Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The meal of a lifetime at NOMA

Things are beginning to slow down, with a couple of the major Coursera courses coming to an end. I will write up a post when possible about the Natural Language Processing course which has been spectacularly well taught/paced and executed in just about every way.

I've been wanting to write up a post also about my trip to Denmark a week or so ago, on a gastronomic pilgrimage which lead us to the best restaurant in the world (whatever that means). A trip three years or so in the making, with all the possibilities for dire disappointment, but eventually a trip which was with out a doubt the highlight of my life's food experiences so far. Much of this may seem a little Emperor's new clothes, but to be honest I don't mind. If 90% of the enjoyment was in my head, rather than in the tastes themselves, then fine, that still resulted in a great deal of enjoyment.

Noma was the destination, and being my first time in Denmark I planned on making a few days of the trip. We had booked the table at the beginning of the year, having tried and failed for the last 3 years, ever since it took El Bulli's place at the top spot of the gastronomic hierarchy.

I was lucky enough to have hosted a very friendly Dane through Couchsurfing when I was living in Spain and this gave me the perfect chance to crash his place. This worked out fantastically as well as it gave me, as couchsurfing always does, a view of the city which I almost certainly wouldn't have seen had I stayed in a hostel.

Having returned from South Africa to a very sunny Munich, the weather continued to follow me and the first day in Copenhagen was a spectacular 25 degrees. We spent the afternoon sightseeing and sitting with a drink in Christiania, catching up on the last couple of years of our lives and watching the world go by.

Konrad, who had booked the table, turned up on the Wednesday evening and we went for dinner and a drink in the centre, sampling Copenhagen's only CAMRA rated pub where the price of the pints was as much the cause of weakened knees as the strength. Retiring after a couple of pints we cycled back through the city at night, ready for the feast which was to come the next day.

Booked for lunch at one, Konrad, his friend and I headed at a leisurely pace through the city (having warmed up our stomachs with a fine breakfast), still in full spring haze to the North Atlantic House, the ground floor of which houses NOMA, done up in relatively unpretentious decor

The second you step through the door you are made to feel special. You forget about the fact that the place itself is special, but the waiters are immediately interested in you, asking questions and making you feel like you've just met a best friend of a best friend.

They introduce the concept of the restaurant: Nordic inspired cuisine, with Nordic ingredients in highly seasonal, frequently unusual combinations. This is not another El Bulli, where the food was all about the processes - a lot of incredible molecular gastronomy, but is really about the freshness and purity of flavours and the subtlety of their combinations.

I know very little about music and I wouldn't claim to know all that much about food, but, at a piano concert a few years ago, a friend who really does know a great deal about music told me that the brilliance of the particular performance was not about getting the notes in the right order, or at the right time, but was about the subtlety and exactness of the strength of those notes.

In the same way, at NOMA you are not going to be blown away by whizzes and bangs in your mouth, there is not the satisfaction of a great steak or burger, or the sugar and fat buzz of a tiramisu that may satisfy for a few moments, but there is an incredible harmony of flavours that are so finely woven together that one follows another follows another, each one creeping up as the other fades, just as the notes of a brilliant piece of music follow in perfectly weighted succession.

For me the pinnacle of this melody was a dish of scallops, sepia ink and biodynamic grains in a pea puree. The sepia ink gives a background platform which carries the first hit of the scallops, which have been processed for around a day, purifying their flavour and turning them almost into caramel wafers, and finds its way into your mouth before the scallop is even there. The flavour of the scallop slowly fades as your mouth habituates to it, at which point the grains and puree are building to a head and take over, the chemical similarities between the scallops and peas allowing this to happen seamlessly:
Dried scallops and beech nuts, biodynamic grains and watercress

The very first dish was actually sitting on the table when we arrived, in the form of malted bread sticks, hidden within the flower pot and dusted with juniper (these are in the back, the strange rather furry looking things sticking through the foliage).
Malt flatbread and juniper
Along with the 23 courses came 9 incredible wines, all white, bar one rosé, all from Europe and there were some outstanding pairings with the meal, including a wine which was almost calvados in its depth.

