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Chef’s Table: As the Latin-American food movement continues to gather pace, and cities such as Lima, Peru, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, are joining the world’s hottest foodie destinations, it’s time to ask what contributions Latin America is making to modern cuisine.
“I would say unique ingredients and flavors,” says Emilio Macías, one of Peru’s rising stars. “Many young chefs from South America have traveled and worked in kitchens the world over learning about techniques and modern trends, and now they’re back cooking in their native countries. We’re cooking to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers.”
The first in an occasional series about the food and ideas of today's most influential chefs.
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Macías was born in Mexico but trained in Japan and Europe (including at Mugaritz and Santi Santamaria in Spain). He was drawn back to Latin America by the successes of the Peruvian leaders of the movement, Gastòn Acurio and Virgilio Martínez Véliz — both ranked in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Macías opened his own restaurant before taking a leading position in 2012 at Acurio’s award-winning Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastòn, in the gastronomic and development kitchens. He recently flew to Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to cook two meals at Postrivoro.
“Postrivoro is not a pop-up restaurant but a nonprofit association that creates occasional ‘itineraries for gastro-pilgrims’ by inviting talented young international chefs to cook for just 20 paying guests seated at a communal table,” says Enrico Vignoli, its co-founder, who works in Modena with 3-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura. “The chefs are usually employed in the kitchens of trend-setting restaurants or are in the process of starting their own. We want to tell stories through food and share gastronomic experiences.” For each of Postrivoro’s six events per year, the chef is paired with a sommelier or drinks specialist and an artist to decorate the space.
Macías’ dinner and lunch were held in the crumbling medieval cloister of Faenza’s Chiesa della Commenda. Each course was matched with a drink created by bartender Oscar Quagliarini, who is famous for his imaginative cocktails. The Goth-styled “mixologist” seems more like an alchemist than a barman. He spices his drinks with exotic but home-made ingredients such as yellow sandalwood syrup, or seaweed, eucalyptus and ylang ylang tinctures. The décor was by Fototeca Manfrediana, a cooperative of young photographers shooting on film.
An inspiring lunch with Emilio Macías begins
Macías brought many of his principal ingredients and seasonings from Peru in his luggage. He complemented them with seasonal foods from Emilia-Romagna. Sunday’s inspiring lunch began with three irregular crispbreads arranged like natural elements on a plate of branches and leaves. Each was topped with the chef’s interpretation of a Latin American speciality, from a fiery mole con pollo (Mexican chicken with a sauce of 100 ingredients, including chocolate), to verdolagas y tuetano (purslane and bone marrow with Mexican salsa verde), to shredded cuy pibil (slow-roasted Peruvian guinea pig) accented with pink pickled onions. Cuy is popular in Peru for its tender, nutritious meat. “I wanted to bring one very special ingredient from Peru, as well as a little transgression,” says Macías.
Macías’ elegant Peruvian ceviche of tiny raw oysters, Adriatic scallops and cactus followed, in a refreshingly sour leche de tigre: a cool fish broth lifted by lime, ginger and chilies, topped with fresh acacia blossoms and cinquefoil (or potentilla) leaves. In esparrago y hoyas de mais, crisp local asparagus, grilled on one side only, gave focus to herbaceous poblano pepper couscous sprinkled with dark Peruvian Sacha Inchi nuts and spooned into a charred corn husk, its smokiness reminiscent of fire-roasted corn.
Memory featured in the dish called Papa Genovese too. This came from Astrid & Gaston’s recent tasting menu, “The voyage from Liguria to El Callao, 100 years of flavor,” which focused on the gastronomic influences brought by the thousands of Italian immigrants to Peru in the early 20th century. The dish was a visual and cultural play on pasta al pesto. In the original Ligurian version, diced potato often accompanies the pasta in the green basil sauce. Here, spaghetti-like strands of potato starred with toasted pine nuts in a pure-flavored extract of basil and spinach chlorophyll. They produced a new, but equally soulful, version of the classic dish.
“We tried to imagine how Italian immigrants felt about Peruvian food before they made their long journeys in the 1900s,” Macìas says. “Were they afraid of what they might have to eat there? Our dishes stir emotions as well as appetites.”
