Taste of Milano 2017

As you may know (or have previously read), one of my goals for this journey was to attend as many of the European Taste Festivals as I could while over here. The 2017 season began last weekend, with the Taste of Milano.

Set at ‘The Mall’ exhibition space in Porta Nuova, the Taste of Milano didn’t have the outdoor festival atmosphere that I was used to in Melbourne. In fact, The Mall exhibition space is kind of underground. Or more accurately, below street level. The weird thing about Milan centre is that the entire city seems to be built on a falsely raised platform. You think you’re on the ground, but if you look down through any of the hundreds of grates you’ll walk over as you’re exploring, you’ll see that what looks like the real ground level is actually a couple of metres below you. It’s a little odd, and took my imagination on a wild ride as I imagined some secret subculture of rat-people who have been worshipping the ancient Roman gods for hundreds of years in secret and living below the modern population, stealing our garbage.

Nonetheless – that ‘real’ ground level is where the festival was!

The Taste of Milano was basically a corridor leading away from you featuring restaurant pop-ups down one side, with a few bars and other stalls of interest along the other. I walked the entire length on arrival, only to be disappointed by the fact that the produce and market section was not there. It was only the restaurant pop-ups. While that did give it a somewhat more upmarket feel than the festival I’m used to, I was a little disappointed and felt that it was missing a core part of what makes it a regional food festival – to explore the products that local artisans have to offer, as well as the culinary side of the gastronomic landscape. Nonetheless, it did smell amazing.

The first dish I tried was from “La Locanda del Notaio” – potato foam with cacao crumble, cicerones, and quail egg poached in black truffle.

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This actually ended up being my favourite out of the dishes that I tried. The potato foam itself was pristine in it’s consistency, with the cicerones adding a pleasant contrasting crunch. By the way, if you’re wondering what the green is, it’s olive oil of an exceptionally high quality – yes, that ends up looking green, not the amber colour we usually associate with oil! The quail egg and cacao crumble were hidden at the bottom like a secret, and it was fun to unearth it and mix it through. The truffle was aromatic but very subtle, the primary taste when eating was of the olive oil, egg and salt, but the black truffle flavour lingered on the tongue afterwards, almost making me reluctant to move on to the next dish.

This one was a big surprise for me, because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. From Innocenti Evasioni, my friend had selected it, and it comprised of a cream of Ragusano (a hard cows milk cheese) with hazelnuts, a poached egg, tomato extract and bottarga. And this was where I got thrown off, because I had no idea what bottarga was.

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It turns out that bottarga is an extremely fishy, strong preserved roe, that is then grated or sliced and added into other dishes. Even with the cheese and the hazelnuts the flavour overpowered everything else. Not being a fan of the very fishy flavours, I couldn’t bring myself to eat much of this, but I can say that it was beautifully presented and the texture of the cream was also silky smooth.

Dish #3, from Ristorante Trussardi alla Scala, was an impeccable creme brulee of white asparagus, again with quail eggs (they seemed to be quite the ingredient on trend), milk of Parmesan and Guanciale (similar to Prosciutto).

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I love asparagus, but was amazed to see that the somewhat fibrous texture was completely disguised in the creme brulee, leaving you with exactly the texture you would expect in the dessert for which it is named. Additionally, the sweet caramlised top contrasted beautifully with the savoury elements on the plate.

After this dish I had a slightly disappointing moment, as I had seen on the website beforehand a dish of 100 hour pulled pork, and it was the first one I marked down as wanting to try. After hunting for some time for the restaurant (Vun) I looked more closely at the program and realised that there were different pop-ups on the first two days as there were on the second two – after looking forward to this dish for a couple of weeks, it turns out I had missed it! It was the first time I had also experienced there being a change of restaurants part way through the program, so it’s not something I was expecting.

The fourth and fifth dishes were both from Ristorante Berton. Firstly, spaghetti with raw tomato and liquid olive. I really wanted to choose at least one dish that featured really basic ingredients, just to taste the quality, freshness, and simple pleasure that those bare flavours can bring. I wasn’t disappointed. For such an unassuming dish it was absolutely packed full of flavour, and the liquid olive (clearly inspired by the Olives from the Adria brothers in Spain, which I was lucky enough to experience at Tickets in February) had taken their own spin and, instead of being full of oil were actually filled with a rich olive mousse which added a delicious creaminess to the pasta sauce.

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The second dish from Ristaurante Berton was a dessert – Pear with ricotta, gelato of pollen and a ‘nocciolo’ – looking like the seed from a stone fruit – of amaretto.

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The gelato tasted a lot like soy, to me, but the dish overall was incredible. The single crispy slice of pear was supported by a pear gel, and as most of the elements (save the crumble) were soft, all the flavours blended seamlessly together. The sweet ricotta was probably the highlight of the dish. To me, pear is just the perfect flavour for Spring, as it has both sweetness as well as a unique crispness in the mouth – not just of texture but of flavour – that isn’t really encapsulated in any other kind of fruit.

Having had a taste of dessert the next dish was something that translated as “Take me down to the sea Tiramisu”. This was another shock. Because of course, I was expecting a Tiramisu – and it wasn’t. It was a savoury sea food dish – it just happened to be layered and presented like a Tiramisu, in a transparent glass.

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This is also a dish that I didn’t have much of as it was far too intense for me, still relatively new to even daring to TRY any type of seafood or fish. It’s just not something I handle well. Having said that, I tried to foam on the top, and was very glad that I did. Topped with squid ink and some sort of black salt, the foam had basically no flavour but somehow still smelled like the ocean. It was as if you had tried to eat the foam that the waves carry to the shore, and just as the bubbles burst when they hit the sand, so this foam disintegrated into nothing on your tongue. I was told by an Italian friend later that they don’t call this foam (unlike the ‘spume’ of potato in the first dish) but ‘air’. It’s fitting.

Despite the fact that I was expecting a dessert, I think the surprise of finding a savoury sea food dish was even more fitting to the mind games that molecular gastronomy should play on you. Something appears to be what it is not. When stirred together, the seafood in the bottom of the cup along with the ‘air’ and strong salt created such an aroma of the ocean that if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine you were walking along the beach. We were surrounded by an incredible pocket of air that completely transported me to another place, and overwhelmed the sounds and smells of the festival around me. Not what I was expecting or looking for, but nonetheless an impressive and fitting end to the days tastings.

Overall, the quality of the food presented was exceptionally high end, and I was really blown away by what was being offered at prices ranging from 6-10 euros. However, I was disappointed by the lack of the market component, and the absence of several advertised restaurants – the festival overall was smaller than I expected. I also didn’t like the fact that, unlike the other festivals, you can’t reclaim any money unspent on the card at the end of the day – you have to either spend it exactly or donate the remainder. It just makes it a lot more difficult to calculate how much to load the card with.

I’m really looking forward to the taste of Paris in 10 days, and seeing how it compares… stay tuned!

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