Thursday, November 17, 2011

Echando el Bullitre

We've been torturing ourselves by watching back-to-back episodes of No Reservations for the last few days, with the occasional Andrew Zimmern outing in between.

Most recently we watched as Bourdain floated up the Amazon in search of "the last frontier of modern gastronomy" increasingly aware that the idea for this trek might well have been a bit of a practical joke conceived by Ferran Adrià and his mates. In an obvious perma-filth from pain in his lower back, he did rather pointedly encounter a cluster of wild geese at the end of this Herzogian quest. ("Canadian ducks" observed his guide.)

Bourdain had spent most of his time at Adrià's fabled three-star eatery in a fanboi daze. At the end of the meal José Andrés was red in the face and blubbering, but by then they'd consumed a number of solid state cocktails, wine, champagne and some gin and tonics, the latter surprisingly standard-looking in their preparation. The best moment of this paean to El Bulli occurred when a little plate of baby octopuses was placed in front of the intrepid chef and he announced a need to take a picture of it "so I can look at it later and touch myself".

His long overdue trip to the Philippines turned into an extended disquisition on why these islands and their gastronomic treats are not more well known on the international scene. I've never been (too complex from a cartographic point of view?) but I did try a delicious Adobo in Costa Rica last year, at San José's commendable Tin Jo. I have to say I do like the idea of these dampas that Tony visited in Manila; part market, part open-plan restaurants, where you buy the ingredients for a meal over on one side, and then watch as they are fried up in front of you on the other.

Colombian grub appears to be no great shakes meanwhile. Think of the stuff on the typical Guatemalan menu with the largest quantity of saturated fat...and add more grease. Even on the coast, where you's think you can hardly go wrong with lobster and red snapper etc., there's an awful lot of deep frying going on. That said, Bourdain did get led up to one little culinary Xanadu in the hills above Medellín called Quearepaenamorarte, where the resident chef concocted a dreamy little cornless tamal, filled with fish and shrimp embedded in a masa made from plantain, milk and coconut.

Bourdain's exploration of Cuban restaurant food was not altogether encouraging either. OK, it's not going to be like the USSR in the eighties, but some ingredients are scarce and the food culture seems to be as rigid and conservative as it (mostly) is here in Guatemala. The biggest issue is one of mood and morals however. As Bourdain put it: either you are subsidising the locals' dining via the semi-private paladares or you are gorging yourself in state-run restaurants which very few Cubans could ever afford.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention the excellent Dubai episode, which was a superb exercise in presenting the viewer with the opportunity to read between the lines.

Over the years I've had plenty of opportunities to note that there's hardly anything creepier on this planet than the wealthy, Western-educated Arab. Beyond a condescending manner, many are self-involved and seem to have some nasty atavistic switch at the back of their inner selves. But as well as unearthing some fine examples of the type, Bourdain located and dined with an even slimier individual, a British banker patsy, duly coaxed into making grotesquely amoral statements about the virtual slavery which has underpinned Dubai's growth. He only had to set him up with a few carefully couched questions and off he went. Jeremy Paxman should have a go some time.

Much of the early section was led by a more sympathetic Indian finance bod who'd clearly signed up to a rather distasteful Faustian pact, but was making the most of it. Then there was time for deliberately mixed messages about Ski Dubai. "There's an aesthetic sensibility going on here," Tony conceded (as Milton might have noted of Satan's Pandemonium in Paradise Lost), having just observed that the venture must be the most eco-hostile in a city already dishing out an on-going environmental disaster.

There was irony to prised out of another scene in which Bourdain visited the owner of a stable of racing camels who informed him somewhat pompously that 'our race' could not have survived without these animals. Bourdain, taking race in this context to mean human race, duly lectured him on the role of the international trade routes to the Italian Rennaissance, while the Arab, for whom it obviously meant 'Arab', looked on with a blank, me pela expression.

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