I have a lot of contradictory thoughts on Spain and the World Table conference that ended Saturday night with a rousing performance by Ferran Adria, who demonstrated a few of the core techniques he’s developed and discussed the importance of cataloguing the progression of his work in terms of others’ understanding his work. About which I’ve got some thinking to do.

But part of the contradiction I’ve got to get through before I can digest the information from what was a really interesting conference lies here. Spain was chosen as the focus of this conference because of the fame of Adria. Not because Spain has a rich culinary tradition to be explored, per se (though it obviously has that). Maybe I’m wrong about this, but if there were no Adria or if Heston Blumenthal were the one who’d become the godfather of the molecular gastronomy movement, would Spain have been chosen? No.

So the irony is that here was a substantial conference on Spain because of one guy who doesn’t cook Spanish food. As Thomas Keller said in his introduction to Adria that night, what he’s really doing is global cuisine. One might also say what he is doing is a-regional–it has no history, no precedent, no terroir. And yet there is nevertheless so much to be explored in terms of the culinary traditions of Spain, about which America seems to know so little.

An example of how media-driven our culinary knowledge and beliefs may be.

But here is the anecdote I want to convey for now, and it encapsulates the difficulties in thinking about the new Spanish cuisine, perhaps the new ground where molecular gastronomy and the terroir of Spain meet. And it centers on the oddest concoction of the week. It came from Joan Roca, a chef known here for his book on sous vide cooking. Roca presented first a video of this technique then demoed it the next day. The stylish video showed Roca trudging through the woods of his homeland with a shovel and a bucket. He dug up a few shovelfuls of dirt and returned to his kitchen. He added water to the dirt and stirred thoroughly to make a dirt batter, known here in America as mud.

He then added some of this mud to a large glass beaker, fitted the beaker into a distilling machine and turned it on. The beaker rotated and the mud heated up and gave off a vapor which went up through some glass tubes, condensed and dripped down into a smaller beaker, crystal clear liquid, a literal distillation of his terroir. And this was the technique, eau de dirt.

How did he use this dirt essence? He put a spoonful of it on an oyster as part of a small oyster dish. Surf and turf. Oyster with eau de dirt.

That night, I spoke with my friend Susie Heller who produces food television shows and is also a recipe writer and tester for the French Laundry cookbooks and most recently Michel Richard’s excellent new book and a new book on chocolate called The Essence of Chocolate.

“What was THAT all about?” she said of the Roca video and presentation. “Was that not the weirdest thing?”

I had to agree.

The next day, I saw Susie at the conference, and she had already changed her mind. “I talked with Harold about it,” she said. Harold McGee was a moderator at the conference. “He said he’d HAD the dish. He said it was incredible, said the guy was a genius. So maybe I was wrong!”

The following day, after the conference, Susie, I, McGee and Keller met at Bouchon Bakery to discuss a new book we’re about to begin work on. Roca’s technique came up. He’d demoed it in the CIA kitchen using St. Helena dirt.

“I tasted it,” McGee said.

“And?” I asked.

“It didn’t taste very good.”

I asked, “Did it taste like dirt?”

McGee nodded and said, “Yep.”

So there it is, molecular gastronomy meets terroir.


30 Wonderful responses to “The Essence of Dirt”

  • Tags

    Kinda like after it rains and you can almost taste the smell of concrete in the air. Sometimes I’ve fantasized about cooking soups with different rocks in it to gauge the difference in flavor. Maybe now I’ll try it.

  • Lucy Vanel

    Roca’s message was a strong one in any case, the conceptual point being his ‘re-inserting’ the terroir into his cooking with the aid of scientific instruments. That’s the ‘incredible’ and ‘genius’ thing about it because it is such a blaring fact – truly great cuisine must come from the terroir. The statement can only be made once to a captive audience in that context. It then becomes a point of departure for wordplay.

    As I read this post, I thought for the first time in years about the big stone oven that was in my great Aunt’s backyard in Cordova Alabama. I spent hours happy making mud pies at the oven, I even had my own collection of old pie tins. I did taste them now and then, and at the time, in the moment, they tasted very interesting.

  • Carolyn Birchill

    I laughed so loud reading the last part of your post I nearly fell off the couch! I agree with Lucy the mud pies I made and often tried as a child did seem pretty good though dirt on oysters… no matter what boiling or beakers and tubes it goes through dirt is dirt and it isn’t that tasty.

