An Interview with Olivier Magny, Wine’s Leading ‘Terroirist’

Best-selling author Olivier Magny's newly released "Into Wine" has something for everyone who's "into wine"

Best-selling author Olivier Magny’s newly released “Into Wine” has something for everyone who’s “into wine”

Paris native Olivier Magny is a true entrepreneur. And, as a sommelier, wine educator and TV host with his own Parisian wine bar, he’s got quite an impressive wine résumé. But somehow I don’t think that’s what he really wants you to focus on. I believe his true aim is to pass on his boundless enthusiasm for the richly diverse world of wine to anyone who wants to listen, and to make sure they enjoy themselves along the way.

Hence his newly released book, entitled Into Wine. It serves as a wonderful gateway into the often confusing and complex world of wine. And I recommend anyone with even a passing interest in wine to read it, and take its contents seriously. For although the book comes across as simple, there’s quite a bit of thought hiding behind its playful diction. Even so-called ‘wine experts’ are sure to find some useful information within its pages (take note particularly of the detailed appendices).

Into Wine is written in a colloquial style and broken into tasting-size pours — with interesting, and often provocative, statistical and anecdotal call-outs sprinkled throughout. The book brims with energy, enthusiasm, an unmistakable joie de vivre and a somewhat boyish sense of humor. You could say it pulsates with life. And that’s just what Olivier believes that soil should do … because this is what leads to complex, unique, interesting wines that reflect their local cultures.

Yes, you see, Olivier is a self-proclaimed Terroirist. Now terroir is one of those French words that don’t translate well into other languages. But if you had to approximate it concisely, you could say it means “a sense of place.” And many people believe that certain methods of farming and winemaking can lead to wines that actually express the “place” they come from in your glass.

The starting point for someone looking to craft such a wine (well, actually, any wine at all) is the vineyard. Today, there are strongly held beliefs and feelings on both sides of the fence about organic and biodynamic farming, and the so-called ‘natural’ wines that such methods often help to produce. No matter what side you tend to gravitate towards — and especially if you’ve never thought or heard about any of these things in the first place — the best policy is to let everyone have his or her own say. And that’s exactly why I asked Oliver to do via the below questions.

So I invite you to listen. And if you have comments, please use the comment function below on this post or contact Olivier via his own website.

Chin-Chin!

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Q: Why did you decide to write Into Wine and who is your intended reader?

Anyone with an appetite for wine and an open mind should enjoy Into Wine. The idea behind it is not only to share knowledge and insights, but also to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what wine teaches us, far beyond wine.

Q: Your book comes across as refreshingly direct and down-to-earth, and is injected with enthusiasm and humor. Indeed, this seems to be the point: to write a wine book that doesn’t talk down to the reader or use unnecessarily flowery terminology. How do you strike the delicate balance between (a) retaining this attitude at all times, while (b) conveying what is often necessarily a lot of complex information that people will need to learn about the subject(s) at hand?

Thank you very much. I’ve perfected this art for ten years at O Château. Every day, I have people in front of me that come from all walks of the wine life. Your wine pro will be sitting next to a complete novice, and my job is to make sure both have a great time and learn a lot. My daily challenge for ten years has been to strike that delicate balance between informative and fun, for everyone. Keeping things factual and genuinely helpful is as much of a requirement for me as keeping them light-hearted! The fact that both seasoned sippers and complete rookies have been raving about Into Wine tells me that I didn’t mess up completely!

Olivier … with his hands full

Olivier … with his hands full

Q: You place huge emphasis on the notion of terroir, and the importance of becoming a ‘Terroirist’ — not just with respect to wine, but also in terms of one’s whole approach towards living. How would define the concept of terroir in its simplest form. And, if you were to distill its importance for you into five points, what would they be?

