Flavor of love

Remember when I attended the Worlds of Flavor conference? I don’t, but that’s the free sherry talking. I’m not sure whether I mentioned this, but the trip was covered by the [Association of Food Journalists](http://www.afjonline.com/). I’m a member, and if you write about food at least half-time and get paid for it (or are at least trying to get paid for it), I recommend joining. You’ll be invited to their traveling annual conference, plus after three years you’ll be eligible for the $1000 Peggy Daum Judge scholarship, which can be used for basically anything that furthers your education as a food writer.

Possibly I shouldn’t admit this, but it occurred to me to apply for this scholarship after noticing in the AFJ newsletter that the previous recipient was the only person to apply. I thought, “Hmm, if I apply for this, maybe *I’ll* be the only applicant, and they’ll have to give it to me even if I plan to use it for something semi-educational like gorging on Spanish food in the Napa Valley.” Sure enough!

There’s only one responsibility that goes along with the scholarship: you have to write a cover article about your experience for the AFJ newsletter. Here’s mine.

by Matthew Amster-Burton

On the plate before me sat ten Spanish cheeses. In the seat next to me sat Janet Fletcher, who has written a book about cheese. In the seat in front of me sat Laura Werlin, who has written three books about cheese. Leading the tasting were Ari Weinzweig, who has written a book about cheese, and Enric Canut, who has written several books about cheese and is definitely Spain’s greatest cheese expert and probably the world’s greatest cheese expert.

I have not written a book about cheese, but I was willing to learn more. Even though I was still full from the exceptionally tender and juicy suckling pig from a morning session on roasting, I tasted the smoked San Simon, the mild Idiazabal, and yogurt-like *afegau l’pitu* (which translates, explained Canut, as “choke the chicken”, because you know it’s fully ripened when it’s thick enough to, well, you get the idea). Meanwhile, other people were enjoying a cooking demo with Ferran Adrià.

It all went down at the Worlds of Flavor conference, held at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, November 2-5, 2006. Subtitled “Spain and the World Table,” the conference brought together many of America’s top food journalists, industry professionals, and chefs, along with what appeared to be all of the top chefs of Spain. Every time I saw the Spaniards assembled I imagined people all over Spain wondering where their chefs had disappeared to. Oh, I was there too, there thanks to AFJ’s Peggy Daum Judge scholarship. I felt a little bit like Harry Potter, whisked from my workaday existence in Seattle to a three-day bacchanal in the CIA’s building, which, it was widely noted, looks a lot like Hogwarts.

The event was a star-studded paella of infotainment. After a general session where, say, chef Dani García of Calima Restaurant in Marbella, Spain, would demonstrate his method of making olive oil-tomato “popcorn” using liquid nitrogen, we’d proceed to the Barrel Room and taste the popcorn, along with dozens of offerings from other chefs. Plus wine. The popcorn was delicious–as García intended, it offered the flavor of olive oil with its texture reimagined.

The master of ceremonies was chef Jose Andrés, who runs several restaurants in Washington DC, including Jaleo, Café Atlántico, and the daring, Adriàesque Minibar. Andrés is a born showman who can simultaneously crack jokes in Spanish and English. He got a laugh every time he described a Spanish product as “the best in the world,” which he did dozens of times.

While there was plenty of traditional Spanish food in the demos and on the plate (did I mention suckling pig?), it was the avant-garde chefs like García and Adrià that inspired the most adulation. What these chefs are doing, for the most part, is playing with textures. At Adrià‘s general session, he demonstrated the preparation of “melon caviar,” perfect tiny spheres of cantaloupe essence, created through a reaction involving sodium alginate and calcium chloride. Other chefs made frequent use of what is in Spanish pronounced “santana,” but which we know as xanthan gum. Adrià also showed that you could melt ice cream and dispense it from a nitrous oxide-charged canister to produce what he called “espuma” but which I believe is known in English as “whipped cream.”

One of the most interesting sessions wasn’t a cooking demonstration. It was a panel discussion featuring, among others, Thomas Keller, Colman Andrews (formerly of Saveur Magazine), cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, wine writer Karen MacNeil, CIA president Tim Ryan, and chef Norman Van Aken. Moderator Richard Wolffe (senior White House Correspondent for Newsweek) asked why Spanish food hasn’t made more inroads in the U.S. Simple, said several of the panelists: there simply aren’t enough Spanish immigrants, and the popularity of Mexican and Latin American cuisines, which are very different from Spanish, confuses the issue. (In an earlier speech, Andrews joked that he’s often heard people say, “I don’t like Spanish food; it’s too spicy.”)

To be honest, I didn’t achieve my number one goal in attending Worlds of Flavor: tasting *ibérico* ham. But I got close, and I did succeed in my other goals of making important editorial contacts, generating story ideas, and vastly improving my meager understanding of Spanish food. Now, about that ham….

Ibérico is universally considered the world’s greatest ham. Okay, maybe there are prosciutto partisans in Italy or Yunnan yeomen in China who would dispute this, but a number of factors combine to make ibérico number one. First, it’s made from an heirloom breed of black pig that is fatter and hungrier than any other pig. Second, the pigs graze on acorns in the *dehesa*, Mediterranean Spain’s great oak forests; each pig requires two acres of land, making this the world’s most extensive form of farming. Finally, the hams are aged for up to three years, longer than any other ham.

I learned all of this at a seminar led by Peter Kaminsky, New York Times columnist and author of the book _Pig Perfect_, which follows Kaminsky on an international quest for the world’s best ham. (Spoiler: it’s ibérico.) Sadly, I also learned at this seminar that it’s not yet legal to import ibérico ham into the US. (It will be arriving in 2007 and can be preordered from tienda.com.) We did, however, taste *lomo*–cured ibérico pork loin. Serrano ham, Spain’s everyday ham, was free-flowing throughout the conference as well, generally mounted on a ham stand (which looks like an antique torture device) and hand-sliced by a Spanish master carver (which looks like an antique Spanish guy).

Should you attend Worlds of Flavor? Sure–story ideas and networking opportunities abound. I have a hunch that the people who got the most out of it were the chefs, and wherever you’re having dinner in the next year you’re going to see Spanish influences sprinkled in like grains of *pimentón de la vera* (Spanish paprika).

The next Worlds of Flavor conference will be held in November 2007. The theme is The Rise of Asia: Culinary Traditions of the East and Flavor Discovery in 21st Century America. More information at http://www.ciaprochef.com/WOF2006/.

4 thoughts on “Flavor of love

  1. miguel ullibarri


    Great info on ibérico ham!, I’m happy you found useful the seminar that we conducted with Kaminsky at the WOF. Don’t worry, you’ll finally be able to taste ibérico ham in the US in just a few months!

  2. mamster Post author

    Miguel, it was great to meet you at WOF. I sort of felt sorry for the woman from the serrano ham organization, although serrano ham is certainly also tasty.

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