One of Europe’s most celebrated gastro-gatherings: Madrid Fusion, comes round every January, alive and well since 2003. The 2020 edition was a serious affair, with changes that included moving up the road from the relatively intimate Palacio de Congresos to the vast trade-fair halls of IFEMA: more trade, less gastronomy?
Gone were the small producers of offbeat products, instead in came the biggies. That didn’t stop a stimulating programme of guest-speakers though, presented by the amiable José Carlos Capel (restaurant critic at El Pais and founder of this symposium, although he has just sold it to Reale Seguros, an insurance company). Perennial favourite chefs included Joan Roca of El Celler de San Roca, Elena Arzak, Andoni Aduriz and that piscine genius, Angel Leon, while invited countries included Russia. The theme? very futuristic, apt to introduce a new decade of “conscious simplicity” and announcing artificial intelligence in the foodie world.
A.I. is in its early days, but we can foresee that one day soon chefs will be using touch screens to choose their ingredients – you want sour, press here, bitter, here, salty, here, sweet, here, etcetera. There is also digital input for seasonality, nutrition and texture.
Our introduction to all this was by the Canadian expert in pairing wine and food, François Chartier, as well as Romain Fornell, chef at Caelis, and Michael Spranger, a researcher at Sony. Interesting to see how much Sony is investing in A.I. and, following computer-generated music, how they are now moving on to food. With a huge database of ingredients (currently over 5000), AI comes up with some creative matches like roasted asparagus and chocolate – to kick off. And it is far from random as, according to Chartier, it’s all about the molecules in each ingredient, so molecule-matching is the new cuisine.
When Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz stepped onto the stage to taste the complex results, his non-committal opinion was “The basis of all this is that it will grow”. But he did add “When I go to Turkey I always have a dessert made with chicken – is that exotic? Yes, culturally-speaking it is.” Well said.
The star of the presentations though was the Australian chef, 31-year old Josh Niland of St Peter restaurant in Sydney. Passionate about seafood and sustainability, he is intent on using as much of the fish as possible (rather like the Spanish using 99% of a pig), and to this end has added a “fish butchery” to his restaurant.
As an example, after scaling a red snapper, he showed how he boils the scales three times over before deep-frying and caramelising them to make a dessert with chocolate. He’ll split a fish head in half then grill it, he’ll blend the fish eyes into a purée with tapioca flour then deep fry the mixture, he’ll make patés and terrines from the liver… and on it goes. In the end his yield on a fish is 92% instead of the usual 45% which dumps 55% as waste. With the current state of our oceans, that’s unacceptable, and Niland is on a mission to change it.
Another of his persuasive arguments concerns water and fish. According to Niland, once out of salt water a fish loses certain enzymes which leads to the ‘fishy’ smell, in fact ammonia. “Never add water or ice to fresh fish as it reduces its life length” he insists. Instead, Niland’s team suspend their fish in a sub-zero cool room. “Don’t wrap it or touch it – no cling-film, no jay-cloth.” In this way the fish keeps for up to one month. Josh is a charming man, with two business and three chidren, and for someone who left school at 15, he’s extremely impressive. Look out for his seafood bible, The Whole Fish Cookbook as you’ll be hearing a lot more about this chef.
More marine sustenance (I am rather obsessed, I’ll admit it) appeared in the incomparable hands of Angel Leon, the fisherman’s son from the Cadiz area whose restaurant, Aponiente, now has three Michelin stars. His fascinating presentation was all about the bounty of the marshes which surround his restaurant. “Look at nature with hunger” he cried!
His search for rarefied ingredients has turned up a marine worm which resembles sea cucumber. Emptying it out before sun drying the skin, Leon pronounced its flavour to be like razor clam. “Cook it with garlic and olive oil – it’s wonderful!” he enthused. Next came chaetomorpha, an invasive green algae in the estuary, rather like seaweed, which Leon has transformed into noodles – green of course. A small sea-onion followed – never usually eaten but discovered beneath a purple flower by Leon’s team of foragers. Ruppia maritima, also from the marshlands, tastes sugary and once collected and sun-dried is eventually transformed into sea-honey.
What a magician this man is – every time I see him I am knocked out by his imagination and dreams. His latest project, Compass, aims to feed 2.5 million children by 2021 with nutritious fish – yet disguised as pasta, pizza, french fries or chicken wings to counter typical juvenile aversion to seafood. Their loss, but saved by Leon.
Finally, along came a young rock ‘n roll couple from Puglia, Italy: Isabella Poti and Floriano Pellegrino, owners of an innovative (some might say gimmicky) restaurant in Lecce: Bros. These millennials (she’s 24, he’s 29) previously worked in London with Claude Bosi, at Hibiscus, then after experience at a couple of top Spanish restaurants, moved back to investigate Mediterranean food and showcase their roots – with intriguing twists that have earned them a Michelin star.
Isabella, a green-eyed blonde beauty donned black gloves for a demonstration of using rather esoteric, fermented ingredients – from rancid butter to ricotta, as well as cold spaghetti with garlic, chilli and fat – coiled perfectly. Not sure if I’d go for it frankly. “In Salento we love things burned – whether coffee or chocolate” announced outspoken Floriano, “The chef’s role is the new revolution”… With full-on rap in the background, this was a hard act to follow – literally – but an intriguing peep at the future – maybe?