  • Steve

    Due to my own ignorance, I had to look up “terroir” in the dictionary. I feel inadequate when a word I don’t know is used 5 times on the same page.

    Anyways, according to the OED, terroir refers specifically to “The growing conditions in a particular region, viewed as contributing distinctive flavours to the grapes, and hence the wines, produced there.”

    Is there a generally accepted but unofficial use of the term in reference to effect of growing conditions on *all* food in a region (not just wine)? This obviously has very little to do with the post (which was very good, of course) and everything to do with me expanding my vocabulary.

  • RobertdelG

    Molecular cuisine is to non-molecular cuisine what classical haute cuisine was to peasant and later, bourgeois cuisine: a rarefied, nearly impossibly expensive abstraction of the foods of the underclasses designed to flatter and self-impress a class of people who consider themselves to be smarter and more worldly than the proletariat. It also has the smell of fetishism, like those Asian restaurants where people sit on and eat from toilet bowls.*

    I suppose though, that from the cooks’ perspective it’s an intellectual thing and hell, if people are willing to pay them to learn and have fun, then why not?
    I don’t know this Roca fellow at all, but I can imagine his incredulity over seeing people wax poetic over his meal of oysters and dirt. And Harold, well, he’s probably right and the guy is a sort of genius, but I cannot believe that this Kadinsky of a surf and turf actually tasted good.

    And what has terroir to do with oysters? Last time I looked oysters were marine animals. Oh wait, I get it: oysters live in estuaries which are fed by streams that carry sediment (dirt)! That’s the nexus, duh!

    I also share your conundrum over the choice of Adria to represent Spain. His food is about as Spanish as Borat is Khazakstani. It’s beautiful, it’s thought provoking and has a lot of appeal to people like me who know a little bit about the physics and chemistry behind it’s construction. But I’m not so sure that I’ll be stopping by there on my next trip to Europe unless I suddenly decide that I cannot die until I eat a serrano ham lollipop or whatever. Then, on the other hand, if you are paying…


  • Faith

    It is usually us Southerners that are accused of eating dirt. I feel vindicated.

  • Rory

    The following day, after the conference, Susie, I, McGee and Keller met at Bouchon Bakery to discuss a new book we’re about to begin work on.

    ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod…

    Please keep us posted as more details emerge on this project. Would be really cool for you to blog about the bookwriting process.

  • RobertdelG

    The practice of geophagy, dirt eating, is widespread throughout the world and is usually only practiced by the underclasses. However, sometimes the upper-classes in their search for unique experience will abstract a food from the lower classes and “elevate it” by gussying it up so that it seems to have nothing to do with where is came from. This distilled dirt thing might be one of those cases.

    But I think that Chef Roca might have done a better job of producing something that someone would actually want to eat if he had chosen to distill the kind of “dirt” that white southerners, Native and African Americans actually used to eat a lot: clay.

    Clean clay has a really nice alkaline taste similar to the flinty edge that one finds in some champagnes and which would go quite well with oysters. His choice of plain old dirt, might have been a useful for making his point, but makes me wonder why he thought it would taste good with oysters.
    I also wonder why he did not choose to distill sea-water as a seasoning, after all oysters do not come from Napa valley.

    Okay, enough fun, it’s voting time!

  • Ming

    Give a guy a some beakers, a handful of dirt and way too much time on his hands and he’s a genius. I really think our standards are lowering.

  • ruhlman

    Lucy’s point is exactly what roca was after. i believe he didn’t want you to taste the dirt, but he wanted to evoke it somehow, a memory of feral youth, the way you can brighten something by a few drops of lemon juice, not enough to taste lemon. and i think that’s why mcgee appreciated the oyster dish.

  • Ming

    But McGee said he did taste the dirt. If he didn’t want you to taste the dirt and you tasted the dirt then he failed so what is there to appreciate? That it was a “good try”? That makes somebody a genius??? I just think that nowadays some people are just too dazzled by BS, and if you are bold enough to stand in front of enough people with something different no matter how whacky or ludicrous, somebody is going to be naive enough to be impressed by it. The guy managed to make dirt infused water taste like dirt, oooo but it was perfectly clear, Einstein move over!! What a joke.

  • gb500

    So, who’s going to be the first to say the emperor has no clothes? Fer cryin’ out loud —

  • ruhlman


    mcgee said the distilled liquid at the cia demo tasted like dirt, but when he had the dish previously he didn’t taste the dirt, that it was a really good dish.

