Words and photos by Carla Capalbo
I look out of the plane window as we land. The runway attendants are all wearing fur Cossack hats: this is definitely Russia. After the complexities of getting a visa, entering the country is easy. From the airport we drive through forests of pine and silver birch that remind me of scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. They give way to Soviet-era apartment blocks punctuated by foreign car dealerships and European supermarkets.
we enter the capital, the avenues widen, the buildings broaden; some are as imposing
as Gotham City’s. In the darkening afternoon the state buildings too look like they’ve
been taken from an early film set, with their up-and-down lighting contrasting
light and shade.
Modernity is not missing in Moscow. Our hotel, the StandArt, and the restaurants of our hosts, twins Ivan and Sergey Berezutskiy, are stylishly state-of-the-art. The brothers have burst onto the fine dining scene in recent years thanks to their ambitious project: to grow most of the restaurants’ produce on their farm near the city, and to transform those natural ingredients by applying science. Their work in the kitchen is divided between these two poles – nature and science – as they expand the repertoire of each individual ingredient.
“It’s just a question of removing or adding water,” says Ivan, mischievously. He’s the more outgoing of the twins, and he’s showing us around the test kitchen at Twins Garden, their flagship restaurant. We’re submitted to a taste test: a glass bowl containing several colourless, odourless elements – some solid, some liquid. It’s a game of textures, with no clue to their taste. I close my eyes as I take a bite and get a hint of mushrooms, bread and onions, then smokiness, and a sense of oiliness that coats the roof of my mouth. The whole paints a picture. It’s a rustic whole, down to earth despite the cutting-edge technology that’s been used to produce it. “If you taste this, you’ll understand our country,” Ivan says. A fun experiment and it’s making me hungry!
fare better during the dinner: the chef’s multi-course tasting menu is all
vegetable-derived, as are the wines that accompany the dishes. It’s exciting to
taste combinations like sparkling rhubarb wine with courgette flowers scented
with sea-urchin honey; and the deep red pepper wine that accompanies the consommé
of baked peppers with berries and lemon balm. It’s an impressive, complex and
delicious dinner, my first in Russia.
I’m delighted to be spending the day with friends old and new. Harold McGee is a rare beast: one of only a few writers to have radically transformed the world’s cooking scene through a book. His On Food and Cooking, which I first read in the 1980s, has become the bible for every home cook and professional chef interested in how cooking actually works. And it has profoundly affected the work of science-minded chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, to name but a few. As the closing speaker at the Twinscience Festival, the event we are in Moscow for, he attracts hundreds of young chefs from all over Russia and beyond, eager to meet him and watch his presentation.
Holmes is a new friend: a Canadian science writer, his book Flavor explores the science behind taste
and smell, what he describes as our most neglected sense.
we walk to Red Square and then through the colourful Danilovsky market,
stopping for an authentic lunch there of savoury herb pies from Dagestan.
my favourite visit is to Tolstoy’s house. The intimacy of this wooden house,
where the great writer lived with his family, is very moving. I could just
imagine the dinners shared there with Chekhov and other friends, at the table
that is still set in the large dining room.
For dinner we are invited to the twins’ other restaurant, Crab & Wine, where we eat giddy amounts of 11 varieties of crab, including some from the waters of the many Russian territories. Here, ‘Far East’ means Kamchatka, not China, and we unanimously agree that the best king crab of all comes from there.
3 & 4
twins have organised their two-day TwinScience conference for the first time
this year. (Last year they instead chose to take their guests to the farm, a
few hours’ drive from town.) Admission is free and the young audience is
treated to a selection of top international chefs and science writers.
The high-ranking international chefs giving presentations include Peruvian Mitsuharu Tsumura from Maido (he also cooked a fabulous 6-handed dinner with the twins after the conference), Oriol Castro from Barcelona’s Disfrutar, Moscow’s Andrey Shmakov, Italy’s Massimiliano Alajmo, Gert De Mangeleer from Bruges, and Joris Bijdendijk from the Rijks Restaurant in Amsterdam (who also cooked a wonderful dinner with the twins). San Pellegrino coordinated a round-table discussion between the chefs.
chef presentations are personal and fascinatingly diverse, with their focus not
only on signature dishes but on indigenous ingredients (Tsumura), innovative
business strategies (De Mangeleer), modern techniques (Castro and Alajmo) and
cultural reappropriation (Bijdendijk and Shmakov).
go into the three scientific presentations in more depth. A Russian company
called 3D Printing Solutions is looking into ways of making meat from
vegetables and alternative ways of producing proteins. “Steaks from outer space
may be the future, as will foods that are tailor-made to individuals, capable
of compensating for vitamin deficiencies, etc,” says their representative.
