For the world's most innovative chef, it all started with gazpacho.
Ferran Adrià's restaurant, el Bulli, located in Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain, is frequently ranked as the best in the world. It is certainly among the most imaginative. Dinner there this summer includes "olives" made from an intensely flavored juice "spherified" with hydrocolloids, sea anemone dotted with rabbit brains, and a complicated dessert called "Autumn," that uses liquid nitrogen, freeze drying, and other gee-whiz techniques to turn chocolate into a gorgeous fall landscape.
Traditional Spanish cuisine it's not. But as Chef Adrià tells it, his earliest creative impulses were inspired not by exotic ingredients or scientific technologies. They were inspired by one of the oldest of Spanish dishes.
"We asked, 'what is soup?'" he recounted at a conference last year. "And then we started to experiment. We made a hot gazpacho broth. We made a white gazpacho sorbet. We made a frozen gazpacho granita. It wasn't a revolution; it was an evolution."
Gazpacho is one of the most venerable of Spanish recipes, a concoction that dates at least as far back as the 8th century, when the Muslims who ruled al-Andalus (as they dubbed Spain) introduced a cold soup made of ground almonds, bread crumbs, oil, and vinegar to the local culinary repertoire.
A version of the soup may be even older – food historians trace the word's origin to "caspa," the Latin for "fragments." But it wasn't until Europeans reached the Americas and discovered tomatoes and peppers that gazpacho became the liquid salad we know today.
For centuries, gazpacho was subsistence food, a dish that peasants could make from leftover stale bread, a few drops of olive oil, and a tomato or two plucked from a scraggly garden. During famine, even the tomatoes would be omitted.
These days, gazpacho remains a summer staple. In July and August, it not only appears on most restaurant menus in the country, but in a large proportion of Spanish homes as well. A 2007 survey showed that 74 percent of Spaniards regularly eat gazpacho as a first course in summer.
But for all its omnipresence, no two gazpachos are alike. Regional differences account for some of the variation: In Malaga, for example, they make a white version – without tomatoes – called ajo blanco that replicates those early, pre-Columbian soups, while in Córdoba, the tomato base is thickened with bread until it becomes the saucelike salmorejo. And home cooks tweak the recipe with personal touches.
Among Spain's high-end chefs as well, gazpacho presents a seemingly endless range of possibilities. And no chef today is more famous for his whimsical – and delicious – interpretations than Dani García. At his restaurant Calima, in Marbella, Chef García serves a cherry gazpacho with anchovies and another, made with green tomatoes and ginger, that he garnishes by turning an essence of crab coral into a type of gelée.
"Is it a food? Is it a drink? With all its different ingredients and colors and textures, gazpacho offers so many possibilities," Garcia says. "It gives you a chance to be really creative." Creative indeed. This year, the 33-year-old chef introduced a new ajo blanco that uses smoke and a "snow" made from litchis to re-create the landscape of the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range.
At the top of the gazpacho section of García's menu appears a title: "An approximation of the primal flavors of our land." The line is a reminder that for all his innovation, García, like so many Spaniards, is drawn to gazpacho not only for what it can become, but for what it has been. "If you're like me and you grew up in the area, you've been eating it since you were a baby," he says. "It marks you. Gazpacho is our culture."
Dani GarcÍa's Cherry Gazpacho With Anchovies and Fresh Cheese
For the soup
6 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and seeded
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 clove of garlic
1 piece stale baguette, about 3 inches long
3/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar or more, if desired
Salt to taste
1/2 pound puréed fresh cherries
In a blender, purée the tomatoes with the onion, pepper, garlic, and bread. When the mixture is smooth, season with salt and add olive oil and vinegar (taste to make sure the quantity of vinegar is to your liking). Then mix in the cherry purée, and taste again for salt and pass through a mesh sieve or chinoise. Discard solids and chill soup.
1 large bunch basil
1 liter (34 ounces) grapeseed oil
Blanch the basil in boiling water and drain immediately. Put in a blender and add the oil and mix until finely blended. Pass through a mesh strainer. Discard solids; set oil aside.
4 anchovy filets (good quality canned and drained are fine), cut in half
8 pistachios, shelled
1 log goat cheese
To assemble gazpacho, pour the chilled soup into four shallow bowls. Place two pistachios at 3 and 9 o'clock in each bowl and an anchovy piece at 12 and 6. Drizzle a little of the basil oil over the gazpacho, and dot with small pieces of the cheese. Serves 4.
1 chunk stale baguette, about 3 inches long, crusts removed, soaked in water
6 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and seeded
1 small cucumber, peeled and chopped
1/2 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
Pinch of sweet pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika), optional
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt to taste
Croutons, diced cucumber, onion, and red bell pepper, for garnish
Squeeze the water out of the bread. Purée bread, tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, and garlic in blender until smooth. Add pimenton if using, vinegar, and oil. If the soup is too thick, add water until it's the desired consistency. Add salt to taste. Press soup through a fine sieve. Discard solids. Chill until cold, then serve with garnishes of your choice. Serves 2 to 4.