Other courses featured langoustine smoked a la Veracruzana and slow-roasted Mexican pork neck in salsa roja. The meal ended with a delicate, chilled peach stew strewn with elderflowers, raw bitter almonds and rose petals, and a crisp chocolate ball stuffed with the makings of a tiramisù scented with charred guajillo chilies, mescal and sal de gusano de maguey: ground agave worms spiced with salt and chilies.
“Gastòn Acurio has been inspirational in the Latin American movement, moving private and government people to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers,” says Macìas.
Concentrating on local products
“The result is that we now can go straight to the fishermen, requesting, for example, only large-size fish. They release anything smaller back into the ocean. They’re paid well for the adult fish and simultaneously safeguard fish stocks.”
How does this apply to farmers? “Potatoes are a big staple in Peru: There are 3,000 known species with more being found all the time. Some only grow above 3,000 meters of altitude, far from the cities, with short seasons and limited yields. Demand from restaurants and enthusiasts can create fair distribution and markets while teaching people in the cities about the value of these ingredients.” Other foods being developed this way are quinoa, amaranth and some corn varieties.
“Peruvian food events such as Mistura, now in its seventh year, where farmers and chefs meet and exchange ingredients and information are helping spread the word about our continent’s gastronomic riches.”
So are memorable meals such as this.
Main photo: Chef Emilio Macías in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo
The result took everyone by surprise. When the countdown of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards reached the top two names, the audience of 650 chefs, journalists and food professionals assembled in London’s Guildhall held their breaths. Would Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca hold onto the first-place position it had snatched from Copenhagen’s Noma last year, or could the unthinkable happen? Could René Redzepi’s revolutionary Nordic restaurant reconquer top place? Not even Ferran Adrià — whose iconic El Bulli had been No. 1 for five years before Noma beat it in 2010 — had been able to achieve that.
“In second place, it’s the Roca brothers …” The event’s presenter, Mark Durden Smith, could barely finish his announcement before the audience went crazy. Noma had done it. The 40-seater located in a quayside warehouse in Copenhagen that has championed local, foraged and imaginative natural cuisine had recaptured the crown it had previously held for three years.
A standing ovation greeted the startled and elated team of young chefs from the Copenhagen restaurant as they crowded onto the stage to receive their trophy from San Pellegrino, the awards’ main sponsor. The event is organized by Restaurant magazine, and other sponsors include Lavazza coffee, Gaggenau kitchens and Les Concierges.
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An emotional Redzepi paused and smiled before reading excerpts from the acceptance speech he had prepared in 2010 — but had been too overwhelmed to use — when his restaurant first won the prize. He thanked the audience for their continuing support. “You can’t imagine how much you’ve done for our little restaurant and for our region. We did it with the combined efforts of our whole team. We were the geeks in a class of fine linens and expensive wines, and look where we are now, several years later: celebrated for all the experiments. Wood sorrel conquered caviar!”
Noma’s exploration of Scandinavia’s natural biodiversity and its shunning of non-native ingredients (the restaurant doesn’t cook with lemons or cocoa) have become templates for chefs in regions as diverse as the Amazon jungle and the Australian outback. “There are still so many discoveries out there, knowledge to be found and recipes to be written,” Redzepi continued. “The road is not paved in front of us: we want to be the ones laying the bricks.”
The classification is created by combining the votes of a jury of 900 food professionals in the Diners Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy. For its purpose, the world is divided into 26 regions, each with 36 members; each juror proposes seven restaurants in which they have recently eaten that represent their best dining experiences. At least 10 panelists from each region are changed annually.
At the lively post-event party held at the Clove Club, a hip restaurant in East London, Redzepi still seemed dazed. “How did this happen?” he asked. “We had absolutely no idea it was coming.”
One answer might be that the MAD Food Symposium, the annual event Redzepi created three years ago to inspire young chefs about current food issues, may have played a significant role in raising Noma’s profile even higher. The two-day conference encourages aspiring chefs to look beyond their kitchens to today’s most urgent food issues, including sustainability, school food, land grabbing, genetic modification and obesity. Speakers at the symposium have included activists Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan, chefs Barbara Lynch and Alex Atala, and glaciologist Jason Box.