To me, terroir is this: a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘here’ should be different from a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘there’. That is what makes life not only delicious but also interesting. Terroir is absolutely essential and if I were to give you five reasons, I’d say:

  • Our world destroys differences at an incredible pace: the logic of terroir is first and foremost a logic of cultural resistance that fosters genuine diversity.
  • Our world destroys our soil at an incredible pace: we need to re-think the way we farm and terroir is the most reasonable angle to tackle this fundamental issue.
  • We are a very unhealthy crowd: exponential expansion of certain diseases and afflictions is closely linked to the way we eat and drink. Terroir helps fix that problem.
  • Terroir gives us deliciousness — which is rather significant in my book!
  • Terroir is about caring: for the soil, for the food, for the wine, for the ones we love. I think this whole world would be better off with a bit more TLC. 

Q: A significant part of the book is spent discussing “living” soil versus “dead” soil. How does this manifest in a wine (or in food that’s grown on the soil)?

Wine or food made from dead soil is somewhat similar to what zombies are to humans: they’re there, but good lord are they dirty and soul-less!

Q: Speaking of soil, there has been a lot of debate in wine circles recently regarding whether you can actually taste the minerals present in the soil that surrounds the vines in the final, bottled wine. What is your take, and how does this (or doesn’t this) relate to terroir?

On these subject matters, I try to stay clear from all the ‘blah-blah’ and look only for the hard science. And well, current science is not conclusive on this point. What I believe in (and what science does corroborate) is that the complexity of a wine vastly mirrors the life of the soil. Does it follow that a chalky soil gives us a chalky tasting wine? Honestly, I don’t really care! What I want is for that chalky soil to be alive and well, and for the wine made from it to be delicious!

Q: Let’s forget bout “minerality” for a moment. Can you describe why you see organic and biodynamic farming — not just for wine, but also for all produce — as such an important thing for the world? And can this really, as you suggest, help solve our environmental and cultural woes as well?

Well, what’s for sure, and I explain why in the book, is that the status quo would lead to more famines, devastations, hurricanes and wars. So we need a new model. And I believe the best model is simply one based on common sense and empiricism. Many pioneers have been showing the way, proving to us that another model was not only possible, but also eminently viable — from an environmental, financial and cultural standpoint. The more people realize this, the closer we’ll get to getting our governments to stop rooting for toxic and destructive corporations, and to start rooting for us instead.

Q: Even if the mass market of global consumers eventually decided that this was the way to go, there is the troubling issue of the economics of it all. At the moment, even middle-class people might have a difficult affording organically or biodynamically grown foods and wines (unless you think this is just an issue of priorities?). So how can this be a realistic goal for the population at large, and can this type of farming ever become less expensive than the techniques employed by ‘Big Ag’ today (i.e. GMOs and so-called ‘industrial’ farming)?

When you go all the way to the ownership structure, you realize that ‘Big Ag’ is owned by the same crooks that own ‘Big Pharma’, ‘Big Banks’ and ‘Big’ whatever. We say corporations, but at the end of the day, the singular should almost apply. So what you’re looking at is a tremendously profitable business model: feeding people to make them sick while keeping them ignorant and making money every step of the way. But it’s also, and more importantly, a sickening project, if you take the time to think about it. The fact that any menu at any fast food restaurant is cheaper than two pounds of regular (i.e. organic) tomatoes is not chance; it is because one side of the system is subsidized while the other is penalized. So ‘the market’ gives us a price, and we’ve been conditioned to accept it as the reflection of a form of truth, or at least of an acceptable order of things. But then again, if we confront that with a hint of common sense, we quickly realize that ‘the market’ is full of crap. Literally. 

I explain in the book that so-called ‘conventional’ farming is not cheap at all and that it does not even have high yields. It simply means that each farmer will produce a lot. The fact that this one farmer is crippled with debt (often leading him to suicide), the fact that he produces toxic food (leading to exponential cancer rates in the general population), or the fact that he kills his soil (thus making future generations even more dependent on ‘Big Ag’) never seems to trouble anyone.

Resistance is of course in order, and education is Step 1. Step 2 is changing what and where we buy. And if enough of us do this, then we’ll have something good going on, for the powers that be will see something that they care about: a market! And when the market is big enough: things will change for everyone.

