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El Bulli for you: Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food at Somerset House

El Bulli exhibition at Somerset House

El Bulli exhibition at Somerset House. Image: Matthew Lloyd/Somerset House

“Academics have been relatively slow to study the subject of cooking. It is often taken for granted.”

So says Gwyn Miles, director of Somerset House, which is trying to give cooking a proper re-examination via a major retrospective of what was, until recently, the world’s best restaurant – Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, in Roses, Catalonia.

Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food is a thorough – some might say, geekily thorough – examination of the philosophy, science and culinary genius behind El Bulli, which closed its doors on 30 July 2011.

In the exhibition’s detailed history of the El Bulli restaurant, it’s fascinating to learn it was set up by a homeopathic doctor from Dusseldorf, who originally ran it as a mini-golf course and beach bar in the early 60s. From such humble beginnings, it evolved into a noted haute cuisine venue, before – under the guidance of Adrià from the mid-80s onwards – transforming into an avant-garde food mecca. In the process, it won the title of best restaurant in the world five times.

El Bulli clearly had – and still has – a strong sense of its own importance. What else are we to make of a restaurant that, in 1999, retroactively catalogued all its original recipes from 1987 onwards – starting at recipe number 1, and ending on number 1,846 in 2011?

Among the mixed bag of displays is a short video of the final service at the restaurant, which has since graduated to a sort of ghostly kitchen afterlife as the ‘El Bulli Foundation’ – “set to be one of the stellar knowledge spaces in a new paradigm of cooking”, according to the programme. The Foundation will be part cooking academy, part food thinktank, with an exhibition centre due to open in 2014. Sounds like a nice way for Ferran Adrià to continue cooking without having pesky customers underfoot. Its slogan is: “no reservations, no routines, no timetables”. (But will they do patatas bravas?)

Somerset House deserves a pat on the back for creating “galleries to display the unusual, the unexpected, and the sometimes neglected”. Plenty of people would say great food can be great art (my only caveats would be: unlike music, literature or fine arts, food is so transitory, and unrepeatable. You have to be a particular type of person to remember in detail a fantastic meal you had in 1991. Plus, unlike those other ‘art forms’, food alone is 100% essential to the functioning of your body).

Either way , there’s no doubting in the form Ferran Adrià, you have a bona fide maestro. Though if his work is art, presumably the best way to appreciate it would be to eat it. It depends on the individual how much they will get from an exhibition about a restaurant that – in all likelihood – they have never visited, and now never will.

Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food runs at Somerset House until 29 September. Admission is £10.

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Flamenco in the Thames Tunnel at Brunel Museum

Thames Tunnel

The Thames Tunnel is hosting live concerts. Image: failing_angel/Flickr

Like flamenco? Like underground spaces? Want to hear flamenco music in the world’s oldest tunnel under a river?

Well, now you can: the flamenco trio Attab Haddad, Ramón Ruíz & Demi García Sabat are performing in the Thames Tunnel underground shaft as part of a series of events staged by the Brunel Museum.

The Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe is directly above the Thames Tunnel, designed and built by Sir Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who joined his dad on the project when it ran into a series of problems (it was, at the time, one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the world).

The tunnel was built between 1825 and 1843 and it served pedestrians upon opening. People reached the tunnel via staircases in two circular shafts at either end of the tunnel, in Rotherhithe and Wapping – and one of these shafts is now playing host to the Brunel Museum’s concerts.

(The tunnel was not a big hit with the Victorians, by the way. After some initial excitement, people lost interest because accessing it was so difficult – and possibly also because it linked one fairly out of-the-way place with another. Plans to have horse-drawn carriages go through it proved impractical and in 1869 it began running steam trains. It’s still in use as part of the London Overground.)

2013 is the 17oth anniversary of the tunnel and the museum is holding a whole series of events.

The Attab Haddad trio specialise in oud, guitar and percussion, and the performance is on Wednesday 26 June at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10.

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Paella in a can via Grey’s Fine Foods

Paella in a can from Grey's Fine Foods

Grey’s Fine Foods is a new importer of Spanish food to the UK, hoping to take on well-established players like Brindisa.

It’s run by Yorkshire-based, Spanish-born Javier De La Hormaza, and it already stocks 200 products from 18 regions in Spain. The catalogue lists everything from milk-fed lamb and jamon iberico to anchovies, turron, caviar and olive oil. Grey’s (the name comes from ‘graze’) also prides itself on its selection of Spanish wines and brandies.

“Spain’s export markets have always been focused on South America and, recently, Germany, with the UK left to one side. But no more! We want to build those bridges and offer a range of fine foods and wines that have been almost impossible to source in Britain in the past,” Javier says.

Olive oil and jamon iberico

Olive oil and jamon iberico

Grey’s kindly sent me a box of products to try, including this delicious, melt-in your mouth jamon iberico and award-winning Fuenroble olive oil.

But I was most intrigued by their paella-in-a-can offering from Querida Carmen, for people in a hurry.

