Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Five Highlights of My Madrid Fusion Manila Experience

Department of Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez addressing the delegates and guests

Madrid Fusion Manila was my kind of wonderland. After all, I subscribe without reservation to Julia Child’s statement that “People who love to eat are always the best people” and MFM was filled with such people. I loved allowing my senses to lead me to familiar, comforting flavors as well as novel
pairings that would fire synapses in my brain. I came away with great pride for Philippine cuisine and a deep sense of what could be. 

Here are the highlights of my Madrid Fusion Manila experience:

1. The Conference Talks of Chef Margarita Fores and Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, which were both inspiring and inspired.

 Chef Gaita onstage

Her masterful crab meat with crab fat and uni

Cow udder transformed

Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s talk was a fitting follow-up to Gaita’s. This chef doesn’t simply exalt his
ingredients; he incarnates them into something new and exquisite. He is an absolute culinary rock star.

Appropriately, his topic was “Open Creativity.” He challenged the audience’s perception of reality by engaging their senses and demonstrating how some of the most prized items are produced from the most unlikely sources.

The culinary world refers to him with various exalted titles. To me, he is the Loki of the kitchen, the recent incarnation of a trickster in gastronomy. In mythology, a trickster is a god “who exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behavior.” I think that Wikipedia description was written just for him. The audience witnessed an example of his transcendent preparations when he presented a video of the ice shreds that he serves at Mugaritz, ranked no. 6 best restaurant in the world. What he does is as much
science as art, and the world of food is better for it.

2. The Trade Exhibit area was the first thing I hit on the first day. Somehow, the glutton in me often gains the upper hand over the gourmand. My pulse quickened at the sight of the beautiful legs of jamon Iberico displayed with pride at a couple of booths, but I fell in love with the one brought in by Terry’s Selection with its dark red meat marbled with veins of fat. Terry’s even brought in a Filipino master carver from Spain to serve guests.

The excitement was evident at every corner, even more so at the center where all the food tastings and seminars were happening. I attended a seminar on Philippine cheeses and was happily reacquainted with the Malagos cheeses of Olive Puentespina, who walked us through the cheese-making process at their Davao farm. I loved her creamy Blush cheese and punchy chevre.

I also signed up for the cheese tasting of Terry’s Selection but I had to step out of the venue so my brother took my slot. He and my best friend, Chef Bernardita Gotis of W Hotel in San Francisco, set aside samples for me to try when I got back. The red wine cheese was a standout, the saltiness of the hard cheese surprisingly complementing the full bodied red wine flavor. Ingenious. 

I also immensely enjoyed the convivial fiesta atmosphere at the Albay and Calabarzon booths.

Albay gave an haute cuisine treatment to local specialties, with wine pairings to boot! The menu was
designed by Chef Gene and Gino Gonzales of Café Ysabel and Center of Asian Culinary Studies. The pili-smoked roasted beef belly with kurakding mushrooms and caramelized onion demiglace was one of the clear winners in the entire exhibit. You will want to bring it home.

The Calabarzon booth was packed with people but my friend Clang Garcia, publisher of Colors magazine and proprietor of Jeepney Tours, introduced us to Director Rebecca Labit of the DOT who welcomed us so warmly and gave us a succession of plates of regional specialties to sample. All attention was on Balaw-Balaw’s minaluto, an assortment of grilled meat, poultry and seafood served in a winnowing basket that is also filled with rice prepared in a variety of ways–with bagoong (a local condiment made of fermented fish or krill) and with annatto and turmeric, to mention a few.

Plowing all that food into my system was slowly pulling me into siesta mode but I immediately perked up at the sight of the organic lechon from Costales Farms. It had crisp, golden brown skin with just a thin sliver of fat and a clean-tasting meat.

3. I was able to sample the lunch at the delegates’ area and the lunch at the media room and I must say the latter got the better part of the deal. I mean, much better. The best thing I tasted at the delegates’ lunch was the sans rival from Sans Rival Cakes and Pastries in Dumaguete. It was chewy, nutty, velvety and divine. And at the Media Lunch? Let’s see. Where do I begin?

    I was only able to sample the media lunch during the third day. I didn’t bother to use my access to the media lounge the first two days because I had wrongly assumed that they would be serving the same food. I heard that the food served on the second day was the best but, if I didn’t taste it, it never happened, right?

    Chef Ricketts’s adlai with pig’s blood and offal

    Chef Bruce and I

    The air in the media room was electric as a number of chefs personally prepared their tasting portions at their respective stations. Those that had to be assembled in the kitchens were carried to the room in trays.

    Chef Lau’s tuna kinilaw

    Chef Lau’s curacha salad

    The featured chefs more than willingly explained their food to anyone who bothered to ask. Consistently the most approachable and down-to-earth, Chef Laudico of Bistro Filipino was in his element, serving his tuna kinilaw while explaining to us how to enjoy his curacha salad with grilled pineapple. I went for seconds of Chef Bruce Ricketts’s dirty rice, which makes use of adlai, our local version of Arborio, mottled with pig’s blood and mixed with bits of offal. It tasted very much like dinuguan but had an interesting, nutty texture. I am aware of all the buzz around Mecha Uma and
    around Chef Ricketts’s wizardry in the kitchen so I found it refreshing to see this young chef so pleasant and grounded. 

