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Right from the start, it was clear that the 2018 edition of Le Strade della Mozzarella was going to be a special one. In fact, it started with a dish that contained no cheese at all.
The 11th edition of the event, which celebrates PDO Buffalo Mozzarella from Campania, and all the good things Southern Italy has to offer, opened with a 'Cacio e pepe' (the popular pasta dish with Pecorino Romano cheese and pepper) ... without any cheese. The attention was immediately focused on some of the topics that were to characterise the two-day congress: an open-minded attitude in the kitchen and elsewhere, and the interaction between apparently distant and very different cultures – all in the name of an experimental approach that is joyous, light-hearted and even disrespectful at times, but which always respects products.
US-born Joshua Pinsky, from Momofuku Nishi in New York, prepared a dish of ‘Ceci e pepe,’ in which the sweet creaminess of cheese was imitated using fermented chickpeas, a (generous) dose of butter and, of course, salt and pepper. The resulting dish, which was less savoury than the original recipe, but rich in umami, was awarded the Pastificio dei Campi, in collaboration with the James Beard Foundation.
Matthew Kenney is the founder of the first raw cookery school in the world and heads an empire of 'plant-based' restaurants – a term he prefers to 'vegan' – also comprising the Double Zero pizzeria with its four venues, two in New York, one in Philadelphia and another in Boston. At the congress, he went on stage with a pizza whose mozzarella had been created using a cream of fermented cashews and nutritional yeast.
His talk was followed by an animated and interesting discussion with the public on some ‘hot’ topics of vegan cuisine: is it right or wrong to attribute the name of cheese to other ingredients? Why try to replicate mozzarella at all costs when a simple marinara pizza is in itself a vegan dish? Because American palates differ from those of Italians, replied Kenney, and need more pampering. What is the future of vegan cuisine now that even large companies and restaurant chains are ‘adapting’ to this change in consumer patterns? It is rare to experience, at any congress, such an unbiased exchange of views in which so many people feel the need to join in.
If there was one thing that emerged strongly at LSDM 2018 it was the importance of collaboration, whether in the form of a special friendships, support from colleagues or the relationship between ‘pupil’ and ‘maestro.’ A longstanding friendship is shared by Mauro Colagreco, two Michelin stars at Mirazur in Menton, in the South of France, and Agostino Iacobucci, who has just left the Bologna-based restaurant, I Portici, a friendship they define as being “Under the influence of the Mediterranean”. They went up on stage together to symbolically ‘share’ a mozzarella: the paste was used by Colagreco, the serum was Iacobucci’s. The former squeezed out the liquid from the mozzarella until it was completely dry and then heated the cheese until it became a crisp sheet with which to prepare a taco filled with cherry tomatoes, stracciatella and basil. Iacobucci, on the other hand, added hay to the mozzarella liquid – almost an imitation of buffalo fodder – and served it with popcorn and, most importantly, bread, to recall his childhood snacks when he used to dunk bread in the liquid of freshly made mozzarella.
Another pair of aces was formed by Ana Roš and Emily Harris. The chef of the Hisa Franko and World’s Best Female Chef 2017 went on stage together with her sous-chef. “She left Chicago for the cows of Slovenia” she says jokingly, reminding the public of her restaurant location which can euphemistically be described as ‘off the beaten track’. “We are trying to get her hitched up with a local farm labourer to make sure she stays”. This is a professional partnership which, as Roš recalls, has enabled her to survive the last two years, the most chaotic in her life, since she became a superstar of the international food scene. Neither does she deny the difficulties this implies, also on a personal and family level. Even chefs are human beings.
Eat Well, Stay Well
The motto of the event, “Eat Well Stay Well,” ties up with the Manifesto del Cuoco Moderno delle Strade, 10 guidelines for dealing with local products and getting the most out of them.
A 10-point manifesto based on respect and awareness is certainly followed by Daniel Berlin, a two-Michelin-star chef from the heart of Skåne, a rural area of Southern Sweden. On stage he explained that his tiny restaurant's menu strictly reflects the Scandinavian seasons – he is a forager and does everything possible to minimise waste. “I don’t usually serve pasta, because it is not part of our food culture,” he explained, “but we eat lots of it in our staff meals.” Hence, pasta cooked in rooster stock accompanied the crisp skin of the animal, with natural savoury flavour from wild duck tongue, and added acidity from apple juice and mozzarella liquid. Marvellous.
No reference to local cuisine is complete without mentioning Corrado Assenza. The pastry chef of the Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily is now world-famous because of his recent appearance in Netflix's Chef's Table: Pastry and he shared a dish that expresses his philosophy: Russello wheat, to represent his love of Sicily, and vegetables (the blurring of borders between sweet and savoury flavours he has always pursued), tossed with spring onion and made into zucchini ice-cream and, finally, a buffalo ricotta cream that is “similar to the one my own shepherd supplies me with.” The importance of simplicity, the tangible value of goodness.
More Than Mozzarella
Obviously, the chefs’ dishes were not only mozzarella-based. Angelo Sabatelli, a one-Michelin-star chef from the eponymous restaurant in Putignano, gave a new twist to baked eggplant with burrata, the iconic dish of the latest edition of the Strade, in a fun and somewhat provocative manner. The Apulian chef told us that his favourite dish his mother's stuffed eggplant, which he has given an oriental twist having spent 10 years in the Far East: it is fried, lacquered with soy sauce and served with black olive oil, cream of buffalo ricotta and cream of miso.
Heinz Beck, the three-starred chef from La Pergola in Rome on the other hand, has chosen to feature buffalo meat. With particular reference to the health-conscious aspect of the event’s motto, he placed the accent on eating well: meat from non-intensive breeding farms is richer in vitamins, less fatty and tastier. He served it marinated in buffalo yoghurt and smoked.