El Bulli chapter 3: the main event

Someone very wise once said; life is a marathon, not a sprint.

The key being it’s important to pace yourself.

It’s not a bad principle to take with you to El Bulli.

The emotional ‘incident’ with the coconut sponge came at course nine, of 35. We realise now that it’s time to settle in and start taking things seriously.

First we take a jaunt through the garden- which brings on the first win of our ‘mucked up food bingo’.

Four pink pansy style blossoms are brought with the instruction; ‘please, to suck, not to eat’. Flowers. I win.

Eating it involves sucking and squeezing a sticky honeysuckle nectar from the stem. The Art Critic is delighted by both the process and the fact that it seems to be an edible version of her favourite Marc Jacobs perfume.

The expedition with flowers continues to a Kubla Khan style blushing rose that’s carved of ice.

It’s beautiful and flavoured with whiskey and passionfruit- the combination of flavours and textures make it a little like sucking on a boozy Frosty Fruit.

‘Please- no eat the leaf’ is the instruction with this one. That’s ok- so we set about manhandling a frozen rose. Passionfruit with whiskey is a bit of a revelation- together it’s sweet and slightly smokey. ‘How’s that for a cocktail combination?’ our fourth; The Chef asks with an eyebrow cocked.

Then it’s a black sesame sponge cake with miso, which looks like it could have been washed up on the beach. It too comes with an instruction. “It’s important to eat this in two parts”. Ok.

The texture is like a bath sponge, and each bite takes you to a different place. The first is all savoury with a salty twang of miso, the second is sweet with a murky hit of sesame. There’s not much talking at the table-but everyone’s got their eyebrows raised.

Then it’s time to make you start doubting yourself. ‘Oyster leaf with dew of vinegar’ looks exactly like its been plucked from the garden, first thing in the morning, yet it tastes like an oyster that’s been dredged from the water.

It’s creamy and briney and has droplets of red wine vinegar masquerading as dew. It’s freaking us out a little.

The Art Critic and shellfish aren’t friends- as a consolation prize she’s given an impressive black jewelery box housing a spiraled ring of spun olive oil caramel.

She’s instructed to wear it on her index finger and eat it from there. The demonstration of how to eat it lives somewhere between finger sucking and bulimia.

It brings on a set of giggles- and then silent glee. Later this gets nominated as her favourite course. But then what girl doesn’t like something that’s brought in a shiny black jewelry box?

Following this is The Chef’s favourite, and an easy contender in my top three.

‘Rabbit canapé with your giblets’ is really a crunchy pressed bunny ear decorated with a nugget of kidney, brain and tongue. The curious choice of pronoun is spot on. The giblets may have once belonged to fluffy creatures from Beatrix Potter, but after the first bite of fire twinged offal, there’s no way I’m giving them back.

It’s course 16 and we realise we’re not even half way through.

‘Truffle surprise’ is a play on both black and white. The white ball has a texture that’s as delicate as butterfly wings which protect a spherified mass of white truffle puree that instantly coats your mouth. The black is somewhat similar, but has an extra surprise in the pepper and touch of aniseed that have also been invited out to play.

It’s an obscure dish that takes two of the most luxurious ingredients and makes them into something a little challenging to love.

The next has a performance to go with it. It’s a little bit like melding Memoirs of a Geisha with You can’t do that on television. An elaborate macha tea ceremony whisks liquid into a green powder with a firm bristled brush, creating a lurid sludge that smells of chlorophyll.

It’s then time to drink a’tea’ made from chervil. It tastes like aniseed, green vegetables and has a texture somewhere between a veloute and slime.

From there it’s an easy relief with a twice cooked prawn. It’s both sweet and savoury with the crunch of candied legs and the surprise of a poo shoot. There’s a little spoon of bisque to wash it down. In it there’s a single garlic flower and a free gift-with- purchase of olive oil that coats your mouth and makes the flavour play on and on.

Course 18 and its time to pull the rug out from under you. It’s a ‘Where’s Wally’ of almonds; combined with a sweet iced tomato slurry (Bingo for The Hungry One) and segments of apricot soused with vinegar and sprinkled with shiso powder.

Here’s the twist. Some of the almonds are real, ‘some they make at home’. Some were iced shells, some reconstructions of themselves and out of all of them we think two were actually real blanched almonds.

At 19 raw mushrooms are having a dress up party as hazelnuts, playing under foam and somehow taking on the flavour and texture of the nuts. My head says mushroom, my mouth says hazelnut. Red berries and seaweed come along for the ride, adding zip and salt. It’s beautiful to look at and even better to eat.

Twenty is an aerial view of the united states of soy.

