Assenza’s truths

Vices and virtues of today’s pastry making in an interview to the only speaker participating in all the 11 editions of Identità Golose

On Tuesday 10th February at 2.45 pm, Corrado Assen

On Tuesday 10th February at 2.45 pm, Corrado Assenza of Caffè Sicilia in Noto (Siracusa) will open in the Auditorium hall the afternoon dedicated to Dossier Dessert. As of this edition of Identità Milano he whom Alain Ducasse defined as "le plus grand confiturier du monde" will be the only one to have held a speech in all the editions of Identità Golose since 2005 (photo credits Francesca Brambilla and Serena Serrani)

This interview is a dutiful tribute to Corrado Assenza, who as of Tuesday 10th February will be the only speaker to participate in 11 editions of Identità Golose in Milan. Dozens of lessons and concepts, focused, over the years, also on worlds and foods that are only seemingly distant from pastry making such as bread, pizza or meat.

The following lines, however, do not trace a “balance sheet”: the exercise of lingering on the past only makes sense if one can fully unveil today’s criticalities. Only if it concurs to the promotion of the discipline’s future as intended by the genius of Caffè Sicilia in Noto.

25th January 2005, your first lecture at Identità Milano. What are your memories?
I prepared a Sweet pasta in an almond milk. The following Sunday, Paolo Marchi wrote an article for Il Giornale with a large photo in the middle, a spoon of honey that fell into the water. I had triggered something in his head. As of the following edition, to the subtitle of Identità Golose, the 'International Congress of Signature Cuisine’ the words ‘and Pastry Making’ were added.

With that dish, for the first time, the wall separating the savoury and sweet worlds was pulled down. A project you expressed much earlier than Ferran Adrià with his famous manifesto. How does it feel today?
It makes me very happy. That dish was made with spaghetti Senatore Cappelli produced by Latini, seasoned with Mielarò and saffron and then placed on a sauce made with almonds from Noto, a sheep ricotta ice cream and drops of oregano extract. An intertwine of sweet and savoury that was a precursor of what we would see many times in the following decade. It was also the result of the five previous years. I remember that in 2002 my colleague Carmelo Chiaramonte tasted my stone bass candied with honey. He boggled.

Sweet pasta in almond sea, the first course Corrado Assenza presented at Identità in January 2005 (photo Canio Romaniello)

Sweet pasta in almond sea, the first course Corrado Assenza presented at Identità in January 2005 (photo Canio Romaniello)

Is restaurant pastry making doing better today, than at the time?
Unfortunately not. There’s still no balance between chefs and pastry chefs. I notice it when I visit gourmet restaurants and trattorias: the price of desserts is always ridiculous when compared to the prior dishes. It means there’s neither attention nor desire to invest on desserts. Which continue to be made with lots of flour and sugar, very rare fruit, little dried fruit or deplorable ingredients such as white chocolate, made with powdered milk and industrial cocoa butter, a product you can keep on the shelf forever. The concept of freshness and seasonality is not in fashion. With rare exceptions.

For instance?
I’m thinking of the work of places such as Antica Osteria Cera in Campagna Lupia, in Venice’s inland. Chef Lionello Cera [speaker at Identità Milano on 10th February at 11.45)] has a strong sensitivity for desserts, the same he uses with his fish courses. There’s a very talented girl, called Sara Simionato, in charge of the desserts – she’s incredibly humble.

Is this a rare gift in pastry making?
Very rare. Some pastry chefs say that this discipline has no more to add, because all has been said, coded. A thought that was imposed by producers of machinery and semi-finished products. Which generates cakes that look like brand new cars, just out of a factory. I’m embarrassed by how much importance is given to geometry today, when creating a cake. A dessert must have a soul, show irregular stripes of sauce, the anarchic elegance of a piece of fruit. The creations of great pâtissiers, instead, stimulate uneasiness and distance in the observer. Something that holds people from thinking: ‘I could do this too’.

Time to rest, presented in 2008 (photo credits Francesca Brambilla and Serena Serrani)

Time to rest, presented in 2008 (photo credits Francesca Brambilla and Serena Serrani)

Let’s return to Identità. What other editions do you recall with pleasure?
There are many. In 2008 I presented two dishes, Time to rest and Frescura aruci, which built a hole between before and after. They were cakes made with Venere rice and boiled wheat. Two nursery rhymes, small texts transformed into matter, the translation of thoughts and memories. In the first, there was the farmyard, with the scents of blossoming jasmine, together with tea, a memory of when I used to work in Japan. In the second, an intimate fresco of our countryside. But also a tribute to my friend Salvatore Muscoiona, who passed away. A tribute to a great herb expert, the first who took me to Val di Noto. A dessert that was the result of our friendship.

We also recall a memorable lesson with butcher Cazzamali. The theme: meat ice cream.
A speech from 2009, the result of a revolutionary concept that didn’t have the effect it deserved because it is unlikely for a chef today to get an ice cream machine. They don’t have the courage to give dignity to ice cream, a true, great Italian product. Unfortunately (almost) all the world acknowledges pizza as an Italian world – and the same goes for the product, therefore – but not ‘gelato’, which is something much different from a product made with a Pacojet or from an ice cream.

That same year, we also recall the tirade against semi-finished industrial products, how are things today?
They are more widespread, and not only in pastry making. I’m terrified every time I hear of agreements between important chefs and the industry of semi-finished products. We forget too easily that our cooking is something artisanal, and that our menus are not mass market catalogues. There cannot be cuts of meat constantly in a vacuum, red tuna available all year round. We need to be, once again, forbearers of seasonality.

In the last years you’ve been greatly working with pizza.
Yes, because this community is more energetic and eager to innovate. It is a more dynamic, lively and interesting world than the one of pastry making.

Jardinu ri’mmiernu (2014). Photo credits Francesca Brambilla and Serena Serrani

Jardinu ri’mmiernu (2014). Photo credits Francesca Brambilla and Serena Serrani

What remedies can you see for pastry making?
First of all, we need more respect for those who approach this profession. Young people need to be educated, trained, hired with regular contracts, not exploited under the table. This applies also and especially in bars, where the crisis of service staff is even deeper than in gourmet restaurants: in a simple shop there are 2-300 times the guest of a 2 or 3 Michelin star restaurant.

What can you anticipate of your lecture on Tuesday 10th?
It will be the natural continuation of all that I’ve explained during these years. Fish or meat, I still need to decide. For sure we will return to creams without structure, without thickeners. Creams without egg, desserts that are a pure concentrate of flavours, made of 80% fruit and of a maximum of 10% fat.

Imagine tomorrow there’s Identità 2042, and you’re 80. What do you wish?
That all for which we have fought, has served. That the coding of pastry making has not announced its own end. That many young people who have embraced our ideals have been able to take them far away.


Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world