“MAD’s message has also raised awareness about the exciting food work being done in Copenhagen, not least at Noma,” said one journalist at the party. “That may have encouraged more jurors to vote for it.”
Redzepi knows what winning entails. At a pre-award breakfast hosted by last year’s winners at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the Roca brothers described the avalanche of interest from public and press their win had triggered. “When the news broke, we received 2.5 million visits to our website in 24 hours, 63,000 emails, and 58,000 calls for reservations,” Joan Roca explained, shaking his head in disbelief. “There were also 1,230 press visits to Girona in this year.”
The 50 Best list includes many newsworthy results. London’s Fergus Henderson won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his nose-to-tail approach at St. John Restaurant. Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana held onto its third-place position for the second year. “Italy needs all the positive help it can get at the moment,” Bottura said. With a cuisine that is popular worldwide, some question why only three Italian restaurants made it into the 50 Best list this year. Is it because many foreigners prefer Italy’s rustic home cooking to its fine-dining restaurants?
The profile of female chefs was raised thanks to the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef Award. This year it went to Helena Rizzo from Manì in São Paulo, Brazil. At a tea party at Ametsa restaurant hosted by the French champagne house and overseen by former winner Elena Arzak, of Arzak, San Sebastian, Veuve Clicquot‘s Aymeric Sancerre explained how the award is inspired by the formidable Widow Clicquot. “In 1805, when Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin took over from her late husband, a woman could only run a business if she was a widow. Mme. Clicquot built the company into an empire and remains a role model for women in business.”
“I don’t come from a family of restaurateurs, but both female and male cooks influence me as a chef,” said Rizzo, who apprenticed briefly with the Roca brothers. “My grandparents were not rich, but loved food and were attentive to the specific temperatures needed to cook vegetables. I inherited their attention to detail at a young age. Great food creates bonds between people and fosters happy memories. I love helping to make these memories every day.”
Also present was Lanshu Chen, winner of the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in Asia Award earlier this year. “My restaurant in Taiwan, Le Moût, features French cuisine created in our Taiwanese terroir,” she explained. “The spirit of this list should highlight a memorable dining experience that is both unusual and unique.”
Main photo: René Redzepi giving his winner’s speech at London’s Guildhall. Credit: Carla Capalbo
This spring, as they do every year, the most prestigious Bordeaux Grand Cru châteaux gave wine buyers and critics the chance to sample the new season’s wines en primeur, ahead of being finished. The wines — from famous areas such as Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Graves and Sauternes — are not yet bottled; many require at least one year of aging before they’ll be released. But in Bordeaux, top wines — from legendary châteaux like Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux and Cheval Blanc — are in a special category. They’re traded like futures, for their aging and investment potential.
The primeurs give experts a way to taste and pre-order the wines while still in the barrel, and to assess the vintage. All they have to do is turn up. But this spring many stayed away. The 2013 vintage was notoriously troublesome: heavy rainfall in spring and autumn, and an erratic summer caused the red grapes to ripen slowly and, in many areas, suffer from rot. Some of the most influential critics, whose scores are important for selling and pricing the wines, didn’t bother to make the trip to Bordeaux to sample the wines. They gave up on it without even a taste. (Dry white wines from Graves and Pessac-Léognan fared better than the region’s reds, while sweet Sauternes had a very good year.)
For those who did travel to southwest France for the week, there was a surprisingly upbeat atmosphere.
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“If you’re not expecting much, you can be pleasantly surprised,” said Fabian Cobb, editor of Fine Wine Magazine, an online publication focusing on wine investment. “The châteaux who had the means and the best terroirs, who were not hit by hail or too many downpours have produced some terrific wines. They may not be wines to keep for decades, but they’ll make for wonderful drinking in the next five to 10 years.”
Generally, the Left Bank of the Gironde Estuary (Médoc, Graves and Sauternes) fared better than the Right (Pomerol and Saint-Émilion), where the Merlot was hard hit and harder still to harvest in perfect condition. Botrytis (the “noble” rot that is generally undesirable in red grapes) struck many vineyards, and it was difficult to separate the good berries from the bad after the bunches had been picked.
