Wild Food Spring #1: A Natural Science of Cooking

The first in a spring-time series, Dylan Gordon considers cookbooks, memoirs and fictions about wild, foraged foods. Reviewed in this essay: Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking by Andoni Luis Aduriz, Phaidon Press, 2012.

A Piece of Veal, Roasted and Perfumed with Vine Cutting Embers
A Piece of Veal, Roasted and Perfumed with Vine Cutting Embers

I first ate at Mugaritz, today one of the top three restaurants in the world, in 2003. At the time there was a vogue among Spain’s Michelin-starred restaurants for the highly technological sort of cooking that has now come to be called (over the howls of the chefs) “molecular gastronomy” or “modernist cuisine.” Each was attempting to out-do the others with a variant on a slow-cooked, sous vide egg, and Andoni Luis Aduriz was no exception.

What was exceptional was what came to the table after that first amuse bouche: a progression of novel herbs and other plants culled from the wild garden that surrounded the rural estate. At the time it was exhilarating, a panoply of hithertofore unseen delights, a riot of foreign tastes and textures that I now recognize as yarrow and shiso, as oxalis. This was a bright, unique counterpoint to the highly scientific cooking, based on abstracting and refining raw ingredients and traditional cuisines to the point of the almost-unrecognizable, that Mugaritz and its cohort are perhaps best known for.

Sun-Ripened Berry Fruits, Cold Beetroot Bubbles.
Sun-Ripened Berry Fruits, Cold Beetroot Bubbles.

So Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking is a cookbook, yes, but also an historical document. It charts the development of the always-unique cuisine coming out of this kitchen, a kitchen that helped to pioneer the contemporary mania for foraged foods (Copenhagen’s Noma, known above all for its wild delicacies, is currently global restaurant #1). And of course, like most high-end cookbooks these days, it’s an artistic document, too, lush with pictures of fascinatingly creative dishes with names like “Lambs’ Feet Glazed in a Salted Toffee of Lactose,” which most readers and eaters, if we are honest, are never going to attempt.

Some diners question the point of such places, complaining of food that sometimes (to them, at least) just doesn’t taste very good, and of prices that break the bank. Perhaps, confronted with such a deluxe example of the inequities of their privilege, they prefer the moral high ground of more moderate excesses. But like the best artists, chefs of Aduriz’s ilk push the bounds of the possible into new, if not universally appreciated, territories. Here, Aduriz shows us the abutment of two worlds we often imagine as stark opposites: the world of science, and the world of nature. Like a modern-day Tiresias conjuring across the divide, while he may at times disturb, his prophecy proves prescient.

About the author

Dylan Gordon

Dylan Gordon (www.dylangordon.ca) is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Toronto, researching the ethics and economics of wellbeing in the Canadian trade of wild food products. Hear more about his wild food research on Twitter, @KnowWildFood.

By Dylan Gordon