After almost 4 hours we were left wonderfully satisfied, slightly drunk and enormously happy. Konrad and I went to a bar after this and sat in the sun, giggling like little kids about individual bites, about surprise flavours and about the experience as a whole, sipping a cold beer and lapping up the waves of emotion.

The day continued in much the same vein until around 6 o'clock the next morning, when I returned exhausted to collapse asleep for a few hours before having a very easy day the next day.

I shall simply leave you here with a slideshow of the meal. It is an expensive meal, but I can say that for anyone who loves food experiences, this is truly one of the greats, and for me, as a once every few years extravagance, I am willing to forgo a long holiday for a journey like this.
I should also add as an important postscipt, that I was hugely taken by Copenhagen and by the Danes in general. I would certainly love to return some time and spent a bit more time exploring that part of the world.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

An attempt at a Cape Town catch up

Time simply doesn't allow to do all things I want to do, and to write about them. As of the last post my life has been taken over by the online courses I mentioned, and this means working till 2 most mornings to get through the material while having a normal time in the department during the day. I wrote the following when waiting for my plane in Cape Town, and while it's by no means a polished blog post, I want to post it before I disappear again tomorrow morning for Copenhagen. The next 3 days are part of an absurd trip which has been in the planning for several years and will come to its climactic conclusion on Thursday with lunch at NOMA.


I find myself once again sat in a cafe, in an airport, waiting for another 12+ hours of plane flights. This time I'm in Cape Town, waiting to go via Johannesburg back to Munich. Another overnight flight, another night of watching others loll in and out of sleep as I wander the aisles trying to get tired enough to ignore the discomfort of folding my frame into a spasm-inducing gap.

Anyway, the above sounds a bit negative perhaps and the rest of the post, I hope will not be. I've met enough interesting people on flights now to know that flights have the possibility to be as enjoyable as they are ghastly.

I've spent the last three weeks in Cape Town, my second time here, and each extra day I spend here makes me realise even more what a wonderful place it is. Scenically it is almost unrivalled for a city. With the sea surrounding it and the mountain defining its geography, you are never away from a spectacular view. I've been for a couple of sundowners (a phrase I'd not heard before but means, unsurprisingly, drinks drunk during sunset, generally with a majestic view to accompany them) which have been wonderful evening highlights, a time to really sit back and appreciate.

The city itself is made up of an incredible diversity of populations and cultures, the mixing of which is often not present but always available. I've met some incredible people here, in taxis, in shops, in cafes, from refugees of Rwanda to ex-militants who fought in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the spear of the nation, the group that was the force behind the ANC when talks and peaceful action only managed to tighten the grip of Apartheid. Everyone here seems to have a story to tell and I've met so many people who are actively pushing to make the situation better. In many ways South Africa has come a long way since Apartheid, but in others it has gotten nowhere. There are many embarrassments of the current social and political situation but there are people out there who are really trying to make a difference in a non political context. One of the taxi drivers I met also worked as a coast guard guarding the local ecology from abalone poachers, who often come armed with guns during the night. This is a man who puts himself in a place of enormous danger because he cares - lessons to take from this, for sure.

I am in no way qualified to make judgement calls on the current situation but I can recommend these books that I've read over the last couple of years to give some picture of South Africa's history and recent developments. Sadly time does not allow for in depth reviews of any of them but I can say that from the point of view of someone who knew very little about Africa or its politics, these are great starters (Thanks to Ben for all of these recommendations):

The State of Africa - a history of the states of Africa since independence
Country of my skull - a journalist's eye view of the truth and reconciliation commission
My traitor's heart - a white man with a difficult family pedigree coming to terms with his place in Africa
The shackled continent (don't read this without reading The State of Africa as it will give you a terribly biased view) - a view of why things have not improved since independence. As I say, this does not give anywhere near the whole story and for the reason behind these reasons you have to read more.
Long walk to Freedom - Mandela's pre-freedom autobiography.
The autobiography of Ghandi also gives some very interesting insights into the relatively recent history of South Africa.

