Once again the setting for Tuscan Days is Villa Panna, about 19 miles from Florence, Tuscany. A villa once owned by the Medici family nestled in the Tuscan hills and a feast entitled “A Tribute to the Renaissance”. Acqua Panna has called upon a great visionary chef: Davide Scabin. Owner of Combal. Zero - the two Michelin-starred restaurant in the Castle of Rivoli, Turin – and an aficionado of time-honoured recipes, Scabin created the dishes that the International Space Station’s astronauts will eat in the coming months as they orbit the Earth. Who better than him to embark on a mission to launch the great history of Italian cuisine into the future in the space of one dinner?
90 international guests, 60 people to attentively serve them and attend to their every culinary need, 28 impeccably presented dishes: everything is styled as a lavish theatrical performance in three acts based on the use of time: the first course features cold dishes, the second fish and meat dishes, and the third completes the experience with desserts. This is one of those events when you could proudly say, “I was there”. We caught up with the creative genius behind this decidedly out-of-this-world experience.
The dinner has a Renaissance theme. What inspired you: the ingredients, the flavours or the symbolism of the dishes?
None of these. This was obviously a challenge for me; deciding the menu, well menus actually, took several weeks of studying historical texts and much trial and error in the kitchen. My task was to bring bygone flavours back to life for the guests’ taste buds but I also wanted to use my spacefood to launch these flavours into the future. I imagined that I was on Jupiter and looking down at the history of Italian cuisine, starting with the Renaissance. The tables exude pomp, opulence and sumptuousness. The aim is to create a dynamic feel without ever getting up from your seat: the tables must always be served and the dishes should keep coming with rhythmic continuity so guests never feel there is a lull in service or any empty spaces.
What did Renaissance cuisine introduce compared with Mediaeval fare? And where did you ensure these changes were tangibly felt?
The transition from Mediaeval to Renaissance cuisine is described in detail in Libro de arte coquinaria (1456) by Maestro Martino de Rossi from Como; this is one of the most used cookery books of the Renaissance. This was the century of new ways to cook fish and meat. In fact I have represented several different cooking techniques, for example, loin of lamb roasted over hot embers or I have paired eel with rump of veal in the same dish and glazed them in the oven. This series of dishes even includes frying kebabs of snails coated with breadcrumbs. This style of cooking also reappraises dairy products, as you can see from the cannelloni di magro (made without meat) and the cheese pie: stuffed pasta dishes multiply into dozens of different shapes and fillings, such as come tortelletti, ravioli, gnocchi and macaroni. Plus it marks the return of vegetables and legumes as well as the birth of salads, embodied by my purées of different vegetables and ravioli made with beetroot and vitelotte potatoes. Next game and offal unleash some real unbridled passion. For this theme I created a hare terrine and then another dish... the “bomb”: tiny pieces of beef tongue accompanied by porcini mushrooms encased in a pâté de foie gras dome.
And are the famous spices that ruled in mediaeval times still featured in the Renaissance?
Yes, but they have been scaled down; sweet flavours now have the edge. Sugar was expensive and so it became a symbol of opulence at stately dinners. Pepper was replaced by cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg: these were used to season Renaissance dishes and create their intense aromas, along with a sprinkling of sugar. I have paid homage to these with caressingly smooth, my welcome for the guests: an enormous Acqua Panna ice cube flavoured with a Madagascar vanilla pod, a cinnamon stick, fresh thyme and some more water.
Which of your more extreme dishes have you included?
My Cyber Egg, a dish that is still as current and amazing as when it was created in 1998: seasoned egg mixed with Calvisius caviar and wrapped in cling film that you prick with a scalpel to create an explosion for the taste buds. And maybe also Il Papero al Melarancio (gosling served with a sweet orange sauce), one of Catherine de’ Medici’s recipes. I cook this with the same techniques that I use for my spacefood, the dishes that I created for the astronauts on the International Space Station, such as lasagne, aubergine parmigiana, caponata (a Sicilian dish made with aubergines, capers, olives, celery and tomatoes) and other dishes. These were made with a variety of techniques like dehydration, thermostabilization and sterilization. This is real “Made in Italy” comfort food that has gone into space for the very first time.
Is haute cuisine experiencing a new renaissance or is it in decline?
Cooking around the world is at a crossroads, and if the right choices are not made, it will all go to the wall. Italian chefs who are doing well need to remind themselves of the glorious past of Italian cuisine. We need to be more united and proud of our dishes and not imitate dishes standardised by the system: a boom in South American cuisine is on the way and we can bet that we’ll be eating ceviche everywhere rather than a decent plate of spaghetti? But I’m optimistic. This global economic crisis will mark a watershed: the survivors will be those who have worked hard and honestly and had the courage to make original choices.