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy's leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy’s leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the decline of French cuisine (with recent books such as Au Revoir to All That, etc.). You add to this general sentiment, and touch on the fact that France’s wine culture is headed seriously in the wrong direction (and fast). Why is this, and how do you think it can be reversed?

France is in the eye of the tiger of the globalist project. Cultural destruction in France over the past 40 years has been absolutely mind-boggling. The loss of the wine culture is just one tiny aspect of this cultural tsunami. But I’m hopeful: some young French people are starting to get interested in wine again — though not because they love the French culture; rather instead to imitate New Yorkers! Plus French wines are going through such a phase of Renaissance right now that the French won’t be able to ignore it too long even if they tried.

Q: As a Frenchman, and self-proclaimed lover of French wine, do you think the iconic wines of Bordeaux (i.e. the Grands Cru Classeés) will eventually become more terroir-driven and/or farmed organically or even biodynamically? Is this important at all?

The results of biodynamic farming are obvious and the word is spreading fast throughout the world. When they refer to Bordeaux, most people actually think of the 61 Grands Crus Classés. There are thousands of wineries in Bordeaux that do not have the luxury of having the wealthiest people on earth buy their wine no matter what. In Bordeaux, change will come from below. And it will slowly but surely force the iconic châteaux to come to it. When you see the tremendous progress of Château Pontet-Canet since they adopted biodynamic farming, you can only imagine how amazing Latour would taste if they went down that road!

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

Q: What is your stance on how wine is labeled? Some brave pioneers like Ridge Vineyards, for instance, are beginning to label everything that goes into their wine. Is this the way forward?

I have a general uneasiness with our current reverence for transparency. If everybody does their job properly (the winery, and also the wine store), such extremes are not needed. Decency and professionalism go a long way!

Q: A lot of newcomers to wine might not know how loose the rules are in US wine regions. For instance, the fact that 15% (or more) of the wine may not be the variety, vintage or region stated on the label. French AOC rules (and similar systems in other European countries) tend to be stricter. But there has also been criticism and disenchantment over the AOC system as of late. Are you a supporter of the AOC system and what do you see as its key advantages and/or failings? 

I think the AOC system is terrific. It fosters expression of local differences and deliciousness, while doing something we rarely do these days: recognizing the importance of our local heritage. Now clearly, out of mere coherence, the agency that regulates it needs to ban usage of many terroir-killing pesticides, and I believe it will down the road. But overall, wine producers and wine drinkers alike all much better off with the AOC system than without it.

Q: For people that are just after a reasonably wine that tastes delicious, and don’t want to engage intellectually in the process of learning more about wine, what do you recommend? Do you believe that progressively drinking better wine over time inevitably leads to increased curiosity in wine drinkers, and does this really matter in the end?

I’d say stop buying wines from a supermarket and start buying from a wine store instead. Then let them guide you! It’s that simple … and then, well, some people will end up becoming more well-off or more interested and will go for better wines, and some won’t. And you know what? Both are just fine!

Q: Are some wines simply better than others, or is beauty (and deliciousness) in the mouth of the beholder?

Both — fully.

Q: Where can people find the best values in terroir-driven French wines? How about outside of France?

In France I’d say the Loire Valley, Alsace and the Languedoc. Outside of France: New Zealand, Italy and Portugal would be my destinations of choice. But we live in a formidable period where the culture of terroir is starting to spread everywhere. It’s a very exciting time to be a wine lover!

Q: You talk about how important it is for people to get out and visit actual wineries and winemakers. If someone from the US has never been on wine-centric vacation, what is the first region they should the visit — one at home and one abroad?

In the US, well, I’d recommend exploring the wine regions of Oregon or Washington state. It is easier to talk to the people in charge than in California, which makes learning more fun and easier. The general vibe is a bit more rural and a bit less commercial. Abroad, well, I think Alsace is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets (especially if you like whites).

Q: I’ve personally never experienced it, but many people say that certain wines give them headaches. Can you discuss the relationship between such headaches and SO2 (also the differences between volcanic S02 and SO2 that is a by-product of petroleum)? Is this what is causing these headaches?

