Al Meni 2017: From Massimo Bottura to James Lowe, Italy’s Fellini-esque food festival amazes
The Grand Hotel of Rimini looms over Al Meni like a regal spectre, a ghost of the Italian golden age of the late 50s and early 60s. Fellini lingers with startling vivaciousness for a man long dead, an icon preserved here in crisp linen and the almost outrageous opulence of crystal chandeliers. The sweet life that captured the hearts of many: made of long balmy days and beautiful nights, walking the tight line between effortless elegance and wanton excess.
Al Meni is the festival not just of Massimo Bottura, of its two dozen odd chefs, or even of Rimini. It is the the festival of Emilia-Romagna, and its wonderful zest for life. Set beside the beach, beneath the canopy of a traditional striped circus tent, it’s an almost dreamlike in its slight absurdity. Bottura might be its architect, but Andrea Petrini is the ringmaster, twinkling eyes always alight with some hidden fire, as if laughing at a joy only he can see. The eccentric creative keeps audiences spellbound, and waters a fertile mixing ground for ingredients, ideas and, most crucially of all, people.
There are families fresh from the beach: sandy, tired parents, children filled with the impishness that only a weekend trip past their bedtime can inspire; Young couples lost in reverie, the spectacle a perfect backdrop to burgeoning romance. Suave silver-haired gentleman swirling sangiovese, young women dressed to the nines, cherished nonnas, giddy American tourists and bombastic Russian beauties.
This is, after all, a food event for everyone. Bringing together some of the region’s most exciting chefs with young talents from across the world, it’s designed to showcase some incredible concepts at street food prices. And, for once, the ambitious and glowing press release is actually laid out in front of us in the flesh. Those are not the words of PR spin, but rather an honest and deservedly proud description of what has been put together here. The main stage is a circus-like tent, aptly named Circo 8 e 1/2 to honour the masterpiece of Riminese director Federico Fellini.
As an event, it’s a testament to Emilia Romagna’s simply effusive spirit, its willingness to give and give. A region overflowing with exceptional ingredients and produce, its greatest gift somehow still remains its generosity. Every stall is desperate to thrust fresh products into your hands, eager to share their passion in a way that’s so genuine it’s enough to soften even the most cynical London heart. Throw this sort of thing in the English capital and it would be a ticketed affair, with prices bordering on the prohibitive. Here you can eat every single dish dreamt up over the weekend for just under 100 euro.
And what dishes too. The highlight for many was the conclusion of Saturday’s courses, prepared by Rafa Salinas: nestled away in a modest cone of paper, two small, batter balls. They came at a time when most were beyond sated, some even a little jaded with the constant flow of sensational dishes. Those reservations were swept aside with such conviction that the name “frittelle explosive” was apt in so many ways that it was likely originally intended. The incredible blast of umami, followed by dulcet, soothing tones of honey left joy on every face that it touched. Paolo Teverini served up a classic combination of mackerel with rhubarb, but both ingredients were so incredibly fresh that it felt like a novel invention, tart fruit and oily fish harmonising with simple elegance. Later, James Lowe of Lyle’s cooked up a beautifully simple dish of anguilla on a grill outside; an ingredient the British chef has a real talent for, the smoky eel dances on the line savoury and sweet with irreverence.
Simone Tondo serves a piadina topped with fennel and asparagus, merging pollen, shoots and veg in that way that only talented chefs are able. Alas, the piadina itself cooled rapidly, and those that didn’t get to the line fast found their wonderfully supple bread rapidly losing its trademark pliability.
We could go on to rave about the work of Davide Di Fabio (sous chef of Osteria Francescana), Karime Lopez Moreno Tagle, Mariano Guardianelli, Zaiyu Hasegawa and indeed every chef attending. To see everyone hit the brief, without losing their originality and trademarks flairs, was simply inspiring. The freedom with which they created, and with which the eager crowds happily consumed was nothing short of inspiring. Bottura opened the event with a speech centred around an idea that, roughly translated, means that “if you can dream it, you can make it.” Perhaps not surprisingly in a region that strives on the strength of its authenticity, he couldn’t have been closer to the truth.
Photos: Daniel Masters (except outdoors)
Al Meni 2017 took place from on 17th and 18th June 2017. For further information visit here.