HONG KONG: Valeria Piccini and Angelo Agliano had never met before Valeria’s trip to Hong Kong. They had spoken briefly over the phone to plan a series of three four hands dinners. But you would not have noticed the moment they met on the 108th floor of the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, the highest hotel in the world.
Tosca, the restaurant run by Sicilian chef Agliano was hosting Valeria for the first in the series of events called Gems and Pearl which will see other female Italian chefs visiting Hong Kong next year.
It was last Monday evening when Valeria arrived together with sous chef Guglielmo Chiarapini and Andrea Bertolino together with Agrodolce journalist and editor Lorenza Fumelli after a long flight via London. We sat down to sample Angelo’s cooking that evening and slowly get to know the team at Tosca.
After a necessary visit to Macau on Tuesday, Wednesday’s morning start was not for the feint-hearted. The idea was to wake up early and go to Aberdeen market and then visit a ‘snake shop.’ The jet lag had however kicked in and an early morning start was not something the group relished. Instead we headed to a shop in Central, Hong Kong called She Wong Lam which has been specialising in snake processing for over 100 years.
With us was Andrea Petrini, of GELINAZ! fame and one of the curators of the event together with Florent Bonnefoy. Petrini was telling us we would start the day with a ‘snake cappucino’ in reference to the Italian habit of drinking cappucino in the morning.
Valeria had never set foot in Asia and had never eaten Chinese or Cantonese food before. Da Caino, her two Michelin star restaurant is in the Maremma part of the Tuscan countryside ‘in the middle of nowhere’ as she likes to say. “Here I am in a city like Hong Kong when my village has less than 500 inhabitants and that includes the chickens,” she said.
The Chinese flavours and techniques were all new to her and she was grateful to Angelo for taking all the time to show her around and to let her experience different types of cuisines from dim sum to the Peking Duck.
Angelo has been working in Asia for long having left Sicily when he was young. His talent was recognised by French legendary chef Robouchon and that is something he deeply relishes till this day. Since then he has been in Hong Kong, Taiwan and then back to Hong Kong to open his restaurant Locanda di Angelo where he still cooks on Sundays before taking over the running of Tosca. There are many touches of Sicily in his cooking which I instantly recognise and as he will return home more frequently – I miss it more and more he tells me – he is embarking on this journey to immerse himself into full Italian experiences.
The tale of the snake ‘cappucino’
It was at a snake shop that the bond was sealed. In Chinese culture, snake is a delicacy for the rich eaten particularly in the winter months to improve blood circulation. And while the temperature is nothing resembling winter, it is the period when eating a ‘snake soup’ is normal.
Both had never eaten snake. Valeria tries it. “It’s not the snake meat that bothers me but rather the gelatinous texture of the soup. If it was given to me blind folded I would not have known it was snake. It could be chicken, it could be white meat,” she said. Angelo is not sitting on the communal table because the place is small. Behind us, he tries the soup. One sip, a next sip and that’s enough for him.
With us is Ricardo Chaneton, co founder of MONO which will open its doors in Hong Kong in the coming days. He is the one who does all the explaining. He’s of course been here before and has tried and tested different preparations of snake.
The snake becomes our rallying call. The joke that kept on giving. Andrea provokes them to take some snake meat with them to try for the four hands dinner. Of course this never materialises but ideas abound – maybe a spaghetti with snake ‘bottarga’ or ravioli in a snake broth.
That certainly helped to put everyone at ease, to feel at home and to help gel as a team. Because back in the kitchen after a stroll in Wan Chai market you would never had noticed that Angelo’s team and Valeria’s team had never worked together. There was a symphony and a collaboration that was a joy to watch.
Valeria is a motherly figure, a legend of Italian cuisine. Her lack of English knowledge means she is little known outside Italy but her knowledge, her cooking, her sense of the need to preserve tradition while learning new techniques and keeping abreast with what’s happening in the food world are second to none. It is no wonder she is considered one of the great chefs in Italy.
