By Tracey hill for Curtains Up
There’s a certain virility to Gaucho-style cooking despite its subtly graceful result. Popularized by Argentinian cattle rustlers, fighters and farmers, ‘Gaucho’ cooking has everything to do with the method of heating food (mostly meat and potatoes) using grills, ashes, coal and wood. Elemental, raw and primitive, it utilizes basic tools without the fussy bells and whistles of current methods and fancy-pants gadgetry.
That virility lies shrewdly submerged within the convivial yet cultivated nature of world-renown Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann, 57, who graces our fair city for the Highlights Festival this week (pairing up with Europea chef Jérôme Ferrer).
Mallmann, appointed honorary president of the festival, extolls the critical virtues of simplicity and patience in gaucho cooking; “You must give it time above all else. A good cut of meat should never be rushed, otherwise it will rebel and the all-important moisture and flavour will emancipate…”
Expounding upon the delicacy of cooking meat at extremely low temperatures for long hours on ash or coal, he says that it “should not be hot when you serve it, otherwise it will toughen and will lose its texture”.
The predominantly female presence for the press conference, held at Restaurant Europea, hung on his every word…and bite. Bequeathed with a tasting menu fit for royalty, we remained surprised and quite literally gobsmacked by the whole presentation. The first course of sweet breads (roasted for 4 hours, no less) with Meyer lemon was-for lack of a better description- Jesus on a fondue fork. Grasping the full importance of low-flame/extended time came to me in one spiritual mouthful.
Sweet breads with Meyer lemon (Photo by T. Hill)
Next we sampled a bouchée of salt-crusted white fish, cooked ‘Infernillo Style’ with salsa Criolla. Well, holy Saint Lawrence (Coincidentally, did you know he was the Patron Saint of cooks?), the skies opened up and angels descended into my mouth. Supple, tender and savoury, the fish didn’t disappear beneath the fresh, tangy sauce that had me fantasizing about brazenly storming the kitchen to demand a Mason jar of the stuff.
As soon as the fish bowls were whisked away by the Ninja-quick Europea staff, plates of rib-eye Churrasco with Patagonia potatoes and Chimi-Churri were laid before us with devotion and reverence. (If I have ever tasted a more succulent, artful piece of meat…I don’t remember it.)
The Chimi-Churri, (parsley, red-wine vinegar and garlic sauce) paid sacred tribute to the paper-thin Patagonia potatoes and Churrasco beef that dissolved onto the palate with heartbreaking grace. I had truly died and drifted through the pearly gates of the kingdom of gastronomy.
Rib eye with Chimi-Churri (Photo by T. Hill)
Finally, we were offered a blissful finishing touch of dulce de leche Flan with a side of sour cream and caramelized kumquats. At this point, my carefully cultivated public conduct went right out the window, not caring how others perceived my lip-smacking, spoon-licking antics…I finished every drop of the glorious sweet offering.
Dulce de leche Flan (Photo by T. Hill)
Too many contemporary chefs exalt the concept of simplicity in cooking, but they don’t inhabit it as scrupulously as Mallmann does. “I don’t know what a thermometer looks like. I don’t own one, nor do I want to. Knowing when food is ready is a feeling in here” he said, gripping his upper chest.
“If you have to cover up your vegetables and meat with too many sauces and toppings, then you are not cooking your food properly, you are attempting to obscure the unsavoury aspects of the dish.”
He went on; “Simple is much, much harder to do…if you rely on your talent for cooking food correctly, all you need to add is good olive oil, a humble salsa, a spray of sea salt or an excellent wine vinegar…the flavour of the food will always rise to please the palate.”
With little to no regard for fusion cuisine, Mallmann explained; “Fusion cuisine lacks respect for the roots of any particular cultural tradition. Young chefs today go onto the computer and arbitrarily pick foods that would seem trendy to pair up. To me that is blasphemy. I guess you can call me a purist, but I stand my ground when dealing with the legacy of culinary origins. That which is sacred must not be bastardized in such a vulgar way.”
Mallmann is more lenient with wine pairing and opting for alternative libations; “Don’t waste your time marrying your wine to your meal…it is better to surprise the palate with a clash of flavour. I won’t even judge someone who prefers to sip whisky or Coca Cola at the table. That is your choice and not really my business.”
He finished his interview with; “If you seek to be truly nourished, don’t look for it in health-food stores. It is sitting right in front of you at every meal. It is staying at the table, reciting poetry, laughing, telling tall-tales and enjoying the comfort and company of others. If people are sick these days, it’s because they rush; eating in the car, standing up, on the run. That is like a cancer. My best advice is to make time to experience eating, for it is an art, and cooking is the craft.”
The Montreal Highlights Festival is running strong in its 13th year, and is one of the largest winter festivals in the world, attracting over 900,000 tourists to Montreal. Foodies, artists and culture-hounds flock here to experience unique dining, performing arts, outdoor activities and much more. The fest also attracts the world’s top chefs and culinary experts who are introduced to Montreal’s best fine-dining establishments, and the result is pure magic.
The Highlights website offers activities by budget, a section to plan your own personalized schedule and a special events section. You can pick up a free printed program at; Renaud Bray, SAQ outlets, concert venues, record outlets and select cultural centres around Montreal.
For an in-depth look at scheduling, activities, prices, reservations and ticket sales, go to; http://www.montrealenlumiere.com/home.aspx
(Photo of Chef Francis Mallmann by Tracey Hill)