Tom Parker Bowles: Bulli for you


Last updated at 19:51 07 December 2007

Tom tries his hand at creating a little piece of magic of Barcelona's legendary El Bulli restaurant, who some say is the best restaurant in the world

The dazzling, inspired and often bonkers culinary creations of Ferran Adrià at his El Bulli restaurant near Barcelona are miles removed from the capabilities of the average domestic kitchen.

First and foremost, Adrià is a brilliant chef. Don't be swayed by all this current "molecular gastronomy" nonsense. Like Heston Blumenthal, the man can flat-out cook.

With a palate as well-honed as the finest Japanese blade, and technique to match, he sees the laws of physics and chemistry as mere irritating hurdles on his path to edible sorcery. Then there's his kitchen and laboratory, stuffed full with intense, talented disciples and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of industrial kit from ThermoMixers and Paco Jets to Profi Whip siphons and encapsulating machines.

These all come together to help create hot black-truffle jellies, liquid ravioli, frozen chocolate powder, barbecued sorbet, sautéed green salads, paella rice crispies and hot frozen-gin fizz.

In fact, only the seriously committed – or the utterly deluded – would attempt even the most basic recipe on the El Bulli menu. This sort of food is the reason restaurants were invented.

But recently, Adrià brought out a range of "texturas" – a line of products that are 'essential' for you to recreate some of El Bulli's best-known techniques, such as hot gelatines, airs, melon caviar or spherical ravioli, at home.

Although my hatred of foams and fussy food knows no bounds, I decided to spend an afternoon finding out whether the cack-handed home cook (me) had any chance of creating a little piece of El Bulli magic.

The recipes are exact, the opposite of my messy, chaotic cooking. For added support and inspiration, I called over Bill, a friend and former chef. 'Looks complicated,' was his first comment, but there was no way we could mess up the "lime air," a basic mixture of water, lime juice and Lecite (a natural soy lecithin-based emulsifier).

Then we hit the first snag. All the liquid measurements were in grams; I only have old-fashioned brass scales in ounces. After many hours of balancing various copper coins we managed, but the 1.5 grams of the Lecite was estimated, by necessity. We then used the whisk on the surface as instructed and did end up with a bowlful of foam that tasted of lime.

"Now what?" smirked Bill. Were we in El Bulli's kitchen, there would be a million plates to dress and palates to impress. At home, we were more limited. We stared disconsolately at the "air" before Bill threw it into the freezer.

Then we moved on to 'reverse spherification', a term so complicated we barely understood its meaning, let alone the process. In essence, this creates solid "spheres" out of liquids without the need for flour or egg thickeners.

"But I like flour and eggs," moaned my companion, as he set about mixing 1,000g of water with five grams of Algin, a substance extracted from brown algae and crucial to "spherification."

The recipe was a deconstructed version of the classic Spanish croquette – hardly the stuff of a speedy Monday night dinner.

After we had mixed our croquette base (milk, butter and Serrano ham) with six grams or so of Gluco (another essential in the 'spherification' process) and around 0.8g Xantana (a commercial thickener), we were still none the wiser as to the end product.

We were instructed to "cook" the croquette mixture, by now shaped into messy quenelles, in the cold Algin solution, then place in hot water for a further three minutes, before coating in fried breadcrumb powder. At this point, we gave up. The croquette mixture didn't set (all due to our inexact measurements) and our patience was running thin. What is great, delectable and ground-breaking when done at El Bulli is simply frustrating when attempted at home.

But these "texturas" are meant for professional kitchens, where they perform all sorts of magic. They're rather wasted on someone like me. "I won't be binning Delia just yet," said Bill as he left.

And as I cleared away the various jellies, foams and airs that splattered my kitchen, I looked forward to my resolutely old-fashioned dinner of steak, green salad and a vast baked potato. No fiddly grams, no gelification and, best of all, no 'spherification' required.


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