Apr 17 2014

Spanish Olive Oil Avant-Garde Cuisine

There's nothing new under the sun, especially if we're talking about one of the world's most ancient fruits–extra virgin olive oil. But recent technical advances and the inventiveness of a group of young Spanish chefs have subjected this age-old product to all manner of interpretations, and new creations with olive oil take our taste buds to territories both familiar and unknown, but always along unexplored paths. The role of olive oil is undergoing a metamorphosis and it now often features as the star ingredient and is preparing to steal the show in the 21st century

Just as modern aircraft took their inspiration from the flight of birds, at the end of the 1990s Martín Berasategui dared to break the rules, taking his inspiration from local customs. This three-Michelin-star chef was interested to learn that in some parts of Provence in France, people used to place olive oil in the fridge so that it could then be spread on bread like butter. His curiosity led him to devise a new recipe, now a classic: olive oil ice cream. That first departure from traditional extra virgin olive oil was not initially applied to desserts; Berasategui used this finding in savory dishes such as marinated albacore tuna, which he served with a garnish of olive oil ice cream. Those early experiments had a tremendous impact and today many restaurants serve olive oil ice creams and sorbets.

Cooking between -319ºF and 356ºF

Dani García, chef at Calima in the Málaga town of Marbella holds up a siphon. Before him is a smoking container of liquid nitrogen. He has just sprayed olive oil over a gas at -195ºC (-319 ºF). Seconds later, he extracts tiny golden pearls: it's his famous olive oil semolina. On the tongue, the little balls immediately disappear into thin air in a retronasal explosion of aroma that doesn't leave behind a single trace of fat on the palate. About five years ago, Spanish chef Dani García started experimenting with olive oil at extremely low temperatures.He soon found that although normally, because of its molecular characteristics, it is practically impossible to freeze olive oil, at temperatures of -195ºC (-319ºF), it vitrifies, turning it into a sort of white dust. Achieving this different texture went a step further than the process of making olive oil ice cream. But, if it hadn't been for another quality of olive oil, its melting temperature, this finding would not have been particularly pleasant, since the intense cold would freeze one's tongue. However, as Dani García puts it, "fats melt fast, which is why it’s more pleasant to eat an ice cream than an ice sorbet." It's as simple as that. And from this happy combination of physical properties the first olive oil semolina was born.This discovery took place years ago, but Dani García is still just as enthusiastic as he was then. "The texture is incredible." He is also excited by his olive oil and tomato popcorn, a version of olive oil that includes 50% Raf tomato juice and a pinch of agar agar as a thickener. "The dish is almost three years old now, but every time we make it we still feel the same thrill."

But liquid nitrogen is not the only way in which this young Andalusian chef has put extra virgin olive oil to the test. Dani García decided to focus on the other temperature extreme: frying. The Andalusian coast is something of a theme park of small fried fish. Dogfish, anchovies, sardines, red mullet, whitebait, wedge sole, baby hake, etc. all pass religiously through the deep fryer. At Casa Joaquín (Almería, Andalusia), for instance, Encarnación Godoy fried whole fish in such a way that the scales acted as a ready-made papillotte, a very old technique in the region.So the skin fried while the flesh, which is separated from it by a layer of air, cooked in its own juices. The effect is surprising as the fish blows up like a balloon and floats on the surface of the oil. Dani García adopted this technique with large fish. Sole and turbot were the first candidates for this treatment at 182ºC (359.6ºF) and the result was so positive that they were included on Calima's menu. Dani García serves the fried sole with the flesh separated from the skin so that he can fry the latter a little longer, making it crispier.

A Matter of Consistency

But temperature is not the whole story. Halfway up the country, in Madrid, La Terraza del Casino chef  Paco Roncero took a whole different approach to altering the liquid nature of oil. Based on previous experience working with Oriol Castro, Ferrán Adrià's righthand man, he chose another path, that of gellifiers and thickeners as Oriol explains, "Not only did we work with oil texturized by cold treatment- we developed an 'oil butter' based on this technique, but we also focused on thickeners. In 2006, we created an extra virgin olive oil caviar using alginate, a thickener made from seaweed."After seeing how some of these techniques were being applied in the elBulli workshop, Roncero decided to work on a specific line of research. His first creation was the extra virgin olive oil gum drop. "The process is perfectly simple. First you make a syrup with sugar and mix in the olive oil. Then you add a sheet of gelatin and leave it to cool. When we did this hot, the sugars separated from the oils, so we decided to use a mayonnaise technique. Now we are making gum drops with different flavors using fruit juices, such as passion fruit." And here Roncero lays down one of the rules of the game. "When you make dishes based on extra virgin olive oil, you have to add something to clean the palate: a cold soup, something acidic, etc."

But things had only just started. From then on, toiling in the workshop built on the Casino premises, Roncero gradually started using different thickeners. The first was cocoa butter. "I love going to a restaurant and being served butter with my bread, so I thought we could replace the butter with olive oil, a much healthier option. That led me to the idea of creating an olive oil butter with a technique different to that of elBulli. We did lots of tests and eventually ended up with a mixture of oil heated to 35ºC (95ºF) and 10% cocoa butter."