A self-taught chef, she cooked her signature dish cacio e père – or cheese with pear which is a play on a saying in Italy that the farmer should not know that all one needs is some cheese and pear. She’s served it for the first time in the restaurant 35 years ago when she was 25 years old and the dish is still spectacular today. “I’ve never removed it from the menu. It is done at a certain time when the pears have a certain ripeness to them. Where I am in Tuscany this is normally in summer,” she tells me. The ripeness of the pear and the mixture of sheep ricotta and pecorino and the lightness of the pasta make this dish one that fits perfectly in today’s contemporary way of cooking.
During the four hands dinner, both Angelo and Valeria came to the guest table and asked us whether we would like a second helping. Out of a table of eight, only one said no and not because she did not enjoy the dish. That gives you an idea of what the dish is about.
Angelo on the other hand is a Sicilian chef who has learned to cook at the highest levels using French techniques under Robuchon. This series for him is important. “I am extremely satisfied with the way things went. This was a breath of Italian air that came to Hong Kong. I’ve also learned a lot, like how to cook eel in a completely new way. I’ve done it before at Robuchon in the French and Japanese style but grilling it and then continuing the cooking sous-vide was a first for me.”
His fregola dish was one of the other stars of the show and one which also impressed Valeria to the extent that she had three helpings. “Fregola is not something I’m used to. It is a pasta used in Sardegna and not at all common in our area,” she says. “The way Angelo worked with it was really interesting and also very good.”
Seeing Valeria’s use of pear, Angelo changed his signature dish to include apple which gave a sense of acidity to the dish.
The four hands dinner
There had been little discussion about the menu because as Angelo said, they wanted to work ‘a la minute’. Valeria had ideas for her dishes but then it was decided to work together on a number of joint dishes, something that is not necessarily common during four hands dinners.
The dinner started with a playful amuse bouche created by Angelo. He made a foam of fried corn and served it with port wine and a fois gras mousse. The head sommelier Leo served it with a Franciacorta Vintage Collection Dosage Zero Ca del Bosco 2004.
Access to exceptional seafood is something Hong Kong is famous for. Angelo served a carpaccio of Hokkaido scallops with sea urchins and Kaluga caviar which was finished with a salmoriglio sauce. The wine paired with this dish was the Etna Bianco by Piano dei Daini, Tenute Bosco 2016. The Carricante grape perfectly balanced the sweetness of the scallops and the saltiness of the caviar and sea urchin.
Nothing impressed Valeria more than the quality of the eel in Hong Kong. “We are close to a lake so we get very fresh eel but unless we are really careful to clean it very well there can be a taste of mud. The quality of the eel here is astonishing. I never expected such quality in a big city like Hong Kong,” she said.
She worked on the dish. The perfectly cooked eel with its delicate and salty flavour was balanced by celery sauce, celery crisps and mandarin. For this unique dish, the sommelier opted for a Sangiovese Val delle Corti Rose Scuro wine. A perfect match.
Angelo knew that Valeria was serving her signature ravioli dish with pears. So for his Fregola with King Crab, bisque and mixed herbs he added apple to give a bit of welcome acidity to the dish. The intensity of the bisque and saltiness of the crab was matched with an orange wine from Fruili Venezia Giulia, the Malvasia “Amphoreus” Paraschos 2015.
The ravioli Cacio e Pere served with a beetroot sauce followed with a Tuscan Pinot Nero from Podere della Civettaja 2016.
For the suckling pig, another ingredient that impressed Valeria, the two prepared the confit pork with different mixed vegetables like Pad Choi and daikon which they found during the market visit. This was paired with a stunning wine, the Magna Frank Cornelissen 2013 from the Etna, Sicily.
Angelo presented the first dessert, an almond cloud with pistachio ice-cream, a comforting trip back to Sicily while Valeria made an emulsion of Orange and olive oil with a goat milk ice-cream and black pepper.
Angelo told Food and Wine Gazette: “I was a bit stressed especially before the first night. That always happens because it is the first experience. But it was really beautiful and it seemed like we had already done it before. All the kitchen team had fun, there was instant symphony which was great,” he said.
The next events
This was the first in a series of dinners called Gems and Pearl – An Italian Culinary journey. Chef Antonia Klugmann of L’Argine a Vencò will be the next chef to visit in January. This will be followed by Iza Mazzocchi of La Palta, in Borgonovo Val Tidone, Viviana Varese of Viva in Milan and Martina Caruso of Signum in Salina, Sicily.