The price of adapting in Bordeaux
Bordeaux châteaux have so much at stake, they spend fortunes each year selecting the best berries. In good vintages, discolored or unripe berries are manually eliminated on sorting tables. This year, even optical sorting machines developed for separating recycled waste and successfully adapted to berry selection were unable to spot the difference between heavy, ripe berries and light, under-mature or rotten berries. Those who could afford it used the Tribaie, a density-measuring machine that submerges the berries for a few seconds in a mixture of water and sugar, discarding any that float.
“The good berries are then quickly shaken dry before being turned into the vinification tanks,” explained Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone. “That’s what helped us make a decent wine this year.”
In 2013, vineyard location also made a crucial difference. Pomerol, the exclusive appellation next to Saint-Émilion, produced some outstanding wines from small but prestigious properties like Vieux Château Certan and Château Lafleur. At Lafleur, winemaker and owner Julie Grésiak talked of her confidence in the 70-year-old Cabernet Franc vines that make up part of her family’s 4.5-hectare (11-acre) estate.
“These individuals have found their balance in this terrain; we were confident they would ripen well, so we waited patiently for them,” she says. The wine, of 55% Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot, is aged in second-year barriques (unlike almost every other top estate, Lafleur uses no new barrels for its premium wine). Lafleur 2013 was my favorite wine of the vintage: it has elegance, verve and emotion.
By comparison, many Saint-Émilion wines seemed unbalanced: New barrels couldn’t mask the lack of healthy, well-structured Merlot. Château Tertre Roteboeuf was an exception. Indeed, this year a number of small, organic estates that have long focused on helping their old vines maintain an equilibrium with the soil showed that even in difficult years these vines can produce fine fruit.
“We practice an ancient method of pruning that enables our vines to produce well-spaced, aerated bunches, and that helped defend them against the vagaries of this year’s weather,” says François Mitjavile, the estates’ owner. His 2013 was pure, long and elegant, with the characteristic “fraicheur” — or freshness — that makes Merlot in Bordeaux so attractive.
In the Médoc, the flat ear of land north of Bordeaux city, terroir also made a difference. Château Palmer is next door to Château Margaux, but whereas Margaux’s Merlots — grown on clay — were devastated by the wet weather, Palmer’s — planted on deep gravel — fared better.
“We run 60% of Palmer’s 55 hectares [135 acres] of vineyards biodynamically,” says Thomas Duroux, the estates’ winemaker. “This most challenging vintage has made us determined to convert the rest to biodynamic methods too. It has shown us how, when the soils are alive and the vines well-adapted, they can produce characterful fruit in all seasons.”
Further north, another of the vintage’s best wines was made at Château Montrose, in Saint-Estèphe. Like the other top Médoc wines this year — including Cos d’Estournel, Mouton-Rothschild, and Pontet-Canet — Château Montrose has not pushed for too much tannic extraction or depth of colour.
“What counts is finesse, with the purity of aromas and flavour that will guarantee the pleasure of those who will drink them,” says Hervé Berland, who recently joined Montrose as CEO after 35 years running Château Mouton-Rothschild. “We were spared the devastating downpour of Oct. 4 that hit so many châteaux during the harvest,” Berland says. “Vintages such as 2013 are always very interesting. Nature has thrown everything at us, but I’m convinced that with experience — but without panic — we can always make fine wines from these great terroirs.”
Main photo: Horses plough the vineyards at Château Lafleur in Pomerol. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Chianti Classico DOCG is one of Tuscany’s most prestigious wine appellations: Any wine bearing that name must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict regulations about its making. So when the Consortium of Chianti Classico producers announced a change to its categories, wine critics and appassionati took notice.
Chianti Classico’s consortium recently launched a “Gran Selezione” category: a group of wines touted as the pinnacle of the area’s wine pyramid. The Gran Selezione will account for about 10% of Chianti Classico’s annual production of 35 million bottles, for a value of 70 to 100 million euros.
The launch may have taken place, with much ado, in the spectacular frescoed Renaissance hall of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but the reaction — in Tuscany and beyond — has been mixed. Although 35 of the area’s top wineries have so far bottled a wine in the new category, many others are giving the “Selezione” a wide berth — for now, at least. To understand the reasons for this, it’s worth taking an overview of Chianti Classico.