  • gb5000


    Then what’s the point of adding it to the dish if you can’t taste it?

  • Ming

    Oh now I see, just like packing fish in ice in the same position that it swims makes it taste better.

  • Tags

    Let’s also keep in mind that our vegetables eat dirt and our meat eats dirt eating vegetables. They do tend to refine it a bit, but whatever they’re made of has its source in dirt.

  • gb500

    And actually, what could be more appropriate than a little “mud slinging” — especially on election day. Get out and vote!

  • Jon

    If Roca got his “dirt” from the woods where organic matter is replenished annually from leaf fall we aren’t talking dirt at all but “soil”. Dirt is what you find on the playground or on fertilizer-dependent industrial farms. Soil is what you grow good food in. Good soil is full of life, some billion or so living organisms (15,000 speices)per tablespoonfull. If you distill the flavor of the living matter in soil in the matter described, maybe you would get the essential flavor of what was living in the soil. A good mix of microscopic crustaceans, fungi and what not might be tasty if you could extract their flavors.

    Looking ahead, if there is really something to this, I see food societies staging “degustations de terre” and farmers touting the merits of their bagged up humus
    at farmer’s market stalls and offering samples of freshly made “eau de terre” on slices of tomato or whatever. But on oysters? Why would anyone want to muck up a perfect food?

  • Bux

    Joke or serious examination of “terroir” as this may be, what makes Joan Roca a genius is the food he sets on the table at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. It is likely one of the best restaurants in Europe. I’ve eaten there twice. My only regret is that the first time, I took the shorter of the two tasting menus and left physically sated, but wanting not more food, but more of the genius. Snide detractions are an unworthy response to Michael’s entertaining and thoughtful report which only scratches the surface of the contradictions in intellectually creative cooking today, especially in Spain. His point about the media driving our knowledge is on target. I don’t think Roca’s “distillation” is the best introduction to his work as a chef.

    As for Adrià, I could probably defend his role as a Spanish chef with evident Spanish roots and his food as more Spanish than anything identified as new American cooking is American in nature. One would have to understand that global cuisine is here to stay and that Spain has less of a national cuisine than it has a series of strong regional cuisines. I suspect the Balkan states share more dishes than do the various provinces of Spain. Paella is the best example of a dish that is not Spanish, but seems to personify Spain to outsiders. It is a dish from Alicante. The precooked boil-in-bag “paella” advertised at cafes serving beach goers in Roses, seven kilometers from elBulli may be what tourists think is authentic Spanish food.

    It was not Adrià who drew me from France to Spain, but Arzak, whose Basque food a generation earlier was more French than Spanish. He was probably the foremost Spanish chef at the time. Beyond Arzak, I began to discover was a rich trove of traditional local foods. Today, Adrià is the name that draws the gastro-tourist to Spain and the reason conferences are dedicated to Spain. Adrià may be no more talented, creative or molecular, assuming we accept a common definition of that term, than Blumenthal, but how many gastronomes plot a tour of English dining rooms after eating at the Fat Duck and how wide has Heston’s influence been felt in the U.K. To be sure, it may be England’s loss, but it also explains why Adrià is a Spanish force and Blumenthal is not an example of a national cuisine. It’s appropriate as well that the Spanish chefs come here to demonstrate their work, as no where else, but in Spain, have I heard or read of chefs so crediting the U.S. as an influence in their own thinking. The Brits seem to mock us. Individually I’ve heard French chefs praise what they’ve experienced here, but the official party line denies external influences to the detriment of general culinary progress.

  • Elie Nassar

    I certainly agree with Bux’s comments about the Spanish-ness of Adria’s cuisine.
    I think Michael is dismissing Adria’s food as non-Spanish a little too fast. In his comments, interviews and his cuisine Adria makes it clear that he draws his inspiration and igredients from his homeland. This is most evident in his use of local fish and of course local pork products. It might not be traditional Spanish food, but it is Spanish and most modern culinary-enthusiasts (foodies?) would immediatly associate molecular gastronomy with Spain.
    As for the dirt-water…it sure sounds odd/wierd/nuts, but think of it as Thai Fish Sauce. Boy that stuff sure tastes and smells like crap if you drink a shot glass of it, but add a teaspoon to a bowl of curry, and it makes it sublime.