The truth is, the hard scientific knowledge regarding wine and headaches is lacking. Excess is a common cause! Now, sulfites are a common scapegoat. But you look you at it in detail, you learn that the problem doesn’t lie in sulfites, but on the one part on their origin (that should ideally be volcanic) and in their dosage. Both for the wine and for the consumer, the problem is an excess of sulfites, not sulfites per se. As a general rule, do not settle for wines that give you a headache, as headaches from wine usually stem from sloppy grape growing or winemaking (or both). I have put together a list of wineries I recommend in the appendix of the book. Readers should find that to be a very helpful resource.

Q: What is the one thing you want people to take away from Into Wine?

That resistance has never been so necessary, and so delicious!

Q: You tell us quite about yourself in the book — but what is something that we may not know?

I am madly in love with my wife! 🙂

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If you want to get the book, there is a great deal if you purchase Into Wine through this link.

Please note: I have no personal relationship with Mr. Magny, and in fact have never met him or been to his wine bar.

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Filip Verheyden is TONG – About Wine

A provocative publication about the world of wine – tackling one issue at a time

Being a self-confessed wine geek, I am always curious to read new and interesting takes about both wine itself and the industry. I don’t exactly remember when or where I first heard about TONG – About Wine magazine, but it was likely on twitter, and once I read a little more about it, I was intrigued.

Now is the point when I would normally introduce you to the magazine, but I recently had the opportunity to interview the editor and publisher, Filip Verheyden, so I will let him do it instead – in 140 characters or less.

Filip Verheyden, Editor & Publisher of TONG Magazine

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LF: If you had to explain what TONG is on twitter – i.e. in 140 characters or less – what would you say?

FV: Looking to demystify wine. One central theme, each time different specialists, broad spectrum towards the subject and no advertising.

LF: How does it feel to have pioneered the first international wine magazine from Belgium, and does national culture play any role in the thinking behind TONG?

FV: No, absolutely not. Wine is one of the most international agricultural (and cultural) products in the world. That’s why I’m also in the Master of Wine program. Wine takes you everywhere in the world. For that reason, TONG is in English, and not in Flemish. That market [Flemish] is simply too small. I used the name “TONG”, which is Flemish for “tongue”, because most of the people in the wine industry are not in fact native English speakers, but they all speak it.

LF: What do you make of the current trends in wine writing and analysis, and do you think it is due to change any time soon? Have we become over-complicated in the way we talk about wine?

FV: No, we haven’t become over-complicated. I have very strong views on this. We live in the age of the Anti-Specialist. Due to blogs, social media, etc. everybody has become a “specialist”. When something is written down, it looks as if it has more power than the same thing being spoken out. That is why people feel more “special” when they distribute their writings. But writing down something does not make you a specialist.

That is the reason why TONG does not work with journalists – unless they are specialists in their fields of work. Specialists only write about their specialty, wine writers write to order…making them the antipode of a specialist.

LF: Other high-quality wine quarterlies, such as The World of Fine Wine, have many intellectual and academic articles, but at the same time, they still review and rate wines, and also carry advertising. This means that they have an obvious way to attract and retain (in their case, wealthy) consumers. Who is TONG aimed at, why would consumers be interested in reading it, and how can you reach them?

FV: That’s a very difficult question! I started TONG the completely other way around: starting from what product I wanted to make and, only after that, trying to define the reader group. TONG is a very difficult product, in that way that there are no concrete marketing channels for it. If you make a cheap brand of jeans, you know in what kind of magazines, television programs, etc. you have to market it. There are no clearly defined channels where we can market TONG. And this is confirmed by our very heterogeneous reader group: wine geeks (especially in the US and in Scandinavia), wine students, and winemakers (especially in the new world). To be honest, no wine magazine wants to write about TONG. In the end, that is a big compliment. I am still looking in what format/magazine/social media I can find a lot of our possible readers together. But so far, I have not found them.

LF: You originally come from the world of food – what sparked your self-evident passion for wine?

