A 37 course meal at El Bulli
- Friday 16 January 2009
Normally one would think twice about crossing Europe for dinner, but in the case of El Bullí there’s no hesitation. There are a few misguided souls who find Ferran Adrià’s miraculously creative cooking tricksy and pretentious; luckily, I’m not one of them.
My last dinner in the three-Michelin starred Barcelona hideaway (voted Restaurant of the Year three years running and for whose 8,000 annual covers they receive two million requests) beguiled me with 32 different flavours, temperatures and textures.
Now, six years later, I happily worked my way through 37 courses, not one of which I’d eaten before.
The only problem with Adrià’s dishes is that because they’re often composed of dramatic contrasts – buffalo milk over honey with a sprinkling of partly dried wild strawberries – they are far from wine-friendly.
Any theories about food and wine pairings get thrown out the window. You order your Clos St- Hune, Opus One or La Tâche and hope for the best.
However, on this occasion, my hosts, the Bordeaux négociant house of Yvon Mau, had persuaded Château Margaux to present a range of its wines to accompany dinner, and director Paul Pontallier flew out to share the experience.
Juli Soler, the affable manager of El Bullí and a man of impressive wine knowledge, announced: ‘One thing is certain. The wines will be great. Perhaps the dishes are just something on the table for you to enjoy, and I think we have to forget about “marriages of food and wine”.’
Because at El Bullí you surrender to the tastes and whims of Adrià – you eat what you’re given – it was difficult to attempt pairing dishes with particular wines. We began with the whites, then the two Pavillons, and then the grand vin, from youngest to oldest.
But we kept a row of glasses in front of us, so that it was possible to dart back and forth. Oenological autopilot In between popping things into my mouth, I made the occasional note when a pairing seemed particularly felicitous.
Thus, the spoonful of pine nuts in a thick sauce with caviar worked well with Pavillon Blanc 2003. The closest we got to a meat course was two pieces of veal tendon, sweet and chewy, not gelatinous, in a broth with tarragon.
Here the Margaux 2001 seemed a perfect accompaniment. Scrapings of fresh endive with green walnuts, cubes of liquidised Roquefort, and a dab of tart passionfruit gave the 1989 Margaux no problems, while the older 1982 matched the sumptuous pork sweetbreads with tiny shitake mushrooms.
Dutifully I jotted my impressions, but also scrawled: ‘It ceases to matter.’ By course 25 – sea anemones with rabbit brains – we were on oenological autopilot. With a taste in my mouth, my hand reached for the glass that seemed appropriate. Instinct takes over in such circumstances, and for the nine seasoned foodies at the table, we usually got it right.
At 2am it was all over. I asked Pontallier what conclusion he drew from the grand experiment. ‘None, except that it was impressive how easily the wines stood up against such subtle flavours. It’s as though the dishes and the wines respected each other. Often our ideas about food and wine are too rigid; we need to be more open and explore more possibilities.’ It is far from an onerous task.
Having a 37 course meal at home?Here is some Margaux to match:
Pavillon Blanc 2006 ★★★★
Firm, citrus nose. Plump and rich with passion fruit flavours and a creamy texture. No hint of the 15% alcohol. 2009–2015.
£97–£132; BWI, F&R, Iiw, J&B
Pavillon Blanc 2003 ★★★★
Ripe apricot nose. Dry and nutty, austere yet rich, and though not much evident acidity, this hasn’t tired. Spicy and long.
2009–2010. £33–£37; C&B, Evy, Gdh
Château Margaux 2001 ★★★★★
Cherry and cassis nose, sumptuous yet discreet, cedary and with a hint of iron. Voluptuous, bold and forthright but no heaviness and so well balanced it will evolve beautifully.
Persistent. 2010–2030. £190–£303; Ant, BBR, BCo, BdI, BWI,
Evy, F&R, Far, Iiw, J&B, Lai, Maj, Tur, Wlk, WWin
Château Margaux 1996 ★★★★★
Cigar-box and cassis nose: pure, intense, classic. Concentrated yet suave, with a mineral character and ripe tannins. Perfect poise – a majestic, ageworthy wine. 2009–2035. £470–£634;
BBR, BdI, C&B, Cam, Coe, F&R, Fou, Maj, MCl, N&P, PWy, Sec,
Smp, Tur, Unc, VVI, Wlk
Château Margaux 1989 ★★★★★
Plum compote and clove nose. Spicy, sumptuous and vigorous. Not the depth or splendour of ’96 but a voluptuous and enjoyable wine that drinks well now. Very long. 2009–2020.
£258–£470; Ave, Ant, BdI, BdV, Coe, F&R, Far, N&P, PWy, Rbs,
Teg, Tur, VVI, Wlk
Château Margaux 1999 ★★★★
Sweet, ripe cassis nose. Concentrated, but quite forward and accessible, with a creamy texture. Elegant wine though not especially structured. 2009–2020. £224–£327; Ant, BBR, BdI,
Cam, F&R, Far, Hen, Jer, McF, Tur, VVI, Wlk
Château Margaux 1982 ★★★★
Rich savoury nose: raspberry jelly, cherries, cocoa. Fairly evolved but ample lift. Supple, lacking grip and vigour and the texture is soft. Splendid fruit but without the usual Margaux
finesse. 2009–2020. £540–£808; BBR, BdI, C&B, Cam,
Evy, F&R, Far, Fou, MCl, PWy, Rol, Sec, Tur, VVI, Wlk
Pavillon Rouge 2004 ★★★★
Ripe cedary nose; aromatic and open. Fresh, nimble palate but also intense, spicy and elegant. Understated but beautifully balanced with a long length. Opulent. 2010–2020. £43–£60;
Ave, Dll, Evy, F&R, Far, Jer, Mls, Sec, Teg, VVI
Pavillon Rouge 2002 ★★★★
Pronounced cassis aromas but reticent. The palate is remarkably dense and firm for Pavillon Rouge, with surprising austerity and grip. More depth and structure than 2004 and still needs time to open. Classic. Good length. 2010–2020. £42–£74; Evy, F&R, Far