Passion Fruit, Confections You Can Play With, and Spanish Essentials on Day 3 of Madrid Fusión 2017

Imaginative chefs from around the world are all very well and good, but what about the foods that define Spain's cuisine?

London Chinese chef Andrew Wong demonstrates his "high-tech" means of drying pork belly.

Colombia is famous for its coffee but ought to be equally well-known for the quality and astonishing variety of its tropical fruits (there are an estimated 95 basic varieties). Charlie Otero of Restaurante la Comunión in Cartagena and mixologist Carlos Moreno from Charly's Bar in Madrid paid tribute to some of the country's bounty in a fascinating morning program on the third and final day of Madrid Fusión.

The session began with a video paying tribute to mongo mongo, a kind of mixed fruit porridge that is a specialty of the department of Córdoba on the country's Caribbean side. The exact recipe varies, but it is basically red plantains, guava, papaya, and mamey (sapote) cooked down into a marmalade-like consistency with sugar and various spices. It is homey food, nursery food, evocative of the past. "When I have a spoonful of mongo mongo," Otero said, "I dream. It is because of mongo mongo that I became a chef." Paying tribute to Colombia's extreme range of climates and soil types, Otero noted that his country is considered the second-most biodiverse in the world (Brazil is No. 1).

Otero had planned to bring an assortment of fruits from home, but they didn't make it past the airport — the one in Cartagena, where officials apparently thought he was smuggling merchandise out of the country. Fortunately, Madrid today is cosmopolitan enough that he was able to find substitutes, and he used some of these to make three unusual tamales, based on masa dough, smoked Andean trout, and three different varieties of passion fruit. These he wrapped them in corn husks and steamed them, serving them with sliced black figs cooked in vanilla syrup with vinegar, chiles, and salt and pepper. Moreno, meanwhile, concocted some of the more reasonable-sounding cocktails of the show — one with rum, ginger, lemongrass, egg whites, and Amazonian passion fruit; another with rum, granadilla passion fruit, corn syrup, and coffee.

Singapore-based pastry chef and confectionary artist Jenny Wong, twice named best pastry chef in Asia, is trying to make creations "without references" — that is, totally original and not based on what has come before. Judging from a number of her works shown on video, I'd say a major reference for her must have been Albert Adrià, more than a decade ago, but never mind. Her incorporation of unexpected ingredients (like bamboo shoots marinated in mirin and soy and compressed into candy-like forms), her ideas of the relationship between pastry and fashion ("Why can't pastry have 'collections' like fashion?" she asked), and her chocolate games (one is a tic-tac-toe set in which “X”s and “O”s are decided by whether or not you guess the flavor of each bonbon) show a lively imagination and great technical skill at work.

Andrew Wong (no relation) is arguably the most interesting Chinese chef in London, at his A. Wong in Pimlico. He undertook to educate his audience on the true seriousness and scope of Chinese cuisine ("It's recognized for being cheap, unskilled, and not particularly good," he proposed, "but I'm going to try to convince you of its beauty.") Chinese cooking is so good, he added, because his people have been at it for 4,000 years so have been able to get all the mistakes out of the way. There are vast areas of China where people eat noodles or steamed buns and never touch rice, he told the auditorium, and a third of the population of China is Muslim, something nobody realizes.

Wong then made little translucent circles of dough based on three starches — tapioca, potato, and wheat (basically the same recipe as for Play-Doh, he said) — flattening them with the side of a cleaver ("You can't put this through a pasta machine because it will stick"), then deftly filling them with seasoned chopped shrimp and forming them into pot-stickers. (A well-made pot-sticker, he revealed, should have 13 pleats, six on one side, seven on the other.) Next, Wong demonstrated his "very high-tech" means of drying pork belly: with a stand fan. Finally, he showed us how noodles are made in Lanzhou, in northwestern China, working the dough then forming it into a long rope and repeatedly banging the rope on his work surface, each time separating it into more and more strands — really an incredible display of ancient technique.

