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The taste of things to come

Special to The Times

THINK of Italy, and wild and crazy exchanges of cooking ideas are not what come to mind first. This is a country where each and every region is a world apart; the Tuscans in the center might as well be on Mars for all the interaction with the Piemontese to the northwest.

Which makes the frenzy of Identita Golose (literally “greedy identity”) all the more extraordinary. For three days last week some of the biggest names in “molecular gastronomy” (Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne) were mixing and matching secrets with more traditional chefs from Italy, France, Scandinavia, even Japan. The result was a dazzling exploration of new ways to cook fish, present pasta and generally make a restaurant meal more like a night at La Scala. Throw in sugar surrealism for dessert and it was hard to remember this was all happening in the land of plain fruit and tired tiramisu.

This was a conference that brought together a radical contingent from Scandinavia and the famed father-son team of Pierre and Michel Troisgros from France, as well as wildly inventive chefs from Spain and quiet revolutionaries from Sicily. There were chefs quoting Kandinsky and Lars von Trier as comfortably as they evoked Escoffier. There were chefs filling balloons with spices to pop over dinner plates, and chefs demonstrating how to flavor the bread crumbs so ubiquitous in Italian cooking with lime zest and syrup. They were using all the new-wave toys -- agar-agar and sous vide and digital thermometers and no end of Pakojets -- but they were also sharing discoveries as basic as this: Baking butternut squash or sweet onions on a bed of rock salt will concentrate the flavor and texture.

It says everything that Adria, the man who set the world on foam at El Bulli in Spain, was most excited about explaining his revelation that shellfish such as lobster and crab are best approached like lamb or pig -- a whole one should be cooked differently than the parts. As he noted, “95% of the cooking at El Bulli is based on cooking technique” rather than mad science.

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Adria, who was greeted like Mick Jagger by an auditorium full of chefs, food media and others, also demonstrated his new technique for turning seaweed into “caviar” by mixing chemicals to gel it and dropping it into liquid from a syringe. But that was just part of his larger point that seaweed is the ingredient of the future, given that no fewer than 500 varieties exist, many known only by their biological names at this point.

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Great innovations

THE conference, the third incarnation of a dream by noted Milan food writer and blogger Paolo Marchi, was part kitchen Nobel ceremonies, part trade fair. Downstairs in Palazzo Mezzanotte, a conference center in the Wall Street of Milan, vendors were trying to seduce chefs and others with “normal” fare such as fish from New Zealand, salumi and wines from various regions of Italy and cheese and salmon from Scandinavia. But the busiest booths may have been the ones where Adria’s company was promoting his various chemical agents and where another vendor was passing out little mouthfuls that looked like eggs but burst into passion fruit when tasted.

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Marchi said he started Identita Golose (www.indentitagolose.it) to get beyond just eating and drinking at conferences, to show the world that Italian chefs are “not all fat, not all mamma mia.” In the same way Italy leads the world in fashion, design, cars and more, he said, it should be making great innovations in food. And he was doing his part by bringing together chefs from nine countries who were willing to share their ideas. This year’s emphasis was partly on dessert, which Marchi said has taken on growing importance in a country where drinking and driving are no longer acceptable and where sweetness will be needed to fill out a meal the way that last glass of grappa once did.

Moreno Cedroni, chef of Madonnina del Pescatore near Ancona, explained the new Italian approach to food by noting that his is the first generation not to have experienced starvation. And thus, he said, “We need stimulation” from food. One of the dishes he demonstrated featured a layer of balsamic vinegar reduced to a jam that was hidden under a tangle of tagliatelle, to be discovered as a surprise taste.

Many of the Italian chefs made the point that access to ingredients has changed the way they cook. “Twenty years ago,” said Mauro Uliassi of Ristorante Uliassi near Ancona, “Italians more than 20 miles from the coast did not eat fish.” Their cuisine evolved without it. Now chefs can get anything, from anywhere, and Italian cooking does not have to be constrained by regional divisions. As a result, they are open to inspiration from their contemporaries anywhere, whether Rene Redzepi of the cutting-edge Nordic restaurant Noma in Copenhagen or Yasuhiro Sasajima of Il Ghiottone in Kyoto, Japan.

