Ancestral cooking for contemporary kitchens

A few weeks ago the social networks of El Celler de Can Roca surprised with the image of a plate, a lamb in clay papillote. The recipe also included a fig leaf wrap and a wood-fired broth. Clay crust, leaf wrapping, firewood … Ingredients with ancestral sounds for a kitchen that looks to the future.

It is a proposal that, beyond an undoubted aesthetic power, connects with a whole line of research in the Roca kitchen and that, through a tenuous but constant common thread, links with a trend, present in contemporary cuisine. European at least since the emergence of Nouvelle Cuisine, which recovers techniques and materials from different cultures and historical moments to investigate alternative cooking.

We are talking about a family of procedures that in some way we can summarize in papillote, a cooking technique that consists of enclosing an ingredient, sometimes accompanied by aromatics, in a chamber, usually made of paper, to cook it in its own juice and without exposure. direct to heat source.


This way of cooking allows more intense flavors, juicier results and avoids, at the same time, the dissolution of aromas and properties of the ingredient in the cooking liquid or the appearance of the Maillard reaction, of golden crusts and caramelization when we talk about baked in the oven.

A technique that, although in the popular imagination is usually associated with a certain obsession with lightness and dietetics in the kitchen of the 70s and early 80s, experienced a first golden moment of success in the domestic kitchens of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, when it became popular with books such as Paper Bag Cookery (1911)by Vera Serkoff.

Fashion, however, can go back even further in that country. The pámpano en papillote is a culinary icon of the city of New Orleans since Antonie Alciatore opened his mythical restaurant Antoine’s in the heart of the French Quarter of the city in 1840. The place is still active and is not just one of the oldest restaurants of the country, but also the main representative of Creole haute cuisine.

The papillote

A technique that experienced its first golden moment of success in the domestic kitchens of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century

On the other hand, although we usually imagine papillote as that paper wrapper in which to cook products, usually fish, pieces of poultry or vegetables, steamed with their own juices, this technical family admits infinite variations.

In this way, we can understand as part of this group of cooking all those that are carried out within a chamber that isolates the ingredient during cooking or roasting. Here the clay crusts would enter, such as the one used in the Celler de Can Roca, but also those of bread, of leaves – surely the most widespread -, those of different types of paper sheets (papillote, cartoccio …), aluminum, etc. and even others, such as bladder cooking and those carried out on traditional utensils in different cuisines such as the cataplana from the Portuguese region of the Algarve, the Moroccan tajin or the bamboo canes used as a watertight container in Vietnamese, Indonesian or Philippine recipes.

Salmon a la papillote

Getty Images

In an even broader sense, we could extend this technical family with salt crust cooking, as well as cooking in any type of dough in which it not only functions as a container, but also as a container in charge of retaining liquids and vapors during cooking.

A good example of this family would be Paul Bocuse’s mythical flaky crusted sea bass, recently reformulated, as a tribute, in the bread crusted sea bass at the Madrid restaurant Hortensio. Could we include here, in a broad interpretation, the truffle soup? Valerie Giscard d’Estaign, in which volatile aromas are retained by a flaky crust? Is it possible to cook a soup a la papillote? This is one of those issues worthy of the Bullipedia.

Continuing with the fathers of the Nouvelle Cuisine, another example, undoubtedly more canonical, of this type of cooking would be the salmon with vegetables in papillote by Michel Guerard, surely the great person in charge of the emergence of this technique in the healthy cuisine of the last medium. century.

Turning our eyes to leaf cooking, perhaps the most widespread variant, we find its origins in Asian, American, African or Pacific cuisines. Corn leaves in tamales, Hallas, Humitas, Corundas and other families; bamboo in China and throughout Southeast Asia; of plantain in tropical areas of Asia, but also in the Caribbean and Pacific islands. Coconut, corn, bijao, Maguey, avocado, holy leaf or, closer, cabbage, cabbage or fig leaves form a family that spans the world through hundreds of recipes.

