The most popular corner of the Madrid Fusión exhibition hall when it opens at 10 a.m. is over to the right of the entrance, where all the coffee stands are concentrated. The always dependable Illy booth is the largest and seems to be the most crowded, but a few feet away are the popular Basque brand Cafés Baqué (whose capsules are compatible with those made by Nespresso — who isn't here), as well as a bunch of purveyors I must confess I've never heard of — Cafés Luthier, Toscaf, Cafés Guilis, Supracafé, and Stracto. The last of these, which also has a capsule system (non-Nespresso-compatible) offers well-rounded but delicately flavored arabica blends from Central and South America. I liked what I tasted pretty well. (More coffee is available at the national booths of Brazil and or course Columbia.)
Once seriously caffeinated, I repaired to the auditorium, in time to see Josean Alija of Nerua, at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, deliver a paean to tiny green beans that grow in the Basque Country, not much more than an inch long, which have a brilliant green color and taste, he told us, very much like chlorophyll. He prepares them quickly blanched and serves them with just-cooked scallops. This wasn't exactly demonstrated live. Most of the chefs' session at this year's event run no more than half an hour — some only 20 minutes — so there is little actual cooking on stage and much dependence on videos.
That's the technique by which a group of young chefs from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. There's a guest country at Madrid Fusión every year; Peru, Mexico, and Korea have been so honored recently. This year it's Brazil's turn, and while there are some products and chefs from other regions, the concentration is on Minas Gerais, one of the country's agricultural capitals and home to some of its most interesting traditional food and most promising young chefs. One of these is Pablo Oazen of Assunta in Juiz de Fora, in southern Minas Gerais, about 110 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. His state, he said, has Brazil's largest variety of vegetables, many of them not known outside the region. He demonstrated (on video) his presentation of six of them: agrião (wild watercress), ora pro nobis (rose cactus), serralha (milkweed), taioba (arrowleaf elephant's ear leaves), couve (collard greens), and something called Maria Gonde, whose identity I can't discern. These he sautéed for just a few seconds over very high heat — "just enough to give them a scare," he said — in bottled clarified butter, then plated them with a spoonful of an old-fashioned Brazilian specialty, pork canned in aspic — "Our version of duck confit," Oazen suggested.
Felipe Rameh and Frederico Trindade of Trindade in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas, demonstrated two dishes between them: Rameh's was his version of a "grandmother's dish" — chicken with okra. He took what he considers the most flavorful part of the bird, the dark part of the wing, boned it out, and replaced the bone with a miniature corn cob, then roasted it and served it with steamed baby okra and "false caviar" made from okra seeds dehydrated and then rehydrated. Trindade's dish used what he called four of his state's best products: palm hearts, cachaça (Brazil's ubiquitous sugarcane spirit, much of the best of which comes from Minas), doçe de leite (Brazlian dolce de leche — caramelized milk), and pork. "Our pork is the second-best in the world," he said diplomatically, "after [Spain's] Ibérico." He slow-cooked the pork for two hours at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, then seared it and smoked it quickly over wood from cachaça barrels. He plated this with triangles of palm heart browned in clarified butter and garnished the meat with doçe de leite. It looked pretty irresistible.
Later in the day, an ebullient Peruvian chef, Héctor Solis, whose restaurant is Fiesta in Lima, demonstrated a range of more or less instant ceviches (in real life, not video, this time), including one made with octopus and another with duck(!). "This is part of the evolution of ceviche," he explained. "We are also working with hot ceviche, ceviche as a hot but sharp, acidic dish." One of these is made with grouper, Chinese onions, cilantro, and baby corn leaves, lightly smoked for about 30 seconds. An unusual cold one combined grouper with sun-dried guitarfish (a kind of skate).
The most, er, colorful presentation of the day — and almost certainly of the whole event — came from Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone, who was introduced as someone calling himself "the Ferran Adrià of chocolate." The Damien Hirst might be more like it. Persoone has shops in Bruges and Antwerp (the former in the kitchen of a house once used by Napoleón), a chocolate factory, and a cocoa plantation in Mexico. "I'm a kinky boy, with a lot of tattoos," he announced as he took the stage against a projected image of himself, shirtless, flexing his arm to show off a tat of the Rolling Stones lips-and-tongue logo surrounded by the legend "Chocolate is Rock'n'Roll."
He supplies chocolates to all three of Belgium's three-star restaurants, and works every six months with Heston Blumenthal. He credits his first visit to Madrid Fusión some years ago, and his exposure there to the thinking of Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak, with having changed his life, making him look at his craft in a radically different manner. For instance… "I don't know how many men here have had the honor of tasting the breast milk of their wives," he began. "I was very lucky and was able to. It has a taste like almonds, and vanilla. Breast milk is the first thing we taste, which is why we find those flavors so appealing later. So I have made a chocolate breast — a B cup, I think — and when you bite the nipple, you will have milk. Don't worry, it's not breast milk, but sweetened condensed milk." The sound track blared a baby's crying and a scent of baby powder wafted through the room. But he was hardly finished.
"Breast milk has a pleasure hormone," he continued. "It is the same thing that is released when you have an orgasm. This same hormone is in chocolate. I decided to remove it from chocolate and concentrate it, then make a new candy with it. But it was so powerful that the body blocked it. So I added Sichuan pepper, which unblocked it." His quest for pleasure also led him to make a praline out of poppy seeds, the poppy being the source of opium and heroin, and one from a product for which Belgium is famous — flax. With flax seeds, he invented a confection that also involves a powder of Belgian gray shrimp, which are fished from horseback. Take that, Mr. Hershey.