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The delineated area known as Chianti Classico is located in the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena, and has long been recognized as one of the region’s best for wine production: It was first shaped in 1716 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Modern Chianti Classico gained elevated DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) in 1984 with the “Black Rooster” wines; its consortium now represents more than 600 members.
The overall area for Chianti production is much larger, however. It stretches farther into the provinces of Siena and Firenze, and into those of Pisa, Arezzo and Pistoia. This is confusing for consumers: Although Chianti Classico and appellations such as Chianti Rufina DOCG are recognized for their premium wines, simple, inexpensive — and often not great — “Chianti” wines abound from these other parts of the region.
In Chianti Classico DOCG wines, the primary grape is red Sangiovese. Each wine must contain 80% to 100% Sangiovese, with the remaining percentage made up from other specified red grapes, including “international” varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Until recently, these wines fell into just two groups: Chianti Classico Annata (the “normal” vintage) and Chianti Classico Riserva (aged for at least 24 months), which were considered the appellation’s best wines. (Some producers, however, choose to make their top wines outside of the DOCG rules. These wines are bottled under the IGT appellation, and are the so-called Super Tuscans). Now a third group has been added.
To be admitted into this Gran Selezione, a wine must pass an additional taste test and be aged for a minimum of 30 months, of which three are in the bottle. (Note that “gran” is a shortened version of “grande,” and here means top, not grandmother.) It must also be made from the grapes of a single vineyard or from a selection of an estate’s best grapes. “The idea of this top tier is to help consumers identify an estate’s best wine,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the Chianti Classico Consortium’s president.
There’s the rub. Objectors note that the Riserva system was already in place to do that, and that the new Selezione may increase confusion in the cluttered Tuscan wine map. The Gran Selezione has stimulated a lively debate among the Italian wine world — in Tuscany and beyond — about the pros and cons of the new classification, and about alternative ideas for a change in the appellation’s structure. (Changes must be ratified by law, as the Gran Selezione’s have).
“During the recent economic crisis, the production of Chianti Riserva wines has increased, and they’re competing with Chianti Classico’s higher-level Riservas,” says Leonardo Bellaccini, the winemaker at San Felice, a leading Chianti Classico estate. Its well-known Riserva, Il Grigio, recently passed the tests to become a Gran Selezione. “We hope that once the Gran Selezione branding is recognized, it will stop the confusion between these two types of Riservas.”
Many cutting-edge wines here come from small estates with forward-thinking winemakers at their helm. Paolo De Marchi, of Isole e Olena, is one. His award-winning, pure Sangiovese Super Tuscan, Cepparello, would qualify for the Gran Selezione, but he’s reluctant to change its status.
“I don’t agree with the Consortium’s vision on this,” he says. “For me, great wines are made by their location and vineyards, not by the hands of men. I’d much rather see us differentiate between the sub-zones within Chianti Classico as a way of emphasizing the diversity of our terroirs.”
The concept of “villages” as used in Burgundy — which would allow the wines’ labels to cite the township within which they are made, such as Gaiole, Castellina or Greve in Chianti — is a hot issue among premium estates wanting to differentiate growing areas within Chianti Classico’s 7,000 hectares (about 17,300 acres) of vineyards.
“The Consortium is beginning to take steps in that direction, but it may be several years in the coming,” says Robert Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono. “The diversity of Chianti Classico’s terroirs is one of its strengths.”
Some producers and wine experts believe the Consortium has missed a precious opportunity to requalify Chianti Classico by limiting its grape varieties to Sangiovese and other native Tuscan grapes such as Colorino and Canaiolo.
“A Gran Selezione of just Tuscan grapes would have made sense by emphasizing the link between these varieties and this specific area,” says Bellaccini. That “first tier” would have been clearly understood by everyone.
Will Gran Selezione wines cost more? “That will be up to the individual estates,” says Consortium Vice President Filippo Mazzei. “We have not imposed price hikes for these wines, though they are of course the estates’ top bracket wines.” The Consortium hopes producers of other high-flying Super Tuscans will be encouraged to reclassify them as Gran Selezione wines, and that the word will spread positively about its latest category.