FV: I don’t know. In essence, I am a man of nature. I am also a beekeeper. For me, working with my bees is the same as drinking wine or preparing a wild salmon, first trying to find its identity, the structure of its flesh, and then use my skills to prepare a superb dish to do it justice. Everything where there’s an interplay between man and nature intrigues me. But not intellectually; it’s more a gut feeling.

Can you really taste the minerals from the vines’ soil in the final wine?

LF: What is it that makes wine more than fermented grapes and a means to intoxication?

FV: Like food, wine is great when it has a personality, when it talks to you. In fact, I believe in the old sacral identity of wine. It makes you more human and at the same time brings you closer to nature (although wine is not a living product!).

At the same time, wine also has a scientific identity and reality, and that is what TONG wants to focus on. Both ‘realities’ exist and can live perfectly next to each other. But in our ‘wine communication’ world, many people mix these two realities, and that is what TONG wants to react against. For example, the concepts of ‘minerality’ or ‘terroir’ are not based on scientific proof. When somebody says: “This wine is very mineral because it rained a lot during summer, so that the minerals in the soil were solved into the water and could be taken up more easily by the vines. It’s minerals you smell and taste!” – then he or she is telling bullshit. Minerals are not only present in wine in very small amounts (very much below their threshold levels), they actually don’t have a smell. The taste of a wine is developed during fermentation. The soil only has an indirect effect on the taste (via the ripeness level of the grapes).

LF: How much do the following factors contribute to a wine, and which are the most important: land, fruit, climate, people, and technology?

FV: All of them. Wine is very complex. There’s no perfect recipe. But it is very clear that wine is a highly commercial and technical product. Wines with deliberately (induced by actions of the winemaker) high levels of Brettanomyces f.e. are often seen by journalists and consumers as ‘terroir’ wines (maybe also because French wines have high levels). Brett gives more broadness to a wine, with more smoky and meaty aromas. It makes it more ‘unique’. But, in fact, it is considered (by present quality standards and the definition of wine styles) a fault in the wine, which is spoiled by bacteria – yeast in this case.

LF: What impact do you think ‘natural wine’ has had on the industry and how much will it influence the coming decades of wine-making?

FV: It will pass very quickly and, in the wine industry itself, people are laughing about it. Natural wines are made by lazy winemakers. In my view, SO2 [sulfur dioxide] is as important to wine as grapes are. These so-called ‘natural’ white wines all taste the same: oxidised and without any varietal character or freshness, while the ‘natural’ reds are all dominated by Brettanomyces.

I think this trend was very cleverly developed, though. At a time when people want their food to be ‘natural’ again, very clear and straightforward. But I do not believe these wines will survive. Also because of the trend of global warming and rising pH levels in wine, these ‘natural’ wines will be even more difficult to stabilise chemically and microbiologically.

Is natural wine just a fad, or here to stay? (Image: americanappelation.com)

LF: What other publications – wine-related or not – do you read and enjoy reading, and why?

FV: When I am not studying about wine, I like to read poetry, especially in my native language. I like the sound of my language and I love the power of words. I don’t read newspapers – a waste of time when you can watch the news. I also don’t read tasting notes. They’re only a show-off of the author, and after one day they are outdated.

I also like looking in beautifully made books, no matter what the subject is. They bring me ideas. Ideas for new projects always originate in my guts. Only after that I start thinking about them.

 

LF: Do you have plans for any other wine or food projects up your sleeves?

FV: Yes. Something completely opposite to TONG. But related to wine. I can only give you the title: “A Secret”…

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Having now read three of the issues that have been published so far, I have a few thoughts of my own.

  • I find it commendable and encouraging that a publication like TONG now exists – it provides real, practical knowledge about wine from the people who are best placed to talk about their given subject – and the motives of the publication couldn’t be more clear or transparent
  • I like the way it looks: the fonts and typesetting changes with each issue (and therefore each subject), as does the style of photography, which is always engaging and often quite beautiful
  • While I must admit that some of the knowledge goes over my head due to the fact that it can be very technical in nature, it encourages me to learn more so that I can (eventually) understand what is being said
  • Sometimes the ‘reality’ of what is being discussed is in direct opposition to trends and/or perceived collective wisdom in the industry, which is always refreshing…some acidity to balance to often over-extracted world of wine journalism

TONG Magazine is published quarterly. The current issue is #8 and its subject is oak.

