A rotten apple: the unlikely new star of an acclaimed Basque restaurant

Rot can also beautify and improve on something healthy 

The new dish has already raised plenty of eyebrows and made a big splash on social media. Why would an establishment that has the best products at its disposal choose to serve rotten apples? How do they get them to rot so perfectly? Are they really edible?

To get closer to understanding the dish, let’s try and tackle a few of our prejudices about rotten food. We tend to equate rot with death, but in fact rot also gives life. A clue: this apple is colonised by two types of fungi: penicillium roqueforti and penicillium candidum – both part of the penicillin family discovered by Alexander Fleming. And without these fungi, we wouldn’t have delicious cheeses such as roquefort and brie.

Haute de Gamme 

The apple served by Mugaritz has been through a process similar to that of the aforementioned cheeses: it has been subjected to controlled putrefaction until it is perfectly covered with white spores. We could even say that the apple – framed by the golden hues of the four wines which form part of ‘Noble Rot’ – displays a morbid kind of beauty. The name of the dish might not mean much to most of us. We may see the dish as an attempt to ennoble rot, but the reverse is actually true: rot is harnessed to ennoble the healthy.

Mugaritz/José Luis López de Zubíria

Mugaritz tells PlayGround that the dish explores the history of a fungus named botrytis – also known as ‘noble rot’ – which once infested wine grapes all across Europe. In 1571, a Hungarian called Szepsy Lacko discovered that the fungus caused a higher sugar concentration to the grapes, thus imparting a special taste. The mouldy grapes began to be used to make wine, with the first known case of an intentiionally botrytised harvest occurring in 1775 by Scholls Johannisberg in the German Rheingau. 

The four wines selected by Mugaritz’s sommeliers are from Germany, France, Austria and Hungary – the four countries that used grapes exposed to the botrytis fungus to create deliciously sweet wines.

However, the process can – if not managed carefully – result in disaster. Grey rot happens when there is too much humidity and the fungus quickly colonises the grape, destroying it from the inside. In the words of Ramón Perisé, from the Mugaritz R&D team, ‘The good and the bad are separated by the thin line of the vagaries of climate.’ The process is also expensive, as the harvest must be done in several stages due to the fact that some grapes in the same cluster may be rotten and others not.

Mugaritz’s singular dish is, perhaps unsurprisingly, proving to be an apple of discord among food critics. Food blogger Life of a Travel Czar describes Noble Rot as ‘quite tasteless (albeit with a hint of tart fruit)… It wasn’t a dish which impressed.’ While Haute de Gamme writes that the dessert was a ‘beautifully “rotten”, delicious apple which kept below the noble fungus a beautiful freshness.’

Mugaritz (who have been researching fermentation since 2013) look at it this way: ‘Something that was initially seen as an illness, as something avoidable, was in fact a strength. Botrytis built inside this wine something strong and special.’ (…) It’s a tribute to the beauty and the taboos surrounding fermented and rotten things.’ 

The restaurant also told PlayGround, that their objective is to involve the diner, adding that ‘provocation is often an excellent tool for giving people a memorable experience and for making them reflect.’ Mugaritz is aware that this dish is going to provoke some extreme reactions: ‘A diner’s response to the sight of a rotten apple will depend on the way they choose to look at it. What’s good and bad will be separated… depending on the diner’s mood.’ 


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