Top photo: Gran Selezione wines sit on a higher podium than the rest of the Chianti Classico wines at the media tasting in Florence. Credit: Carla Capalbo
It takes courage to start a new high-end food magazine — whether in print or in app form — in an economic climate such as today’s. Cook_inc. was launched in November 2011 by Anna Morelli, an Italian-Peruvian woman living in Lucca, Tuscany. Its scope is the new and the up-and-coming in top gastronomy, whether it be the latest food discoveries in the Amazon jungle or the new cuisine of young talents from Asia, Europe and beyond. The magazine takes its visual cue from art books, with striking images by some of the world’s most dynamic food photographers.
“It may be a difficult time economically, but it’s an exciting time for food,” she says as she demonstrates the magazine’s state-of-the-art English app on her iPad. “I want to spread the word about the really talented young chefs that are out there, and about new global trends in food.”
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Cook_inc. has established a loyal following from within the food world. “Lots of chefs and foodies worldwide subscribe to keep up with the latest trends and their setters. Word travels so fast these days, and it’s great to be a part of that: I’m always happy when one of the new chefs we’ve discovered reaches a broader audience. For me, it justifies the risks we’ve taken to produce the magazine.”
Morelli’s obsession with restaurants began early: Her father, an economist for the European Union and an “old-fashioned gourmet,” lived with the family in Brussels and often took them on expeditions to international Michelin-starred restaurants. “I was just 15 when I first went to Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain,” she recalls, “and it was a life-changing experience for me.”
Morelli speaks a handful of languages and switches between them with ease. The magazine — which is published three times per year by Morelli’s company, Vandenberg Edizioni — reflects her multiculturalism by featuring chefs from every continent. A recent issue included in-depth, beautifully illustrated articles about Chilean chef Rodolfo Guzmán, British chef Sat Bains and Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York. A handful of Italian subjects also were covered, including chocolatier Paul De Bondt in Pisa; vinegar-maker Josko Sirk in the Collio, Friuli; and food performance artist Andrea Salvetti. The printed magazine is published in Italian; the apps are in English and Italian.
Cook_inc.’s look is as important as its content, and the printed version is as beautiful as an art book. The magazine commissions great photography to accompany the texts and recipes. Morelli’s years running a photo agency have stood her in good stead.
“For me, image quality is very important,” she says as she taps through a slide show on the Cook_inc. app. “Whether photos are printed onto great paper and bound into a volume, or appear on today’s many screens, I like to pair talented photographers with the writers.” Ease of access is also key.
“Many people — especially today’s young foodies — are never without their smartphones. So we recently created a mini-app just for them. It’s like an aperitivo that makes them hungry and whets the appetite for the larger tablet app that can be downloaded and has nearly as much content as the printed magazine.” In some cases, additional material is added to the app, like extra photos from a shoot sequence or special animated images using the app’s state-of-the-art technology.
Cook_inc. explores the fusion of food and art. “People think that the ‘inc’ in the name stands for ‘incorporated,’ but actually it means ‘inclusive’ — I wanted to create a magazine that spoke not only of high-gastronomy restaurants and chefs but also of art, bistros, destinations, workshops and food-related environmental issues.” It looks like Morelli has understood a gap in the market and is filling it, in style.
Top image: Anna Morelli, left, and the cover of Cook_inc. Courtesy of Cook_inc.
The global importance of Slow Food — the food activism movement that was born in Italy in 1986 — continues to spread. Its South Korean chapter — in collaboration with the city of Namyangju and Slow Food International — recently staged an ambitious and highly successful event, AsiO Gusto, the first of its kind to be held in Asia. The impressively organized festival hosted 500,000 visitors over six days.
“Our goal was to gather over 400 artisan food producers and cooks from 40 countries within Asia and Oceania under one roof, to celebrate their diversity and to spread the word about the many unique foods we have in Korea,” says Kim Byung-soo, a member of Slow Food’s International Council and one of AsiO Gusto’s main organizers.