One of Roncero's simplest and most masterly creations is, without a doubt, his spherified tomato. Based on the same ingredients that Dani García uses for his olive oil popcorn with tomato - Raf tomato water, extra virgin olive oil and salt - he achieves a completely different result by applying a different technique. Using alginate as a thickener, Roncero has created a gelatinous sphere containing tomato water and extra virgin olive oil in suspension.

Methylcellulose is another of the thickeners that features in these recipes. But, unlike locust bean or xanthan gums, it gels not with cold but with heat. This property was the key to creating olive oil spaghetti. Based on Japanese soba soup, discovered during one of his visits to Tokyo, Roncero created some very unusual noodles. He uses an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil with methylcellulose to create a cream which is injected into the hot soup using a syringe to form perfect spaghetti. Another unexpected creation is olive oil parmesan. Here the key is to replace the animal fats in the cheese with extra virgin olive oil. The resulting cream is very similar to Extremaduran Torta del Casar or Queso de la Serena cheeses.

The Perfect Substitute

Indeed, substituting animal fat in dishes for the healthier option of olive oil is a logical step in today's health-conscious society. Together with Jordi Butrón, Xano Saguer is one of the founders of Espaisucre, the world's first center to combine a school and a restaurant for desserts. When considering the new trends for using olive oil, Saguer believes that it is essential to cast off any prejudices. "We look at patisserie abstractly. We analyze each ingredient's function and see how they work. That meant we've had no doubts about using olive oil as a substitute for butter." At Espaisucre, they have worked with olive oil ice cream and gum drops and cakes using a Manzanilla olive cream, and they have created olive oil clouds (an update on the classic marshmallow), but Saguer insists that the presence of olive oil should meet the needs of a recipe without being conditioned by culinary tradition. "What is fundamental is the flavor, and that's what we're most interested in when we use olive oil."

In Elda (Alicante), the Totel patisserie, bastion of Paco Torreblanca uses the same technique but for a different purpose. "For the last two years or so, we have been replacing butter - or some of it - especially in the cream inside chocolates. What we care about most is texture. Olive oil is a fat that crystallizes in a different way, whereas butter hardens with the cold. With oil, the product takes much longer to oxidize so the texture is much creamier and elastic" says Torreblanca.

As with many of the other new applications of olive oil, decisions are made on the basis of sound technical arguments, rather than personal preference. "What we need to do is to unify the vegetable ingredients. If we use butter, we are adding an animal fat, whereas if we mix cocoa butter and olive oil we are combining vegetable fats, so we get a more harmonious result." So Roncero added cocoa butter to olive oil, and Torreblanca adds olive oil to chocolate.

As everyone knows, oil and water do not mix (at least unaided). However, thanks to the work of José Luis Navas, from the restaurant La Espadaña in Jaén, and Juan Gutiérrez, from the Bodegas Campos R&D laboratory, under the watchful eye of expert Raimundo García del Moral, are investigating applications of a silex mineral called aerosil which could be the new Holy Grail of creative cuisine. The nanoparticles of this colloidal silex dioxide are odorless, colorless and tasteless and can be applied in microscopic amounts to achieve emulsions never imagined before, or the aromatization of oils in unprecedented ways. Add a juice to an oil, sprinkle a pinch of aerosol and some minutes later, the aromas remain in a perfect blend.

Aromatized Olive Oil

Is it possible to cook with charcoal aromas without the coal? This was the question asked by Francis Paniego, chef at Echaurren in Ezcaray (La Rioja). "About five years ago we had a problem. We wanted to use vine wood to aromatize meat but we didn't have grills, so we thought of using aromatized olive oil, and that was how we devised wood-flavored oils."Paniego's research in this field started out through a collaboration with Bodegas Roda in La Rioja to determine how oaky aromas are transferred to wine from the barrel. "At Bodegas Roda, we developed an empirical formula which we applied to other types of wood such as holm oak and beech, as well as oak and vine wood. We then tried to transfer the aromas of different types of wood to oil by combustion inside a pressure cooker. This method, originally devised by Ferran Adrià for his famous smoke foam, had to be changed a little for our purposes. He smoked water in a pressure cooker and we swapped the water for extra virgin olive oil". After these experiments with pressure cookers, they then experimented with aromatizing olive oil in a microwave. "The idea is to toast the wood in the microwave, making it very aromatic so that it works like a cinnamon stick. Then we heat the olive oil and insert the wood, so it's really a sort of infusion." This method is much faster, but Paniego only uses it with less intense extra virgin olive oils.

All these innovations form part of a much bigger picture. Olive oil is crossing frontiers and is crying out for a place of its own in today's cuisine. There are now many restaurants that offer trolleys of extra virgin olive oil for tasting by way of aperitif, and themed menus based on extra virgin olive oil have become "the in thing". Certainly, the future prospects for extra virgin olive oil seem as bright as its past.