Deep fried rabbit ears. Plate that for your dinner party and watch your guests squirm. I would bet even your most daring friends — you know, the ones who secretly fancy themselves bonafide gastronomes — would get that bunny-in-the-headlights look in their eyes.
“This is what?” Suddenly your dinner party is a theatre of the absurd without an intermission.
Serve the same thing as part of a 30-course meal at the top restaurant in the world — the hardest place on the planet to get a reservation — and watch what happens. That’s exactly what happened in 2002 at El Bulli the night I ate there. The three-starred Michelin restaurant closed last summer due to financial loss, but it dramatically changed the culinary landscape on a global scale with its wild creations.
The set of transparent, vascular, hairless and entirely recognizable bunny lobes arrived pointedly in front of me with a patch of crispy scalp attached. It was the third course at El Bulli, the small restaurant in Catalonia, Spain that received about two million requests for tables each year but sat only 8,000 patrons during its six-month season. I remember landing a Saturday evening reservation for mid-August, the January before, and instantly planning a trip around the booking.
Sitting there on the legendary deck, the surf lapping the coast below, the Blonde and I dined through course after course of madness that leaped over the line from epicurean to preposterous. The raw fish squares dunked in warm pig fat, slapped on the plate, chilled, and called “tunaham.” The pasty grey slices of rabbit brain — presumably from the same creature that lost its ears. The gob of gooey tapioca that glued a hunk of gelatinous cuttlefish to the plastic tongue dispenser doubling as eating utensil. The liquid squid ink floating in hundreds of gelatin balls — caviar-esque — served with boiled baby octopus.
With these dishes, chef Ferran Adrià cracked away the candy coating of cultural consent that keeps us from thinking too hard about what we’re actually putting in our mouths. I was feeling as though I had taken the scalpel to old Peter Cottontail himself, given my heebies jeebies by about the 10th course. Hippity, hoppity.
Our squeamishness is irrational, of course. We devour colossal colonies of live bugs knowingly and call it yogurt; we roast whole turkeys and use the birds’ hearts, livers, gizzards and necks to make gravy; and we think nothing of nibbling on frogs’ legs, fish eggs, and blood sausage in all their fancy forms. If we’re familiar with it, of course it’s not weird.
Pigs’ belly cut in strips and fried makes a great breakfast. Bottom feeders such as lobsters and crabs boiled live, plucked from their shells at the table, are good eats. And of course, wine is just grape juice with a goodly measure of yeast by-product known as alcohol.
Ah yes, lobster dinners with wine. Summer just wouldn’t be summer without it. Nor would kicking back in the evening with plates of food and grazing into the wee small hours on the deck with other adults, eventually talking about things you would never otherwise discuss if it weren’t for the fact you had just shared three pitchers of sangria together.
Sangria. Truth serum. The stuff that tastes at best like fruit juice, but affects you like a martini. Not because it’s strong. But because you guzzle it. It’s served with spicy, salty finger foods that only satiate after a good gulp of fizzy, cold sangria. Which reminds me. I have a secret to share.
I used to go to this great little tapas bar on Fulham Road in South Kensington. No, don’t look for it. It’s gone under too — no theme intended. But one night, I asked the bartender for the sangria recipe, which was my reason for going so frequently. And he shared it.
Since then, I’ve developed a drier version too. On that note, to add voltage to your summer, I’m sharing with you the two sangria recipes along with a corresponding tapas menu with a decidedly Canadian twist.
maple smoked indian candy
Cured in maple syrup and hot smoked, this West Coast favourite is an ideal match to sangria. Available ready to serve, all you do is serve it on a cutting board with a knife. Or, cut it into 1-inch pieces and pile them into a clay bowl.
walnut-fed wild boar cacciatore
It’s the closest we could come to unicorn charcuterie. This magical meat is a dry-cured salami with a nutty aroma, sweet-spicy flavour, and a slightly gamier character than pork. Killer match for sangria. Slice it, serve it, watch them swoon. [Available through Cumbrae’s in Toronto.]