    With the ever amiable Chef Gaita Fores at the media lounge

    4. Press dinner at El Cirkulo. It was a last-minute decision to detour to Makati to attend Chef Jay Gamboa’s dinner at El Cirkulo for the MFM press. I was glad I went because it turned out to be a stellar meal with great company.

      Judd and I shared a table with Chef Carlo Miguel of 71 Gramercy and his wife Ria, Cito of The Country Club in Canlubang, three journalists from Spain and some foodie guests from Belarus.

      I had been eating the entire day so I had to pace myself with the chorizo, jamon and queso Manchego.

      I wanted more of the sisig but I reined in my appetite to make room for the cochinillo asado, which Chef Gamboa carried on a tray in his arms to the dining room to show off to every table like a proud father to this beautiful swine with golden skin lacquered in oil. I was told never to marry a pig but I wouldn’t have minded this one (after all, it is consumable).  Right behind the chef was a waitstaff carrying another prized offering, roasted lamb with garlic and rosemary. Chef Gamboa’s flavors at his restaurants are always spot-on and he didn’t fail us that night.

      The cochinillo had a luscious depth of flavor goosed up from the roasting and a skin that was delightfully crackly.

      The lamb was so well prepared it had lost its off-putting gaminess but retained its flavor.

      I couldn’t resist the paella Montaña with its perfectly al dente rice, earthy Portabella mushrooms, crunchy asparagus, sweet roasted garlic cloves and drizzle of truffle oil.

      I would have stopped there had Cito not mentioned that the guinumis was topnotch. And he was right. It provided the exclamation point to an unforgettable meal.

      5. I was filled with anticipation on my way to Casa Roces for the MFM Farewell Dinner prepared by Chef Sau del Rosario and the chefs of the Center for Culinary Arts.

        Casa Roces was a beautiful sight with its gardens lit up by dozens of Capiz shell lamps, its entryway accented with an Impy Pilapil glass sculpture, and its tables sparkling with crystal glassware and decked with fresh fruits and sampaguita leis for additional flourish. Such refinement augured a meal to remember.

        We were off to a good start with Chef Sau’s heartfelt welcome where he expressed his gratitude for the privilege of preparing a meal for the Madrid Fusion luminaries in attendance. Present were Pastry Chef Extraordinaire Paco Torreblanca, two Michelin star Chef Ramon Freixa, who owns an eponymous restaurant in Madrid, and Chef Francis Paniego of one Michelin star Echaurren.

        Our merry band of foodies

        To start us off

        I was worried about the first plate because it offered more than a mouthful of buro, which is an acquired taste. Apparently, it was just a prelude to a bigger concern, which came in the form of a sizeable cricket frozen in sweet gelée. But I am known for eating my sorrows and fears away so I masticated the hell out of that insect and swallowed it to oblivion like a delectable hunk of meat. Problem solved.

        Spot the cricket

        Badette contemplating her meal

        The tamales metsiku

        Sisig with fresh fruit beads

        After our Fear Factor-esque encounter with the cricket, Chef Sau and his team must have known the guests needed coddling so next he served a bowl of bulanglang, writ large with the inclusion of gata (coconut milk). It was, quite simply, soul food. I scooped every spoonful of that milky elixir, and just before it was all gone, I picked up the prawn, pulled out the body and used it to sop up the remaining liquid, and finally, sucked the juices off the head.

        Litsong manok (roasted native chicken) may be considered a shopworn dish because it can be found in almost every corner, but the version served by the chef was almost unrecognizable. It was presented as a roulade with stuffing of rice cooked in garlic and, I can only surmise, annatto. The flavor of the chicken reminded me of inasal with its scintillating smokiness and heat, and a mild but certain tang. This was a crowd favorite.

        For dessert, Chef Sau put his own spin to a classic Asian favorite, sticky rice with mango, by replacing the mango with papaya, using ground glutinous rice instead of grain, and adding a scoop of sampaguita ice cream. The sprinkling of toasted coconut flakes added a crisp-chewy texture and a caramelized goodness that rounded out the flavors. I thought it was genius.

        We ended the meal on a high note with an earthy brew of tsokolate batirol with grits of cacao and roasted peanuts. We were instructed to uncork the bottle of carabao’s milk on our table to thicken the hot cocoa if we so wished. I did, and it tamed the bitterness just so, to draw out the nuttiness and smoke.

        Paco Torreblanca warmly acknowledging the chefs

        The Michelin star chefs with the CCA team

        When Chef Sau walked to the center of the dining room again to thank the guests and acknowledge his CCA chefs, the Spanish chefs stood up before the rest to give him an ovation. They hugged him and the young CCA chefs, spurring the entire room to a resounding applause. It was truly a heartwarming scene, and a fitting end to this world-class gastronomic event.

        It is hard to express the euphoria brought about by this three-day celebration of Philippine and Spanish cuisine. Perhaps Chef Gaita expressed it best in the dedication she wrote on my friend’s MFM souvenir book where she said, “Ang sarap maging Pinoy!” The Madrid Fusión Manila 2015 was one hell of a booster shot, leaving us with an enhanced sense of taste and an amplified national pride.

        Looking forward to Madrid Fusión Manila 2016!

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