The trip has been as eclectic a mix as the city is and I've been both giving seminars as well as starting some collaborations with the string theory group. I gave my atmospheric optics talk to the undergraduates which is always a pleasure, though I still struggle at times not to include too much material in this talk. After this I gave a series of lectures on a particular method of machine learning as applied to neuroscience. This was my first time lecturing on a non-physics subject and it was a great experience. The subject is fascinating and thankfully there were a huge number of questions which I find always make a lecture course a lot more enjoyable. It also makes me, the lecturer, understand the topic much better when you have a lot of intelligent people giving you questions that perhaps you would never have considered.

Some light photo relief:
 The outrageously beautiful University of Cape Town campus
Ivydene guest house, where I would sit and work at the weekends under the tree with the dogs and cats resting in the garden. This is without a doubt my favourite guest house having stayed at many over the last decade or so. Lucille, who runs it is absolutely fascinating and introduced me to a slew of amazing people while I was there. Her daughter Jackie and son-in-law Rob also make the place feel like family.

And finally I gave a couple of talks about one of my last string theory papers which again was a lot of fun. The group ranges from those working in emergent geometry (how space and time can emerge from some other theory which don't include space and time as input) to AdS/QGP - how we can use string theory as a tool to understand the internal constituents of the nucleus in particular conditions. It's always good to have a diverse audience like this because, again, you get a great range of questions, from the abstract to the very practical. The outcome of this was some really nice ideas for future investigations which I hope to continue remotely.

and apart from a little socialising my life has been almost entirely overtaken with the online courses that I discussed in the previous posts. As an information addict these are truly fatal. How can I turn down a perfectly good course on automata theory given by a world expert, even if it means sleeping a few hours less a week.

The first round of courses on computer science finished a couple of weeks back which I can highly recommend, CS101 for those without much experience in programming and CS373 for the more advanced and those who may be interested in control theory and dynamical programming.

The course on natural language processing (NLP) is now over half way through and is the best taught and most instructive from the point of view of programming assignments and problem sets, of the Coursera courses I've been taking. Right now I'm struggling, along with most of the rest of the class to write our own English language parser (how do you write a computer program which can work out the logical structure of a sentence - ie. which nouns do which verbs and prepositions relate to - in the sentence "fish people fish tanks" does the word people correspond to a verb or a noun - does the second 'fish' correspond to a very or a noun, etc. These are the sorts of question that an automatic parser would try to answer in a probabilistic fashion (ie. it will find various ways to break down a sentence and give probabilities for each possibility)).

The NLP course also ties in very nicely with material in the automata course and the programming languages course from Udacity. The link being finite state machines and Markov networks.

Probabilistic Graphical Models is also very good, but it really does need 10-15 hours a week to truly understand the material. This is a large investment and something that I will probably split over two runs through the material.

In other news, the publication I was working on about Malaria has now been accepted for publication which is great to have finished. More work is ahead on this front and there are some very exciting possibilities in the pipeline. Through the same link that gave me the Malaria connection (many thanks Victor!) we've started also on another investigation into an area called medical ethnography - a subject whose existence I was unaware of until I dove into some data analysis on a related project. This area is related to the interaction between society, ethnological behaviour and medical practice and is so far very interesting to work on.

So, with the above I have very little time for a normal life right now. I work until late at night including at weekends on these projects and courses, which is great in terms of learning and in terms of the excitement of pursuing new areas of investigation but I am aware that this is not a sustainable pace. I am also aware that I am out of a job in 7 months and am desperately trying to mold a future which will be interesting, sustainable, economically viable and will allow for some constancy in my life. Most of these factors are falling into place, it's just the small matter of economics which may be the biggest hurdle. It's easy to find people with whom I can work on interesting projects, it's not so easy to get them to pay me for it. The thinking cap is on and I have a few ideas as to how to construct this Rube-Goldberg machine of a life out of gaffer tape and fuzzy felt.