To taste the cooking of Albert Adrià used to be a bucket list wish. The chef who ran the pastry kitchen at El Bulli in Spain—the long-gone restaurant that once ruled the world—is also a mad genius innovator, co-creating food that performed magic tricks, like orange caviar that looked like salmon roe but was really made from melon.
Now Adrià is offering UK home cooks the chance to see his creativity in action. He’s created a new pasta brand, Atavi, in collaboration with the Italian food behemoth Barilla. The inaugural launch consists of three pastas, all tagliatelle, in unconventional flavors: Sourdough, smoked and umami. The opportunity does not come cheap: A 280-gram (9.9-ounce) box costs £20 ($24.78). The smoked tagliatelle goes for £22. The website says a box serves four people; in my testing experience two, maybe three, is closer.
The product is on the high end of the packaged pasta category, which is getting more expensive, and not just because of factors like weather conditions. A couple years ago, “the idea of a $5 box of pasta felt outlandish to some people,” Sporkful podcaster Dan Pashman said earlier this year. “That’s not happening anymore.”
The price reflects the time-intensive approach to making the pasta by hand, says Ilaria Pietrogrande, Atavi’s marketing director. It takes more than 40 hours to produce the umami flavor, she says.
Adrià’s pasta went on sale online only in the UK in early September. Atavi is trying to get it on retail shelves before the holiday season, when it could be a good spontaneous purchase for shoppers looking for gifts or indulgent dinner ingredients at Harrods or Selfridges food halls.
If Atavi is sold at Selfridges, it wouldn’t even be the most expensive pasta on the shelves: A tagliatelle with summer truffles from Maison de la Truffe goes for £27 for 250 grams. (Dolce & Gabbana and Pastificio di Martino’s glamorously packaged spaghetti is a relative bargain at £13 for 1 kg.)
But a truffle pasta is exactly not what Adrià is interested in. Mention it to him and his team, and they chuckle condescendingly, like you admitted to cheating on a test. Atavi approached Adrià about three years ago and asked him to innovate the world of dried pasta. “They told me, ‘You can use wheat and water, and that’s it,’” he says. He looked back to ancestral techniques that would transform the wheat.
The simplistic names of the products mask the effort that goes into them. The sourdough is the most bare-bones, based on a starter with semolina and flour that the chef began a couple years ago. The smoked pasta has yet more steps: A portion of the wheat is nixtamalized, a process used in tortilla-making that entails soaking grains in a solution to break them down and remove gluten. It also makes them a little more aromatic. The grains are then roasted in a machine similar to one you’d use for coffee; finally, they’re smoked over wood from wine casks.
The umami option is equally effortful. After the grains are nixtamalized, they’re cooked in hot water and inoculated with koji spores—an operation that helps turn rice into sake—and left to ferment for almost two days. Eventually the grains are milled and pasta is made. “Many steps,” says Adrià, who is clearly delighted by all of them.
So what does all that get you? Thick strands in earth tones with subtle flavors: Pasta eaters who veer towards powerful pesto or chocolate-infused noodles will probably shrug their shoulders. The smoked tagliatelle has a soft taste of smoldering sweet wood and the pronounced chew that comes from well-made pasta. The umami, the strongest of the three, has a fermented, sweet bite, as if the tagliatelle had gently anointed itself with miso. Although Adrià has sauce recommendations for the pastas (and is considering a packaged line of them), the pastas’ flavor is maximized when served simply, with a generous amount of butter and, sure, a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Adrià is just the latest in a line of chefs and restaurant operators that have begun selling products to expand their revenue streams, a model that boomed during the pandemic. Pasta-related items have proved especially popular, Exhibit A being Carbone jarred sauces. Before the start of Covid, Adrià was running a mini empire of spots in Barcelona; in 2021 he closed the majority of them and now has just one, Enigma.
At an event to highlight the pasta, Adrià’s team showed off a product that they said they might consider marketing: a pungent, miso-like condiment garum, that is an offshoot the umami pasta production. If he starts selling it, he would find himself in competition with Noma Projects, co-founded by one of the other top chefs of his era, Rene Redzepi. Noma Projects released a smoked mushroom garum in 2022 that goes for £19.
The competition would mirror an unofficial one the chefs were involved in over the past few decades, when their restaurants dominated the top of the World’s 50 Best restaurant list. El Bulli ranked No. 1 a total of five times: in 2002, and from 2006-2009. That winning streak has been matched only by Noma.