A 1-year subscription costs €100, while a 2-year subscription is €175, plus shipping (which varies depending which country you live in). Back issues are available for €28 each, plus shipping.

*Note: I have no personal or commercial relationship with TONG Magazine or its publisher.*

Guest Interview: The Phantom Medic Does el Bulli

Welcome, Phantom.

First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to come onto Laissez Fare and share your dining experience with us.

 

As some readers may have already deduced, you are none other than the ‘Dr. J’ who cooked up a storm a while back at your home for moi, Mrs. LF and a bunch of other friends. So your culinary prowess precedes you :).

 

What readers may not know is that you have a very large appendage – by which I mean camera – that you carry around with you most places, and have been known to take a spectacular snap in your time. So, I am very happy to post your photos of this modern-day temple to gastronomy below, although I understand that they were taken with a rather smaller member than that which you usually carry. However, despite this appended appendage, there are still some great shots.

 

But first, let’s play 20 questions!

1. Before we get down to the nitty gritty, can you tell us a bit about who the Phantom Medic is and what makes you tick, tock, balk?

  • A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…I’m not going to keep that one up, am I? Well, I am a doctor who turned to the dark side of medicine about 10 years ago (I’m only private now). I lead a team of specialists in a private clinic and our very generous patients often take us out to fantastic places to eat. And so my love of restaurants began. Apart from eating, I love climbing mountains and my big orange cat – all evil world-dominating mad geniuses have one, so why can’t I?

2. So, how the hell did you land a table at El Bulli in the first place? Did you have to use Jedi mind tricks? Who did you dine with?

  • Well, one of the Phantom’s patients called and said, “Phantom, what are you doing on Thursday?” I said, “Well, nothing much.” And he said, “Meet me in Barcelona, in the morning sometime.” I asked, “What are we doing there?” He said, “We’re going to have dinner.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Somewhere yummy,” and that was that. I think his new girlfriend had cancelled on him for that evening, and he owed me dinner, so there you go.

3. If you were writing a twitterishlength review of the overall experience, what would it say?

  • Experience is sometimes a place, sometimes a film, sometimes a big event. But never before for me has a truly great experience appeared in my mouth. It wasn’t a meal, it was a milestone.

4. Speaking of twitter, I hear something rather unexpected happened while you were there, thanks to the ever-increasing influence of social media?

 

  • Well, yes indeed. Upon entering the humble interior of El Bulli, a stunningly dressed woman caught my eye as she was enjoying what looked like a balloon of white chocolate. For her, El Bulli was already underway. I thought nothing much of it, turned and took my seat and soon our own show began. As every course manifested – not only with what it was, but with how to eat it – I sent messages via text to you (Laissez Fare), partly in my excitement and, of course, to generate sufficient envy as I know it is you who should have rightly been in my place. But hey, do not underestimate the power of the dark side. So, at course 29 (or thereabouts), I heard a shriek from the unexpectedly animated table behind us that had previously caught my attention. I saw glee emanating from the two diners who were ogling a chest of drawers that revealed a chocolate paradise that they were photographing intently before the final assault. One of the women suddenly turned towards me, lifted her head, and said, “I am a chocolate blogger, that’s why I’m so excited.She then said, “Can I ask you a question…? Are you Dr. J?” Flabbergasted, I said, “Uhh, yes,” wondering how on earth anyone could know who I was inside some random Northern Spanish region at the end of a single-tracked path. It turned out that you had been tweeting my texts, that @chocolateguide was following your tweets and she couldn’t believe that you were there in ethereal presence, sending one of your drones in place of yourself. So that is the power of the internet. Me texting you, you tweeting me, followed by her (who follows you), who’s looking for me, who didn’t see, and then a shriek, and then she saw. And there we were.

