The taste of EMBL Barcelona: a journey around the world

By Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz – Postdoc at Sharpe Group

Barcelona is a hotbed of food culture incorporating both local and international cuisine as well as restaurants run by world-famous chefs. The Mediterranean attitude is a core aspect of life in the region and no more so than when it comes to food, where mealtimes are often an experience shared with friends, family and colleagues. Meanwhile it is no secret that the staff at EMBL Barcelona enjoy sharing our respective cultures through our love of food! After a couple of weeks isolated from each other, we were itching to break the routine a little; enter EMBL Barcelona’s “master chef”.

Organised primarily by Casandra and Gopi, two of our Staff Association representatives, the aim of the “master chef” sessions was to produce a calendar of one dish every week that could be cooked within an hour (more or less) during a collaborative online virtual cooking session. Staff would share easy and tasty recipes, each “master chef” proposing the recipe would cook it live, and participants could follow along or cook later after the recipe had been demonstrated. Ideally aiming for quick, straightforward recipes, using ingredients found in our store cupboards, we embarked on a world tour…

We began our journey in Mexico, with our first week’s class bringing us the lively flavours of fish tacos with fresh pico de gallo and chipotle. During our second week, we moved East into the earthy and spicy flavours of traditional Indian home-cooked meals: coconut and sesame beans, and Dal, with rice.

Some of the ingredients to prepare Dal (Photo by Gopi Shah)
Dal with rice and sesame beans (Photo by Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz)

The third week had us gently returning to Europe via an authentic Neapolitan pizza recipe (the dough made by hand and fermented overnight for extra flavour), and finally landing back in Catalonia with croquetas and escalivada (a dish of roasted aubergines and sweet peppers seasoned with olive oil), just in time to expand the sessions out to the whole of the EMBL community for Mental Health Awareness week.

A classic dinner in Catalonia: croquetas, escalivada and other tapas (Photo by Violeta Beltran)

Food is culture, and there is a strong connection between these two facets of our lives. We use food as a means of celebrating our cultures and traditions, and communicating these aspects of our heritage with each other. Here at EMBL Barcelona we have had a long tradition of bringing sweets and treats into the office, as well as sharing food at cultural events organised by the staff and our Staff Association representatives (including the Indian festival of Holi and Mexican Día de los Muertos).

Altar at EMBL Barcelona to celebrate Día de los Muertos

There is a wonderful physicality in the process of cooking; it engages all of our senses from of course the obvious – smell, taste – through to a visual appeal in the presentation of a dish. Flavours, and in particular our sense of smell, can transport us to a different time or place, even eliciting memories of times gone by shared with friends and family enjoying delicious dishes: from the soup that warms our hearts during cold seasons, to fruits during festivals (for me, the aromatic citrus smell of clementines and oranges is evocative of Christmas time with my parents). The crunch of crispy bread, the feeling of food in your mouth as you eat, or the heat of a spicy dish, but also the direct physical engagement in cooking – chopping, mixing, stirring, kneading – all contribute to our experience of cuisine, potentially even releasing stress and relaxing the mind and body.

In this respect the sessions have been a success, bringing us together while freshening up our repertoire of recipes. I have been really inspired by the variety of dishes produced by everyone! For each dish, every participant created their own interpretation, a testament to their skill; in my case a testament to the resilience of the recipes to abuse! I have been surprised and delighted with the many different dishes and flavours I have been able to create, in many cases only with simple ingredients that were already in my kitchen. We have had a full spectrum of volunteer chefs presenting from across our staff, from predocs through to a head-of-unit. Traditionally cooking is a fantastic way to cross generational boundaries and pass down our culture: as the lockdown has drawn on, it has become increasingly challenging to keep our children occupied and from that perspective it has been wonderful to see some of our youngest sous-chefs joining in the action every week! The recipes have led to discussions ranging from animal-free alternative ingredients, to where we can shop for exotic ingredients locally once we are released back into the world.

The new generation of gourmets (Photo by Violeta Beltran)

So far the only real downside has been that we can only taste each other’s dishes “with our eyes”. Hopefully we will be out of our quarantine here in short order, and once again distributing samples of our latest edible experiments throughout the office… In the meantime we will continue to enjoy the shared experience of cooking our favourite recipes together, albeit online!

Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz – Postdoc at Sharpe Group