Melón con jamón 2005

Plating "Melón con jamón 2005" with Chef Murray Wilson

(Part 1 is here.)

I have never eaten at el Bulli. My request for a table during the 2009 season was met with a response of, “The demand that we have received at the first moment has again surpassed our limited possibilities for one season and we regret not to be able to full fill more reservation requests.”

I do not own the el Bulli cookbooks. The only el Bulli book I have is an autographed copy of A Day at el Bulli, from Adrià’s appearance in Toronto in October 2008. It contains 30 recipes, representing a typical menu at the restaurant. When Chef Marc Lepine invited me to propose a course that I would be in charge of for his el Bulli tribute dinner, this was the book I turned to.

I knew I wanted something that was small and within my abilities to produce reliably in a restaurant setting. I also knew I wanted something that reflected the spirit of el Bulli, as well as showing off one of their more well-known techniques. I decided on “Melón con jamón 2005” (melon with ham) partly because it demonstrated the restaurant’s playful side, with a common flavour combination whose texture has been completely reconfigured, and partly because it showcases spherification, which is perhaps el Bulli’s second most famous technique, right after foam.

"Spherical Ravioli of Peas," an early spherification dish.

“Normal” or “direct” spherification has to be done à la minute; otherwise, the ingredients will continue to gel, and the bursting effect will be lost. The labour involved in doing this in a restaurant setting is enormous. Fortunately, there’s a workaround: for “reverse” spherification, you mix a calcium salt into the base, and place it in a sodium alginate bath, which forms a skin around the product. The resulting spheres can be stored without continuing to gel. This was one of the few changes Marc made to the recipes, which he otherwise tried to reproduce as faithfully as possible, up to the point of ordering genuine ibérico ham for the dish I had chosen.

Melón con jamón 2005” consists of a small glass of ibérico ham consommé with beads of melon “caviar” suspended in it. Like many el Bulli dishes, the recipe is simple, without being easy: simmer ibérico ham for 15 minutes, chill and thicken with xanthan gum. Juice some cantaloupe, mix with sodium alginate, drip into a calcium chloride bath to form beads. Combine the melon beads with the thickened consommé, and sprinkle black pepper on top.

While I was there, Atelier’s cooks commented several times that the el Bulli recipes were “so different” from what they usually do. There was a repeated joke that the preparations consisted of nothing but the main ingredient and water. Sometimes this purity was almost austere: the “Hazelnut Shots” were nothing but skinned hazelnuts, blended with water and frozen as drops in liquid nitrogen, then tossed with the powdered hazelnut skins. Tasting them, we all agreed that, while the taste was pure hazelnut, they would be better with a little sugar.

Seasoning was another running joke, since few of the recipes called for salt. This led to some amusing game-time moments. While mixing soy lecithin into the black pepper air base for the “Snails with Hazelnut Soup and Black Pepper Air,” Chef Murray Wilson tasted it and remarked that it needed salt. Marc replied that the recipe didn’t call for it: “It’s black pepper air, not salt and pepper air. But if you think it needs salt, add salt.” Murray tasted it again, added a pinch of salt. Tasted it again, and added another, bigger pinch of salt. Then he looked at me and said, “Is this going to show up on your blog?”

"Thaw," complete with "frozen water powder" (i.e., ice).

Sometimes, the simplicity of the preparations led to hilarity. One of the components for “Thaw” is referred to as “frozen water powder,” essentially a weak sugar syrup that is frozen and then blended into snow. Every time Marc mentioned the “frozen water powder,” Murray cheekily replied, “You mean ice, Chef?”

Because I knew how technically demanding such simplicity could be, I did a dry run of my chosen dish at home. (Not with genuine Spanish ibérico, but with Canadian prosciutto. The ibérico, unsurprisingly, tasted far better.) I also used direct spherification, rather than reverse. It went well, and I was confident that I could make the necessary adjustments to execute the dish at Atelier.

When I arrived, I started with the consommé, simmering the ham in water, then straining it through a Superbag and chilling it. I suspect I let it simmer a little too vigorously, as the clarity wasn’t great, even after passing it through the Superbag. (If I’d had time, I would have used the ice filtration technique, but that can take several days. Interestingly, the dish also appears in Modernist Cuisine, and the pictured consommé is similarly cloudy.)

To disperse the xanthan, I was told to mix it in the Thermomix on high speed. Naturally, this incorporated a lot of air, which then had to be sucked out in the vacuum sealer, an effective but tedious process, because it expanded so much I could only do about two portions at a time. But if I didn’t want a chamber vacuum sealer before, I sure do now!

Ibérico ham consommé, post-Thermomix. Consommé clarity this is not.

Reverse-spherifying the melon beads was a little more complicated. Chef Luis David Calero recommended freezing the juice, drop by drop, in liquid nitrogen, then dropping the frozen spheres into a warm sodium alginate bath. My first few attempts resulted in gelled clumps, but I eventually got the hang of it, and there was plenty of “melon caviar” for service.

When the time came, with Murray’s help, plating was quick and efficient: a spoonful of melon beads, a pour of consommé, a sprinkle of black pepper. Next! Once it went out, I moved right on to helping with the next course, and didn’t even notice when the guests had finished my dish. Reactions on Twitter were positive, though. And at the end of the meal, I chatted with my friend Don from foodiePrints, who enjoyed the el Bulli take on melon with ham. Success!

Once all the guests had been served the final course, “Frozen Chocolate Air,” there was one portion of it left. Boldly, I asked Marc if I could have it – because this was a one-night-only event, I knew he wouldn’t be serving it the next night – and he indulged me. In fact, over the course of my time at Atelier, I’d gotten to sample components of several of the dishes, including the “Raviolo/Mozzarella Chewing Gum,” “Frozen Charcoal of Duck Foie Gras,” “Nitro-Meringue of Strawberries and Cream,” and the iconic “Spherical Raviolo of Peas.”

I’ve never eaten at el Bulli, and now that it’s closed, I never will. If I’d wanted to, I could have sat in the dining room at Atelier and enjoyed all 20 courses in their entirety. But the experience I had instead was significantly more rewarding. Now I can say that I’ve both eaten, and cooked, el Bulli dishes.

I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Chef Marc Lepine and his kitchen staff, Luis David Calero, Jason Sawision and Murray Wilson, for giving me the opportunity to participate in this tribute dinner. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot! Thanks also to Lynne, the Twisted Chef, for allowing me to use several of her incredible photos in these posts.

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4 Responses to “Melón con jamón 2005”

  1. You have a fabulous blog, Matthew.
    I particularly enjoyed this post.
    Thanks for sharing these fascinating details of your behind-the-scenes experience at the tribute dinner.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Cevie! It was fun both participating in the dinner and sharing my thoughts.

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