Saturday, March 25, 2006

Chocolate Shadows of the Olympics

The sports section and the food section of the newspaper rarely have much in common. But one of the biggest surprises at this winter's Olympic Games was that Turin is one of Europe's great chocolate cities. Reporters at the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the travel blog Gadling all had very kind things to say about the confections.

Now through April 2, the chocolate itself in Turin is competing for medals. The city's annual chocolate festival, Cioccolato 2006, features traditions that date back to 1559. Turin chocolatiers credit their predecessors with inventing both the chocolate bar and the chocolate Easter egg, and today's local specialties include the Baci di Cherasco candies made with roasted hazelnuts and a layered coffee and chocolate drink known as the Bicerin. Tasting passes are available to connoisseurs from Turin Tourism Information Points starting at 10 Euros.

Australians are of course very sporting people and Australia is becoming an increasingly epicurean nation. This month Melbourne has been the proud host of the Commonwealth Games (an imperial British parallel to the Olympics), and the competition did make it to the kitchen here thanks to the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Chefs representing England, Cyprus, Malaysia, Jamaica, Fiji, New Zealand, Scotland, and, of course, Australia went head to head every day last week in the Culinary Pro Am. Following the established Pro Am golfing model, each professional chef worked with an amateur apprentice from one of the local Tafe cooking programs. In the two showdowns that I saw--between Ian Curley of the Point and Allan Koh of Koko (both restaurants in Melbourne), and between Jacques Reymond of his namesake Melbourne establishment and Peter Gordon of Dine in Aukland--the chefs emphasized fresh flavors by accenting the produce and just slightly searing (often Japanese-tataki-style) most of the featured meat and seafood instead of cooking everything away and drowning it in a heavy sauce. All the chefs agreed that simplicity is paramount in today's cuisine. Taste, of course, is also of central importance--the snarky host of this event should have kept that in mind when making Jack Benny-style jokes about his wife's cooking.

The Pro Am provided just 45 minutes for an entree (appetizer) and main course to take shape. Sadly, no time was left for dessert. To see how such a chocolatey head-to-head would play out, look for the fascinating Iron Chef Valentine's Day Special, where New York-born Japanese chocolatier Fuyoko Kondo faces down Iron Chef French Hiroyuki Sakai, armed with Lindt couverture and a bushel of apples.


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