thyme leaves
•226ml olive oil
•6g xanthan gum
Liquidise the olives, garlic, lemon zest, thyme, olive oil and water. Add the xantham gum and continue blending until it's thoroughly incorporated. Chill before use.
500g of stoned black olives will be enough for more than 30 portions. Lay the olives in a single layer on a tray. Dry out overnight at 70Â°C. Chop with a very sharp knife or mezzaluna to produce a fine crumb.
(For 700g dough/15-20 portions)
•20g yeast dissolved in warm water
•180ml tepid water
•50ml olive oil
•420g plain flour
•20g grated Parmesan
•50g olive crumbs
•50g grated Parmesan
Combine the yeast, water, salt, sugar and olive oil. Add the flour and knead to form a supple dough. Prove till risen. Knock back. Divide into 100g blocks. Roll out to ravioli thickness on a pasta machine (1). Put the strips on Silpat mats. Brush lightly with oil and sprinkle olive crumbs and Parmesan on top (2). Leave 20 minutes to rest. Preheat a convection oven to 180Â°C. Bake until crisp and brittle (3).
CHARDONNAY AND BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE
(Makes about 600ml/30-40 portions)
•120ml Chardonnay vinegar
•140ml good balsamic vinegar (12 year old)
•320ml olive oil
Blend the ingredients together and store in squeezy bottles.
(1.75kg to 2kg cherry tomatoes makes about 500ml tomato water/15 portions)
•2kg halved cherry tomatoes
•100g chopped fennel (the vegetable)
•75g roughly chopped celery
•20g bruised basil leaves
•A few tarragon leaves (optional)
•4g thyme leaves
•1 leaf gelatine
•Tabasco, cayenne pepper, Worcester sauce
Mix all the ingredients together except for the seasonings and the gelatine. Leave to marinate for a day (4)
Blend in a Robot Coupe. Line a sieve with a muslin cloth or similar and set it over a basin or jug. Empty the tomato pulp into the sieve and leave it overnight (5). Measure the tomato water - it should be around 500ml. You can squeeze the liquid through the cloth, but don't force it.
Put about 50ml of the water in a small pan with a leaf of gelatine soaked in water. Heat just long enough to dissolve the gelatine. Add it to the water, and season the water with Tabasco, cayenne pepper and Worcester sauce.
Freeze it in a Pacojet canister (6), then spin the Pacojet to make the snow (7).
Texture uses both plum and cherry tomatoes for this recipe. To prepare the plum tomatoes, scorch the skins with a blow torch. Peel away the skin. Quarter the tomatoes and cut out the whiteish cores. Lay the quarters flat on a tray. Brush with oil and a little salt. Dry under the pass lights or above the oven for about five hours.
To prepare the cherry tomatoes, scorch them with a blow torch. Lightly coat with oil and salt and dry in the same way as the plum tomatoes (8).
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
•4 pieces of semi-dried cherry tomatoes
•2 pieces of semi-dried plum tomatoes
•1tsp olive crumbs
•2-3 pieces of Heirloom tomatoes
•1 mozzarella ball
•1 piece of olive bread
•Micro-herbs (rocket, basil) and flower petals
•2tbs tomato snow
When putting the dish together, forget about quenelles, towers and geometric design. Let the ingredients lie naturally on the plate.
Smear the tapenade on the plate. Add the two kinds of semi-dried tomatoes. Sprinkle a few olive crumbs over the plate. Coat the quartered or halved heirloom tomatoes (depending on their size) with half the vinaigrette and a touch of salt. Put them in the centre of the plate.
Drain the mozzarella ball on a piece of kitchen paper. Tear it into three and put it on the plate.
Tear the olive bread in half. Put it on the plate.
Add the micro-herbs and a few flower petals to the plate. Use the squeezy bottle to coat them with the rest of the vinaigrette. Finish with two tablespoons of tomato snow.
cost and yield
Overall, Texture works with a 30% food cost. For this dish food cost is about £2.50 and it sells for £11.50. It is, however, labour-intensive, both because of the different elements that need preparation and the time needed to serve it.
Xavier Rousset, Sverrison's partner at Texture and the restaurant's sommelier, recognises that partnering wine with tomatoes can be problematic. Here, though, the balance of sweeter semi-dried tomatoes, ripe cherry tomato snow, cheese, olive and bread creates a composite Mediterranean flavour that is much easier to match. Rousset suggests pairing the dish with a Bandol rosé or a well-chilled Manzanilla. From the Texture wine list he recommends:
K Naia (2008) - Bodegas Naia, Rueda
A blend of (mainly) verdejo, viura and sauvignon.
"Zingy, fresh and herbaceous." Cost: about £120 per case.
Schloss Gobelsburg (2007) - Gruner Veltliner Reserve. Made by Michael Moosbrugger in the Kamptal region of lower Austria
Firm acidity, lots of herbs and spices, some mineral notes." Cost about £204 per case from Clark Foyster Wines - firstname.lastname@example.org