European Art of Taste: EATing Italy

The Bangalore leg of the European Art of Taste (EAT) program has just concluded. As EAT’s Bangalore consultant, I had the pleasure of helping to put together a series of food-focused events.

The first, at Caperberry, was an art-themed event that explored the connection between art and food. Art historian Annapurna Garimella presented several great works of art that featured food – and chef Abhijit Saha created an extraordinary menu consisting of dishes (a choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian for each course)  inspired by the art.

EAT is a program supported by the European Union and the Italian Government. Its goal is to promote the appreciation and understanding of the finest wines and food products from Europe. In India, EAT promotes pasta, olive oil, Provolone Val Padana cheese, and regional wines.

In keeping with EAT’s goals, I set Chef Saha a challenging task: create dishes inspired by specific works of art and ensure that each dish showcases either pasta, Provolone Val Padana, or extra virgin olive oil; and pair each dish with an IGM-approved wine. I am happy to report that he rose to the challenge with aplomb.

One by one, from the top:

Primi: First Course

The Temptation and the Fall of Adam and Eve, 1508-1512 Michelangelo Buonarotti
Having seen this work of art in the original on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, I can tell you that it tells an entire Biblical story (Genesis 3) with an eloquence that is unmatched by words. The Serpent, coiled around the tree, is depicted handing Eve the Forbidden Fruit, while an angry Angel of Justice, depicted as a limb of the same tree, is seen banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Chef Saha’s culinary interpretation of this stunning work of art? Using the forbidden fruit as a centerpiece, he constructed a  green apple, walnut and arugula salad with Provolone PDO cheese and extra virgin olive oil. The crunchy, tart green apple was offset nicely by the nuttiness of the walnut and the faintly bitter spiciness of the arugula. Authentic smoked Provolone PDO cheese added an extra dimension of flavor and texture – the salad ingredients were so perfectly paired that extra virgin olive oil was all that was needed as a dressing.

Water, 1566
Arcimboldo is best known for his brilliantly clever, yet bizarre series of portraits composed entirely of plants, animals, and objects. “Water” forms part of a series of paintings devoted to the elements of nature.

This portrait of an older woman is composed entirely of sea creatures – down to the pearl earring and necklace and the coral hair ornament, also products of the sea.

This was probably the easiest dish for Chef Saha to conceptualize – a hearty, Ligurian-style seafood stew. Liguria is a coastal region in the north-west of Italy, and  its capital, Genoa, is thought to be the origin of pesto. Ciuppin (which refers to any kind of fish or seafood soup), is a thick, sieved, tomato-based soup usually served with a crusty, dense bread. Chef Saha’s rendering was delicious, and  the usually etiquette-conscious guests were unable to resist dunking their pesto-kissed crostini into the rich broth.

Secondi: Second Course

Cherries and Peas, Undated
Leonardo da Vinci
This is one of da Vinci’s lesser-known works, and with good reason – it is a sketch from one of the artist’s many notebooks, of which only 28 survive today.

Art historian Garimella pointed out that da Vinci was inspired not only by the complementary colors red and green, but also – given his scientific bent of mind – by the fact that both cherries and peas are “miniature ovaries” and therefore sources of life.

If the ciuppin was an easy dish to come up with, given the obvious theme of Arcimboldo’s “Water”, this painting, I’m guessing, caused Chef Saha a couple of sleepless nights. In his own words, “Cherries and peas look lovely together on canvas, but how do you make them work together on a plate?” To my mind, this dish deserves special mention for culinary creativity. Diners were treated to fettucine aglio, olio, e pepperoncini with cherry tomatoes and green peas, topped with a barely-there puff of cherry foam. Aglio olio is one of those dishes that is hard to get right because it is so simple – the fewer the ingredients a dish has, the less forgiving it is of mistakes. Having opted, for the most part, to sample the vegetarian options in each course (um no, I am not unwell) I was delighted to find that the kick of red pepper did not detract in any way from the aroma of the oil-infused garlic. While I dislike peas on principle (they’re green, for God’s sake!) I have to say that they added greatly to the visual and textural appeal of this dish.

