Chester Boyd chief executive Charles Boyd made a gastronomic pilgrimage to the Basque region to sample its revolutionary cooking techniques and ingredients. Here are his impressions
When I started in the kitchen, aged 15, the top dish, duck à l'orange, was roasted to death, with great crispy skin. But some five or so years later things were starting to change, and I vividly remember the excitement and energy involved in pushing the nouvelle cuisine revolution.
Things have moved on considerably since then, and we now have la nueva cocina, or new cooking, El Bulli-style. Realising I was behind the curve on the incredible techniques and products being used, I decided to learn more and headed out to Spain accompanied by Suzie Boyd, of recruitment firm Portfolio, Andrea Jones, of Marriott International, and a couple of foodie friends. Top of the agenda was Pedro Subijana's three-Michelin-starred Akelare and the mould-breaking Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Rioja.
Bilbao was the first stop, and we arrived in plenty of time to have a quick waltz around the town and the Guggenheim Museum (incredibly inspiring building, but disappointing art) before a spot of dinner at the Restaurante Gastronomico Guggenheim, where Josean Martínez Alija is chef.
My expectation of the restaurant design was high, but architecturally it was a non-event: a left-over space not helped by the interior design, which was a complete mess. There was no visual discipline of any sort, and my first emotion was surprised disappointment. On with the food.
We chose the Sensations, Memories and Flavours menu. The starter had a great presentation: a raw egg in a great-looking bowl containing a strong Roncal cheese broth with surprisingly bitter chive oil. I found the pungent cheese with the raw egg a difficult combination, but it probably sounds worse than it was.
Next was wild asparagus with caramelised grapefruit and anise shoots. Half of the asparagus was lightly cooked and the other half uncooked and shaved into ribbons. Finished with Parmegiano Reggiano soup, it looked and tasted great and, again, had a very attractive presentation. The soup was surprisingly strong - liquid Parmegiano. And although cheese soup following cheese soup was not great menu planning, it was a good dish.
A vine tomato, baby squid and squid ink risotto was the best dish so far. Excessive ink in the risotto was a minor observation, although it did result in black teeth and lips all round. Veal muzzle (cheek) confit had a disappointing presentation, and the meat was cooked blue. For me, a meat of this texture does not work served blue, and none of us liked it.
The next dish, apple gnocchi, was well presented: the apple gnocchi a hot jelly served on cottage cheese soup (three cheese soups!) with green cardamom and cinnamon ice-cream. The jellies were interesting the soup and ice-cream delicious.
We finished with a cold juice of dark cacao with frozen milk, anis and crisp almond leaves - a great dish, and I loved the effect of the almond leaves.
The meal came at us fast (this is normal, we discovered). We drank good-quality local wines, and there was more art on our plates than in the museum - perhaps the chef should have designed the restaurant and chosen which collections to hang!
On to San Sebastián. Normally when I'm here I blow my money on food and wine, and after that there's only enough money for a Travelodge, but thanks to Andrea we stayed at the Starwood Hotel Maria Cristina, a classic "old lady". We had a very nice suite, which was a treat for me.
We headed out to hit the tapas bars in the old town for lunch but, being in the Basque country, it's pintxos bars here (or pinchos in Spanish), which typically serve a range of toasted bread appetisers with a range of toppings.
Armed with a list of 35 bars in an area smaller than London's Soho, we established as best we could the top six after a little research. We managed four before deciding that something like 12 pintxos each along with the several bottles of Jerez (sherry), local wines and a tasting of Vega Sicilia we'd had was enough, as tonight was Akelare, and we all wanted to be fresh for that.
The best food was the simplest, and the flavour of the plates of ham varied considerably. To use Fergus Henderson's strapline, we had "nose to tail" eating, which included encouraging the girls to try the baked pigs' ears. By the end of the three-hour tour of the bars we were pigged out, that's for sure, and it was time for a long walk round the bay.
We arrived at Akelare at 9.30pm. There are three three-Michelin-starred, two two-starred and one one-starred restaurants in this small area. It's like Ludlow on steroids. Akelare is high, remote and on the other side of the hill from the town. It has commanding views across the Bay of Biscay. However, when we went it was pitch black - no stars, no moon, nothing - we couldn't even see beyond the car park.
We came for the food, and what we got from chef-owner Pedro Subijana was a masterclass in new cooking. We were free to choose whatever we wanted. There were two gastronomic menus, Aranori and Bekarki (Basque for rocket), and an à la carte. We had both of the gastronomic menus. However, we could not have a flight of wines, because the restaurant was full.
We started with a box of eight petits fours each. The presentation was great, and they were interesting to eat: expecting chocolate and getting black pudding expecting a sweet chequered biscuit and getting red pepper and black olive. It was a mind game, and reminded us of Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck - you did not know which was being challenged the most, your head or your palate.
Next, little pearls of foie gras (produced using liquid nitrogen) with a sour salad, hibiscus jam/sauce and paper-thin bread sticks. It looked amazing, and the flavours worked a treat. The leaves were from succulent plants, not the normal soft leaves, and they were sour but not bitter.
Squid with onion and Parmesan followed, looking really beautiful. The squid and onion had been prepared in such a way that they looked virtually indistinguishable from each other. On one side was dried squid ink, which added visually, although I felt the dusty texture took something away from the soft, clean-tasting dish. The Aranori menu had a selection of rice-less vegetable risottos. Onion, carrot and runner bean were very tasty. In the middle was a beetroot "egg yolk" and the colour was remarkable.
