Ferran Adrià, the globally fêted chef and guiding light behind El Bulli – the three-Michelin-starred restaurant on Spain's Costa Brava widely considered, until it shut its doors earlier this year, the best in the world – has long been celebrated for his innovative but always precise ways. His imaginative dishes may take a surprising, or even wondrous, form – flowers suspended in a "cloud" of spun sugar, flavours captured in a shard of ice – but one thing is constant: they show great respect for the essential flavours of the raw ingredients from which they are created.
So it will shock no one to discover that Adrià is also fascinated by the diverse and often complex routes those ingredients take in order to reach his kitchen in the first place – whether that journey begins in a stream in Wales, a rose garden in Ecuador or simply the ocean outside his base on the Catalonian coast. Now, these culinary journeys are the subject of a glossy new book of photographs, The Fragile Feast: Routes to Ferran Adrià, by the British Turner Prize-nominated artist Hannah Collins.
Collins has known the chef for some years, and the idea for the book arose out of a conversation about his ingredients. She has looked at some of his most innovative dishes, photographing each stage, from the landscape in which the crucial ingredient was grown (or lived) to the plate as presented to a customer. Collins made the same journeys taken by her subjects, visiting Japan, Colombia, Greece, and, of course, Spain.
El Bulli may now be closed until 2014, when it will re-open as a "creativity centre", but the book it inspired certainly makes for a mouthwatering read. Collins presents 25 of these epic photographic journeys, revealing in evocative detail the lifespan of a pistachio, a mushroom, a sea cucumber, even the spring water Adrià imports from Wales. In his introduction, the chef explains that, "[Hannah] has pulled on the threads until the origins of a series of emblematic products have been revealed." Just don't mention the food miles.
'The Fragile Feast' is published by Hatje Cantz, at £35
Cadiz is a city on the south-western coast of Spain where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean – and Hannah Collins believes it may be this happy collision that means sea anemones hailing from here taste so good.
While anemones around the world come in myriad hues, these are astonishingly pretty, with waving pink-and-mauve-tipped turquoise tendrils and a deep teal-coloured tummy. In fact, they look more like a delicate floral pattern on a vintage tea dress than a jellyfish-like sea beastie.
Collecting them is a tricky business. Collins watched divers lower themselves into the sea, without oxygen, and prise the anemones off the rocks with a special home-made fork. The divers work in pairs, for safety and company, and many have become well-off thanks to their trade: the anemones fetch a good price.
But the work is also getting more difficult – while they were once found in rock pools right around the shores of Cadiz, today the anemones have retreated from the increasingly polluted shallow waters into cooler, deeper spots further out to sea, meaning that those seeking them must dive further and into more turbulent waters.
Collins writes, simply, that, "Anemones taste of pure sea," but Adrià's anemone recipe is hardly simple harbourside food. He steams them then combines them with (slightly challenging-sounding, this) stewed rabbit brains, plus cubes of oyster and a sauce made from oysters, dill and rose water to create – as Collins puts it – "something extraordinary and distant from the sea from which they came". k
Adrià has not been alone in promoting black garlic – it had something of a foodie moment last year. Having long been used in Asian countries, it was picked up on in the US before London's hipper chefs caught on. And, in the way of many a foodie fad, you can now buy it in supermarkets. But what exactly is it?
Well, it starts with garlic being fermented under high humidity at an even temperature for several weeks. Beyond that, the precise processes are closely guarded. The result, however, is that the cloves go black, soft and squidgy, and have a rich, tangy, almost sweet flavour – and, miraculously, they don't make your breath smell. Perhaps not surprisingly, black garlic is now promoted as a superfood – and an antioxidant.
Needless to say, Adrià doesn't just pop down to the supermarket to pick up these black beauties; his hail from Aomori, the northernmost tip of Honshu, a remote corner of Japan where the climate is harsh. The area is famous for its garlic, and it is here that one producer has begun to deal in black garlic. Shinichi Kashiwazaki is "fiercely protective of his methods", says Collins. "It is said that the garlic is hydrated with seawater brought from 4,000 metres below the surface. But this is rumour. Temperature and humidity, the key factors in its production, are also the subjects of speculation. It seems that secrecy is the key."
Adrià likes to play with expectations; and so, in his black-garlic dishes, he makes "a few deft moves that challenge our senses of sight, smell and taste", says Collins. So, an olive on a plate turns out to be made of pure black garlic, while a peeled tomato is given a jet-black coating, made of the fermented cloves sieved into a dense, thick oil.
Vigo di Thun, Trentino, Italy
If you ever want to find a healthy, happy, high-honey-yielding bee, then the valleys of northern Italy are your place. Collins describes them as "gleaming, with shiny wings and powerful, furry bodies", and adds that the area has "a reputation for the sweetness of the honey and the gentleness of the bees". Apparently, they are far more chilled-out than bees in South America or Scotland, happy to bumble around the blooms and less likely to be aggressive towards humans.
Which is good news for Andrea Paternoster, who harvests their honey. He keeps hives at remote spots on mountain summits and in deep valleys – but exactly where they are depends on what's in bloom, as Paternoster follows the flowers: once night falls and the bees have buzzed back into their hive, he seals them up and puts the colony on to a truck, which may drive them several kilometres away to the next flowery bower. The hives have to be installed before sunrise, so as not to confuse the bees.
"Andrea's bees never need to fly far," says Collins. "They are surrounded by the flowers from which they will draw nectar; in April, this might be acacia, apple, French honeysuckle or dandelion; in June, lime, chestnut or sunflower; later, ivy or carob... As the flowering of each plant passes, the hives are moved."
Adrià echoes the connection between the honey and its origins by turning diners into nectar-collectors themselves: at El Bulli, they'd suck the sticky stuff from the stamen of a fresh flower, delicately arranged on a plate.
Guijuelo, Castilla y León, Spain
Iberian ham – or jamon – might be a classic Spanish food, but that doesn't mean Adrià would take anything like a traditional approach to serving it. No, at El Bulli jamon was served as a juice. As Collins describes it, he took "the massive physical presence of the Iberian pig and reduced it to essential qualities of taste, removing the texture and appearance that defines what one thinks of as jamon". The resulting juice – or caldo – is, she suggests, a refinement of the meat into "an ultimate minimalist statement".
The Iberian pigs used in this minimalist statement are bred mostly in Extremadura, western Spain. They are well-treated little piglets: played soothing classical music as they're fed by their mama sows, and provided with pools to splosh about in, mud patches to roll in and open space to trot around. This is oak-tree country, and a good job too, as the pigs can get through a whopping nine kilos of acorns in a day.
Once butchered, the ham is cured and hung in a warehouse in Guijuelo, which can hold some 36,000 strung-up legs. "The warehouse is filled with their aroma, a rich, fatty smell that penetrates everything," says Collins. Before it is hung, each leg goes through extensive salting, during which water is removed by osmosis. And each ham has its own, distinctive layer of white mould. The warehouse is owned by a friend of Adrià's, and Collins explains that, "Joselito's jamones are some of the most famous in Spain, because of the natural way they are cured and the intensity with which they are promoted. These jamones can be found from Tokyo to London to New York." That's as may be, but it's probably a safe bet that nowhere else have they been served as juice.