Foodscape 7 
Carl Warner 
British photographer Carl Warner specializes in creating and photographing foodscapes – landscapes crafted entirely from food (regular FTBlog readers will remember his work from an earlier post.)

This particular work consists entirely of deli meats – prosciutto, mortadella, bacon – and bread. These have been used to craft a pretty winter wonderland, complete with a sled made of breadsticks and loaded with “presents”.

I had expected the dish paired with this work of art to be of the “same-old, same-old” variety: prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe or shrimp, maybe, or prosciutto served with some kind of pasta in a cream-based sauce. I was happily surprised when the Caperberry kitchen turned out rotolo di lasagna al prosciutto with chilled melon cappuccino. A warm lasagna and prosciutto roll-up, thinly sliced, was served alongside a chilled, tangy, cantaloupe “soup”. What a refreshing take on an old standby! The contradictory-yet-somehow-complementary flavors, textures, and temperatures offered up an exquisite experience to the palate.

Terzo: Third Course

The Potato Eaters, 1895
Vincent Van Gogh
This painting, evocative of (and influenced by) Rembrandt’s luminescent style, was Vincent van Gogh’s ode to the working class. In his own words, “I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and — that they have thus honestly earned their food.”

Inspired not only by the potatoes, but also by the idea of rusticity depicted in the painting, chef Saha served up potato gnocchi and Provolone-stuffed morels in a simple mushroom sauce. This peasant-style dish was elevated to decadence by a drizzle of truffle-infused extra virgin olive oil. In terms of overall appeal, this was my favorite dish – despite the fact that it was, again, meatless.

The Last Supper, 1986
Andy Warhol
This painting formed part of a series – arguably Warhol’s largest – commissioned by gallerist Alexandre Iolas and created in 1986. The series comprised over 100 gargantuan works, some up to forty feet in length, based on cheap, black and white reproductions of da Vinci’s original. About half these works (such as this one) were made by silkscreening the image, and the other half by projecting the image onto canvas and outlining it. Ironically, Andy Warhol died less than a month after these paintings were exhibited in Milan, after undergoing emergency gallbladder surgery. This series truly was his Last Supper.

Although debate still rages about what was served at the Last Supper, Jesus’ last meal probably included wine, dry unleavened bread, roast lamb, and bowls of bitter herbs with a dipping sauce. Those who elected to sample chef Saha’s lemon zest and garlic-marinated leg of lamb with roasted baby potatoes, caponata, red wine sauce and lemon flavored oil were treated to a memorable composition  of textures and tastes. The hearty flavor of the wine underlying the fresh aroma of Monini’s “limone” EVOO complemented the tender meat perfectly.

Dolce: Dessert

Dessert Tray
Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud’s iconic works, featuring bakery and delicatessen counters, cakes, pies, ice creams, desserts, sandwiches, and cheeses, pay homage to the abundance of home-made sweets he enjoyed as a child. They feature child-like colors and forms, and hark back to an era when cake was lovingly baked from scratch.

We ended our meal with a dessert trio: a passionfruit panna cotta, a tart of red wine-poached fig, and a tiramisu-inspired roll-up. Not being a coffee-lover, I can only vouch for the panna cotta (not too much gelatin, not too sweet) and the tart (delectably flaky).

I must take a minute to mention that the entire meal (four courses for 70 people, with each person ordering either a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian item for each course) was served with military precision. Kudos to the Caperberry team for pulling this difficult task off flawlessly!

For those of you who weren’t there, Caperberry is serving up the entire four-course menu described above at a special price of Rs. 1275 plus tax until Nov 5th. I recently sampled the menu again, at lunch with chef Madhu Menon and Gautam John (both of whom attended my Chinese-at-home dinner). As is always the case when well-fed folks like us dine together,there were a couple of nit-picky gripes from the three of us (the pasta is a microhair too al dente, the lamb is soft and tender, but could use some jus, the green apple flavor overpowers the entire dish). Overall, though, we enjoyed our meal.

Is it worth it? Yes, if you are into quality over quantity. Although the three tasting courses plus dessert are filling, don’t visit if you are ravenous. This isn’t “that” kind of meal – it’s less about gluttony and more about showcasing flavors.


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