  • Marcie Ver Ploeg

    After slurping Joan’s dirty surf ‘n turf @ Greystone Saturday, I promised him (via his translator, of course) information about, and my bottle of, DIRT perfume. He expressed keen interest. Apparently I tossed my bottle of DIRT purchased several years ago, so I’m ordering a fresh bottle for the chef. My original bottle met with bemused headscratching whenever I included it as a visual in seminars on niche marketing to producer groups, i.e., farmers and aqua-farmers.
    If the web hype about this fragrance [Dirt by Demeter Fragrance Library (1996)] is to be believed, this unisex scent was or continues to be a favorite of Clint Eastwood and Kate Moss.
    Although I didn’t taste the bottled perfume, its aromatic notes are an exact match with the chef’s distillate.

  • ruhlman

    fish sauce is the perfect comparison to dirt essence!

    and yes, it was definitely soil, not dirt, and no doubt boiling with micro organisms unique to the region.

    and of course adria’s influences come from the region he knows and loves and has lived in, and while i hardly have a comprehensive knowledge of his catalogue of dishes, the stuff he’s best known for has little to do with spanish cuisine.

    bux, excellent point about how different the influences are between blumenthal and adria.

  • Bux

    “… most modern culinary-enthusiasts (foodies?) would immediately associate molecular gastronomy with Spain.”

    I think you’re correct, but this, at least to some extent, is perhaps what Michael might call “an example of how media-driven our culinary knowledge and beliefs may be.” My understanding is that Blumenthal, McGee and perhaps others were there at the beginning.

  • John Sconzo

    Michael, your commentary on the conference is great. I was there a as well and though I saw Roca’s presentation to the main audience I was not at his demo. Talking with Jose Andres about it, he raised a good point. One of the best wine accompaniments to a raw oyster is a minerally, stelly chablis. The idea behind Roca’s soil with oyster is to add that very minerally, steely quality directly to the oyster. I suspect that whether or not one will like this dish will depend to a great extent on one’s attitude going into it.

    As for Adria and the Conference, one of the reasons this conference might not have occurred if there were no Ferran Adria is that the rest of Spain would likely not be where it is culinarily today. So many of the Spanish chefs who were at the conference have been directly influenced by him and everyone else indirectly. One great aspect of the conference was how it mixed traditional and nueva cucina foods and techniques with so many of the nuevo chefs using it with traditional and regional inspirations.

  • Linda Griffith

    I find this discussion fascinating. Having spent 51/2 hours at El Bulli in the very early summer of 1999, my husband and I never thought of either brother’s culinary roots as anything but Spanish. While I know they have certainly continued to evolve, the experience both was extraordinary and exhilarating, since Adria was so little known here then. And totally satisfying, I might also add. It has been fascinating to watch all of the press over the years…all of the foam, etc. Some good influences, many not good.

    He was quite inspirational just last month at Slow Food’s Terra Madre, just as he was some years ago at another Slow Food event in Torino. He understands the importance of connections to one’s history and land and taking care of both.

  • ruhlman

    Interesting comment. I haven’t heard anyone talk of Ferran in terms of conventional Spanish cuisine. Ferran cooked conventional food for years before going off into neverland, and he adores most the so called peasant food, but as he moves farther away from conventional cooking, he necessarily gets farther away from the cuisine of his terroir. roca’s dirt essence is indeed an ironic take on this idea, isn’t it?

  • Michael

    This is the best food page i have ever seen for Bloging..Cant wait to use it more!!!

  • megan

    Michael, it is not your intent, i’m sure, to have driven me into a deep hole of self-pity and depression, but after reading this blog that is exactly where i’m wallowing. I missed it, all of it…Damn the lemon!…i mean, ‘hog’!

    It did make me giggle, though, as it pulled forward the memory of a very earnest lecture from my grandfather. “Dirt tasted different in my day, you know”…apparently he and his brothers, at 6, 7, and 9 years old, would ‘gargle’ with a handful of dirt to hide the smell of cigarette smoke on their breath. I don’t know why, at 85, he’d had occasion to compare….

    To address the thread…Be it dirt or foam or an edible menu, this type of ‘culinary brainstorming’ has intrinsic value in that it challenges our limited definitions and allows the palate to consider new flavor pairings, new textures, new presentation…and if for no other reason, increases appreciation for the tried and true. If we embrace the ‘rogue en vogue’ purely for the sake of herd-like conformity, then yes, the emperor is indeed naked. But if from these fantastic ova we reap the benefits of deconstruction and ingenuity, refurbishing the classic and making it new, then hooray! Thank God for the cook in the kitchen who thinks ‘I wonder what would happen if….’