Journalists go to Madrid Fusion, the annual culinary conference that brings together some of the world’s most innovative chefs, in the hopes of spotting a trend. Okay, we may also go for the endless plates of free jamón and buckets of champagne, but that’s just a bonus. Really we go in the hope of finding some new theme—some wacky new use for liquid nitrogen, a recurring play on tapioca—that we can take back to our computers and write up as the next big thing.
But exactly how many chefs does it take to make a trend? Is two enough? Because tucked in between Paco Morales’s celebration of tubers and Grant Achatz’s discourse on using design and service to further the diner’s experience, there were two sessions on scent. Which is one more than there was in 2008, when Daniel Patterson, of San Francisco’s Coi, gave an intriguing talk on how he uses essential oils to boost the sensory impact of his dishes. Does that 100-percent increase mean that the spherified olives and freeze-dried beet meringues that currently populate the upper echelons of gastronomic trendiness will soon give way to the aromas of wave-washed rocks and burning cinnamon sticks? Let’s say yes, because otherwise the only trend we’d be able to point to from this year’s Madrid Fusion would be a frankly creepy tendency to make mosaics of famous chef’s portraits out of fruit.
Actually, make that two and a half. Because although Achatz ended up speaking on design and service, he was supposed to talk about “The Sixth Sense: The Power of Gastronomic Memory” (which we assumed surely had to do with scent, recalling our eighth grade biology teacher who said that of all the senses, smell has the strongest power to conjure up the past). And even with the change, he still brought up the “aromatic candles”—whole cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, that sort of thing—that he likes to add to a dish and then set on fire, so that their scent adds to the food’s power to provoke an emotional response.
Is that what Corrado Assenza was up to? The Sicilian pastry chef known for his profound touch with local products and his disregard for rules that say desserts must be sweet, titled his talk “The Renaissance Perfumist,” and that is more or less just what he acted like, pouring a small amount of almond oil from a vial into the sweet “risotto” he made from wheatberries, cooked in almond paste tinted with berries, topped with soft sheep-milk’s cheese (scented with more oil), and dusted with pulverized mint. It looked, quite honestly, awful, but looks weren’t the point: This was all about taste reinforced by scent.
It’s Eneko Atxa, however, who should be calling himself a perfumist. Working with scientist Manuel Madariaga, Atxa has developed a means of using a “focalized” ultrasound device to extract aroma from one substance—wood, say, or the rain-soaked air—and injecting it into another. He could, he asserted, inject a piece of yucca with the scent of chestnuts, or take algae, rocks, and sea water to make a briny liquid that could be added to a plate of fish. “With this, we capture part of the atmosphere of the sea and transmit what that same atmosphere gives to the sea in a way that is immediate and natural,” he said. “It’s as if we’re robbing nature of its soul.” Which is as good a description of perfume, trendy or not, as I’ve ever heard.