White bean salad with pork confit looked great and was very tasty, while pickled red tuna came with green piparras (long green peppers from the Basque region). The chillies work well. The tuna is put in a small Kilner jar, covered in hot olive oil, and the sealed jar served on a board - rustic revisited. It was a good fish, but a big portion. I tend to eat everything, so by now I was starting to feel full.
Suzie's menu had red mullet with sauce fusilli. There were two fillets with a little loose purée on the side. This turned out to be an emulsion of the bones - very tasty. The fusilli was very "new cuisine", with three types of liquid inside: garlic, soy and pea (green, white and black). If I understand the method correctly, you inject the sauce through a fusilli tube into a fluoride bath. I probably don't have that quite right, but hopefully you get the idea.
The beef in coppered potato and juicy sponge was visually amazing: two vivid-copper cylinders of paper-thin potato stuffed with beautifully cooked fillet of beef. The taste reminded me of the crisp outside of pommes Anna. Subijana was not in agreement with that comment, although we were wearing out the translator by now.
The potato is puréed to a silky-smooth texture, spread on to paper and painted - I couldn't get to understand what the extra "magic ingredients" were - then shaped and baked. It was a wow!
"Milk, grape, cheese and wine, in a parallel evolution" was very interesting and enjoyable and reminded me of some sort of junket. The generous (their word) fruit ravioli and apple soup was a skilful fruit salad. And with the coffee we had "bread, sausage and chips with a juice of wine". (The mind games continue.)
Subijana walked the room and withstood some banter and robust questioning from us with the assistance of an interpreter. He is a top guy and clearly still enjoying his job.
Next stop was the Frank Gehry-designed Marqués de Riscal hotel in Elciego, in the heart of the Rioja wine region. It was amazing. We had its gastronomic menu, which was first-class. The highlights were beautifully cooked lobster with creamed vanilla-flavoured potato, and one of the desserts - a yogurt mousse, with raspberries, blackcurrant sauce and pastry cinnamon sticks. It had expertly balanced flavours and textures. A fantastic dish. The next day was dedicated to wine and exercise.
The trip was a fantastic experience, and it reminded me of the inspiring days of the late 1970s and early 1980s - including the mistakes we made then. What could happen now is that, in the enthusiasm for something that is really edgy, a product or dish is regarded as good when, actually, it's just plain weird.
It is vital that people like Blumenthal and Subijana question the accepted. I wholly support it. However, when it hits the mainstream, the purpose can get confused. Two opposite examples of this were, first, Akelare's petits fours, starter or amuse-bouche. The presentation was excellent and, technically, it was very clever and highly skilful. Did I enjoy it? No, not really. It was weirdly very interesting. What makes it a success is that you go to a restaurant like this to be challenged.
The other dish was in the Marqués de Riscal, a mousse of foie gras with a quenelle of red wine caviar. It was brilliant, with fantastic flavours and textures. It must be a huge amount of work, dripping a hot reduction of Rioja through a syringe into a bath of very cold olive oil. Simple but deliciously clever dishes like this are the reward for the experiments of new cooking.
- Paseo del Padre Orcolaga 56, Darrio de Igueldo, 20008, San Sebastián
- Tel: 00 34 943 31 12 09
- Chef/owner: Pedro Subijana Reza
- Opening hours: Closed Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday from January to June and Sunday evening and Monday from July to December
- Annual closing: February and first half of October
- Web: www.relaischateaux.com/akelare
Restaurante Gastronomico Guggenheim
- 2 Avenida Abandoibarra, 48001 Bilbao, Vizcaya
- Tel: 00 34 944 23 93 33
- Chef: Josean Martínez Alija
- Opening hours: Closed most Mondays. The gastronomic restaurant is closed on Sunday evenings, Mondays and Thursday evenings.
- Annual closing: 25 December and 1 January. Gastronomic restaurant closed 15 days during Christmas.
- Web: www.restauranteguggenheim.com
Hotel Marques de Riscal
- 1 Calle Torrea, Elciego 01340
- Tel: 00 34 945 18 08 80
- Chef: Francis Paniego
- Annual closing: 6-22 January
- Web: www.luxurycollection.com
The new cooking
When most people think of Spain's new cooking, or "la nueva cocina", they think of Ferran Adrià and his three-Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Catalunya.
The founding father of the new cookery - he dislikes the term molecular gastronomy - pioneered the use of new technologies and ingredients, developing tasting menus with unexpected taste and texture combinations that both excite and confuse the senses. Among the new presentation techniques created by Adrià in his Barcelona laboratory, El Taller, was culinary foam, and he pioneered the use of gelling agents and liquid nitrogen.
Adrià has influenced a generation of top Spanish chefs, such as Paco Roncero, head chef at Madrid's La Terrazza del Casino, and Juan Mari Arzak at Restaurante Arzak and Pedro Subijana at Akelare - both in San Sebastián - who are breathing new life into Basque cuisine.
As well as being a major inspiration to international chefs such as Britain's three-Michelin-starred Heston Blumenthal, whose tasting menu at the Fat Duck in Bray includes offerings such as snail porridge, oak moss and truffle toast and nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice-cream, Adrià has also influenced other Michelin-starred Spanish chefs who have not gone so far down the new cooking path, such as Andoni Luis Adúriz, of Mugaritz fame.
Tired of the molecular gastronomy tag, in December 2006 Adrià, along with Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and writer Harold McGee, published "A manifesto for the new cookery" in the Observer, bemoaning the fact that certain aspects of the new cooking were "overemphasized and sensationalised", while others were ignored.
In the manifesto, the four stressed how they valued - and were building on - tradition and did not pursue novelty for its own sake.
They summarised: "Three basic principles guide our cooking: excellence, openness and integrity. We are motivated, above all, by an aspiration to excellence."