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It’s the first time that the field of Milan’s racetrack has ever been open to the public: just walking on the grass, crossing the space where the horses usually run, is exciting. It’s a giant green area, not far from the city centre, and has been chosen as the location of the second edition of Taste of Milano: three days in which gastronomic excellence encounters a wide public.
The format is almost identical to the event already held in London and in several other of the world’s cities, with temporary restaurants set up by Milan’s top chefs who prepare some of their signature dishes for visitors. There are also local producers, tasting classes given by the Wine&Spirit academy, cooking lessons and live cooking demonstrations. It’s a formula that’s been proven to work, and here in Milan is no exception. Not even the dramatic thunderstorms and downpour this weekend was enough to deter the city’s foodies.
There were twenty chefs present – from Davide Oldani of the restaurant D’O to the promising Andrea Aprea, the new arrival at The Park Hyatt Restaurant – and each chef could prepare three dishes apiece, with the average cost of a dish being five euro. Even those with generous appetites wouldn’t come close to trying every single featured fish. So choosing becomes fundamental to the “Taste” experience. «Don’t leave without having tried the Uova di quaglia caramellate su mousse di anatra, bottarga d’uovo d’anatra e anatra fredda all’arancia (caramelized quail eggs on the duck mousse, the duck roe and the cold duck with orange) by chef Gaetano Simonato of Tano passami l'olio restaurant: you won’t believe them», reads the message I find on my cell phone.
Others take peeks at the plates on the counters and let themselves get tempted by the colours and smells. And then there are the other visitors who arrive with their minds already made up, decisively heading towards a restaurant that they’ve heard of, but never had the chance to go to. But more than anything it’s word of mouth that directs people from one stand to the next.
While I wait for a dish of di Crocchette di baccalà mantecato in crosta di mandorle, pistacchi e nocciole con chips di polenta soffiata (salted cod croquets in a crust of almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts with puffed polenta chips) – an amazing dish by chef Nicola Cavallaro – I meet Paolo, a 24 year-old law student from Turin. He’s travelled 150 kilometres to get here today, but he didn’t want to miss the occasion to meet certain chefs in person. «Try the red Tropea onions from the Al Pont de Ferr restaurant, it’s really worth it,» he suggests, already armed with a fork. And so I have a taste of the Cipolla rossa di Tropea caramellata e formaggio di capra (caramelized red Tropea onions and goat cheese), which appears fragile and glass-like. «The dough has been blown according to the same technique as that used by Murano glass-blowers,» explains chef Matias Perdomo. «We can make twenty in an hour. We brought four thousand here to Taste.» It’s not hard to make a rapid calculation. But why would one choose to bring such a complicated dish? «This is a dish from our menu and it represents the restaurant, so the tasters should be able to experience it,» explains the chef. «We’re ready to chase down even the most hurried visitor to explain how this dish was born.»
The chefs seem amused by the idea of working elbow-to-elbow with their colleagues, exchanging ideas and experiences: there’s a constant come-and-go of trays, nibbles and inspirations moving from one kitchen to the next. The team from Joia, with chef Pietro Leemann, the first (and as of now, only) vegetarian restaurant in Europe to receive a Michelin star, takes turns explaining Intima relazione: formaggio del Boscasso stagionato nella lavanda, chutney di rape e miele di castagne, pumpernickel ai semi di finocchio di montagna (Intimate relations: Boscasso cheese aged with lavender, rape chutney and chestnut honey, fennel seed pumpernickel). Then, looking carefully at the crowd, they explain. «Hearing comments about our dishes is important, but what we are most curious about is watching the reactions of you when you taste. Here we have the chance to meet people we wouldn’t otherwise get to meet.»
And there’s much to satisfy anyone’s curiosity here: for example, anyone wondering how Milan’s famed Ristorante Savini prepares the classic dish of Mondeghili di vitello alla milanese (a traditional dish of mixed veal innards), may take part in a debate on the use of cabbage or tomato with the young chef Giovanni Bon. I watch as a woman shyly touches the pastry chef Ernst Knam on the shoulder. «I won’t leave this stand until you tell me your secret,» she says, pointing to a sandwich made of cheese, salmon and spicy chocolate. «It’s not peperoncino,» says the chef. «But rather Sarawak pepper.»
And it’s this kind of curiosity that all the chefs – from Tommaso Arrigoni of Innocenti Evasioni to Andrea Berton from Trussardi alla Scala – consider to be the essence of the new food culture. A culture that is readily available to anyone who wishes to discover it, thanks to events like these.