Thursday, December 11, 2008

Slow Foods - Terra Madre and Piemonte dinner

Last night I went to a Slow Foods dinner held at Blu Pizza e Cucina in Mary Brickell Village. Beyond a good meal there were a couple reasons for the dinner: reports from, or possibly celebration of, the group delegates who were sent to the Terra Madre convention in Torino and a tour of the regional cuisine of the Piemonte region of Italy. Unfortunately there were audio issues so, from my seat in the corner, I could only catch little bits of all the announcements and speeches. From outside reading I know that Terra Madre covers your general Slow Food topics: sustainable agriculture, organic certification, GM foods, preservation of local foodways and ingredients and all that. The speeches I couldn't hear were pretty short so I don't think the delegates talked much about what they learned; maybe they'll write up a report of the Slow Food Miami website?

I did catch that either Blu's owner or chef is from Piemonte , but I didn't realize until I looked it up that Torino is in Piemonte (although the map on the back of the menu should have been a clue) which ties things together. I would have liked some explication of just how this meal ties into the whole Slow Food ethos: is Piemonte cuisine endangered? I know that Piemonte is known for its truffles so the meal is heavy with those. Are we using any other local ingredients? Anything local to Miami? Anything organic or fair trade or the like? How was this more than just a nice meal? Maybe that was all there but I couldn't hear it through the feedback and distortion.

What that leaves me with is the meal, so I ought to talk about that. Four courses, each with paired with a wine from Piemonte. I'm assuming that it was all straightforward traditional Piemonte dishes without a lot of chefly innovation so I'll talk more about preparation than conception. And let me apologize for the quality of the photos as usual. I thought I had plenty of light this time around but I guess not... It turns out the adapter I use to get the pictures from my phone to my computer is no longer working so no pictures until I get a replacement. ...OK, I've got a replacement and did a bit of adjustment to improve visibility. They're not great, but they're good enough to be useful so I'm putting in the pics.

First course was an antipasti trio: vitello tonnato, bagna cauda and polenta e fontina. That first one is thin slices of veal with a tuna-caper sauce. I've seen tuna sauces for meat before and have been skeptical of the idea. This dish was pretty much what I expected: it tasted of overcooked tuna and capers with the mild veal rather lost beyond adding its meaty texture. The shredded celery and carrot garnish helped balance it out, but you've had tuna sandwiches so you knew that.

The bagna cauda was served with a big platter of crudites, but with a communal bowl of the sauce and no serving utensils it was a bit tricky to deal with. Since it's just olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies you have to make an effort to screw it up; this example could have used a little salt and could have been warmer, but those are just quibbles. One takeaway from this meal is that fennel is particularly good with bagna caude; I did not know that.

The third antipasti was a grilled corn meal polenta (are there other sorts?) with a couple stalks of asparagus on top, Fontina cheese melted over and truffle sauce (a wine reduction I believe) around and about. There's a strong funky, but not unpleasant smell from the sauce, but again the lack of serving utensils means actually getting some is problematic. The polenta is nicely prepared--fluffy with crispy bits from the grilling. I can never get it right myself. The sauce is a bit overpowering, but it works well with the Fontina so that's nice enough.

The wine is Gavi di Gavi, La Meirana, Broglia, a light, slightly sweet and flinty red. Not a bad choice considering all of the different flavors it had to pair with.

Next course is gnocchi con funduta e infusione di tartufo which even my non-existent Italian can translate into housemade potato gnocchi with a Fontina cheeses fondue and a white truffle infused olive oil. Or at least the general outlines of that. Nearly forgot to take a picture this time; the not-half-eaten plate looked rather nicer in a minimalist sort of way. The gnocchi is creditably made--feather-pillow texture, not the down-pillow light one occasionally encounters or the more common Tempurpedic lumps. Personally, I like the chewy outer layer, but maybe that's just me. The fondue to fairly delicate so you can taste the potato and the truffle brings out the earthy aspects of the Fontina nicely. That's takeaway number two: match Fontina and truffles. I thought the dish could use another element--a sprinkling of Parmesan was nice but didn't really amount to a full extra flavor component--to work as an independent dish, but this is just a primo piatto so it's doing what it's intended to.

The wine was Barbera d'Alba Damilano which was nice enough on it own--light crisp berries with a fast fade to a spicy afterimage on the palate--but was too strong to pair with the fondue.

Secondo piatto was trota ai funghi porcini a.k.a. rainbow trout draped over a truffe-potato gratin in a pool of baby Porcini wine sauce. The same wine sauce as the polenta, actually, I think. The trout is a nice texture--not quite flaky but not undercooked--and about as flavorful as you can expect from trout which means that it's completely overwhelmed by the sauce. But the sauce is aromatic with herbs and mushrooms and rich with wine and butter so I'm not complaining. That said, the star of the plate is the gratin. This is the first dish where the truffles are more than just punctuation. Their flavor is infused through the creamy cheese layers and really punches up the flavor to a level that potato gratin doesn't usually get to.

The wine is Barbera d'Alba, Damilano which is dry, round and full of tannins. I'd like drinking it on its own and it's big enough to stand up to the sauce but the two wipe eachother out of the mouth. It's alternation, not harmonious accompaniment.

Then came inaudible speaches from the Terra Madre delegates way across the room. I'd say at least they tried but I think this sort of thing does more harm than good. It's an interminable lull in the meal just when the roudier diners are getting drunk enough to give their own comical suggestions of what they might be getting at over there. We could catch enough that they knew these folks went to a conference but no idea exactly what or why. That sort of information is important to brand Slow Food dinners as something more than just a foodie event. There are non-members at every dinner who come in thinking Slow Food is a group of crockpot enthusiasts and relying on random people at each table to explain the philosophy seems an unreliable strategy.

Once all that was up, the dinner closed up with a doce: pannacotta alle castagne: chestnut pannacotta with Amaretto-creme anglaise. My favorite of the evening. First off, the pannacotta was actually creamy instead of rubbery. I don't think I've ever encountered one that didn't have an appalling texture before. To accompany that was a triple cookie topping: first a thick crumbly top (bottom while it was cooking I suppose) to the pudding, then a little spice cookie on top and on top of that what looks like a little piping of whipped cream is actually a tiny vanilla meringue cookie. I'm not usually a fan of that sort of trickery in food since it's most often cleverness to the detriment of flavor but this was a pleasant surprise and, oddly, one that most people at my table unknowingly left on their plate. As for the flavor, I'm not much of a fan of either chestnut or amaretto and, to tell the truth, the combination was rather bitter, but that's where the only really successful wine pairing of the evening came in. The wine was a Moscato d'Asti Marenco: syrupy sweet and sour and tingly on the tongue. I'd say it tasted of soursop if anyone would know what I was talking about. Fruity anyway and a synergistic combination with the dessert where the flavors played interestingly against one another with each new sip or bite.

And then everyone ran for the exits in fear of more incomprehensible speeches.

Overall, I'd say, foodwise, this dinner was more successful than not, particularly considering the knowledge I've gained about Piemonte cuisine. The big minus was the wine pairing for which it appears Vias Imports is to blame, not the chef. On the event side of things there's some room for improvement. And now that I've mouthed off about it I think I'm obliged to volunteer and get it right next time. I generally sit uncomfortably waiting for the mingling to die down before these things anyway so I might as well be making myself useful.

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