It is not necessary to make an endless list to realize that this technique has been much more present than we tend to suppose. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has been recovered in its different variants, for contemporary cuisine, which has been exploring its possibilities for years.

This has been done, on occasions, from a recovery of the gastronomic memory with a neoclassical aftertaste, as in the cooking in Tubo, inside a dry pig bladder; a classic technique whose most popular exponent is probably the “poularde de bresse en surprising”, which can somehow be understood as an antecedent to low-temperature cooking. Few new things under the sun.

Like Joel Robuchon, in his prawns in basil papillote

The inheritors of the Nouvelle Cuisine legacy, for their part, continued to explore these techniques in the following decades from the prism of haute cuisine.

Along the same lines, at least materially, since we would now place ourselves in the antithesis of the classics of haute cuisine, there are ancestral cooking such as those carried out in the traditional and almost disappeared bandullos and tripóns, Galician sweets that they are cooked in a pig’s bladder, or calleiros, formerly cooked in a salty stomach of the same animal to avoid contact between the cooked preparation and the cooking medium.

The inheritors of the Nouvelle Cuisine legacy, for their part, continued to explore these techniques in the following decades from the prism of haute cuisine, such as Joel Robuchon in his prawns in basil papillote. At the same time, technical innovations such as the fata letter, a type of cellophane paper for culinary use that withstands temperatures of up to 230 ºC, became allies in the investigation of new possibilities.

This family of neo-papillotes would include already mythical recipes such as Albert Adrià’s mint pea papillote in Tickets, the papillotes of the last season of El Bulli – of endives and black truffle, of espardeñas in fata letter, of endives 50 % with cream and walnut caviar-, the kimchi of mini endives and shiitake in 41º papillote, the pumpkin in papillote with saffron from Casa José (Aranjuez), the natural crawfish with lemon peel in papillote and its essence in a shot of Casa Solla (Poio, Pontevedra), the winter soup from Diego Guerrero’s fata menu, the crab as a gift from the Sambal restaurant (Noja, Cantabria) or the truffle al papillote with brussels sprouts, candied jowls, bacon and Nandu Jubany foie.

Papillot Tomatoes

Mastic tomato papillote, almond oil and tarragon with kumquat sorbet

The Bulli

However, before all of them there was a recipe that probably kicked off this whole family of dishes in recent Spanish cuisine: the mastic tomato papillote, almond oil and tarragon with kumquat sorbet that El Bulli It was introduced in its menu from the year 2005.

Beyond the use of carte fata and other artificial wrappings, the research has continued through dishes that have opted for a more material side in the exploration of elements more directly linked to tradition. The banana leaf milk with herbs, fermented coconut and crunchy seaweed from the chef Alexandre Silva, one of the renovators of Portuguese cuisine, in his Loco restaurant, is a good example of the use of vegetable chambers that not only isolate, but also they add flavor to the elaboration.

Focusing on the use of clay crust cooking, whose use we find, for example, in pre-Columbian elaborations, it is evident a resurgence of interest that they have aroused in recent years.

In 2012 the chef Joan Bagur, from the Rels restaurant (Ciutadella, Menorca) proposed a clay lamb, sweet potato in syrup, sheep’s milk rennet and Iberian ham. More recently, there have been several proposals in a similar line: green asparagus in clay papillote from María José Martínez (Lienzo, Valencia), foie gras in clay with a beet tartare from Kiko Moya in L’Escaleta (Cocentaina) or the investigations of Andoni Luis Adúriz and his team in Mugaritz around the use of kaolin, ultimately a type of clay, along the same lines.

The dish from El Celler de Can Roca is the last link so far in this line of work, a trend that shows that looking back at the past can contribute ideas, techniques and procedures to today’s cuisine or, seen from the opposite angle, that contemporary cuisine can – and surely must – draw on the past in order to project it into the future.

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