Holmes teaches scientific journalism in Canada and has written over 800
articles on science – though not always connected to food. His lively talk
focuses on the eater.
we eat, we use all five of our senses, but language gets in the way,” he says. “In
particular, it’s hard for us to articulate what we are smelling. Odour is
processed in an old part of the brain, older than language, and most languages
don’t have real words for odours. We have over 400 different odour receptors,
like chords on the piano, so we are able to distinguish a trillion or many
billions of smells.”
particularly enjoy hearing about an experiment he conducted to test our
capacity to smell. A volunteer was blindfolded and asked to sniff and track a
path (wiggly line) across a lawn along which a chocolate-soaked string had been
pulled (straight line). As we can see, she finds the correct path.
discussion covers several senses. “The sizzle of a steak is part of its
flavour,” he says. Sight, too, plays its part in tastiness: in another
experiment, a group of ingredients was plated in different ways. The tasters
experienced the most attractively plated food as having better flavour. He ends
with: “Flavour is affected by everything we sense and know, and by our pasts. All
of life feeds into flavour: it’s one of the most complex and creative things we
do. So next time you gave a fine dinner, remember: it’s not just the chefs who
are being creative!”
McGee’s talk closes the festival. There’s a lot of audience expectation about
what he’ll say, and he doesn’t disappoint. “Science is a point of view or way
of approaching the world that is open to anyone…In the 1970s when I started
writing about the science of cooking, nobody was interested, that’s why I wrote
my book. I thought I was creating a new path, that I was alone in taking a
unique perspective, but science and cooking go way back,” he says.
of talking about his new research and upcoming book (on smell), he retraces the
history of science in gastronomy. From the first mention of ‘nouvelle cuisine’,
in 1759, he plots the evolution of innovation in food. “Before gastronomy,
there is chemistry,” he says. The pressure cooker was invented in France in
1680, and low-heat cooking formalised in 1820. “The slower the cooking, the
more control you have over the texture and deliciousness of food.”
systematised French food in the 1820s, and Escoffier took that system of French
food even further in 1900, creating a bible of 5,000 recipes in his Guide Culinaire. It offered new
combinations of dishes and ingredients, but modern cooks wanted more than just
combinations. McGee traces a line from there to the innovators of La Nouvelle
Cuisine – Bocuse, Troisgros and Robuchon – one of whose commandments was to ‘be
inventive’. As plating moved from the dining table to the kitchen, composed
plates became possible. With Michel Bras, there was science (his timeless
chocolate fondant cake takes knowledge of heat transfer) but also an emphasis
on the fresh, and the freedom to create dishes with whatever is in season. “In
the 1960s, this was innovation.”
Adrià breaks the mould: his innovation is not about combinations but transformation:
he turns an ingredient into something that looks completely different. “You
didn’t know what their flavour would be until you put them in your mouth.”
Massimiliano Alajmo’s talk earlier that day, in which he spoke of slowing down
when we taste, to hear, feel and go deeply into an ingredient, McGee says:
“Massimiliano says to slow down and pay attention to the flavours and their
experiences. Ferran and the other members of the Nueva Nouvelle Cuisine also noticed ingredients
Adriàs realised how important science could be to them and worked with
physicists and other scientists to explore these new possibilities. Through
techniques like spherification and transparent wrappers, the inside of a food
could be perceived; foams and gels produced new textures; sous-vide gave chefs
the same temperature control that was available to lab technicians.
a long time, food science was not seen as respectable for university science,
but once chefs appeared on magazine covers, cooking became respectable.”
Nowadays all manner of food and sensory experiments take place in universities.
Blumenthal, too, was spurred on to challenge his own experiences in cooking by
believing rules that went back to Escoffier (like that searing meat would keep
its juices in). Blumenthal became a food scientist, following the motto:
closed with these thoughts: “The value of science in gastronomy is to have
curiosity and critical thinking. There’s always more to understand.”
from the number members of the audience who crowded around McGee, Holmes and
the chefs at the end of the conference, it was a huge success. The Berezutskiy
brothers were justifiably proud.
“So many people told us beforehand that it couldn’t be done, that we could not pull off something like this in Russia, but we’ve proved them wrong,” says Ivan. “We’re over the moon!”