Madrid Fusión Day 3: Date-Fed Jamón, Real Innovation From Poland, And Lots Of Fish

On Monday at the 11th annual Madrid Fusión, the big Spanish-and-international gastronomic exhibition, I'd discovered the jamón Ibérico from Arturo Sánchez, in Guijuelo, made from pigs that have had two seasons of feeding on acorns instead of the usual one. Today, I heard from Jorge Mas, CEO of Mas Gourmets, about a project he is pursuing with another Guijuelo producer, Carrasco, which calls for feeding the pigs 30 percent dates and 70 percent acorns (eventually the date ration may be as much as 40 percent), in the hopes that the meat will be still sweeter than it already is. (Mas also produces an interesting line of mini fuets — these are thin Catalan cured sausages — flavored alternately with onion, apple, orange peel, citrus, smoked mozzarella, and roses.) While I'm always interested in culinary experimentation, I can't help wondering — in the case of both Sánchez and Mas/Carrasco — why anybody is wasting time trying to improve a product that is already pretty damn perfect. One possible explanation: "They're all chasing Joselito," said a friend of mine who sells specialty herbs and vegetables around Spain — referring to Jamones Joselito, the Guijuelo legend whose hams are practically worshipped by people like Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adrià, and Joël Robuchon.

Among the many demonstrations and lectures, fish and shellfish seemed to be a common theme over the three days of Madrid Fusión. There were numerous producers of high-ticket canned seafood, three caviar companies, and a stand representing Alaskan seafood. In the auditorium, Ángel León, whose Michelin-starred Aponiente in Cádiz is one of Spain's premier seafood restaurants, hosted three programs, one on underappreciated varieties of fish, one on canned seafood, and one on seaside cooking. Eneko Atxa of the Michelin-three-star Azumendi in Larrabetzu, near Bilbao, gave a presentation on offshore fish farming. Dani García of Calima in Marbella and Sergio and Javier Torres of Dos Cielos in Barcelona offered a tribute to turbot, sole, and other flatfish. Then there were Heinz Reitbauer of Steirereck in Vienna on high-mountain breeding fish and Jorge Rausch of Criterion in Bogotá on cooking lionfish.

Following Rausch's presentation this morning, New York's own George Mendes took the stage, preceded by a parade of huge banners, like so many standards of the ancient Roman army, emblazoned with the words "Ribera del Duero Mejor Región Vinícola del Mundo en 2012" — that wine-growing area having signed up as the sponsor of Mendes's program, for no apparent thematic reason. Mendes, an American of Portuguese origin whose restaurant is the Michelin-one-star Aldea in Manhattan's Flatiron District, has done stages at Martín Berasategui and elBulli, and is fluent in Spanish. His program began with a brief video about the great Portuguese explorers of the Middle Ages, from Henry the Navigator onwards, as he noted, "Like my ancestors, I'm also an explorer." He demonstrated his dishes live, though, not on video like so many other chefs have done at this conference. His sea urchin toast; his razor clams with grilled potatoes, Galician seaweed, and dashi; his confit salt cod with dashi–breadcrumb sauce, smoked beets, and egg yolk; and his 24-hour slow-cooked pork belly with clams all drew appreciative oohs and aahs from the audience.

Dani García, who is about to open a restaurant in Manhattan, was up next, demonstrating various uses for a substance called obulato — a flavorless  transparent material made of potato starch, soy lecithin, and sunflower oil, used in Japan for medical packaging. He has recently begun a quest to bring crispy, crunchy flavors into his food, he said, and this is a way to do it without adding sugar (which produces crunchiness through caramelization). Obulato fries crisp (in very hot oil) and can then be flavored with various substances. García demonstrated — again live ("I could have brought a video, but it's better in person," he said; Amen!) — what I suppose can be called "crisps" flavored with shrimp powder and seaweed; creamy rice; and Andalusian Río Frio caviar with coconut cream and herb cream. He also used obulato as the base for his version of carrot cake, which he described as "a very American dish." "I thought of this in New York," he explained. "They use a lot of carrots there."