5. What was the most memorable thing you ate out of your 30-something courses?

  • By far, the olive. A mercury-like visual consistency, kind of wobbly, clearly not an olive, but deceptively olive-like when sitting still. The instructions were to place the olive in your mouth; that was all. I lifted this weird oil-wrapped ‘olive’ into my mouth and the simple pressure between tongue and palate made it burst open, the shell dissolving, and the full essence of thirty olives consumed me. It’s like a word just shouts in your brain, “O. L. I. V. E.” It was weird; I’ve never heard fruit speak to me. Mechanically incredible. Extraordinary.

The El Bulli ‘Spherical Olives’

6. What was one thing that really didn’t work for you on any level, if any?

  • Look, out of the 35 courses that the 8,000 people who visit this place every year will taste, by the law of averages, no one will like every single course. In fact, I was extremely surprised that I so deeply enjoyed the taste and didn’t “morally object to” the surreal courses that came our way. Almost every course was not only extraordinary and palatable, but has ingrained a memory in me that few entire meals ever have. The only thing that didn’t work for me was a magnificently crafted ‘black strawberry’. I don’t know, it just didn’t work, dude.

‘Black Strawberry’ at El Bulli

  • The other equally interesting bit was when the Maître d’ asked if we were allergic to any foods before we began. We said no. Then he said, in a slightly more sinister tone, “Are you allergic…to anything?” WTF?! And then, he said, “Do you have any moral objections to anything?” by which I presumed he meant certain types of food (i.e. offal or worse) that some may find questionable. I replied, “No, as long as it’s consenting.” I don’t he think he understood.

7. What was the craziest thing you ate?

  • I reckon the oyster leaf. A leaf that turned into an oyster. Uh, yeah.

The El Bulli ‘Oyster Leaf with Dew of Vinegar’

8. What was the most interesting part of your evening?

  • Well, being bamboozled by a cocktail of surreal gustatory delight, and the power of twitter.

9. How long were you there for all in all – did you get bored at any point?

  • C’mon, bored? I left at 4am on Thursday and arrived at home at 8pm on the following day. There was not much time for boredom. Incidentally, the restaurant at the hotel we stayed at, Mas Pau, whose head chefs are apprentices of Adrià, would rate in London as a top-10 dining destination.

10. What’s the overall vibe? For being the so-called best restaurant in the world, was it stuffy, relaxed, or a bit of both? Was the service good overall?  Clinical?  Theatrical?

  • It was definitely serious, but not stuffy. You walk in and they take you to the kitchen. If the plethora of silent machines were not clothed but naked, the gleaming aluminium worktops and military precision could well have been mistaken for a coke factory. To the left, there was a hot room, where hot stuff was being made, and opposite, what must have been an extremely cold room with dry ice, like clouds of frosty air, billowing from the door frame. And that was even before we sat down…it was also a nice bit of theater to shake Adrià’s hand even before we ate. The waiters were very attentive and friendly, but it was weird. The place felt more like a relaxed North London trattoria, or a Greek place like Vrisaki (which is pretty good, by the way), but had none of the airs and graces of a 3-star joint, and I liked that.

11. Did you get full, or was each course small enough that you didn’t need to make your excuses halfway through, hurl everything up in the bathroom, and re-emerge ready to tackle your next 15-odd courses?

  • So here’s the thing. You try eating 30 mouthfuls of everything and you’ll get pretty full. And not everything was a ‘mouthful’; some were little plates of food. So, yes, there is no question, if you can stomach everything, you will be stuffed by the end. However, the total running time for the show was near enough five hours – that’s normally the distance between my lunch and dinner. So everything sort of flowed kind of at the same pace as my digestive track…let’s leave it at that.

12. Was the food just ‘interesting’ (i.e. made for the people of Tatooine) or did you actually really enjoy the cooking? Is this the kind of food you’d love to have every week or every month, or just once in a blue moon?

