Last month saw the return of Italian chef congress Identità London with a stellar line-up of chefs demonstrating their skills. Tom Vaughan reports
"We all stand on the shoulders of giants," said Guardian food editor and TV presenter Matthew Fort, introducing the third Italian chef congress Identità London. "But for Italians, those giants are their mothers."
In a nutshell, it was a perfect summation of Identità London 2011's raison d'être. While countries such as Spain, Denmark and even England have been widely perceived to have taken huge culinary steps this past decade, dragging their traditional cuisines into bold new territory, Italy remains, to many, the land of spaghetti Bolognese and tiramisu, according to Fort.
Identità London is based on the renowned Milan event, Identità Golose, and was launched in 2009. This year's one-day gastronomic congress, which took place on 18 October, was devoted to Italian gastronomy showcasing some of the country's top chefs as well as artisan producers.
Boasting a stellar line-up Italian chefs - with an astonishing nine Michelin stars between them - each talking and cooking in front of a packed conference room at the Town Hall Hotel in east London, the conference was there to show that Spain isn't the only Mediterranean cuisine forging a unique niche in the 21st Century.
First behind the stove was Davide Oldani (pictured), chef patron of D'O in Cornaredo, Milan, who has coined the term "pop cooking" to refer to his brand of accomplished cuisine at an affordable price. Working in front of a mission statement listing the characteristics of pop cooking - low-cost local, seasonal and humble ingredients, high levels of creativity, lighter and less fatty dishes - Oldani turned out one of his more famous dishes, the simply named bread, butter and sardine.
"To be a chef is to work with these humble ingredients," explained Oldani, through his translator. "Not with lobster and foie gras."
Made up of small sardine fillets, cured for eight hours with salt and sugar, dark, charcoaly Sicilian breadcrumbs, figs (one raw, one poached in syrup) and whisked butter, and then served with a refreshing tea infusion drink, it was an exquisite example of Oldani's cooking.
"It works through textural contrast and a range of temperatures," explained Fort in his role as compere. "This is local cooking taken to a level I very much doubt his mother would recognise."
Next up was Ciccio Sultano, chef patron of two-Michelin-starred Duomo in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily. His was an aptly titled demonstration dish: spaghetti tarata, so named because it calls to mind the sound of clashing swords, of Normans and Arabs fighting over the little Mediterranean island.
Featuring the spices that form such a backbone of Sicilian cooking - bought to the island by the Arabs and by Venetian traders - it is a dish of pasta tossed in olive oil, garlic and chilli, then topped with a mix of cinnamon, breadcrumbs, orange zest, more chilli and lemon verbena, before being finished with toasted breadcrumbs made with anchovies and capers, then anchovy fillets.
"All of Sicily in one dish," said Fort. "The capers, the spices, the anchovies, the herbs. Sicilian cooking is so highly evolved; every country has left its mark. And in just one dish you can taste 500 years of culinary heritage."
The last demonstration before lunch came courtesy of Davide Scabin, the two-Michelin-starred chef patron of Combal Zero in Turin, whose scientific approach to cooking is a leading light among Italian chefs.
Rated by Fort as having prepared one of the best meals he's ever eaten, he said: "Davide transfers Italian cooking so its almost unrecognisable, making pictures on the plate that are as pretty as they are wonderful to eat."
Davide's demonstration was centred on pasta. His ambition is "to shift the focus back to the taste of the pasta; to make pasta the star".
To help demonstrate this goal: a dish that has become something of a signature for Scabin - pasta sushi. Consisting of five large conchigliette-shaped pasta pieces, served one-above the other on shelves within a perspex presentation dish, each came filled with different, clean flavours, ranging from raw cuttlefish and mussels with parsley and garlic to marinated anchovies with pesto.
Straight after lunch came the loquacious flowings of Massimo Bottura, two-starred chef patron of Osteria Francescana in Modena. Intense, talkative and resembling an Italian John Campbell, his 90-minute demonstration, in Fort's words, seemed to cover everything from his childhood to the present day, but his dish of "Osso Bucco with saffron rice, always al dente" was an apt and, more importantly, concise example of his cooking.
First comes the sauce, an intense reduction of Osso Bucco that uses an amazing 50kg of meat (minus the marrow) to create just one small pan of sauce. Then the rice is cooked in water, fried and dried in the oven. The marrow from the bones is then grilled, simmered, filtered and infused with saffron. To serve, the jus is topped with the al dente rice and the saffron infusion.
Following on came Paolo Lopriore, who runs Il Canto in Siena. If the other chefs represented progression inside the kitchen, Lopriore success owes as much to a progression in the Italian mindset.
As Fort said: "He has bought his radical modern tradition to Tuscany. Which makes him a very brave man, as Tuscany is nothing if not a place of great culinary tradition."
Luckily for him, his Tuscan clientele have managed to look past the shackles of tradition to appreciate a cooking style that owes its identity to many different regions of Italy.
He prepared a dish of cold spaghetti tossed in intense celery juice (using five heads to create just one shot-glass full), served with herring eggs and sprayed with Sambuca.
Finally, the most instinctive chef of them all, the two-starred Antonino Cannavacciuolo, chef patron of Villa Crespi in Novara. Silently showing his craft, Cannavacciuolo let his cooking speak for him, demonstrating the timeless skill that still underpins all Italian cooking.
Blanching, then slow-cooking pasta in fish stock, he pan-fried baby squid, flavoured the cooked pasta with garlic, parsley and olive oil, added the squid and some tomato and served. As simple, yet as impossible, as that. "Pasta is not easy," he explained in a rare speech. "Which is why it is rare to find a non-Italian chef who will put it on a Michelin-starred menu."
And with that, we're done. A mix of chefs from the brazenly progressive, to the utterly instinctive, all showing what modern Italian cooking is all about.
That left the gala dinner and a conclusion from the irrepressible Bottura: "In the last decade we've had a big change in the gastronomic style of Italy. It's not about revolution, it's about evolution. We need to remember who we are and where we came from, otherwise we will forget where we are going."
IdentitA London 2011 chefs
Massimo Bottura - Osteria Francescana, Modena
Antonino Cannavacciuolo - Villa Crespi, Orta San Giulio, Novara
Paolo Lopriore - Il Canto, Siena
Davide Oldani - D'O, Cornaredo, Milan
Davide Scabin - Combal.Zero, Rivoli, Turin
Ciccio Sultano - Duomo, Ragusa