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AsiO Gusto (the capital “O” stands for Oceania) took over a large, modern youth sports center on the outskirts of Namyangju, a city southwest of Seoul that is home to the world’s first organic agriculture museum. Three vast tents pitched on pristine artificial turf pitches formed the nucleus of the show. Each pavilion had a subject: South Korea’s featured more than 100 Korean products, including fermented, eco-friendly and local foods. The International Pavilion focused on foods from 32 Asian and Oceanic countries, including marvelous dried fruits from Afghanistan; Rimbàs black pepper from Malaysia; Palestinian olive oil; Nagasaki yuko vinegar from Japan; Indonesian coconut sugar; Tibetan plateau cheese; heirloom rice from the Philippines; raisins from Iran; Georgian wine and taro and yam from New Caledonia. It also housed six international restaurants and a taste workshop. The “Theme” Pavilion showcased some of Slow Food’s most important projects — the Ark of Taste, Presidium seeds and A 1,000 Gardens in Africa — as well as South Korean temple food and local Slow Food educational activities.
Outside, a large, lively area was given over to street-food stalls from South Korea and beyond: vendors cooked everything from barbecued pork and griddled mung-bean pancakes — made from freshly stone-ground soaked beans — to ash-roasted soya beans and Indian naan breads baked on the spot for thousands of visitors exploring the festival’s “streets.”
An organic vegetable garden was grown on the site, with neat rows of rice, amaranth, squashes and beans on display for the thousands of schoolchildren who visited the fair to learn from. They were also encouraged to enter a walk-in beehive — though not before they’d been covered from head to toe in protective netting; their anxious mothers waited outside until they re-emerged, sting-free. A jovial South Korean farmer made narrow baskets for holding hen’s eggs from rice straw, and used his docile brown cow to give children rides on a converted plow.
Elsewhere, in a gym-turned-hall, visitors attended authoritative conferences on the culture of fermented food, animal welfare and food justice; or witnessed the Korean tea ceremony enacted like a synchronized dance by seven beautifully groomed women in long, traditional dresses, accompanied by their distinctive songs. Music is ever-present in South Korea, from the national passion for karaoke to the lively displays put on during the festival by entertainers from the South Korean armed forces who sang everything from pop to opera and even performed magic tricks on the baseball field where families picnicked and rested in the shade of gazebos.
Buddhist monks’ temple cuisine
One of the most fascinating Korean stands was dedicated to the temple cuisine of the country’s Buddhist monks. Under the discerning eye of the Venerable Dae Ahn, this display showed the remarkable diversity of natural foods — cultivated and wild — the monks eat during the year. Their diet is meat, fish and dairy free, and also avoids foods from the onion family (they’re considered too “hot”). Yet the range of fresh and fermented foods the monks enjoy is impressive.
“In our Buddhist practice, we learn how to cultivate and cook our food,” says Dae Ahn, who also runs the Balwoo temple food restaurant in Seoul. “It’s a central part of our daily lives and is connected to our philosophy of harmony and patience. After all, nothing could be slower than the fermented foods — some of them aged for up to 20 years — that we use to complement our fresh, seasonal ingredients.” The monks also make use of hundreds of wild foods, including pine needles, lotus root, burdock, mushrooms, ginko nuts and acorn jelly. “Our lives, livelihoods and the entire universe change according to what we eat,” she says.
Fermented foods still integral to Korean cuisine
Fermented food is a staple of Korean cuisine and was at the festival in all its guises. Fermented ingredients range from soy sauces to bean and chili pastes (doenjang and gochujang) and kimchi. Best-known as a fermented cabbage dish enlivened with ginger, chili and garlic, kimchi can be made from dozens of vegetables and plants. Traditionally, each farm or household stored its fermenting foods outdoors in large, dark brown ceramic jars. Many still do. Kimchi is served at every Korean meal as a side dish and digestive aid. Fermentation was an important way to preserve perishable ingredients in pre-refrigeration times. These foods are still key elements of the country’s rich food culture.
As with all Slow Food events, the message goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of food to learning about its myriad cultures and sources, and to defending our right to food that is good, clean and fair, as Carlo Petrini, the movement’s founder, maintains. For a first-time visitor to South Korea, AsiO Gusto offered a stimulating chance to experience Korea’s complex, delicious foods and to feel closer to the many heroic artisan food producers from Asia and Oceania who attended it. For anyone interested in attending, the next AsiO Gusto is already being planned for 2015.
Top photo: A young girl studies the Buddhist temple food display at AsiO Gusto. Credit: Carla Capalbo