Andoni L. Aduriz is an enthusiast of the use of uncommon herbs and spices in cuisine. Juan Manuel Sanz/©ICEX
Author: Victoria Burnett/©ICEX
A light drizzle falls on the green Basque hills that surround the converted farm buildings that house Mugaritz and the cuttingedge kitchen of Andoni Luis Aduriz. The spring air is damp and mossy and a ceiling of clouds hangs low over fields dotted with haystacks. It is into this lush countryside that Aduriz and his team often head to forage for the wild herbs and flowers that are one of the signatures of his cuisine. Aduriz says he is discovering the culinary potential of herbs that have been overlooked or whose role has historically been limited to their medicinal qualities or their use as a preservative.
"Herbs and spices have mainly had a practical role in Spanish cuisine. Very few have had a purely gastronomic role. They have been connected to medicine and health or used as a way to preserve food. Herbs like parsley, rosemary or thyme have such apparent aromas that they have naturally lent themselves to the kitchen. But those that don't have such a strong character aren't taken into consideration beyond their medicinal use." It is precisely these herbs and spices, with their subtle aromas, that are enjoying a "little revolution" in his kitchen, he says.
A Cuisine of Whispers
"Mine is a 'tepid' cuisine, a cuisine of whispers, a cuisine where I seek insipidity in every sense. Diners at Mugaritz have to tune themselves in, to make more of an effort to understand than has been asked of them up until that moment. It's a new tone, as if the melancholy of the products was emerging. It's a tremendously subversive exercise. Many people think that what gets attention is shouting. It's not. To whisper is subversive. I love these plants that are melancholic, that whisper. Up until now people have used them to settle their stomach, for example, but now they are being used to cook with. They don't have much? Much aroma? That's perfect for me."
Recipes that test this philosophy abound on the Mugaritz menu: five tiny gnocchi made from local Idiazabal; cheese, each topped with a single leaf - marjoram, radish, parsley, green and purple fennel ...; and billed as five different dishes in one; dark, firm betonica leaves in a soup of vegetables and dried tubors; sheep's milk curd with hay and toasted fern. "There is a host of herbs we use from this region that don't have a huge personality. Take the dog's tooth violet. It comes out about now and only lasts for four to five weeks. It's a plant that has more texture than aroma and, moreover, it's beautiful. The flower is in between sweet and spicy-hot. That, for me, is very seductive. Is dog's tooth as marvellous and enticing as, say, a stronger spice like pimentón? Obviously not. But it has another exciting quality, which is that you can't get it in the market. Either I pick it or you pick it. Either I serve it to you, or you won't get to taste it at all."
In addition to what Aduriz can find in the local countryside, he searches the markets of the Spanish and French Basque region and grows more than 100 varieties of herbs, fruits and flowers in Mugaritz's kitchen garden. Last year, he planted 15 different types of basil and nine kinds of strawberry. "For me, the aromas of plants and spices can add an accent, a comma, can punctuate food," he says. "They are like little tools that you need to do your work. It's like looking for words to help you define what you want to say. If you only have 300 words, you're going to be more limited in what you can say than if you have 3,000. The same applies to herbs and spices. Even if you only use them in a very small, anecdotal way, you produce something much richer."
"But there is a difference: if you look for a word, you will find it," he says. "But if I look for a herb, I may not find enough to serve to a lot of people, not enough to keep it on the menu. So I work according to the plants. For example, we composed a dish last year with five or six varieties of basil. Why? Because it was in season. At this time of year the dwarf elderberry bushes are about to flower. So we'll gather elderflowers and do something with them. And when the flowers are finished, we'll let the fruit ripen and then we'll do the same with the fruit. When they are underripe, they are very toxic. You have to flow continuously with nature."
Nature is all around at Mugaritz, from the menu that claims to take you closer to the natural world to the haystacks and waxy-leafed camellias outside the expansive windows of the dining room. But the rich culinary promise of the Basque countryside wasn't always evident to the 36-year old chef, who grew up in the seaside town of San Sebastián, the Basque region's food 'Mecca'. "When I first came here (nine years ago), I looked around and all I saw was green. Green up there, green down there, green all around. But there came a moment when I began to see distinct kinds of green - greens with different tones - and I entered into a communion with nature. Then my perspective changed completely. The cuisine we are making here wouldn't make sense in an urban location. Both because of the produce we use and the soul of the place."
Despite his protestations that he is "not a botanist, but a cook who knows a tiny, tiny bit," Aduriz has clearly made up for lost time. The earnest, bespectacled chef has collaborated on two books on herbs, including a rather forbidding 400-page botanical dictionary that explains the properties of different plants and their culinary uses. He whips out a copy of the dictionary and pores over its tiny print and black-and-white drawings.
