Jan 6, 2009

Alex Atala serves Amazonian ingredients to Ferran Adrià and other top Spanish chefs

São Paulo hosted last November one of the world's greatest food events, the Mesa Tendências, with most of Spain's top chefs in attendance: Berasategui, Adrià, Arzak, Adoni, Roca, etc.

The chefs were completely blown away by some of the things they saw and tasted while in Brazil, especially the rare ingredients flown in from the Amazon by celeb chef Alex Atala. He used the ingredients in a tasting menu served at his restaurant D.O.M to Spanish greats Ferran Adrià, Juan Mari Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Joan Roca & co.

The day of the dinner - which Atala said was the most important of his life - I spent some hours at D.O.M. with him. With us, there were two chefs – Josean Alija and Enaitz Landaburu, from the restaurant at the Guggenheim Bilbao, in.... Bilbao and Spanish food writer Pau Arenòs (below, at left).

The afternoon we spent together was a trip filled with strange and delicious smells and flavours, which showed me why the Spanish avant garde chefs are so fascinated by Brazil.

It was sensory overload: Alex showed us each one of the things he had sourced for the dinner, starting with Amazonian heart of palm, baked whole (which is now farmed in São Paulo state, rather than taken from the wild):

He then had us taste priprioca syrup:

Priprioca is a root that yields a bizarre-tasting syrup that seemed to be a blend of patchouli incense and pot:

We then bit into chunks of cupuaçu. I confess I've never been a fan of the fruit in the raw, its flesh is milky and stiky, and its perfume, cloying and almost aggressive. But the chefs were mesmerized:

Good thing we were able to taste an improved version of the fruit: in jelly form. Pretty little rectangles coated in fine sugar.

We then tasted licuri, a bland fruit that looked like a prune but had a much bigger pit. Interesting.

Be patient, the list goes on.... There was also the pequi, a fruit that is abundant in the Central plains of Brazil. It is fatty and has a strong aroma, and Atala extracts its oil to use sparingly as seasoning.

We also had chá mate bombons. Not all that exotic to a Brazilian, but delicious all the same. The mate flavour seemed heightened, concentrated.

Atala then cut open an Amazonian apricot - which I'd never heard of before! It looked nothing like an apricot, yet the taste was similar. I found it light and refreshing and noticed a slight orangey aftertaste.

Other fruits we tasted: araçá (unfortunately not ripe enough), abiu (round and yellow, like a small passion fruit, with fatty, milky flesh) and uxí, a miniature coconut. There were also tiny green tomatoes that exploded in the mouth (below).

Suddenly, Atala pulls out a half-rotten tree trunk, which had been removed from an igarapé - the flooded swamps of the Amazon. The fallen tree trunks that lay underwater in the Amazonian rivers serve as home to river worms that are called turús. These river worms were the highlight of Atala's dinner - the Spaniards couldn't get enough of them! Served near raw, with only a few drops of lime, they have a taste and texture similar to an oyster.

I tasted mine raw and unseasoned. It tasted of... a river.

To see Atala chopping the trunk in half with a machete to extract the turú, click play on the video below:

At the end, we tasted several fruit sorbets: graviola, cambuci, umbu, uvaia, cajá and cupuaçu.

That night, Atala was moved to be cooking for some of his idols. Here is the ten-course menu he served, in Spanish:

  • Ensalada de calabacin y cigala con vinagreta de pimienta aromática
  • Breaded oyster with marinated tapioca
  • Turú (river worms)
  • Filhote con tucupí y tapioca
  • Cigala real con curry negro, trabeques y infusion de lemongrass
  • Risoto líquido de coco, aceites de menta y dendê, alga nori
  • Brandade de palmito al horno con achoas del Cantabrico
  • Sorbet de cagaita
  • Crème caramel aromatizado con priprioca, ravióli de limon tahiti y banana oro (pictured at the top of this post)
  • Bizcocho de castanha de Pará con helado de whisky, curry y chocolate

Here's a photo of the cagaita sorbet, served on an ice block:

At the end, the dinner turned into a big party, the chefs visibly moved to all be together in the same room, which they never manage to do in Spain. Here are some snippets from the speeches made:

Juan Mari Arzak: "I have no words to describe what I have seen. From the bottom of our heards, we don't even know how to thank you enough."

Ferran Adrià: "This was a historic trip, not just for Brazil, but for us too. Please know that you have many friends in Spain, as we feel we have many friends here".

Martin Berasategui: "There is nothing harder than making a dinner like this. When everyone is tired from participating in a big event. When everyone has had too much to drink. I had heard many good things about this restaurant, but after seeing the sublety and the elegance of this dinner I was floored. An incredible lesson".

From left to right: Martin Berasategui, Ferran Adrià, Joan Roca, Juan Mari Arzak, Alex Atala

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