MADRID FUSIÓN: A gastronomical summit meeting, a three-day coming together of chefs, food producers, consumers and press to show, show-off, explain, taste, promote, provoke and schmooze. It’s billed as the world’s largest food fest. This is all about alta cocina—haute cuisine in its avant-garde manifestation. It’s a get-together of celebrity chefs—mostly Spanish, but with a few from around the world.
At a packed-out press conference, broadcast live on prime-time news, Ferran Adrià (acclaimed as the best chef in the world) announced that at the end of the 2011 season, he will close El Bulli for two years, for regeneration. After years of intense creativity, he declared that he needs—not a rest—but to reinvent the restaurant. “What is the future of El Bulli?” he asked. He’s not sure, but he’s not quitting. “We’re cooks—we’re going to continue.”
Get ready, New York city! Dani García is coming to town. García, an up and coming young chef who has two Michelin stars (the first was for Tragabuches, in Ronda; the second, for Calima, in Marbella;), will open La Moraga, a “gastrobar,” in Manhattan before the end of the year. It’s part of a franchise operation, in collaboration with the Andalusian regional government, to export tapas to the world,” said García.
(Photo of Dani García and me by Ed Owen.)
Hare-brained, by Ferran Adria. Hare’s brains are on the autumn menu at El Bulli. Adrià here presented a short, ravishing video illustrating his techno-emotional approach: A wild hare bounds across a field. Shots ring out. The carcass is skinned. The bloody skull is split open and the brains removed. The miniscule loin is seared, plated with gellified spheres of red fruit— Drama, music and visuals are heart-stopping, if not appetite-whetting.
Deep impressions. Without even tasting it, the food of Alicante has left a deep impression on me. The women manning the Alicante stand pressed on me a cookbook, Bon Profit--Viaje por la Cocina Alicantina, the largest, heaviest tome I have ever owned. I didn’t even promise to visit their province. Maybe they just didn’t want to carry the book home again. Some nice pumpkin recipes—
Next generation. I chatted with Jeffrey Weiss of the Bay area (Calif) and Paras Shah of New York city, two young chefs who are part of a group of twelve from all over the world (Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, Mexico, India, China) spending a year in Spain getting familiar with Spanish products and working in the kitchens of top restaurants. The program is sponsored by ICEX (government commercial and export division).
Ruth Reichl (editor of the late, lamented Gourmet magazine). Hers was a strong voice on an otherwise dull panel discussing “where is haute cusine headed?” Speaking of restaurant critics, she said, “Now there is a huge group of people on the Internet, who are passionate and knowledgeable about food, who force critics to be more compelling to stay ahead of their audience.”
Alan Ducasse. Too lazy to go fetch the translator earphones, I couldn’t follow what Ducasse had to say. Even the moderators, those two gastro-gnomes, José Carlos Capel and Rafael Ansón, spoke in French.
Grant Achatz (of Alinea in Chicago). I could kick myself! Too busy eating ibérico ham, I missed Achatz’s “dialogue” with Dana Cowin, editor of Food&Wine mag.
José Andrés (restaurants in Washington D.C. and L.A.), inspired by the glass-art of sculptor, Dale Chihuly of Seattle, demoed a salad of vegetables and a spun-sugar caramel. José, a great communicator as well as innovator, said technology is the way to avoid chaos in the kitchen.
Marco Sabatini, purveyor of truffles, dropped a black truffle weighing 440 grams and it shattered into crumbs. He swept up the bits and took them home to make risotto. On a happier note, truffles were auctioned for charity—a white one from Asti (Italy) brought €5000 and black ones from Soria (Spain) netted €3000. I liked the way everybody passed them hand-to-hand. You could sniff your hands for the rest of the day.
Tapas. OK, OK, tapas aren’t new. Why they’re trendy all over again is that, with the economic downturn, less is more. Tapas now are a marketing tool and branding concept. Chefs like Dani García (see above), whose new La Moraga restaurants are designed to make alta cocina (haute cuisine) affordable.
Mixology. Hours of seminars and tastings were devoted to cocktails (“the history of the gin-tonic”). I attended not a single one nor sipped the herbal martini, aged rum, tequila or gin. I did take a turn through the Bar Show and had a Schweppes tonic, with Asian grapefruit slice and a few juniper berries. Nice.
