The day I cooked like the best restaurant on earth
Denmark's Noma has been named the finest place to eat on the planet. Unprepared to wait in vain for a table (or fly to Copenhagen), Christopher Hirst tried its recipes at home
Saturday 01 May 2010
For the past decade, the top slot in Restaurant Magazine's poll of the World's 50 Best Restaurants has been occupied by Ferran Adria's El Bulli near Barcelona, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Berkshire or Thomas Keller's French Laundry in California.
But this week, the position was awarded to Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, where 32-year-old chef René Redzepi has developed a cuisine based on local ingredients (all his staff must double as foragers) and eschews the hi-tech approaches of Adria and Blumenthal.
The multi-course meals served at Noma, a converted salt mill that seats 42, have acted as an irresistible magnet for gourmets and chefs. "It was a brilliant meal," said Marcus Wareing, culinary genius of The Berkeley, Knightsbridge. "It captured Redzepi's country and his immediate surroundings perfectly. I had 22 courses – the à la carte menu is very small – it's all about his flavours, but there wasn't a single combination that didn't work."
Since Noma was virtually impossible to get into even before its accolade, I decided to settle for second best and attempt to cook a Noma meal at home. But is it possible to recreate the Danish maestro's dazzling dishes in suburban London rather than in Scandinavia? A further problem is that Redzepi's book, Noma: Time & Place in Nordic Cuisine, is not published in the country until September. However, a few websites such as caterersearch.com and the endless banquet food blog offer sample recipes and descriptions of his legendary nibbles.
After giving it some thought, I decided against "a mahogany haunch of musk ox from Greenland's west coast resting in gamboges jus". Similarly, wild beach roses ("Last year we picked 100 kilos," said Redzepi) marinaded in apple vinegar posed a slight problem as a garnish. The same went for strandsennep (beach mustard), fermented Icelandic milk, sautéed bulrush and birch sorbet, though lingonberries are available (in jam form) at Ikea.
However, a few dishes did look feasible, including truffled eggs on spice bread and sautéed scallops with dill and crème of egg yolks. Somewhat ambitiously, I decided to have a bash at Redzepi's signature dish – vegetable field with malt soil and herbs. This field actually resembles a miniature field. For all his back-to-the-roots earthiness, Redzepi is not averse to an element of cheffy playfulness. His CV includes a stint at the French Laundry, where Thomas Keller's dish "oysters and pearls" combines oysters with pearl tapioca.
In the true spirit of Noma, I went foraging. "Er, darling," I shouted to my wife. "Fancy a trip to Borough Market?" Alarmed to discover she had been co-opted as technical adviser, my wife raised one or two trifling objections to my proposed endeavour. "Where do we get parsley root from? What on earth is horseradish juice? Are we really going to spend six days preparing veal marrow?"
At the market, we acquired red, orange and purple carrots, baby turnips and leek, earthy spears of salsify, green and purple asparagus, long fronds of baby fennel and a horseradish root. We had less luck with white strawberries ("You just missed 'em"). Massive scallops in shell came from a local fishmonger. Sadly, malt flour proved elusive. This was a central ingredient in the "malt soil" that was to decorate the "vegetable field".
The nearest we found was something called malted blend flour. "There's an awful lot of soil here," complained my wife when she started making the edible Danish loam. "The recipe requires over 500 grams of flour and you only need a sprinkle. It's always the same with chef's recipes. They make enough for 40 people." She also complained that it didn't look much like soil. "More like cat litter."
This possibly arose because we lacked malt flour. I rectified this problem by giving the "soil" a light toasting.
Our foraged vegetables were as colourful as the soil was drab. Simmering in the pan, the peeled roots and stalks resembled one of Damien Hirst's splatter paintings.
My wife puzzled over the recipe. "Cut them in half? But which way?" A picture of the dish found on the internet revealed that the vegetables were cut latitudinally (or crosswise) and stood upright in a potato purée containing the mysterious horseradish juice.
"80grams of peeled potatoes?" cried my wife. "That's less than one potato." Our version of horseradish juice involved pulverising the root in the food processor and adding a small amount of hot water. By chance, this job fell to my wife. "Argh!" she spluttered, eyes streaming, after removing the top from the machine. "Talk about strong."
After cooking the vegetables in a butter-and-water emulsion, the great moment came to erect them in the horseradish-fortified potato purée. "Add all the vegetables to look as if they are sticking up from the ground," the recipe directs.
Since the oozy potato did not form a very firm bedrock, the job was accompanied by a certain amount of unladylike cussing from my technical advisor. "I'm now sprinkling the soil," she announced. "I've used about one gram. That leaves enough for about another 500 vegetable fields."
The result, though impressive, looked less like a vegetable field than a miniature Manhattan. It tasted quite nice. This is not perhaps the most precise description in the history of gastronomic literature, but you probably know what buttered vegetables taste like.
