Sunday, September 27, 2009

Al Gallopapa: Discovering the Magic of Taste at a One-Star Michelin

It was at Al Gallopapa that I ate the most extraordinary meal of my life. Al Gallopapa is a one star Michelin located in a medieval stone passageway in Castellina in Chianti, in Tuscany. Castellina in Chianti is a beautiful town hugged by Etruscan ruins and medieval buildings.

I was seated in a quiet narrow passageway called the Via delle Volte. Its arched, stone ceiling leads the passage along the town’s east wall. The atmosphere in the evening is quiet and floor lights highlight the beauty of the stone. Along the passage there are small openings in the stone, where one can peak through and enjoy the lush rolling hills.

We begin with a water menu. Yes, a menu that offers a selection of water from different areas in the region, all for 3euro a bottle. We drank a bottle of Acqua Panna. Founded in 1899, this water is named after its source, the Acqua Panna spring, which is situated along the Roman road that stretches from Northern to Southern Italy.

The amuse bouche was a delicious trio of componets delicious on their own and together: Couscous with aged balsamic; a shot glass smooth watermelon gazpacho and a small cube of frozen tomato parfait.

Next, I had the “spam” (how could I not?) of mortadella with Prestige Cuvee and citrus fruit. The spam was a delicious cylinder of sweet and meaty mortadella suspended in a flavorful aspic jelly.

Next I had Acquerello Carnaroli risotto, which came on a plate in a single layer of white rice with three rings of golden, battered onion making a pyramid in the centre and dots of purple lavender oil around each one. Hidden and camouflaged under the onions was a small rectangle of goat’s milk parfait. Cold and salty, sweet, the parfait was an unexpected addition to an already fantastic dish. This risotto was truly a life-changing experience. Each grain was perfectly moist and covered in a light, reduced stock and dusted with Parmesan. The crispy onions were perfectly sweet with the lavender oil and the saltiness of the Parmesan. It was so far from starchy that I guessed that perhaps they had cooked the risotto and then washed it and covered it lightly with the sauce. When I got home that night I went straight to the computer to find out what exactly made Acquerello risotto so unique. This is the risotto that is preferred by Michelin starred chefs around the world. It is aged one to three years in chilled vats in Livorno, Italy. This aging process results in less water-soluble protein and vitamins. The rice is able to absorb more liquid and can therefore absorb more flavour. The cooked grains are larger than most risotto and far more flavorful. Heston Blumenthal, Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse all cook with Acquerello.

The next course was a strange surprise of new tastes. I ordered the veal entrecote with a mate crust, shoulder with blanquette sauce and kola nuts. When the plate was put down in front of me I was surprised to see a quenelle of mushy oatmeal. Thinking it must be filled, or have a secret surprise I tasted a bit with the prong of my fork. Nope: just mushy oatmeal. I hadn’t lost hope. In fact I was a bit excited to find out what the secret surprise was that would transform the dish. Next I tasted the entrecote. It was a small cube with a thick crust of yerba mate (the South American tea that a fellow cook would drink every brunch service. I tried it once- sipping the hot liquid through the straw- la bombilla- that filters out the leaves- and it tasted like a barn to me). The mate crust on the veal tasted the same, except with the texture of pureed leaves that had been spread over the veal prior to cooking. The veal was soft and succulent; the mate was a bit strange. The proximity of the quenelle to the entrecote was the hint I needed; I cut a small piece of veal and topped it with a small bit of the oatmeal, ate it, and sighed. It was a moment out of Ratatouille when the flavours dance across the screen depicted as colourful swirls and music. It was a magical moment that taught me the magic of taste. Despite the French intrusion on my plate, the blanquette de veau was tender and delicious. The final component was the kola nut. The kola nut has both stimulant and euphoriant qualities, increases tactile sensitivity, and suppresses the appetite (as well as a carcinogen when chewed habitually, but Anthony Bourdain would agree that dangerous food is the tastiest kind).

Good thing I chose the three-course menu (63 Euro) and ignored the desserts because at this point I was in an ecstatic food trance and slipping into a blissful coma. I finished the meal with an espresso and the promise that I would return.

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