The magic of smoke

Smoke is the 'sixth flavour' according to Michael Pollan.
Smoke is the 'sixth flavour' according to Michael Pollan. / D. MALDONADO
  • Smoking is an ancient method of cooking which offers thousands of possibilities in modern-day gastronomy

Bittor Arginzoniz, a chef at the Asador Etxebarri, in Axpe-Atxondo (1,300 inhabitants) has taken his restaurant to sixth position in the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants and received the National Gastronomy Award in 2016 as the Best Head Chef thanks to his understanding of the magic of fire.

Author Michael Pollan, who visited him for his book Cooking, a Natural History of Transformation, said: “Bittor had learned to use smoke as a sixth taste”, to which Bittor replied: “No, not smoke.”

There are two basic techniques for smoking; with the first, smoking 'hot', the food is smoked while cooking at low temperature, between 55º and 80º. The process eliminates bacteria which is why the technique has traditionally been used for conserving foods, in combination with drying and salting. In cold smoking, combustion takes place outside the chamber where the food is placed, which is maintained at temperatures between 15º and 25º. In this technique, the impregnation of smoke is faster. The famous glass bell connected to a smoke pipe that the Roca brothers popularised in 2005 allows to smoke and aromatise any food instantaneously. Sawdust from different woods, spices and aromatic herbs are placed in the pipe and the aromas of their combustion flavour the food.

And that's how Bittor Arginzoniz's statement is explained, it's not the smoke but the wood, that counts.

Amador Fernández, chef and owner of the Amador restaurant in Malaga, is in love with the possibilities that smoke offers. Together with his companion, Canadian Candace Garland, he took a road trip from Canada through the USA to study the technique of smoked meats. There the barbecue is a religion that goes far beyond a bag of charcoal. “To begin with, the quality of beef is different. There the cattle feed on grass, and that gives a fatty infiltration that favours the absorption of smoke aromas,” explained the cook who uses smoked meat of different types on his menu and has four smoking ovens.

“For each meat a different wood and is used,” he explains. He marinates and smokes pork ribs using walnut splinters; cherry sawdust for turkey and chicken, and holm oak for Egyptian koftas. “These processes are very slow, and we complement them with long vacuum cooking and of course, the marinades,” he added

For the German Michael Lienhoop, chef and owner of Ku 'Damm (Fuengirola), smoking is something he has been familiar with since childhood, and in the oven at his restaurant he smokes salmon and trout, and wild eels brought from home, with beech shavings. He even smokes his own bacon. Cold and hot “The secret is quality products, wood and time,” he says. Used proeprly, smoke does not mask, but makes it shine. It's magic.