Now into its 18th anniversary, the Madrid Fusion gastronomy congress in January offered the ideal lens through which to see the vital currents shaping international gastronomy today. Mainstage presentations of leading chefs from across Spain and abroad expressed similar sentiments and thinking and held much in common with chefs at recent editions of Spain’s other annual international congress San Sebastian Gastronomika. These events are magnets for the global food media, and keep the compass pointing to Spain among serious food professionals and curious culinary adventurers.
Besides a steady diet of mainstage kitchen show-and-tells, were savoury seminars, workshops and tutored tastings by participants not only from Spain but other continents. Crowds jammed two floors of the exhibition halls, lining up at stands of food and drink producers from across Spain – those internationally renowned to new proudly regional innovators.
Appropriately enough at this Fusion, Saborea Espana, organized a culinary tourist’s route in its own exhibition area with tourism, food and wine representatives from specially selected cities and towns such as A Coruna (Galicia), Cambrils (Jaen), Denia (Alicante) and Tenerife (Canary Islands). Tapas of local specialties were on offer and the high end inventions of their finest chefs showed off the inimitable Spanish genius of fusing classic and vanguard ideas.
It was testimony to an ever-changing gastronomy deeply rooted in the unique variety of plains and sierras, the Atlantic, Cantabrian and Mediterranean coasts, including offshore islands.
Day One featured Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, the world-leading restaurant in the Catalan city of Girona. Chef Roca presented dishes from the menu entitled The Earth is Depleted, he and brothers Josep and Jordi had served to world leaders and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the inaugural lunch of the 25th United Nations Climate Conference in Madrid in December.
Each luncheon course pointed to an alimentary situation impacted by climate change, be it on food and potable water supply, and the health of people and planet. In recent years, the restaurant has been exploring new uncommon ingredients while probing different ways of utilizing common ones. It’s opened the tremendous potential of artful, provocative and healthy dishes whether for restaurant or domestic use in facing the challenge of sustainability and climate change.
His team of chefs presented a visual stunner of legumes – two local varieties of beans from Cataluña, Asturian beans, sour garbanzos from Zamora and lentils – with pickled cherry blossoms and endives, jicama, and other plants and leaves with miso, sauerkraut, romesco (classic Catalan nut paste) and garum (fermented salted fish sauce from Ancient Greece and Rome).
Mindful of the deleterious effects intensive meat-based diets have on starvation and global temperature change such as the deforestation in the Amazon for industrial beef, Roca presented a false red meat tartare of beetroot, watermelon, red pepper and red onion. The vegetables were from Murcia (known as The Garden of Europe) in the Levante region devastated by storms last September
The following afternoon, respected dining room director and sumiller Josep presented Allergies and Intolerances: a challenge, accompanied by three staff members charged with managing dining room service. In fact, each key restaurant function is directed by three individuals in a remarkable system of checks on each diner using personal data to ensure no dish a guest eats will contain an ingredient (from up to four hundred in their repertoire) provoking allergy or intolerance.
Such client-focused rigour requires caring and dedicated professionals who relish two-hour consultation meetings to discuss each guest prior to every service. As one of the three, Marina Suarez, maître del Celler said, “I’m delighted when there’s this tension to take care of the people… I love it.”
On Day Three, the always probing Elena Arzak discussed her continuing research-based culinary explorations that perpetuates Restaurante Arzak as a true temple of constant gastronomic evolution. Her father Juan Mari remains in the kitchen, one of the chefs who sculpted Nueva Cocina Vasca from family-based traditional cookery. She demonstrated preparations to increase flavour depth and nuance the textures of land and sea dishes with fruit enzymes.
Each year, Roca, Arzak and other influential chefs like Martín Berasategui, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Carme Ruscalleda have shared their latest fascinations while initiatives like Fusion’s Saborea Espana, shines the spotlight on a gastronomic Spain outside of Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastian. It is evident here and at San Sebastian Gastronomica that the blueprints for a future cuisine are often being drawn by such chefs like Astiurias’ Nacho Manzano, Cordoba’s Paco Morales and from Cadiz, Angel León.
Looked up to by many young Spanish cooks he’s not only faithful to traditional local cuisine, but has been discovering novel ways, sometimes influenced by the Japanese, to use uncommon marine plants and products to bring new flavours and textures to his dishes.
During lunch time, menu degustacion meals further showcased the exceptional ingredients and sublime cooking by Michelin-starred chefs in the regions with two exclusive dining rooms – one from Castille-León, the other Cantabria Infinita.
The state of gastronomy as Madrid Fusion demonstrated is equally about a common exchange without borders: a sharing of concepts and new techniques resulting from deep reflection and research brought by international chefs, winemakers and conceptual thinkers. The international contingent this year included invitees from England, Japan, Russia, Colombia, and from the Abruzzo (Italy), Europe’s Chef of the Year, Nico Romito.