Looking at it you wonder when there’ll be a United Nations Year of Soy. That bean’s got a lot to offer. But then, perhaps this is the start of the lobbying campaign.

Here soy is presented in all its glory and forms. There are shoots and beans and pastes and miso essence- and one teeny tiny piece of crispy toast. It’s bound together with a soy milk skin that has a texture that reminds The Hungry One of a burns bandage. As a dish it feels a little more like an intellectual exercise than an indulgence. Along those lines, the Art Critic can appreciate its point but is struggling to finish it. Luckily the boys are on hand to help when the going gets rough.

The miso and flower theme come together in the next. Petals of artichoke as fine as blister-skin are dressed with lavender, miso and salt flakes. It reminds me of playing fairies and eating bitter flowers from the back of my grandmother’s garden. Visually, it’s stunning. Taste wise, it’s a little challenging.

Twenty two stumps a few at the table. It’s a ‘pumpkin and almond sandwich’- except this bread has a texture somewhere between freeze dried foam and bean bag stuffing. Yet it fades away to nothing.

In with the pumpkin and almond filling Ferran’s stuffed an embarrassment of shaved black and white truffles. The truffle shavings add a strange grainy texture and a richness that confounds.

It’s generally agreed that if we’re ever in a position to spend that kind of money on white truffles, this may not make the top 5 of how to use them.

Twenty three is all about abalone.

To look at it reminds you of something from the bottom of a wading pool. In with it are fresh enoki mushrooms which have a texture that’s a little like the rubber tines on my pastry brush.

Twenty four and it’s time to start playing with your food again. There’s a small dish of sweetened and citrus liquid. To accompany it are parcels of pine nuts in various stages of undress. These are caught in clear plastic ish casings.

The casings get dunked, shabu shabu style in the liquid and transferred to your tongue, where they dissolve/explode. A single twinkle of salt in each ties the natural and roasted iterations of the nuts together.

It’s hilarious to eat and for all the pyrotechnics, tastes darn great. It’s also another cheers for ‘bingo’. These are presented on the Art Critic’s premonition of bark.

By now we’re cheersing each ‘bingo’ with our second bottle of white, having made our way through a pink cava and a 2002 Meursault Les Genevries. With food like this, red just may be a little too much.

Twenty five and its ‘fresh walnuts’.

Perfectly blonde, blanched nuts with the texture a bit like feeble coal are bound together in a musty white sauce which is guarded by endive. Some of us are still arguing over whether we think the nuts were ‘real’ or not. Hiding in the white bog are three little PeeKay gum size pellets of roquefort cheese. When you find them and bite down they flood your mouth with a rivulet of musky cheese. When you find them, the dish makes sense.

Twenty six. Trout roe risotto. Here the wheels start to fall off.

Pathetically, the girls start to flail.

A trip to the bathroom, a long wait while a pregnant guest battles with her sari, a protracted conversation with a Canadian dentist, and by the time we return – the inertia is gone.

Quite simply, there’s no room at the inn. There’s only so much you can do with empire waists and elasticised fabric.

But the show must go on. So we look down at something that somehow has the flavour and colour of trout roe, but texture of al dente rice.

There’s almond milk jelly and gold leaf with it. I can only manage two bites. Intellectually I know it’s a play on ‘al dente’- to the tooth. You expect the roe to explode, but it gives like rice instead. I can’t manage more than two bites.

“Buck up” is the response from the boys. “Punch through”.They’re shaking their heads like coaches who see prodigies fumble the ball when it comes to grand final.

It’s 11.30pm and we’ve been eating pretty constantly for three hours.

It’s course 27. It’s an exercise in texture, with raw discs of sea anenome nestled beneath a loosely set ginger jelly so piquant that The Chef busts out with a respectful expletive.

Twenty eight. A parmesan ravioli that look like sex education slides to me, and a Roy Lichtenstein ‘Wham’ painting to the Art Critic.

A kooky sprinkling of ground coffee around the outside adds to the intrigue.

Except I’ve started to get physically bilious. I thought I was built for this. I only manage one slippery sucker. The Hungry One slowly shakes his head, silently reaches over and finishes the dish for me.

Twenty nine. Pigs tails with a little puddle of ham soup that’s like an injection of gelatinous salt.

In the broth are fingernails of melon and silken tofu. If this had come 22 courses earlier I’d be grinning ear to ear and scraping the bottom of the puddle with my pinkie.

But this is a marathon. And there’s every chance I’ve just hit ‘the wall’.

I’m out.


Just let me finish.

The only thing left to do is pray to the powers that be for the medical miracle of the ‘dessert stomach’.

  1. Cant wait for the desserts!

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