That sense of freedom helped Uliassi conceive of boiling rigatoni 55 minutes, until the texture was transformed, then drying it for two days, frying it and either filling it with salt cod and onion confit as a first course or glazing it with honey for dessert. In other ideas seemingly antithetical to Italy, he works with powders of candied lemon peel or dried raspberries.

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Antonio Pisaniello of La Locanda di Bu near Avellino, was among several chefs looking backward for inspiration. He is exploring flavored waters, which were used in Italy centuries ago. Today he might boil pasta in water with bay leaves and peppercorns, or peach pits or even chestnut leaves.

Presentations, projected on three giant screens in a large auditorium, included some concepts that bordered on the bizarre, such as the chocolate mayonnaise Frederic Bau of Valrhona (the French chocolate company) whipped up to serve with either salmon fillet or smoked salmon on a baguette. A mesclun salad with sugar instead of salt in the vinaigrette was offered as a dessert, as was Gorgonzola ice cream to go with a tart of reduced vin santo with pears. A Scandinavian chef presented a whole series of dishes using ashes (from burnt hay) as a seasoning; an Italian chef explained that he added a smoky flavor to risotto by using the liquid created when the smoked mozzarella called scarmorza is melted in a microwave.

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The palate’s imagination

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THE ideas were flying -- as were the flavor pebbles Dufresne of WD-50 in New York passed out at his demonstration: peas-and-bacon, balsamic vinegar, smoked corn, brandade, coconut-ginger-lime and banana-buttermilk. With so many European and Asian chefs open to anything at Identita Golose, he said, “I can come here and not feel like a three-headed freak.”

Some dishes were served to the audience, such as sublime gnocchi made from nothing more than ricotta and milk rather than the usual eggs and flour that can make the dumplings doughy. But most were left to the palate’s imagination (luckily, in the case of the puree of pork lung and Jerusalem artichoke served under sweetbreads baked in blood pudding and garnished with shards of crispy pig’s ear that a Swedish chef concocted).

Most demonstrations indicated equipment is as essential as ingredients to modern Italian cooking. The immersion blender -- essentially a combination electrified whisk and scythe -- could almost pass as a chef’s right hand anymore, used for whiz-jobs as diverse as beating beets into foam or turning truffle oil into a form of jelly bean. But it was also telling that Pierre Troisgros, in recounting his invention of the revolutionary salmon with sorrel cream sauce in the 1970s at the family restaurant in Roanne, France, credited the Teflon skillet with making it possible; before that, a chef would have had to use oil in an iron pan, which would have affected the clean flavor of the fish and sauce. (His son Michel presented the latest version of the dish as sashimi-like cubes of salmon wrapped in sorrel leaves with gelled, curdled milk alongside.)

Will Goldfarb of Room 4 Dessert in New York, the only other American chef invited, gave easily the most cerebral presentation of dessert ideas, with assemblages that seemed more about concepts than indulgence. His “vision in red” and “day at the beach” involved not chocolate and baking but bits and pieces of such creations as blood orange puree, hibiscus jelly and chartreuse meringue, all laid out on diagramed sheets of paper rather than plates. And he boasted that the last dessert was voted “worst in New York” by a magazine in 2004.

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Goldfarb was followed by Christophe Felder of Paris, who was once in charge of all desserts for Hotel de Crillon but now has a laboratory like Adria’s in which he is pushing the pastry envelope by mixing vegetables and sugar. Among other tricks, he made salad for dessert and served it in a cup illuminated by a flashing battery-operated candle.

Sugar traditionalists can hope more chefs took away the last lesson of the conference, given by Galileo Reposo, a twentysomething chef who worked at Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant in Tuscany. One of his creations layered pistachio shortbread with orange conserve, then partially gelled pastry cream, followed by a dip in melted white chocolate and a dusting of chopped pistachios; the precise perfection was plated with pistachio cream and orange sorbet. It was clearly more French patisserie than Italian dolce. But it could be a huge advance over tiramisu in a country where the food borders are now wide open.

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food@latimes.com

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