Australian chef-owner of restaurant Saint Peter, Josh Niland captivated the audience with his work with fish, acknowledging meat butchery for his innovative approach at the taste and technique frontiers in its preparation. He took the stage with Marbella’s master chef Dani Garcia and Jorge Martin who have taken to Niland’s approach in their own quest in amor with the sea.
Niland’s kitchen utilizes up to 90% of certain species of fish (beyond the 60% of standard kitchens) using parts normally not thought of as part of our daily supper – fish eyes for example, that Niland whips into a mousse.
His remarkable discourse on his research revealed that water and ice is actually anathema in maintaining the freshness of fish due to the moisture that increases and distributes ammonia. Taking a page out of the butcher’s book, he has been removing moisture from fish and dry hanging certain fish like tuna from hooks as butchers do sides of beef. The result is the optimum in fresh flavour and succulence well after a week. Such innovative thinking focuses on making much better use of threatened marine resources while unpacking new gustatory frontiers.
From Berlin René Franck, brought to the stage his unique take on sweets and the concept of dessert. The pastry chef’s CODA Dessert Dining and Bar is the first Michelin-starred restaurant serving only desserts with full-course dessert meals and tasting menus incorporating sour, bitter and even salty elements using savoury ingredients.
Eschewing common industrial and refined sugars, colours and chemicals, he sweetens with maple and coconut syrups, reduced or fermented juices of fruits and vegetables. Koji (fungus) used for sweet Japanese sake is another sweet source as is katsuobushi – dried bonito flakes – that creates the umami of Japanese soup stock. His carrot cake is sugar-free and for a cream, French Mimolette cheese is boiled down and ground with sunflower seeds and water, then sieved.
Apart from these auditorium events, seminar/workshops were as varied – from pressure cookers in high cuisine, life without gluten, and Murcia’s indigenous desert truffles now being cultivated. From the bakers’ and confectioners’ world, came recent explorations in breadmaking and sessions on the sublime arts of pastry and chocolate-making, as traditional sweet complement to René Franck’s artistry.
Day Two’s workshops came to a denouement of chocolate bonbons and truffles from the most distinctly dressed among congress presenters. Striding together through the exhibition or in animated conversations with other exhibitors, in brown habits were the Clarisas de Belorado Artebakarra – the nuns of the Monastery Santa Clara in the province of Burgos.
Under their label El Obrador del Convento and packed in boxes of steel blue-gray, their velvety, elegant confections of Valrhona chocolate – from classic flavours to contemporary yuzu and Mojito – have been served at Three-Star Akelarre of San Sebastian legend Pedro Subijana and recognized by maître chocolatier Pierre Hermés. They’re sold in gourmet boutiques in Spain, and via their website to sweet tooth customers in Italy and Japan.
Part of the trade stands included an area for the drinks trade, but a vast separate zone was home to the 10th anniversary of Enofusion. Here, some forty plus of Spain’s best bodegas were for tasting – Vega Sicilia (recipient of 2020’s Enofusion’s Achievement Award) Ramón Bilbao (Rioja) and legendary Arzuaga (Ribera dsel Duero).
Expert tutored tastings included lesser known wines too, such as those of Tenerife, and on Day Two, following tastings of the Riojan stalwart Bodegas Lan, was a rare tasting even for Spanish wine professionals: Manuel Jiménez, Spain’s Sumiller of 2016, brought exceptional knowledge to match his enthusiasm for Okanagan and Niagara icewines: judging by the buzz and comments in the near capacity room, initiates to Canadian winter’s liquid jewel left smilingly impressed.
Since first reviewing restaurants for Toronto Life in the 80’s, poet, textsound artist and gastronomy writer Gerry Shikatani has become a rare Canadian presence as international culinary critic. His review of Arpège (Paris) in Air Canada’s enRoute in the 90’s was the first in North America of Alain Passard, France’s legendary contemporary chefs. In 2000, while restaurant critic for The Toronto Star, he featured chef Ferran Adrià and Spain’s pioneering vanguard cuisine three years before the widely quoted story on Adrià in the New York Times. The only Canadian to regularly cover Spain’s ever-changing gastronomy scene, he also writes on cultural and culinary travel. In 2009 he became the second Canadian writer (after Leonard Cohen) to be granted El Cruz Oficial de la Orden del Merito Civil by the King of Spain for his work. He lives part-time in the province of Granada, Spain, and is a travel consultant on Spain and directs Lorca’s Granada: writers’ retreat, colloquia and workshops. Read more about Madrid Fusion at www.gerryshikatani.com