Image Courtesy of Tejal Rao
Bestiarium Gastronomicae is a cookbook that demands some suspension of disbelief. First off, it's full of stickers of imaginary animals. Secondly, it's the product of a collaboration among an obscure Hungarian ornithologist and painter who died about 75 years ago, a quirky Basque chef, and an illustrator.
From his station in Rome, my cousin Dr. Taej Mundkur, an expert on wetland and migratory birds for the United Nations, writes, "I'm so sorry, but the name Gyula Madarasz doesn't ring any bells."
I'd expected that, at least within the industry, this ornithologist might be some kind of legend. Turns out that although the aristocrat held the position of Director of the Ornithological Collection at Hungary's National Museum, directed expeditions all over the world, and published "An Extraordinary Discovery in Ornithology," about the previously undocumented bird, Charadriola Singularis, Madarasz was essentially a strange, sensitive weirdo who didn't contribute much to the field.
Madarasz's last journal entry from Budapest at age 73 reads, "Germany is trout, Germany."
After spending an unsuccessful 20 years trying to lift his beloved Singularis discovery into the spotlight, he self-medicated with a mixture of alcohol and poetry. He continued to travel a little, but his body and mind were coming undone. His last journal entry from Budapest at age 73 reads, "Germany is trout, Germany."
On the cover of Bestiarium Gastronomicae, Madarasz's name appears first, and in larger text than his two collaborators, Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz--a renowned restaurant located in a part of Spain where Madarasz once studied--and illustrator Jose Belmonte Rocandio. They had access to Madarasz's original diaries, momentarily, along with some personal items at an exhibition at the cultural center of Koldo Mitxelena Donostia.
Both interpret the beasts Madarasz described in these diaries, Aduriz through recipes, and Rocandio through watercolor illustrations of mythological-looking animals (the stickers). A fish in the back, bearing much resemblance to a trout, has a pointing finger for a head. It instructs, "Place each sticker in its corresponding box." The format is simple: an excerpt of writing by Madarasz, with a sticker illustration by Rocandio, is followed by a recipe by Aduriz and a photo of the cooked dish out in the wild, framed by ferns or dead leaves.
Aduriz's cooking is categorized, by those who love to categorize, as molecular gastronomy or techno-emotional cooking, but much like Madarasz, nature is his inspiration. One recipe, a salad of local leaves and flowers, is followed by a list of over 100 edible understudies, other leaves, herbs, grains, bulbs, and flowers that could stand in if need be. Other recipes are more precise, demanding, for example, not four small chicken eggs but four eggs from a small chicken.
Aduriz is pretty romantic when it comes to describing the reasons behind the unconventional collaboration: "I thought it a curious coincidence that such a strange and special character spent time where Mugaritz is today," he said. Sure, and this is a curious way for anyone, let alone a contemporary Basque chef, to approach cooking--through the imagination of an eccentric Hungarian naturalist.
But Aduriz once said he was here not to feed the stomach, but the soul. That he didn't sell food, but feelings (the strange, charming book costs a whopping $100). Still, one could easily argue that Bestiarium Gastronomicae is not the most peculiar, or peculiarly satisfying, thing to come out of Mugaritz. One of Aduriz's most famous dishes is a pile of smooth river stones that smell of the earth. They're actually little potatoes, camouflaged with a thin layer white clay, served with aioli.
Although there are no plans for an English translation of Bestiarium (published in Spanish for now), Aduriz is working on translating Michael Pollan's works from English to Spanish. He's also editing another book to commemorate his restaurant's 10-year anniversary.
"It will not be as serious as this," Aduriz says. "It will be a comic project, light-hearted and funny." But will it have stickers?