Market cuisine. The market is Mercado de San Miguel, adjacent to Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. The original market, with its structure of forged iron struts, dates from 1916. It has been refurbished and now has real-time vendors of fish, meat, bread, fresh produce and eating stalls. During Madrid Fusión it opened for a night-time event, where some top Madrid chefs took over the market stalls. I loved the whimsy of one-star chef, Fernando P. Arellano of Restaurante Zaranda, whose cups of black tapioca with griddled cuttlefish were a visual knockout (red piquillo peppers beneath the tapioca), texturally thrilling (creamy scallion foam and kernels of fried red rice and Espelette pepper) and absolutely delicious.
Serving plates that light up. Presented by Elena Arzak (daughter of famed Basque chef, Juan Mari Arzak) and created by Philips Design (division of the electronics firm), the plates subtly backlight foods with glowing color, switched on as foods are placed on the plate. “Color is one more flavor-sensation,” said Elena. She said the restaurant is very interested in pursuing research of this sort.
Red cardoons. I’m always on the look-out for something new, and cardo rojo de Ágreda is this year’s find. A cultivated thistle (Cynara cardunculus), related to the artichoke, cardoons look rather like celery—a bunch of thick stalks topped with leaves. Like celery, the stalks need to be stripped of stringy bits. Cardoons are usually boiled until tender and served with a sauce of ground almonds (typical for Christmas Eve dinner). These red cardoons come from the municipality of Ágreda, on the border between Aragon and Castile, where the mature plants are buried under a mound of soil to protect them from early frosts. This gives them flavor, color and crispness, so they can be eaten raw. Here they were chopped and tossed with a vinaigrette. Crunchy and tastier than celery.
Estate-bottled olive oil. I met Xandra Falcó, commercial director for Pagos de Familia Marqués de Griñón (her father, the marques, makes superb wines). The family’s extra virgin olive oil, produced and bottled on the Capilla del Fraile estate in Toledo province, is intensely fruity and subtly bitter.
Cured ibérico pork loin. By now you know that acorn-fed ibérico pigs produce the world’s best ham. But pigs are more than hams and shoulders. Boneless loins also are dry-cured with salt and a hint of pimentón (paprika). At the stand of Sierra Mayor de Jabugo, Julio Revilla Saavedra poured manzanilla Sherry and served a platter of his company’s exquisite lomo, loin, as well as sausages.
Tasting of Garnacha wines from Aragón. I am a dilettante when it comes to wine. I love drinking it and I choose the best wines I can afford—but I really know very little about it. How can one bottle cost $150 and another, priced at $15, please me just as much? Given my lack of expertise, I probably should have stayed away from the wine-tasting event at 10:30 in the morning. But, there I was, sniffing, slurping, spitting (spit buckets were at hand, but it’s still hard to imbibe nothing), jotting down tasting notes with the cognoscenti. So, I assumed it was a defect in my perceptions when I swirled and sniffed one entry and wrote in my notebook: “sewage.” But, some of the experts expressed the same opinion out loud! So, my confidence has increased—at least I can recognize a bad wine! One wine I loved: Terrazas del Moncayo 2007, Crianzas y Viñedos Santo Cristo, DO Campo de Borja. I’ll look for this wine and enjoy actually swallowing it—perhaps with roast lamb. (Above, Ed Owen, journalist and bon vivant, gets ready for wine tasting.)
Sopa Castellana. Castilian soup—also known as garlic soup (my recipe can be found here) was served at lunch to the multitudes of conference-goers, courtesy of the city of Valladolid. Thickened with peasant bread, redolent of garlic and pimentón, it was the perfect sop for all the great wines being poured. And a nice counterpoint to the overly-elaborated chef’s food.
Cheese. I kept grabbing samples of torta del Casar, an extraordinary sheep’s milk cheese from Extremadura. The cheese has a subtle, appetizing bitterness, due to a vegetable thistle coagulant, and a natural, creamy dipping consistency.
Nespresso. The coffee hit the spot—but I missed George Clooney.
To Esmeralda Capel, one of the organizers of Madrid Fusion, who opened doors for me; to Jone Urrutia, press gal; to Gerry Dawes, who knows absolutely everyone in Spain’s world of gastronomy, and to Ed Owen for his hospitality.