“A gourmet paella ready in 20 minutes with no chopping or messing the kitchen,” Grey’s promises.

Paella in a tin

Paella in a tin

Inside the can, which promises all-natural ingredients, low in salt, it’s a little soupy. I followed the instructions and brought the concoction to the boil, before adding the rice.

Paella in a saucepan

You leave the stew on a soft boil for 20 minutes, then take it off the heat and let it stand for 5 minutes.

I’ll be honest, I gave it a little longer, as the broth wasn’t fully absorbed. I then spooned it out into my paella pan.

Querida Carmen PaellaThe result was a little liquidy – more like a risotto than a paella (and not doing it in a pan means you don’t get the black crispy bits). It was undeniably tasty, with good chunks of sausage and squid, and we made short work of it.

However, it didn’t quite get the taste of paella right for me. Also, at £12.50, it’s not cheap. On the other hand, it was incredibly simple to make.

The paella was a fun experiment – and the jamon was murderously good. I’ll bear Grey’s in mind next time I need to source some Spanish goods – though I wonder if they’ll go the Brindisa route, and open a shop. And a restaurant…

Find out more on Grey’s Fine Foods website.

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Campo Viejo brings Streets of Spain to Southbank Centre

Streets of Spain festival

Streets of Spain festival

Here’s a fun-sounding event for the weekend: all-conquering Spanish wine brand Campo Viejo is bringing the Streets of Spain festival to the Southbank Centre this bank holiday.

The four-day foodie festival will bring over stallholders from Barcelona’s La Boqueria market. There’ll also be cooking masterclasses from Spanish chefs, a pop-up tapas restaurant and performance art.

The festival runs 10.30am-10.30pm Friday through to Monday. Streets of Spain is the latest in a series of food markets Southbank Centre has been running – chances are it will become a regular fixture…

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Jason Webster’s Or The Bull Kills You: Death in the Valencian afternoon

Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

I recently picked up a copy of Jason Webster’s Or The Bull Kills You, the first in his series of Max Cámara detective novels set in Valencia.

Webster, born in San Francisco and raised in the UK, has written a series of well-received non-fiction books on Spain, covering everything from flamenco to bullfighting, and it’s the latter topic that provides the backbone of this, his first novel.

Max Cámara is a shabby, forty-something ‘tec with a disintegrating personal life and a booze habit – not exactly breaking new ground in crime fiction, but a likeable enough protagonist (I imagine Javier Bardem playing him in the film version). His career is put on the line when a famous bullfighter is brutally murdered in Valencia’s Plaza de Toros and Cámara has just days to catch his killer.

It’s a pacy read, although some of the plotting is a bit odd – in an early scene, for example, Cámara is set upon by three attackers in the street and, having overpowered one of them, shows no apparent interest in arresting him.

The book’s biggest draw – for me, at least – is its backdrop: Valencia during Las Fallas is well-evoked and Webster puts his knowledge of bullfighting to vivid good use. You get the feeling that modern-day Spain, with its literally combustible fiestas, corrupt politicians and social unrest is fertile ground for Webster’s new detective series. Expect Cámara to do for Spain what Wallander did for Sweden and Zen for Italy.

The second book in the series, A Death in Valencia, is out now, with more on the way: “I don’t know how many I’ll do in the end. It can keep going as long as there’s life in the characters,” Webster told me in an interview in 2011. I shall certainly check out the next one.

Read more of my interview with Jason Webster here.

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Courtauld Gallery goes back to Picasso’s start

Becoming Picasso at the Courtauld Gallery

Becoming Picasso at the Courtauld Gallery

The Courthauld Gallery is going back to the very start of Pablo Picasso’s career with Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901.

The show draws on paintings from collections in Barcelona, Paris, New York and Moscow to illustrate that formative year. In 1901, Picasso moved to Paris aged just 20, kick-started his professional career, and even adopted his famous signature.

The work on display heralds the start of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901-1904), when most of his work was painted in – well, you guessed it – blue shades. It’s also, for my money, one of his most impressive spells (before all the ‘wonky faces’).

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 runs from 14 February to 26 May. It is included in the £6 admission price to the gallery, which is small and one of London’s most perfectly formed.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery turns into Seville church for Murillo show

Murillo exhibition at Dulwich Picture GalleryDulwich Picture Gallery, an oasis of calm in the hurly burly of south London, is turning its main space into a recreation of a Seville church.

The transformation takes place from now until 19 May, as the gallery celebrates the work of Spanish master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682).

Exhibition curator, Dr Xavier Bray, told Dulwich OnView: “We are actually rebuilding our famous enfilade which stretches through the whole gallery and we are installing some mock niches in order to show Murillo’s magnificent large lunettes as they were hanging in his lifetime high under the dome of Santa Maria la Blanca in Seville.”

The show has been organised in conjunction with the Prado in Madrid and will highlight some of the paintings in the gallery’s own Murillo collection, which have been cleaned up and restored for the occasion.

More below:

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