  • Honestly, some things are only special because they happen the once, or perhaps the first time is always the best. If it was my last meal, then no, I know exactly where I’d want to eat my final fillet steak…and that is for another guest blog entry on Laissez Fare…but I feel seriously privileged to have tasted something the once that is like what I guess a classic symphony is in the world of music. I think my definition of food has changed; it’s not food as you know it here. It’s art that you can see and touch and taste. As a doctor, I’m dubious as to the nutritional value of the food, but that’s the very last thing you think about at this place. I normally consider it a bonus if the food is good for you at other amazing restaurants I’ve been to, but that just didn’t matter here. I suspect one might start looking a bit like Alexander Litvinenko in his final days after his small but rather fatal dose of Polonium 210 if they ate at El Bulli often. No, that’s not fair, the food was no doubt of the utmost quality, but would you go to Dali’s museum every year?  More than that would be an overdose for me…decadent.

13. One thing I always wondered about El Bulli is what recommendations they make for wine. Given all of the weird and wonderful culinary concoctions they serve, what did they suggest you do for drink, and what did you do? I assume you didn’t just opt for a pint of accarrgm?

 

  • As the founder of Sarment Wine was with us, I assumed he would know a thing or two about fermented grape juice, but the menu we had that day was very weighted towards foods that lent themselves to whites and we too readily went red, in my humble opinion. That might have seriously put a spanner in the works in many other meals, but quite honestly, the wine was totally surpassed by what we saw, handled and tasted. The Pinot Gris at the end (Trimbach 2000), was exceptional, I have to say.

14. How do you feel now that Adrià is closing/evolving El Bulli into something else from 2012?

  • His insignificant rebellion will soon be crushed.

15. What was it like in the kitchen? Noisy?  Quiet? Was it like an assembly line of robots – did you spot R2-D2 or C-3PO?

  • Refer to above commentary, Laissez Fare. There were something like 40 or 50 R2-D2s, none of them said a word. It was like Attack of the Clones, except everyone was nice.

16. This may be a bit sensitive, but how much did it cost all-in-all?

 

 

  • I would say to allow £1,000 for the 38 hours door-to-door, bells and whistles included (i.e. flight from London, hotel, wine, etc.).

17. Did you do anything else in the area around El Bulli? Is it a nice part of Spain?

 

  • Surreal is the operative word, however clichéd. Catalonia oozes oddness. It seeps from the brickwork to the paintings and, in El Bulli, to the food too. The following morning we went to the Dali museum. It was twenty years almost to the day since I’d been there. I left dizzy, bamboozled, amazed. Just like I did those years ago, and the same as I felt the day before at the restaurant. There is a weird congruity between the artists, maybe something in the Catalan air.

18. How would you advise someone to prepare for El Bulli?

 

  • I guess I’d love it if everyone that went to El Bulli could be as surprised as I was, hearing that I would be going just a couple of days before, and knowing that I would never have made it by going through the X-year waiting list. I’d recommend not over-planning El Bulli and waiting for serendipity. But then again, if everyone did that, then no one would go.

19. Is the force strong with Ferran Adrià (i.e. was there a vergence in the force on May 14, 1962 in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat)?

  • Well, look. The table sitting next to us had been bought on auction by four bankers for charity for $17,000. A couple of weeks earlier, Roman Abromivich et al had been turned away at the door: he hadn’t booked. Adrià must be doing something right. I don’t think it’s all just hard work; there is a serious stroke of genius there. The force is strong with this one.

20. And finally, if El Bulli were one of the Star Wars films, which one would it be and why?

  • Hmm. Well, I’d say it was A New Hope, then the Fat Duck and others appeared, and then the Empire Struck Back, raising the bar yet again. I guess with its ‘closure’ / ‘transformation’, we can only wait for The Return of the Jedi.

If you would like to see the full El Bulli menu, the Phantom Medic has compiled a short video below, humming Star Wars music in the background…

 

…Now, please enjoy some more the good doctor’s photos, in no particular order. If you wish to clone them, please ask me for the Phantom Medic’s permission, otherwise a war on your hands you might have.