It is perhaps Aduriz's addiction to subtlety that determines his relationship with the two principal spices of the Spanish kitchen: saffron and pimentón. Pimentón, the deep-red powder ground from the capsicum pepper, appears in its sweet form in typical dishes such as paella and in its more piquant form in chorizo and sobrasada. While the more robust pimentón has a very marginal role in Aduriz's kitchen, saffron is an evident source of fascination. "Saffron has a very peculiar aroma. It seduces you and you learn it. Some spices are easy to 'learn', like vanilla or cinnamon, but saffron takes longer. It's one of the few spices that has all three fantastic characteristics: aroma, taste. On top of this it has a magical feature - the fact it is sterile. Its survival has depended on its ability to seduce mankind. Its sterility loads it with symbolism and it is this mystique that makes it so special. Also, saffron is a flower. Everyone is going crazy these days about edible flowers. Well, saffron is one."
"Spanish saffron from La Mancha is the best in the world," says Aduriz. "Before the sun comes up, women pick the bulbs that are on the point of opening and put them into baskets in carefully measured amounts so as to protect them from the light and from the air. With extraordinary skill, they separate the stigma from the rest of the flower." Grabbing a pen and paper to draw a diagram of the crocus flower from which saffron is harvested, he explains how the women take the fresh stigma, or 'green saffron', and dry it in a process known as the retostado. Manchego saffron is dried at about 90 degrees - a higher temperature than used by other producers and key to its flavour. Also important is the fact that crops are rotated every three years, he says.
To this pain-staking process, Aduriz adds his own touch. He toasts the saffron again, folded in paper and placed in the oven at 130 degrees for two to three minutes to further dehydrate it. Then he pounds it in a mortar - the finer it is ground, the greater the flavour, aroma and colour. And then he leaves it for several hours in liquid - for example water or milk - to further draw out the aroma. He dismisses a myth about saffron - that it must be added at the end of cooking otherwise it will lose its flavour.
But the spice is being undermined by cheaper competitors from India and Iran, he says, pulling out a photograph of 20 kinds of saffron and explaining what sets them apart. "They do no rotate the crop, so the flowers are smaller. They don't pick the flowers with the same delicacy as in La Mancha. They don't dry them at the same temperature. They transport them in sacks piled up on the top of a truck. I have found beautiful little boxes of saffron in shops that say: "The best saffron in the world - saffron from the Himalayan foothills". It's false. It's the saffron from La Mancha, which is extraordinary, isn't prized as it should be to the point that it might disappear. That hurts La Mancha and it hurts me."
This obsession with the origins of produce and the work that goes into cultivating or nurturing it seems to form the heart of Aduriz's culinary philosophy. "I have the garden not only so that we can supply ourselves, but so that the chefs touch the earth. You can pick the phone and make an order, and what you want arrives, but you don't appreciate it. You need to touch the earth and understand that after four of us get together and plant the seeds and prepare everything carefully, there could be a hailstorm and we could lose everything. Or the neighbour's dog could get in and break all the plants. The fact something can be lost gives it greater value. We have so much of everything that we're only capable of valuing something when, for example, we're at the top of a mountain, where suddenly a cup of coffee tastes like the best thing in the world. It's not just the characteristics of the produce, but the context".
Products and 'Alta Cocina'
I ask if his desire to take diners back to nature, to present herbs and vegetables in their freshest, cleanest forms, is contradictory with his training at El Bulli, where food is deconstructed. "It's true that one of the things about Bulli that most surprises is the technical virtuosity. But this virtuosity is underpinned by the produce. One of the greatest defendants of produce that I know is Ferran Adriá. What happens is that the technical and conceptual ability of this man is so important, so powerful, so spectacular, that it eclipses everything else. At El Bulli too, we went out and picked wild produce, we cooked with sea water. These were significant gestures towards nature."
"But there can only be one El Bulli. At El Bulli, natural produce has a big role, but technique has a bigger one. Here, technique has a big role, but natural produce has a bigger one. Also, we've taken the technique and we've concealed it. For me, the technical flourish isn't so important in itself as is what it allows me to produce - it is not the end, it is the means. What I want to do is steal someone's heart, whether it's sautéing, roasting or grilling. I want to steal their heart with a pear, and apple or caviar. The important thing is to steal your heart."
Victoria Burnett is a correspondent for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune in Madrid. Over the past 13 years, she has lived and worked in Asia, the United States and Latin America.