Work your way through the snacks – an alli pebre of Valencian mussels, cream of sea urchin, little dippable fried rock crabs – at chef Quique Dacosta’s epnoymous three-Michelin-star restaurant in Dénia, Spain and you come to perhaps the most exciting Act of his latest Evolution and Origin menu – 'Cooking with salt, air, humidity and time.'
The Valencia region (Dénia can be found almost exactly halfway along the coast between Valencia and Alicante) has a history of salted dishes, but typically, as Docosta puts it, products such as “fish, seafood, cephalopods, roe and vegetables, such as tomatoes” are “mummified” to preserve them, involving long curing processes that remove all traces of moisture.
For the past five years or so, Dacosta and his team have been experimenting with short and medium-term curing and also with air curing – that is in a saline atmosphere where the product never actually touches any salt.
And the results are astounding.
There’s tuna belly that looks and cuts just like Iberico ham, one of Spain’s finest products, and despite being aged for up to five months in a refrigerator with salt lined walls set at three degrees, tastes as fresh as the day it was caught. Add salt, the first time the meat has come into direct contact with it, and the flavour profile changes completely.
Salt cured maruca, or ling roe, is eaten like a Torta del Cesar, a ripe and creamy Spanish cheese, while salt-washed 'sangacho' – the darkest part of the tuna – has the appearance and flavour of venison when coated with dry herbs. Octopus is washed in sea water for 30 minutes, dried fro two days and then cooked over an open flame for five minutes. You’d expect it to be dry, right? Nope, it’s as succulent as any octopus I’ve had when sliced – press the meat and it still omits liquid – with a pleasant char on the outside.
Left to right: ling roe; 'sangacho' tuna
Dacosta says that today it makes “more sense than ever” for salted products to be found at an haute-cuisine restaurant such as his, one that is “committed to the region and innovation.” Not that these products aren’t found elsewhere of course, but the Spanish chef likes to think he and his team’s “fine-tuning” of salted products has given rise to a trend for short-duration salting that is now “inspiring many chefs.”