For 15 years Madrid Fusion has been an established highlight of the Spanish culinary calendar. This is where budding chefs rub shoulders with gastro stars, top wines are sipped and spat, truffles auctioned, jamon iberico sliced, estate olive oils swallowed, and new products are launched. I’ve just returned – replete – from the 2018 edition where it felt distinctly like the food world is on a cusp, saying goodbye to the exotic fusions, imported ingredients and elaborate techniques of yesterday, and instead returning to local produce and traditional techniques of preserving and fermenting. Finally – back to earth.
Madrid Fusion is a fantastic source of information, not only about innovative Spanish gastronomy but also throwing up useful tools such as this canapé bowl that sits snugly in your wine-glass.. rather ingenious I thought. For previous posts on the event, read here and here.
Foreign guests this year were headed by Japan, so ponzu and sake were flying on the stage and in the produce area, while the Philippines kept a lower profile and Israel sent just a couple of Tel Aviv chefs, Moti Titman and Yossi Shitrit – both rather Ottolenghi-ish. However top dogs in my view were the three young chefs from Lisbon (more later).
Hugely impressive was Sebastian Frank (2 Michelin stars, above), the Austrian chef who heads Horvath, in Berlin. The foodie audience was easily seduced by his simple technique of preserving celeriac; after being cased in salt for one year, it loses 90% of its water content. When ready, you crack it open, “like an Easter egg” he said with evident glee.
It was significant that this protagonist of “cuisine without luxury – no foiegras, no caviar” (in Frank’s words) was crowned by organiser and restaurant critic, José Carlos Capel, as Europe’s top chef, 2018. “Why is he one of the best in Europe?” asked Capel rhetorically. “Because he breaks rules – and produces a humble cuisine based on his roots, without pretentiousness.” Also significant is that for Frank, vegetables (beetroot, mushrooms, turnips, celeriac etc) get equal billing with meat or fish, and he claims the appearance of a dish is less important than its actual flavour. No pirouettes here but a return to the essentials, or what he calls “emancipatory cooking” i.e. freeing the ingredients.
Down in southern Europe, Portugal is on a dazzling gastro roll, emerging from a merciless recession much bigger, stronger and producing extraordinary cuisine. I’ve noticed this on recent visits but now I know where I’ll devote my appetite on my next Lisbon visit: Feitoria; Loco and Alma.
Joao Rodrigues (1 Michelin star, above) of Feitoria, explains, “We love our traditional cooking but things are changing. Many chefs worked in Spain for economic reasons, so learned new things, and now even Portuguese taverns are changing their approach.” Portugal is of course known for its spectacular seafood, rocked and suffused by the Atlantic waves (although word is out that there are severe shortages – of octopus and even of sardines).
Like Sebastian Frank, Rodrigues places huge emphasis on the quality of the ingredients. “We only use produce in season – and this is the cornerstone of our cooking. We have direct contact with small-scale producers whose produce is always local and fresh.” Even the wine is having a renaissance, for example the Lisbon area D.O. (designation of origin) was created in 2009 – despite wine production there going back 2000 years.
Above all though “We try to use only three elements in each dish to preserve the maximum essence. We’re simple people! We want it to be a pure experience!”
Alexandre Silva (1 Michelin star, above), of Loco, which only seats 20 people makes garum (Roman fish sauce) from oysters as well as preserving fish in brine with vinegar. He ferments the stems of cabbages into kimchi and gets his shellfish from the protected Berlengas islands, only 10km off the coast. “We also use herbs like fennel, mint and thyme from the Atlantic coast and forage in fields and woods. If we need tomatoes in winter, we used preserved ones – nothing is out of season.” This daring chef focuses on the sea – 90% of his dishes are fish and shellfish, even some desserts contain piscine elements, yet who uses every single leftover, wasting nothing, in his search for old flavours.
Another fishy fanatic is Henrique Sa Pessoa (1 Michelin star), of Alma, whose dishes are equally rooted in tradition. “The Portuguese are now very open to innovation – there is no conflict between that and tradition. For example bacalhau (salt cod), a homefood institution, never used to be used in high end restaurants.” In his demonstration he proceeded to reinvent this classic dish, creating a little mound of ingredients layered
beneath a sheet of compressed cod and olive. Perhaps over-complex – but I’m sure it tasted fabulous.
Finally, I returned to the origins of life – no less. This was to learn about a new condiment, marine plankton (above), which after years of research is now extracted on a huge scale in the Cadiz region. After all the chef demonstrations of skill, finesse and intelligence, this 45-minute class aimed at budding chefs made an enlightening contrast, although its initial development was aided by Cadiz supremo, Angel Leon of Aponiente, self-declared chef del mar (chef of the sea).
The new superfood, a lurid green powder packed with goodness (vitamins C, E, B12, minerals, Omega 3 & 6), is only about 2500 million years old! Taste it, and you taste the essence of the sea, heavy on iodine with a slightly bitter edge (add salt they advised). Here is one application – duck breast in sesame seeds
I’ll place bets on the product’s future as, despite an exorbitant price (3000€ / kilo) you need only a tiny amount to flavour an incredibly diverse range of dishes. And this is about as local as you can get – surrounding us all. Here it’s not back to earth, but back to our marine origins.