The dish of truffled eggs on spice bread was, to be frank, a bit odd. Both parts come from Noma but the idea of putting them together might have come from the endless banquet blog. Lacking yeast, the bread is more of a cake containing cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and fennel seeds in hefty quantities.
"Even two grams of nutmeg is a lot," pondered my wife. "It's about 1 nutmeg." Bound together with maple syrup and honey, the resulting mix smelled vaguely medicinal. When cooked, it didn't taste too bad but it completely overwhelmed the accompanying truffled egg. Poaching them in Clingfilm, as the recipe directs, is a complete bugger to do. I'd recommend a straightforward poach followed by a simple drizzle of truffle oil.
Sautéed scallops with dill and crème of egg yolks was the final dish in our Noma experiment.Again there were several perplexing elements. Again it was Noma as passed through the transformative strainer of the endless banquet blog, so I cannot say if René Redzepi deviates from his strictly Danish larder with the inclusion of toasted sesame oil and balsamic vinegar. The grapeseed oil contained in the recipe is conceivably Danish as, surprisingly, this Baltic promontory produces 40,000 bottles of wine a year.
My wife puzzled over the inclusion of three tablespoons of caper brine in the crème of egg yolks. Even odder was the infinitesimal amount (5 teaspoons) of chicken stock. "It's basically a mayonnaise made with cooked eggs and a carrot to sweeten it up," she shrugged. Despite the considerable effort involved in its production, the crème ended up as an artistic dab beside the sautéed scallops. The result tasted... well, you know what scallops taste like.
It is just possible that our efforts did not match those of the world's best chef but in order to find out, we'd need to go to Noma. If anyone happens to have a booking they don't want, you know where to call.
Rene Redzepi's Recipes: Two to try
Vegetable field wth malt soil and herbs
Vegetables (may vary throughout the season)
4 orange carrots
4 yellow carrots
4 black, green and red radishes
1 Jerusalem artichoke
1 baby celeriac
4 baby leeks
4 baby parsley roots
80g peeled potatoes
Malt soil: Day 1
85g malt flour
50g hazelnut flour
Malt soil: Day 2
20g malt flour
50g hazelnut flour
75g melted butter
Herbs: 12 leaves from the tops of the carrots4 leaves from the tops of the parsley roots
Peel the carrots, leaving 1cm of the tops behind. Cut them in half so you keep top and bottom separately. Scrape the radishes and the leeks free of dirt and cut them in half, as the carrots. Scrape the celeriac and the artichoke and quarter them. Blanch all the vegetables in salted water until tender. Heat the water and whisk in all the butter to form an emulsion.
To make the purée, boil the potatoes and crush with a fork. Add the rest of the ingredients while still warm.
To make the malt soil, mix all the ingredients from day 1 and dry for five hours at 80C, then discard all the big, dry lumps. Mix day 2 ingredients separately and add to the first batch. Work the batch for a few minutes and make sure it is completely homogeneous, without any lumps of raw dough.
Heat the vegetables in the butter emulsion and heat the purée in a pot by itself, seasoning it with a bit of horseradish juice. Plate a small spoonful on a stone and add all the vegetables to look as if they are sticking up from the ground. Sprinkle the malt soil on top and add the picked and rinsed herbs on top of that.
Salsify and milk skin, Truffle puree
3 pieces of salsify,
(1cm diameter x 9cm long)
1 white loaf
25ml rapeseed oil
1 litre milk
30ml milk protein
100g truffles, from Gotland
12g chicken glace
20ml light chicken stock
24ml truffle oil
60ml grape seed oil
Apple vinegar, to season
A selection of herbs including yarrow, chickweed, cress, rosette cress, watercress, rocket flowers, wild chervil and chervil
To make the truffle purée, peel the truffles and blend with the chicken glace and bouillon, then emulsify the oils in the smooth mix as with a mayonnaise. Season with apple vinegar and salt.
For the milk skin, mix the milk, cream and milk protein, and heat to around 70C. Skim off the first few skins, which will be very fragile. When a skin is formed, pull it off the pot with both hands and store it on baking paper. Repeat until you have produced four or five perfect skins.
Next, peel the salsify and cut them to about 12cm in length, and blanch for three to four minutes. Cool down in ice water and pat dry. Sauté the salsify in a pan with oil until golden all the way around.
For the bread salad, pick an airy white bread into 10 or 15 small irregular pieces and toast them in a pan for two to three minutes until golden and crispy.
Pick through all the herbs and dump them directly into iced water. Swing until dry and store on paper.
Place the salsify next to a spoonful of truffle purée smeared across the surface of the warm plate. Add a few drops of vinegar and cover with the milk skin previously heated. Heat the cream sauce and pour a spoonful on top of the skin. Place a selection of wild herbs, salt and the crispy bread on top of the milk skin.
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