The big surprise of the day — maybe of the whole three days — was Wojciech Modest Amaro, owner-chef of Atelier Amaro in Warsaw. I think it's safe to say that Poland isn't the first place that springs to mind as the next great culinary center, but Amaro at least planted the idea in our minds. Poland, he told us, is "where nature meets science." Thirty percent of the country's land mass is forests, and it's full of protected natural sites and nature preserves. It is also apparently the home of the world's largest food science laboratory, in Poznan. Amaro's inspirations, he said, are nine: modern technology, cultivation, animal breeding, fishing, foraging, hunting, food design, food processing, and personal experience. (He closes his restaurant every Monday, he added, "So that we can go foraging in the forest.") He also does a lot of pickling, smoking, marinating, and fermenting. Amaro plans his dishes and menus around a complex system, dividing the possible sources of raw materials into categories — forest, lake, mountain, garden, sea, etc. He doesn't believe in just four seasons, he told us, because "Then, on the first day of spring, people come and say 'Where is the asparagus?' — when we know it won't be good yet." Instead, he makes a list of all the ingredients from each source that are in prime condition during each of the 52 weeks of the year, then combines some of those ingredients, often in unlikely union, in a single dish. "I use all the products from that place in that week," he says. An example is young herring, green strawberries, and elderflowers, all marinated together, and served with salted capers, mustard seed oil, and a kale leaf lacquered with fresh horseradish. Amaro's slides of the products available in a typical week — week 39, which would be late September — was stunning, an immense variety of animals, fish, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The food he creates may or may not turn out to be universally pleasing, but the concept is certainly fascinating.

The great Brazilian chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. in São Paulo (the fourth-best restaurant in the world, according to Restaurant Magazine) started by reminiscing about his first appearance at Madrid Fusión, in 2005, when Ferran Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak came up on stage with him and joked with him and made him feel one of their company. He then presented an ordinary looking coconut. "It is a wonderful thing," he said. "It falls from the trees and the sea takes it all over the world. When it is young, it has water inside. When it is older, it has more meat but little water and the water isn't very good. But in between, when it sprouts, the water turns to a kind of sponge. We call it 'coco apple.' Not very many people realize this." Atala learned about it from the native peoples in the Amazon, he said. "We are working with anthropologists," he explained, "who teach us how to work with the natives. Sometimes, when you try to help them, you hurt them instead. Human science is very important in my cuisine." In his demonstration, Atala took a coco apple that had been marinated in sugar and cumaru vinegar (he described cumaru as related to the tonka bean, but reference books say the tonka bean is the cumaru's fruit), added vanilla oil from a kind of rare giant wild vanilla pod ("I only have 10 or 12 of these a year," he said, "and the flavor is better than caviar, foie gras, truffles"), and seasoned it with seaweed salt, pickled horseradish, black garlic, and bits of codium seaweed — that was it.

Next he took a very liquid honey from wild bees, added a julienne of two kinds of chiles, stirred in orange flower water and lemon juice, then added a generous handful of tiny Amazonian blossoms of various kinds. Next, some bits of seaweed, salt, and crushed ice — "Vegetarian ceviche," he called it. It's pretty safe to say that there's no one else creating food like this.

This afternoon, I saw parts of a demonstration by Simon Rogan of L'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, in northern England (which has two Michelin stars). He was preparing carrots, golden beets, and turnips that had been grown in hay. He combined these with a hay-flavored custard, salsify purée, "soil" made from crumbled malt biscuits, beet and carrot shoots, and "cheese snow" made from good Cheddar. Following him, the always entertaining Joan Roca of the three-star El Celler de Can Roca in Girona presented a lively, charming video of animated books to express his belief that "Reading is important as inspiration for chefs; too often we put cookbooks up on the shelf and never take them down." He illustrated his point by preparing a contemporary but rather baroque take on hare à la royale, one of the great French classics (and the kind of dish today found mostly in, well, books). His involved a classic version of the dish, made with foie gras and truffles; a hare flan; purées of beets and smoked raspberries candied ginger and juniper berries; and a leg of hare that had been rolled in black pepper, cold-smoked for a week, hung for two weeks, then shaved into scales resembling cecina, the Spanish dried beef. It looked pretty irresistible.

Unfortunately, no bites were passed around. I ended my visit to Madrid Fusión, however, on a gastronomic high note: Passing the stand for the city of Huesca, whose region is known for both its almonds and its black truffles, I ran into Carmelo Bosque, chef-proprietor of the city's one-star Lillas Pastia. "Taste," he said, holding out a tray of pale gray macarons. Oh great, I thought, the trend has hit rural Spain. Then I tried one. The cream filling was butter rich with truffle shreds, and the macaron was arguably the single best thing I'd tasted in the past three days. The balance of sweet and salt and earthiness was extraordinary, the butter was very buttery, the truffles were full of flavor. I tried another one, and then, with Bosque's indulgence, a third. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd probably still be there.