A key part of Madrid Fusión every year is Enofusión, a selection of hundreds of Spanish wines arrayed for casual appraisals and a series of more formal tastings built around individual grape varieties, producers, regions, or other themes, not exclusively Spanish. (Some wine-related products are also on display, like the curious Botella Beronesa, "More Than a Bottle," a new kind of wine container that is stackable, nestable — that is, the neck of one bottle fits neatly into the punt of another — and hermetically sealed and fashioned so that the cork remains in constant contact with the wine.)

One of the more interesting ranges of wines were those made from the airén grape in Castilla La Mancha in central Spain. Airén is a little-known grape in the international wine community, but it was once the most widely planted single cultivar in the world (it's now estimated to be No. 3) — a fecund, utilitarian variety that carpeted vast tracts of the Spanish interior and was turned into cheap everyday wine and distilled into low-grade brandy. Today, an increasing number of producers are treating it seriously and turning it into fragrant, well-rounded wines that should find favor among lovers of viura and verdejo. Cristo de la Vega's Yugo 2016, 100 percent airén, was particularly attractive, as aromatic as a torrontés but crisp and a little pétillant. Sandoval No. 1 2016 was nice, too, a 50-50 blend of airén and verdejo, more restrained than the Yugo but with an attractive, steely elegance.

Some other random finds in the tasting areas (I avoided most chardonnays, cabernets, merlots, and — an increasingly large category in Spain — petit verdots to concentrate on more typical varieties): the mineral-tinged, fleshy La Sastrería 2015, 90 percent garnacha blanca, 10 percent chardonnay, from Carineña; the racy treixadura-based Priorato de Razamonde 2015 and the elegant, slightly flinty Gran Alanis 2015 (85 percent treixadura, 15 percent godello), both from Ribeiro; Avelino Vegas' very pretty pink Nicte 2016, an immensely flavorful and aromatic rosé made from the prieto picudo grape in the Tierras de León region; Vega Tolosa Los Halcones Bobal 2013, from old vines in Manchuela, tart and peppery; the austere but multi-layered Bodegas Arraéz Vivadon 2015 from the Valencian countryside, 85 percent bobal, the rest syrah and garnacha; Pagos del Moncayo Prados Colleción 2015, from Campo de Borja in Aragón, a rich, elegant garnacha; another garnacha, Pago de Ritos Valle de Ritos 2015 from Tierras de Madrid, young, supple, and peppery; and also from the Madrid area, Cien y Pico 2012, a dark, extracted, tannic, black-cherry-ish garnacha tintorera (the grape also called alicante bouschet).

With Argentina, the Philippines, Colombia, Singapore, and so many other international destinations represented, it is good to remember that we are in Spain here, and there are always plenty of Spanish chefs and other food and drink folk, both famous and less so, present — and one of the last programs of the day was devoted to "The 10 Dishes and Products That Define Spanish Cuisine." Conducted by suave Madrid Fusión president José Carlos Capel, the session revealed the results of more than two months of voting by Spaniards alerted via social media and asked to identify the foods they considered essential to their country's culinary identity.

The top 10 products, ranked from low to high, were: citrus fruits; beer; marzipan, turrones (nougat), and montecados (sugar cookies); shellfish; pimentón (smoked paprika); cheeses; red wine; saffron; extra-virgin olive oil; and jamón ibérico de bellota (the fabulous ham from acorn-fed Iberian pigs). The definitive dishes, again from low to high: bacalao al pil pil (salt cod in an emulsion of its own juices); stewed oxtail; pulpo a feira (octopus cooked with potatoes in the Galician style); croquettes in all their variety, a tapas bar staple; fabada asturiana (a cassoulet-like dish of white beans and various forms of pork); roast suckling pig; cocido madrileno (the boiled dinner with chickpeas that exists in some form all over Spain); Andalusian gazpacho; paella valenciana; and (greeted by applause) tortilla de patata (also called tortilla española), the flat cake-like potato omelette that says "home cooking" to so many Spaniards.


The presentation finished with images of the tortilla and the ham side by side. “Um,” I thought, “that sure looks like dinner.”