The event: The ninth annual Madrid Fusión — a "Cumbre Internacional de Gastronomía," or International Summit of Gastronomy, held every January in the Spanish capital.
The cast: Many of the most famous names in contemporary Spanish cuisine, among them Ferran Adrià, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, Joan and Jordi Roca (pictured, top), Martín Berasategui, Quique Dacosta, Sergi Arola, Pedro Subijana, Frances Paniego, Paco Roncero (pictured, bottom), and pastry chef and confectioner Paco Torreblanca; Italian superstars Carlo Cracco and Massimo Bottura; Peru's celebrated culinary innovator Gastón Acurio; legendary Singapore-based gastro-guide K.F. Seetoh; and dozens of other imaginative, enthusiastic food figures from Europe, Latin America (especially Mexico), and Australia — though almost nobody from the U.S., for some reason.
The place: The main auditorium, meeting rooms, and exhibition spaces in one portion of the Feria de Madrid complex on the edge of town.
As usual, this year's Madrid Fusión was a dazzling, bewildering, challenging, too-much-to-ingest-but-hey-let's-try affair. Chefs, journalists, food and wine producers, and just about any other kind of people associated with this exciting world of endeavor mingled, chattered, ate and drank together. Demonstrations, pronouncements, discussions, tastings — it was all stirred together into a big, luscious cocido madrileño.
On stage (a partial list): Ferran Adrià and architect Enric Ruiz-Geli revealing plans for the elBulliFoundation, coming in 2014… The godfather of modern Spanish cooking, Juan Mari Arzak, and his daughter and culinary collaborator Elena, giving an unexpectedly energetic, eccentric presentation (including a demonstration of electrified plates they plan to use to add excitement to the presentation of their cooking)…
A roundtable on "gastronomic power," meaning in this case the power of restaurant guides to influence cuisine; Patricia Alexandre from Gault Millau gave a lot of credit to the founders of her enterprise, Christian Millau and the late Henri Gault, for popularizing nouvelle cuisine (this is not unreasonable), while Tim and Nina Zagat of the Zagat Guides assured the audience that the future of restaurant criticism was in "apps" — an assessment with which Francisco López Canís of Spain's Gourmetour guide took issue ("When television came in, they said it was the death of radio, but radio is still here")…
A sobering demonstration by Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz in San Sebastián of high-pressure cooking, with a device that somehow suggested a slightly downsized particle collider… One Bernard Lahousse, from the Belgian company Foodpairing — which analyzes foods scientifically,finds common components between them, and then recommends combinations of them — passed out what looked like medieval carnival masks, big eyelets attached to a long, pointed paper-cone nose, then asked the audience to identify the scent implanted in the nose's tip. Citrus? Lemongrass? Turpentine? It turned out to be linalool, a terpene chemical found in everything from cilantro and basil to carrots, tomatoes, and bell peppers, to chocolate. The idea of seeking compounds shared by various foods got started, said Lahousse, when Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Bray, England, asked analysts to determine why caviar and white truffles seemed to go well together; it turns out that they, too, have a chemical ingredient in common (which for some reason almost seems indecent).
Smaller presentations went on in a series of meeting rooms (in one, ICEX, the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade, gave details about their program of training young chefs from 15 countries in Spanish cuisine in order to turn them into "ambassadors of Spanish cuisine around the globe"); there were also wine-tastings galore (one, featuring bottles from the Madrid region, was particularly enlightening; this is an area to watch, especially for red wine blends).
Then there were the stands, more than 100 of them, promoting food, wine, spirits, and related products. These included set-ups representing the countries of Ecuador and Peru and such non-Spanish firms as Lavazza coffee, the down-market tapas ingredient known here as "Philadelphia" (Philadelphia Cream Cheese to you), and Unilever (which markets such brands in Spain as Hellman's, Liptons, and Knorr). But most of the stands were Spanish, and most of them were generous with their samples. Many producers of jamón ibérico were offering tastes of this magnificent cured meat; the soft, intensely-flavored cheeses, called tortas, of Casar and Serena were there for the scooping (they're so soft they have to be eaten with a spoon); the great spreadable, pimentón-flavored sobresada sausage of Majorca was well-represented; a stand offering "sabores auténticos de Mexico" was doing a brisk business dispensing wonderful ceviche, guacamole (sprinkled with pomegranate seeds!), chicken mole, and other delights; and at the stand representing the province of Burgos in northern Spain, a region known for its morcilla, or blood sausage, and other traditional food products, the menu consisted of blood sausage "nachos" (not tortilla chips with blood sausage, but crisp chips actually made from it) sprinkled with puffed rice, and little canapés of heritage-breed potro, stuffed with foie gras and glazed with a red-wine reduction. Potro means colt, as in "neigh neigh." (Both were actually pretty good.)
Of the multitude of wine producers and regions and spirits distributors also offering tastes, it must be said that they, too, were generous — special thanks to Roda (whose Riojas are always the top, but whose new release from the Ribera del Duero gives them real competition) and to the representatives of Ron Matusalen, the great Cuban-style rum from the Dominican Republic — but that the sage Madrid-Fusión-goer passed them by as frequently as possible.