Massimo Bottura was a different kettle of fish (or roasting pan of guinea hen, or pot full of pig’s head – choose your cooking metaphor). If I had to sum up him up, I’d call him a multi-sensory artist. The dishes he creates not only taste and smell divine (at least, I’m guessing that they do– I wasn’t one of the fortunate few in the front row who got to sample his wares), but they are crafted to visually represent a concept or image. And like any good art, they communicate meaningful ideas. In Bottura’s presentation, he mentions the auditory senses only in passing when he talks about music informing his work, but I wouldn’t mind betting that the music he plays in Osteria Francescana, his restaurant in Modena, is carefully selected to contribute in just the right way to the total dining experience.
The hour with Bottura started with an image of a simple cup of cappuccino and a brioche. I could be wrong – perhaps my memory is inadequate, or my uncouth Antipodean ears misunderstood Bottura’s lush Italian accent – but I could have sworn he said that the flour used to make the brioche was made from dehydrated and powdered pig skin. Say what now? How? Why? And most importantly – I wonder what that would taste like?
He then went on to talk about a dish that he serves in his restaurant called Give Me A Hen Not Roasted. While an assistant chef assembled part of the dish in the display kitchen on stage, Bottura showed us two images side by side on the screen. The picture on the left was of a succulent-looking guinea hen roasting in a dish (roasted guinea hen being a traditional Italian dish). The right-hand image was a complicated line drawing diagram of a scientific process, syringes and funnels and Bunsen burners and who-knows-what arranged for some esoteric process.
“Where is the emotion in this picture?” he asked gleefully.
I sensed a trick question.
“It’s here,” he said, pointing at the diagram. Again, I thought – say what now? He then took an aerosol can and proceeded to spritz the air along the front row of the theatre with distilled essence of roast guinea hen, while his assistant served samples of food to the spritzees.
I got it then. The aroma of the roast bird is where the emotion is. It’s the first thing to hit you before you even sit down to a meal, and the last thing to leave your memories. Unfortunately I was at the very back of the theatre so didn’t get to smell the eau de roast, but I imagine it was a little like when you walk past KFC and smell the 11 different secret herbs and spices wafting out, and it takes you back to your childhood once-a-month family treat of KFC, and you suddenly feel hungry and crave KFC even although it’s Evil and you always feel sick fifteen minutes after eating it…yeah, I imagine it was like that, only clever and artistic and classy.
Bottura claims that, contrary to appearances, he is a great defender of tradition. He reinforced this with a beautiful short documentary interviewing various elderly people, including his mother, from his home town. One man described the depth of poverty he experienced growing up – a popular “game” as a child was to crowd around any adult seen eating an apple and clamour for him or her to throw the core up in the air when they’d finished eating so that one lucky contestant could catch it and devour what was left. Nothing was wasted. A lot of the regional traditional cuisine arose from the need to load the meal with as many calories as possible to fuel the workers in the fields and fishing boats. I barely had time to ponder the irony of watching this with my butt planted in a comfy chair and my belly full of an afternoon tea that I’d consumed purely for enjoyment and not for sustenance, when Bottura whisked us off on another tangent.
The next image on the screen was of a painting on the wall in his restaurant. He said something about a train leaving a station at dawn, something about the love and dedication of a man journeying to visit his lover in another town, something about how important it is in life to be fully awake, something about how hard it is to find a good cup of coffee at 3am…I’m not entirely sure. My attention was diverted by Bottura and his assistant recreating the painting in foodstuffs on a large white board, using different coloured coulis, chocolate, crumbled biscuit, spices and whipped cream. When they had finished, he invited the front row (the lucky, lucky bastards!) to come up, scoop some edible painting onto their fingertips, and taste it. And they did, one by one, throwing all caution and OSH requirements to the wind, until, like a sand mandala swept away, all that remained were a few smears of colour.
Bottura concluded by discussing one of his famous dishes, the foie gras magnum, which Matt Preston described as looking a lot like a Golden Gaytime ice cream. He takes terrine of foie gras, shapes it onto an ice block stick, inserts thick balsamic vinegar from Modena in the centre, and coats it with hazelnuts from the north of Italy and almonds from the south. Thus each ingredient not only contributes to the flavour of the dish, but represents Italy itself. There is also a deeper message contained therein; by serving it on a stick, this “snobby” dish (his words, not mine) must be eaten without cutlery, making the diner approach it with the innocence and exuberance of a child.
After The Theatre of Ideas concluded, Aimee and I strolled back along the Yarra to meet up with the rest of my family who were attending the Moomba Festival. All that listening to other people talk about food and watching other people eat food had made us peckish. We had a plethora of options to choose from at Moomba, but Aimee was inexorably drawn to the stall with the longest queue.
And that choice was…Twisttos.
A twistto is a potato cut into one continuous spiral, mounted on a skewer, dipped in batter, deep fried and coated in your choice of synthetic-tasting flavoured salt. I have no idea what Massimo Bottura would make of twisttos, this very antithesis of snobby food. One thing is for sure, they certainly encapsulate the innocence and exuberance (and unsophisticated taste buds) of a child.
And all of this relates to writing…how, exactly? Well, it left me wondering what sort of writer I want to be. Do I want to be (or am I even capable of being) a foie gras magnum? Or do I want to be a twistto?